Lunch with Fellini, Dinner with Fidel: An Illustrated Personal Journey from the Cold War to the Arab Spring

Chat with Deena Stryker about her new book. Hosted by Jeff Brown.

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A sensuous woman with an inquiring mind interacts with a turbulent century.

Unlike Ping, the Chinese fishing duck, I’ve always managed to catch the boats and planes that punctuated my life. But unlike Ferdinand the Bull, who preferred to smell flowers than fight in the arena, I preferred insecurity to safety. The fact that both these early heroes were males probably explains why my weaknesses are invariably denied – by men.

A fourteen year-old Jewish-American girl who identifies with her family’s Eastern European origins, feels at right at home boarding with a French family in post-war Paris, sharing daily restrictions and navigating an unfamiliar curriculum in a foreign language. Early marriage interrupts her formal education, however she is rescued by an Italian lover who introduces her to Stendhal’s ‘liking love’, a hedonism that she later sees involving complicity, confidence and consideration.

Rome initiates a life-long love of the Mediterranean. At the French News Agency she develops an interest in international events while writing about the Golden Age of Italian cinema. Federico Fellini hires her as press officer on the set of the film 8 1/2, giving her the opportunity to chronicle the shooting day by day. But instead of building on the publication of her first book, ‘The Two Hundred Days of 8 1/2′, she uses the money to change the course of her life. Suspecting the Western press of not reporting objectively on Cuba following the Missile Crisis, she travels to the island that is off-limits to Americans using the French passport acquired through marriage.

She meets several times with Fidel Castro for a portrait published by European weeklies. Ten days after the Kennedy assassination, she returns to Cuba and gets Castro’s assessment of the tragedy, remaining for another year to find out whether the barbudos were communists before the revolution or whether Washington’s reaction pushed them toward Moscow. ‘Cuba 1964: When the Revolution was Young’ provides the definitive answer to that question: Fidel, Raul, Che, Celia Sanchez and the other members of the 1964 government tell in their own words why they made the revolution, eventually embracing communism.

Meanwhile, the birth of a child by a Polish economist working in Cuba takes her via Poland to Hungary, land of a beloved grandmother, where she lives the life of a wife and mother under socialism. Her second child motivates a return to the United States, where, after studying systems theory, she argues with Cyrus Vance’s advisor for Soviet Affairs in the Carter State Department, while the bureaucracy works to deny her clearance.

Reagan’s election confirms her worst fears for America and she returns to France with her children, writing and doing free lance translating. When Germans oppose America’s plan to install Pershing missiles on their territory and France fails to support them, she points out that Western Europe is one of several regional entities balancing the Soviet Union. When Hungary opens its border with Austria, she realizes that the division of Europe is over. A small academic house delivers the first copies of ‘Une autre Europe, un autre Monde’ on the day the Berlin Wall falls.

Returning at century’s end to Philadelphia to care for her aging mother, the author discovers the childhood back story that took her abroad and realizes that Americans are largely ignorant of their international image. 9/11 sparks curiosity about the role of religion in attitudes toward death, leading to the discovery of commonalities between Eastern philosophy and modern science. In ‘A Taoist Politics: The Case for Sacredness’ they validate the direct democracy espoused by the Occupy Movement and the Arab Spring.

This book makes judicious use of letters, diaries, an all-knowing infant voice and excerpts from other works and is illustrated by dozens of photographs from the author’s personal collection and from her Cuban archive at Duke University. (Amazon)