A Conversation with Molly Mandell (B.A. 2016), Author of “Made in Cuba” (2018)


Molly Mandell (UT AMS B.A., 2016) will publish her book, Made in Cuba, in Fall 2018. AMS :: ATX sat down with Mandell to discuss the book’s origins in her undergraduate thesis research and the ways her American Studies background shapes her work as an editor and art director. Read on for insights on the DIY arts scene in Cuba, photography, American Studies research, and for an exclusive AMS :: ATX discount code you can use when ordering your own copy of Made in Cuba!

When did you graduate from American Studies at UT, and with what degree?

I graduated in Spring of 2016, earning a B.A. in American Studies with High Honors and Departmental Honors and a minor in Communications (focused more specifically on journalism). I didn’t find the AMS department until fairly late in my college career, but it was absolutely the place for me!

Can you tell us a little bit about your book, Made in Cuba?

Made in Cuba focuses on the DIY culture that is so prevalent in the country. As such, it’s really a look into everyday life on the island. Given that much of the media coverage surrounding Cuba is wrought with stereotypes, we set out to tell stories of people in the most genuine way that we could. I co-wrote and photographed the book with James Burke, and we featured 30 different creative professionals, entrepreneurs and makers—everyone from farmers who live almost entirely from their land to internationally recognized artists restoring the island’s old neon signs. The book also includes guest essays from the likes of writer Leonardo Padura and singer/composer Daymé Arocena. We wanted to be sure to include some perspectives that weren’t our own, and I think they add so much. More details can be found at our website cuba-made.com. If anyone is interested in owning a copy, we’ve also set up a special discount code for blog readers (type in AMSxCUBA at checkout).

What inspired you to pursue this project?

It all started as a university project. When the United States, under the Obama administration, began normalizing relations with Cuba, the country caught my attention. It’s a place that is so close to the States but at the time, seemed so far away. I was born in the early ’90s and didn’t grow up hearing or reading much about Cuba. Suddenly, there was a lot of media coverage surrounding the island but it primarily demonized or romanticized goings-on. I knew that things likely weren’t so black and white and so I was interested in exploring the gray area. Initially, I went to study agriculture with the help of an Undergraduate Research Award. After the United States instituted its trade, economic and financial embargo against Cuba in 1962, the country relied heavily on the Soviet Union for support. When the Soviet Union collapsed, however, they lost 85% of their trade and aid almost overnight. I had read about some of the organic and sustainable solutions that farmers had developed as a result and went to learn more. After an initial six weeks on the island, I realized that this resolver, as they call it, went far beyond agriculture. The DIY mentality isn’t limited to social strata, economic standing, race, age or geography. Thanks to the support and encouragement of Randy Lewis, Janet Davis and Steve Hoelscher, the project evolved into my undergraduate thesis with the AMS department—but I always wanted the end result to be a book. After I graduated, I went on to work at a quarterly lifestyle magazine in Copenhagen. My time there gave me a lot more insight into publishing so last fall, my partner James and I decided to pursue the project more seriously. James, a writer and photographer who graduated from UT’s RTF department in 2014, had joined me on several of my research trips and as the project grew, it became a joint effort. I’m so pleased with how Made in Cuba has come together, and most importantly, I hope it does justice to the people featured and their work.

Can you describe the research process for this project? What was your experience of traveling to Cuba in order to gather stories?

It all boils down to having connections on the ground and actually being on site. Since 2015, when we started, we’ve tried to read and watch as much as possible and keep up on reportage about Cuba generally. That said, doing research from abroad proved to be quite a challenge. Given that internet connectivity is limited in Cuba, people don’t frequently publicize their work online nor communicate regularly (or at all) via email. We did occasionally find subjects through other media sources but actually connecting with them often meant a lot of asking around before eventually showing up on their doorsteps unannounced. Some independent Cuban magazines have cropped up in the last few years, which were helpful in finding people who are doing interesting things but aren’t necessarily reported on by Western media outlets (we find that a lot of stories about Cuba are routinely recycled). Cuba can be a challenging place to dive into, so spending longer stretches there and getting a sense of how people move around and approach communication, for example, was imperative. It took a lot of time and many return visits to establish our relationships and grow our network. That network has absolutely been the most important element in the project’s success. The experience has been a friendly reminder that despite our reliance on the internet, actually talking to people face-to-face makes for the best exchanges. We’re still in awe of the generosity we received—people let us into their lives in deeply personal ways.

What projects or people have inspired your work?

Conner Gorry is a journalist who has been living in Cuba since 2002. Also the founder of an English-language bookstore and community center called Cuba Libro, she is truly a nexus for all different kinds of people and projects happening in Havana and beyond. I really admire her work and she has been so influential to ours. She also wrote a guest essay for Made in Cuba that draws on her personal experiences and truly gets at the essence of DIY culture in the country. I would be remiss if I didn’t give a shout out to professor Randy Lewis—I took his class “Politics of Creativity” on a whim and it turned everything I knew on its head. He encouraged me to think both critically and creatively and to pursue what I was interested in without necessarily knowing what the final product would look like. If it weren’t for that mentality, I’m not sure that this project would have morphed into the book that it is today. His teaching style is very unique, and I have learned so much from his approach to research. I also recently wrapped up working on a book The Eye with Nathan Williams, the founder of Kinfolk magazine. He is, in my opinion, an extremely talented curator and has been incredibly influential in how I’ve developed my own creative vision.

How does your background in American Studies impact your writing, your work as a photographer, and your career in general?

American Studies plays such a big part in my work. One of the foundational lessons that I took away from my time in the department was the need to constantly question mythologies. That very questioning is what led me to develop an interest in Cuba in the first place. So many departments focus on teaching hard skills, but American Studies taught me how to think. I always consider broad perspectives when I approach my work, which ultimately makes for better results. My time with AMS also made me comfortable not fitting into one box. I love to write, but I have a real passion for photography, for example. I used to believe that I had to focus on one or the other, but now I’m working on projects where I can successfully combine both (and all of the other things that I love!).

What projects are you excited to work on in the future?

As I previously mentioned, I just edited and art directed another book The Eye for Nathan Williams. It features over 90 creative directors in a wide range of fields from publishing to film and dance and takes a look at the processes and inspirations behind their work. I’m also collaborating with James on a new media project. Our end goal is to connect creative professionals who share a similar set of values and approach to life in a deeper, more personal way. I’m currently not at liberty to discuss details but excited to share with the AMS department in the near future!

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