Books

Interview: Brin-Jonathan Butler, author of ‘The Domino Diaries’

Author Brin-Jonathan Butler spent 11 years in Cuba interviewing boxers who refused to defect.
Author Brin-Jonathan Butler spent 11 years in Cuba interviewing boxers who refused to defect.

At first glance, Brin-Jonathan Butler’s memoir is a love story about boxing, the “sweet science” of which the author is a lifelong fan, scholar and more than capable amateur participant.

But delve into the pages of The Domino Diaries: My Decade Boxing with Olympic Champions and Chasing Hemingway’s Ghost in the Last Days of Castro’s Cuba (Picador, $26), and you’ll see that Butler’s astonishing journey to Havana turned into something much more profound.

He came to the island in 2000 to interview several of Cuba’s Olympic champion boxers — Teofilo Stevenson, Felix Savon, Hector Vinent — for his documentary Split Decision, which explores why they never defected to America amid promises of tens of millions of dollars, while others, such as Guillermo Rigondeaux, did defect. Along the way, Butler wound up asking: What is the true cost of the American Dream?

By immersing himself into the heartbreaking warmth and passion of Cuba’s people, who were almost uniformly generous and inviting even in the face of crippling poverty, Butler — who appears Thursday at Books & Books in Coral Gables — entices the reader into the fascinating, decades-long dilemma sparked by Castro’s Revolution.

Q: The book starts with you recounting your visit on Easter 2010 to Mike Tyson’s home in Las Vegas. How did you feel going into your idol’s house?

Well, I didn’t have any professional business going there, and from the moment I walked into the front door, there was a huge cloud of marijuana smoke, and the first words he said to me were, “How did this white m-----f----- get into my house?” So I didn’t think things were starting well.

It was totally surreal, but I think what kind of changed it from being ominous was the fact that my history with him was that he had really helped me get out of a very bad place with bullying when I was a kid. So I think that when your heart is filled with gratitude for somebody, it’s very hard to muster a lot of animus against them. … I think just bringing gratitude to him was something he really didn’t expect and didn’t really know how to cope with. I don’t think he’s somebody who’s received a lot of gratitude in his life.

Q: Tyson warned you that it can be dangerous to meet your heroes. How does that question apply to all of the boxers that you met in Cuba?

It’s true that “it’s dangerous to meet your heroes” makes a lot of sense if what you’re expecting is them to be black-and-white, the way our society prefers our heroes. But in terms of who I am as an artist and a writer, I think all of us are kind of built a little bit differently in the sense that we measure people, instead of morally — are they good or bad? — more in accordance with “are they interesting?” And meeting Mike Tyson enriched how interesting he was exponentially.

With all of the people in Cuba who I met — many of them hugely heroic figures — I found learning about their complexity and richness and contradictions just really fascinating, and it was fulfilling to be able to offer a different side to them, to be able to have some kind of unique takeaway from the official narrative.

Q: You wrote that Cuban boxers’ struggles in the ring are intertwined with all Cubans’ struggles. Is that one of the reasons you wrote this book?

I think the beauty and mystery of boxing is just the immediacy of how it reveals people unlike anything else. In the United States in the 20th century, every major event that America was going through, there was a boxer who seemed to symbolically represent it, from slavery to the Vietnam War to the Depression — all the way along, you just seemed to have boxers that carried the narrative. I think in Cuba, it was the same, but midway through my journey in Cuba, you had these boxers who were meant to be entered into Fidel Castro’s symbolic chessboard against the United States, to fight his war against the American system.

What I found important while I was there was that so many of them were leaving, finally, and I thought if Castro’s gonna hold them up when they’re winning Olympic gold and turning down millions of dollars as being symbols of all the successes of the Revolution, you have to then balance the other side of the scale and say if they left, and then people supported their reasons for leaving, then it had to represent failures in the Revolution. That story wasn’t permitted to be told in Cuba.

Q: If you were a gold medal-winning Cuban boxer, would you leave or stay?

I can only speak from my point of reference, which is, I came from our system. And so I say of course I’d leave. I couldn’t bear the torment and how excruciating daily life was for them. On the other hand, abandoning my family forever and abandoning everything I know. ... I think it’s very telling that when these athletes from Cuba arrive in the United States, almost all of them resolutely say, “I’m fighting for Cuba now — I’m Cuban, not American.” And that’s unusual. My mother left Hungary as a refugee, and she is not nostalgic for the life that she had back in Hungary, and yet Cubans certainly want the economic opportunity in the United States, but they’re desperately homesick for the culture that they left behind.

Q: I was struck by the richness of daily lives — even though they don’t have material wealth, people give what they have, as a kind of underground support system. So that must factor into the decision.

You always hear about a two-time Olympic champion, or a neurosurgeon, or a lawyer making $20 a month. What you hear a lot less is that all cultural activities and sports are free. Homelessness is epidemic in New York, where I live now. But I never saw a homeless person in Havana. That doesn’t mean everybody was living all that far beyond poverty, but everybody had a roof over their head. As several Cubans told me, if we wanted to overthrow this government and topple Fidel, we would do it, but people are afraid to lose the things that they have.

Q: Would you agree with the notion that Fidel Castro’s main legacy is the legacy of broken families?

Unequivocally. That, more than anything, is the book I tried to write, to look at Cuba through the prism of the broken family. Because there is no family that I encountered that wasn’t torn apart by Castro’s legacy. And that speaks to people who believe in it and that speaks to people who view him as the living embodiment of the Antichrist. Castro is somebody who while he was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize was also being tried as a war criminal in Spain. Again, a very complicated person, and I think somebody described to me the Revolution as sort of like the American Civil War fought across the 90 miles of the Florida Straits. It is just brutal, the damage that it’s done to families, and even decades later there’s still such seething resentment. It’s gonna be a really tough one to reconcile.

Meet the author

Who: Brin-Jonathan Butler.

When: 8 p.m. Thursday.

Where: Books & Books, 265 Aragon Ave., Coral Gables.

Info: 305-442-4408 or booksandbooks.com; free.

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