In our Winter issue, Lygia Navarro’s essay, “Tropical Depression,” provides readers with a more revealing portrait of life in today’s Havana, where clinical depression and dependence on prescription sedatives are widespread. Through many intimate conversations with Havana’s citizens, Navarro narrows in on a definition for the city’s collective psyche that is sharply defined in the shadow of Fidel Castro’s legacy. I e-mailed Navarro to ask her a few short questions about her life as a journalist and her work to shed light on contemporary Latin American politics and culture.
1. How did you first get the idea for your essay? Was there a specific person you met, or place you visited, that inspired you?
The idea came to me through a convenient accident of sorts: I’d met up with one of the main sources in the story, Alejandro, to talk about a completely unrelated topic. After we’d been talking and walking around Havana for a few hours, at the end of our conversation Alejandro mentioned in passing that he and most people he knows take sedatives to help them sleep, which immediately had me hooked. While I hadn’t known this was the case, it made sense given the environment of frustration and depression in Havana. I immediately started asking around, and found that nearly everyone I spoke with knew someone who took sedatives, which made me want to know more about how people were getting the drugs.
2. What’s the most surprising thing that’s ever happened to you while working on a story?
A few years ago I was reporting on human smuggling in Mexico, and when I went to talk with the immigration official on a small island off of Cancun, he threatened to deport me. There’s a lot of government corruption in the smuggling trade, and this official had been reported to be involved. So when I told him what I wanted to talk to him about, he became furious and told me that he was detaining me for failing to have the correct visa. Eventually he calmed down and decided not to deport me, and later was transferred off the island.
3. Best place to travel as a journalist?
In Latin America especially, my favorite place to do interviews is in the countryside or in small towns. People are often isolated and don’t ever get a chance to see their lives talked about, and they’re eager to both tell you their opinions and find out about the outside world. But I think that’s true anywhere; the more ignored people feel—whether in urban or immigrant communities in the United States, or in other countries—the more desperate they are to tell their stories.
4. Best icebreaker question to ask during an interview?
I don’t have any one first question, but I think that people warm up the most when they’re talking about their own lives—not just telling the story of their lives, but somehow trying to explain the reason they acted a certain way, or how an event shaped their thinking or actions afterwards. Sometimes this even works when talking with public officials or academics or other people who spend a lot of their time talking about policy or facts. If they talk about some topic or occurrence that they feel passionate about, whether they are for or against it, once they get to the core of their emotional connection to the story the best conversation emerges.
5. Favorite thing to read on an airplane?
Just about anything. I always have so many books and magazines I want to read, and there is never enough time, so a quiet few hours on a plane is a luxury. I often stockpile these funny little collections of torn-out magazine articles or short stories to take with me to read on the plane.