Julia Cooke on the Alluring Unknowability of Easter Island
This Week from The Common Podcast
Julia Cooke speaks to managing editor Emily Everett about her essay “Past and Future on Rapa Nui,” which appears in The Common’s fall issue. In this conversation, Julia talks about her trip to Rapa Nui, commonly known as Easter Island, a place famous for the mysterious moai statues that dot the remote landscape. She also discusses the island’s complicated and unknowable history, her earlier work as a journalist, and her latest book, which chronicles stories from Pan Am stewardesses during the Jet Age.
On what inspired this essay:
When I came back from Rapa Nui, I started reading about it. And what I found was a lot of contradictions, which is often what I start with when writing: that sense of disjunction between sources, or a lack of consensus, or a disjunction between what I experience and what I read about after leaving a place. That tends to be what inspires most of my work.
On the appeal of the mystery of Rapa Nui:
That’s what I found so interesting: the fact that we are so insistent on trying to understand Easter Island. When I was there, the sense of being submerged in something that couldn’t be fully understood was incredibly appealing. It was alluring. It almost felt safe to me. It was really nice to not be expected to understand it in a way. I loved it. To come back home and start reading about it and to realize the extent to which so many other people didn’t necessarily appreciate that about it, or didn’t respect that—the place resisted understanding, and so people seemed to be imposing their storyline onto it.
On straddling the line between journalism and creative nonfiction:
I love working for Virginia Quarterly Review because they really fulfill the best of both worlds [journalism and literary writing]. I can do really rigorous reporting that meets all the highest standards of journalism, but I’m also free to do what I like to do for a literary review, which is think deeper, include more observations, and really focus on the experience of the reader, not so much the information portrayed. I also think it’s really nice to be able to indulge in more ambivalence, which is a little more accepted in literary reviews.
Julia Cooke is the author of Come Fly the World: The Jet-Age Story of the Women of Pan Am and The Other Side of Paradise: Life in the New Cuba. Her essays and reporting have been published in A Public Space, Smithsonian, Tin House, Condé Nast Traveler, and Virginia Quarterly Review, where she is a contributing editor. Read more at juliacooke.com or follow her on Twitter at @juliaccooke.
Emily Everett is managing editor of The Common magazine and host of the magazine’s podcast. Her stories appear in the Kenyon Review, Electric Literature, Tin House Online, and Mississippi Review. Say hello on Twitter @Public_Emily.