On 21 January Brixton author Leila Segal launched her debut collection of short stories, Breathe: Stories from Cuba. Co arts editor Ruth Waters found out more about the story behind the stories.
Breathe: Stories from Cuba transports its reader to an environment quite different to SW2. Meeting local author Leila Segal, my first priority is to find out how she came to be living in and writing about Cuba.
“I was very drawn to Cuba”, Leila explains, “it’s apparently easy to be in and to understand but actually it’s very complex. The longer I stayed there, the more layers I experienced and the harder it was to understand. Sensually, musically, visually, emotionally it’s an incredibly stimulating place.”
Leila found herself living between London and Cuba for a seven-year period and, in a relationship with a Cuban man, she spent time not only in Havana but also in the rural west of the country. It is no exaggeration to say that Leila was deeply involved with Cuban life yet her ‘foreignness’ (when living in the west, she was the only non-Cuban in the town) allowed her to see the sides of Cuban life reserved for tourists.
“I was in a strange position where I had access to all the things which foreigners had access to. Tourists and foreigners were very restricted in their access to regular Cuban people and life, but I had access to all those things too. I was seeing things from both points of view.”
Throughout her stories, Leila expresses the complex and conflicting emotions which bind together and splinter apart foreigners and Cubans. “Part of writing is not understanding. The thing which drives me to write is to understand and makes sense of experience”, she tells me.
Leila was acutely aware of herself as an outsider during her time in Cuba and her stories draw upon the theme of being the alien, the one who doesn’t quite understand the fabric of a community. “If my stories are about one thing, it’s about being the outsider. Even the Cubans in the stories are outsiders or are preparing to be outsiders.”. And whilst her stories are grounded in a very particular time and space she hopes their emotional dynamics are universal.
Leila writes about Cuba with a unique style and voice. Fast-paced, unconcerned with setting out context and extremely involved with the minutiae of emotional bonds, Leila’s style is refreshing. I ask her to what extent her own Cuban experience dictated the style of her fiction: “I experienced Cuba in flashes and truncated experiences… and through my writing, you, the reader, are in my shoes.”
How much are these stories Leila’s travel log, transcriptions of her own experience, I wonder? “It’s taken many years to write them [the process began in 2000] and there’s many layers in each story. The me who experienced Cuba is not the same as the person who wrote the stories, and added to them layer by layer.” Leila describes the stories as “representations of things she wanted to say and feel” rather than autobiographical accounts.
Whilst the emotional truth of each story is incredibly important to her, each story has been crafted as fiction.“If I had just reported the things I had experienced it wouldn’t have had the same power as using voices of people who are actually inside the experience.”
Emotional connection is what Leila prizes over all else, it’s what inspired her to write the stories, what helped her select and edit them and what she wants her reader to experience. She loved the importance placed on “emotional connection and comfort” by Cubabs – “it’s the opposite of being in London, where everyone is too busy and everything is too fast.”
Breathe: stories from Cuba is available to buy online from Waterstones or Foyles and will be stocked at bookshops locally. Leila will be reading from Breathe at Parissi on Atlantic Road on 18 February. Find out more at www.leilasegal.com