TITLE: Breathe: Stories from Cuba
AUTHOR: Leila Sagal
PUBLISHED: 21st Jan 2016
PUBLISHER: Flipped Eye
GENRE: Short Stories
Breathe is a collection that explores the heart of Fidel Castro-era Cuba; an outsider's look that is balanced by a weight of empathy to illuminate truths that lie couched between the island's propaganda and the Western media's portrayal. Characters from Europe and the USA in Swimming, Taxi and Sabbatical seem to want to hold on to the indulgences that their countries offer them, while praising Cubans for the more abstemious lives they lead and seeking to sample what the locals experience; in Siempre Luchando, I Never See Them Cry and The Party, romantic liaisons strengthen or buckle under the strain of the minute exploitations that result from the assumptions one makes about the other; the seedy sexual aggression of Luca's Trip to Havana is undercut by the subtle yet intense lust of Breathe; while Leaving Cuba, with its closing image of Havana's night sky, is as eloquently balanced a tale of the lives of everyday Cubans as you will read in a long while - whichever path one takes, something is lost. As Aida Bahr, winner of Cuba's Premio de la Critica Literaria says, "relying more on subtleties than on drama, [Segal] portrays the tensions and struggles, but also the joy and warmth, that fill Cubans' lives."
Who are your favourite authors and how do they help with your writing?
When I read a book I love, I feel a kind of hum – a resonance – and find my own words tumbling out.
I like writers who let me see the workings of their mind – Charles Bukowski, for example. He wasn’t afraid to put squalor beside beauty; he didn’t pretend. Bukowski talked about the process of writing: why he did it – how. When I began writing Breathe, I used to read his poetry a lot; I remember sitting in a bar in Cuba with The Days Run Away Like Wild Horses Over The Hills. Bukowski wrote for emotional survival – I aspired to it
Andrea Dworkin’s writing is fierce. Reading her memoir Heartbreak, you don’t feel she’s measuring how it will sound – but rather that she’s telling the truth. It’s not smooth or self-conscious, but raw. You can see her humility too.
You have to be unafraid of showing yourself if you want to create interesting work. You can’t worry about what people will think – either you’re communicating something you feel, or you’re trying to conform.
As Breathe came together, I found short story collections on similar themes and learned from them. Drown by Junot Díaz was one. Díaz weaves together US and Latin identities – or pulls them apart; Breathe is stories about being foreign but also Cuban. He helped me make decisions about integrating Spanish into the work. He’s fluid, combines cultures and languages to come out with wholes. The originality of No one belongs here more than you, a short story collection by Miranda July, liberated me when I was stuck with more conventional short story form and ways of saying things – her mind spills onto the page.
There’s a quiet presence in the work of Raymond Carver – he looks through gaps, sees beneath surfaces. Breathe is all about huge unspoken feelings and the inability to communicate: Carver’s stories explore this with exquisite intensity; just reading one would set me up for the writing day.
Carver and July showed me how to make story without conventional structure. You can take moments, single feelings, and build a whole tale around them. One of the stories in Breathe – I Never See Them Cry – for example, is about being seen; much of what I wrote in Cuba simply explores feeling and beauty. You don’t need big drama – it can be from the smallest of discoveries, the touch of another human being, that a story flows.
I love the wild, visceral writing of Jean Rhys – in particular her novel of Jamaica, Wide Sargasso Sea. For me, it’s giving readers an emotional experience that counts. I want them to connect to me and me to them – otherwise, why write?
Rhythm and sound became very important as I worked on Breathe – I was immersed in the beat of the Caribbean, and in Cuban Spanish, which is ultra-melodious, like a song. As Cuba’s light and heat began to melt me, I found myself needing the sensuality and soul of Lydia Cabrera’s Afro-Cuban Tales.
Plain Pleasures by Jane Bowles is probably my all-time favourite short story collection. She is so out of her comfort zone. Bowles lived in Morocco, where she
wrote; I lived in Cuba, where I wrote. I identified with her – she’s got a strange, out-of-this world, point of view. Her characters are ill at ease, negotiating realities for which they have no reference points. Everyday life is absurd. I took comfort from the book while writing Breathe. Someone else had been far out on a limb but managed to send a missive back; perhaps I could do it too.
Leila Segal was born in London, of Polish, Lithuanian and Romanian descent. When she was little, she started to write. In 2000 she visited Cuba – as soon as she arrived she knew that she wanted to stay. She lived first in Havana, then the rural far West. Breathe – Stories from Cuba is her debut collection, written during this time. Leila is director of Voice of Freedom, a project that works with women who have escaped trafficking. She reads her work regularly in London – find out more at www.leilasegal.com
Leila Segal’s debut collection of short stories, Breathe (£6.99, Flipped Eye), is out now and available to buy here
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