Author Leila Segal ventures beneath the tourist veil of modern Cuba

17:24 28 January 2016

Leila Segal. Picture: Marte Lundby Rekaa

Leila Segal. Picture: Marte Lundby Rekaa

Marte Lundby Rekaa 2015

The former lawyer and journalist tells Alex Bellotti about her time in Cuba, where she composed her debut short story collection, Breathe.

We’ve all done it: gone on holiday abroad for a week and fallen in love with a country, sensing an absence of the many problems we associate with back home in pricy, rainy London. Of course, we know that the reality is quite different, but you still can’t help but wonder if moving away would somehow make for a better life.

So it was with Leila Segal when in 2000 she travelled to Cuba, inspired by Wim Wenders’ 1999 film Buena Vista Social Club. “It was magical,” explains the Highgate-raised writer, “and I fell in love with the place and the people.”

Acting on instinct, the former Channing School student decided to leave England and move to the west coast of Cuba. She settled down to write – an unfulfilled life dream until that point – and 16 years later, the fruits of her labour are now published in Breathe, a collection of short stories primarily inspired by the curious interactions of locals and foreigners she encountered in Latin America.

“There is a much darker side to Cuba itself, but also as a foreigner I was projecting what I wanted to see onto it; we see things that we don’t have at home which we’re searching for, so of course when I spent more time there I no longer saw it in that one dimensional way,” says Segal.

“I think that’s what comes into the stories – that discovery and disappointment with reality which we all must live with in the everyday, when our dreams and fantasies dissolve.”

Despite the litany of relationships depicted in Breathe, there is a prevailing sense of isolation. In the story Swimming, a black Cuban is made to feel like an “imposter” when he tries to take his foreign girlfriend to a hotel swimming pool; in Luca’s Trip To Havana, the Italian protagonist’s uncomfortable appetite for young Cuban women is explored in all its shallow nature.

Having spent a total of six years in the republic, Segal says her initial, youthful naivety about such experiences was eventually replaced by an older cynicism.

“Everybody in Breathe wants to escape something, whether it’s a Cuban trying to escape their reality or the tourists who’ve come to Cuba to escape something they’ve left behind them. Everybody’s sort of using everybody else; projecting onto them.

“I felt – and I think I only realised this later in editing – that the relationships in Breathe are a metaphor for our relationships otherwise, where we very often aren’t listening to the other person and are unable to get really close to them because we’re so preoccupied with what we want.”

Previously, Segal has worked as both a journalist and barrister; in 2008, she also founded the group Voices Of Freedom, a photography-based project which helps women who have escaped trafficking and torture. “I became a barrister because I was very interested in voice and advocacy, in being able to act as a mouthpiece for those who couldn’t speak for themselves,” she says, and acknowledges that this mindset subconsciously seeped into her short story collection.

Unable to communicate with anyone outside of Cuba for most of her stay, she looks back at her time in the country as one of both separation and revelation.

“On the one hand I was with Cubans, who, compared to British people, are very close, but in my foreignness I was very alone. It forced me to write, without realising, some things which were very new to me. I discovered a side of myself as a writer in that environment.”

Breathe by Leila Segal is published by Flipped Eye for £6.99. Visit leilasegal.com

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