Leila Segal is a London-based writer of Romanian, Lithuanian and Polish descent. Breathe: Stories from Cuba, Leila’s debut collection of short fiction, is published by Flipped Eye. You can sample two stories from the collection in Breathe:1 – and the full print collection will be out in Autumn 2012. Leila is director of Voice of Freedom, an anti-trafficking project working with women to tell their stories through photography and creative writing. She reads her work regularly in London – find out more at www.leilasegal.com
Rowyda Amin: The stories in your book are all set in Cuba – could you tell me about your relationship to Cuba and why you came to write about it?
Leila Segal: I was living in Havana when I started to write the stories. I spent time there, writing in a small room that I rented. It was a place that made me take apart everything and reassemble it in new ways, like a jigsaw puzzle that has been broken into pieces and you can’t fit it back the way it was before. I learned Spanish there with a teacher, Dinorah, who was part of the Revolution when she was young in Havana. I used to visit her three times a week for two hours and she didn’t speak any English. I learned Spanish from scratch. So it was entering a new world with no references to the familiar. She taught me Spanish by teaching me about Cuba. I also lived in the far West, in Pinar del Rio province, one of the most remote parts of the island, and that is where my heart lies in Cuba – with the people there who let me be part of their lives.
Rowyda Amin: The protagonists of many of your stories are foreigners who come to Cuba looking for something – sex, community, peace of mind, and I thought it was very interesting how you explored the psychological motivations for travel. Could you tell me your thoughts on the subject?
Leila Segal: I’ve always been a very restless person. I could never feel at home, even in the place where I was born. I always felt happier when I was moving. Somehow movement slows down the mind. In Cuba there were many foreigners, I met them everywhere (except when I was living in the far West, in a remote little town). They were searching and restless, like me. I suppose that I saw some of myself in many of the travellers I encountered during my time in Cuba – painfully raw selves, divorced from normal cushioning – from the things that comfort us, or make us who we know ourselves to be. I now realise that the drive to the unfamiliar is essential because it is like being a child again. Everything is new, so we can see again with clarity, with colour. But there was something else: for many people, the island is a playground – you can use a place like a colouring book, as if it is made only of outlines that you fill with your self. The stories show this happening.
Rowyda Amin: I like the way you expressed that! That was a very interesting aspect of the stories, for me, the way that Cuba was coloured differently for each character, even dependent on their mood, as if what they were seeing was a projection of their emotions.
Leila Segal: Thank you.
Rowyda Amin: Another theme in your stories which I found fascinating was the way you explored relationships, in particular where there was some kind of imbalance of power or social capital – rich/poor, tourist/Cuban, local/foreigner, male/female. All of these dynamics are at work under the surface. You seem very concerned with inequalities, but not just the obvious ones. Perhaps you could tell me your thoughts on that?
Leila Segal: It’s very interesting to hear you speak about the stories. So much of what I do is subconscious. A story strikes me as important and I do not articulate to myself the reason, just that this is the story asking to be written here. There is always one story – it sings in my head like when you make a glass sing. You get just the right resonance and it will sing. I am thinking now of the stories, in light of your question. You said ‘not the obvious inequalities’ – could you give me an example?
Rowyda Amin: Well, the ‘obvious inequalities’ I was thinking of, which are explored very well, are the inequalities of wealth, freedom and privilege between some of the tourists and the Cubans, but the less obvious ones are for example in ‘The Party’ – the character Anna finds the people and environment very unfamiliar and she feels at a disadvantage, so she cannot trust anyone.
Leila Segal: The idea of trust is central to the stories. Also unreliability, because when you are in an unfamiliar environment you lose anchor. But it’s only an exaggerated form of an everyday experience. Just because we live here, we feel familiar. It interested me to look at how intimacy is created. The process is not different between any two human beings, but I think setting it in an unfamiliar context exposes the flaws in the human capacity for understanding others.
Rowyda Amin: You draw out the precariousness of romantic relationships very well. In the story ‘Swimming’, for example.
Leila Segal: I was just thinking of ‘Swimming’. I wrote that story when I was in England. It is interesting because it is inflected by my experience of life in my own country. I used the setting of a woman alone in an unfamiliar environment to express an experience that I have of living in my home. It was a metaphor for the experience of not understanding. I think I am a writer because I often don’t understand what is happening around me or inside me. When it is written down, it becomes real. In ‘Swimming’, the female protagonist has lost any means of choosing one interpretation over others. This is literally the experience of living in a foreign culture, but also the experience of being human in complex, industrial societies.
Rowyda Amin: That’s very interesting. I found that story fascinating partly because of the ambiguities of the situation – the characters can be read in different ways. Your female protagonists are often very introspective and even introverted. They think so much more than they speak, so there’s this great silent current underneath even minimal interactions.
Leila Segal: Yes, that’s true! I think it reflects my own difficulties with language. I have always felt language – spoken language – to be incredibly veiling. I want to prise it open for meanings beyond the words. Words are one-dimensional compared to experience, so it is always a struggle. I have a lot to say about this but I don’t want to ramble.
Rowyda Amin: Tell me, don’t worry about rambling!
Leila Segal: Ok. I was thinking of the relationship of imagination to creative writing. When one is writing a character – how much is truly imagined? We use parts of ourselves, but then I think there is a shared consciousness through observation, empathy. It is possible to inhabit others, to inhabit them as one writes – to become them for a short time. Perhaps in early work, a writer expresses more of herself, she embodies more aspects of her own character, but moves beyond that when it is out of her system. A maturing of personality – beyond self, outwards. You have to have a very strong sense of self to write, but paradoxically a transparency. I feel empty a lot of the time.
Rowyda Amin: So you become the character, temporarily?
Leila Segal: Yes – or the character inhabits me.
Rowyda Amin: When did you start writing fiction?
Leila Segal: I started when I was living in Havana in 2000. I wrote stories when I was a child but I stopped when I grew up. In Havana there was a big silence – no phone or email, no internet, no one I knew. Lots of stories. I just wrote everything down, I didn’t realise that was how you made stories. I have about 20 notebooks from that time. Making stories from the notebooks was a long process, they are the living part of the stories, the centre, but there is so much more that goes in. They are sort of bent through time. For example, ‘Swimming’ came from a short journey that I took down a Havana street – but it was bent by all of my life before, and after; the loss and perspective that came after that short journey framed it. But it took 10 years.
Rowyda Amin: Were the notebooks fiction or observation/memoir?
Leila Segal: I’ve always kept notebooks, I write continuously. I just write down whatever I’m thinking or seeing. They’re not literal accounts of what is happening. It’s like doing paintings.
Rowyda Amin: Which writers do you admire and what appeals to you about their work?
Leila Segal: I love Raymond Carver and Jane Bowles. What appeals to me is a stillness, gaps through which I can see strangeness. In real life, there is so much happening all the time in the most ordinary of places – that is what is most interesting because it is so quiet. Subversive, even. Their stories take that and use the quiet places as a starting point. It is freeing, from the clamour, from the need to be seen or to be someone.
Rowyda Amin: What do you see coming next for you as a writer, after this book? Do you have any ideas or plans for future projects?
Leila Segal: I have so many more stories, lots more that have half-formed. I’ll just keep writing.
Excerpt from Leila’s story ‘Swimming’:
The white-tiled stairs were cold under her bare feet. Dust caught in her throat. She clawed at her neck, then swept off the old smock and threw it onto the bed. She put on her best blue shirt-dress, leaving the bottom two buttons open. The voices in the kitchen continued. She must go back – they should not be allowed to go on without her.
‘Guapa!’ said Nelidah when she returned to the table. ‘Mas gordita!’
‘I’m not fat.’
‘It is beautiful. Fatter is good,’ said Nelidah.
‘The last two buttons must be closed,’ said Javier.
‘He’s jealous. You have a tattoo on your thigh!’ said Nelidah and winked. The skin on her breast where the locket lay was burnt and crepey from the sun.
She closed the buttons and reached for Javier’s hand. Javier accepted her hand and held it as he brought a tiny coffee cup to his lips with his other. ‘You don’t look very good,’ he said, draining the last few drops. ‘You should eat.’ She glanced up at Nelidah, who was dusting a row of plastic ornaments with care, and tried to catch her eye. ‘Ah, you two,’ said Nelidah turning away. ‘The lovers.’ She thought that Nelidah must be smiling but the muscles in the back of the old woman’s neck tightened and she said, ‘leave me the money for last night on the table before you go.’
They walked down Calle 2 through warm spits of rain. She took photographs of crumbling, broken things and tripped over potholes. Through the light the rain was acid, burning cold on heat, and perfect fuscia hearts flowered in foliage that overtook the street.