Short Story Spotlight: Breathe – Stories From Cuba by Leila Segal

21 Jan

breatheBreathe 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.

Today is publication day for Leila Segal’s collection of short stories set in Cuba, Breathe. I’m a big fan of short stories – they often pack as big a punch than a full length novel and that’s certainly the case here. I’m also a fan of books and stories set in other countries where I can learn about different cultures. Cuba is a country that I know very little about but have always thought I’d love to visit one day. Leila’s story all feature visitors to Cuba in some way and give a very honest view of what it’s like to be on the outside looking in.

Two things were immediately obvious from this collection of stories; the first is that Leila has an in depth knowledge of Cuba and its countrymen and women and the second is that Leila’s writing is both stark and poetic. The stories in Breathe are set in the Cuba of 2000-2004 and stem from the time that Leila spent living in Havana and the Pinar del Rio province.

Each story is a separate glimpse into the lives of the Cuban people and Leila highlights many contrasts; the beautiful scenery and wildlife versus the blocks and prefabs where people live, the poverty and hardships experienced in contrast to the wealth of western visitors; the limitations placed by the Castro regime versus the freedoms of dance and family, socialism versus capitalism – for such such a thin book (under 200 pages) it places big issues front and center and Leila does not sugar coat the reality.

Several of the stories resonated with me but my favourite was Taxi which focuses on a taxi driver in the city. His story wasn’t what I expected and I thought the moral dilemma of this particular tale was cleverly done. Throughout the book there is a strong sense of family and loyalty from the characters which is often disrupted by the visitors that are part of the story. Sabbatical  brought this theme out very strongly for me.

Leila has done an excellent job of portraying the ‘real’ Cuba in her stories. Breathe is a thought-provoking collection that will remain with you after you close the final page.

4/5

Breathe is out now in paperback.

Find out more about Leila Segal and her writing at: http://www.leilasegal.com/

Look out for my stop on Leila’s blog tour on Sunday 24th January.

 

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