The Debut Novel 'Of Women and Salt' Explores the Force of History

Posted by Cybil on March 1, 2021
Rate this book
Clear rating
Of Women and Salt, the debut novel by Gabriela Garcia, has the feel of a sweeping family saga that’s hard to reconcile with the fact that it’s only about 200 pages long.

The novel even begins with a family tree, diagramming five generations of Cuban and Cuban American women, starting with Maria Isabel in rural Cuba in 1866 and ending with Jeanette in modern-day Miami. The generations are bound by calamity: men who treat them badly, political violence and oppression, and more contemporary struggles like addiction and the hardships of modern immigration.

Although the story is multigenerational, the novel really belongs to Jeanette, a young Cuban American woman in contemporary Miami who is fighting opioid addiction and chaffing against her mother, Carmen, who has carried a terrible secret with her from Cuba to America. Amid the turmoil of Jeanette’s life comes Ana, an eight-year-old Salvadorean girl left behind when ICE takes her mother in the middle of the night. 

As the novel skips between a detention center in Texas, Jeanette’s life in Miami, and the lives of her Cuban ancestors, Garcia explores how the political is always personal and how generations of women can pass along both strength and sorrow.

Garcia spoke to Goodreads contributor Samantha Schoech from her home in Oakland, California. Their conversation has been edited.

Goodreads: Congratulations on your debut novel! That’s very exciting. I was hoping you could start by talking a little bit about your writing life up until now. 

Gabriela Garcia: Sure. So, I took kind of a long path toward actually writing a novel. I spent many years after college—I didn't study creative writing in college; I studied sociology and communications—in several different jobs for many years that were sort of writing adjacent. I've worked for magazines. I worked in the music industry.

Then in later years, I was an organizer, and I worked for various migrant justice and feminist organizations. During that decade, I was doing writing in my jobs but not necessarily pursuing creative writing. I was doing a lot of poetry writing and some fiction on the side, and then I just got to a point where I decided I wanted to try to pursue it professionally. I applied to some MFA programs. I was really excited about the Purdue program and working with Roxane Gay and others there. So, I was really psyched to get into that program. Then I basically wrote my novel during the years that I was in that program. It was my MFA thesis. After graduating, I was really lucky to receive a few fellowships. I got the Rona Jaffe Foundation Writers' Award and then a Steinbeck fellowship at San Jose State University. So, I had some time to continue to kind of just focus on my writing. 

GR:  Is any of this story—the Cuban part of the story—based on you or your family history?

GG: I guess the Cuban side of it, yeah. But actually, I think the Cuban American family and the Cuban family in my book are really different from my family in significant ways. There are certain pieces of me throughout the book, and I’ve drawn from people and the communities that I've been a part of, but, for the most part, it's fiction.

My family is significantly different from the family at the center of the novel, which is, like, a wealthy Cuban American family. The mother, Carmen, has a very fractured relationship with Cuba and doesn't travel back there. I didn't grow up in a wealthy family, and my mother traveled back to Cuba frequently and encouraged us to travel to Cuba. So, it's pretty different from my family. 

GR: There are more than 150 years between Maria Isabel in pre-independence Cuba and Jeanette in present-day Miami. Why was it important to tell this as a multigenerational story? And how does the past inform the future in this book?

GG: I've always been really interested in historical forces and how they shape everything about the present moment. I knew when I was writing the book that I wanted it to be nonlinear and that I wanted to play with a variety of different writing styles and modes and that I was interested in shaping the book in a way that didn't follow, like, a specific narrative structure. I wanted it to have echoes and resonance throughout, so I was really interested in how these characters—even the ones who have 150 years between them—interact with each other even if they don't realize they're interacting with each other. I wanted to contextualize that family history into the present.

GR: You managed to entwine the personal stories of your characters with political and social issues of their eras—from violence in Cuba before, during, and after the revolution, to the current opioid and immigration crises in the U.S. I’m wondering how history and current events informed your writing and what the first kernel of this novel was.

GG: I think every piece of writing is political whether you intended it to be or not, and I think a lot of the things that I was thinking about were things that were both happening in the world and just, you know, my life and in the lives of people I know.

My community was on my mind when I was sitting down to write, so a lot of that is going to come through in the writing. But yeah, I was really just interested on the individual level, on the character level. I think that's where a story is most interesting. So, these characters are all dealing with a variety of issues and are living in the current political moment; that is reflected in their individual choices and in the violence it creates in their own lives. That's really what I was most interested in. 

Rate this book
Clear rating
Rate this book
Clear rating

GR: And was there a character you started with or a voice that spoke to you first? 

GG: I think when I first started writing, I wasn't sure if there was going to be a voice that came through as the central character. As I was writing, it became Jeanette, and I think she became the character I kept gravitating toward, and maybe that has to do with certain things that I have in common with her, like both of us being Cuban American and born in the U.S. She was sort of the easiest character to channel. But she also seemed to be the hinge that brings a lot of these lives together. So, yeah, I think when I started it, I was writing all of these different characters and not necessarily sure that I was going to hone in on one character or even what the hinge was going to be, but it ended up being Jeanette. 

GR: This novel is all about mothers and women. Men, when they figure at all, tend to be absent, brutal, or dead. What was it about the maternal lineage that interested you?

GG: I think I knew that I wanted to write a book in which all of the voices were women. I was far less interested in the characters who weren't women, and I think part of that comes from being raised in a really matrilineal family. I was raised by a single mother, and she had all sisters. I have all sisters. My grandmother on my mother’s side has all sisters. The women in my family have sort of depended on one another in a lot of different ways. There were many, many who had fractured relationships with men, but ultimately were supported by each other, and I just never felt a lack in that, you know? And so I was interested in what that looks like.

I had the experience that I think is common, which is the effects of a really broken patriarchal society in which women support each other in picking up the pieces. 

GR: There is a lot of precedent for the multigenerational family saga in Latin American literature. I’m thinking, of course, of One Hundred Years of Solitude, but also more contemporary novels like Sandra CisnerosCaramelo. Were there novels in that tradition that spoke to you as you were writing this or informed your novel in some way?

GG: That's interesting. I've certainly read a lot of those, but I'm not even sure that I think of my novel as a multigenerational saga. I know it's described that way, which makes sense, but it's 200 pages, and I think there's a lot of white space between every character’s story. And, really, most of the book is set in contemporary times. There are basically three or four historical glimpses. So I think I was actually thinking more about novels that play with structure and time and are written in a lot of different modes, a lot of different writing styles. I think that's where I saw my book’s position more than anything.

But I do really appreciate those family sagas—like certainly Gabriel García Márquez—that are really lush and detailed and go into detail into the background of a single family. Those are really interesting to me, too. 

But as I was writing, I was thinking about books like Jennifer Egan's Visit from the Goon Squad or even like Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell. I was thinking about writers who can take on different voices and totally different writing styles and somehow make them resonate together. 

GR: As you said, this story is really Jeanette’s. She’s the daughter of an immigrant, but she feels very little connection or solidarity with the plight of her neighbors, undocumented immigrants from El Salvador. She’s not disdainful; she just doesn’t identify with them. Can you talk about that part of the story and the difference between immigrants from Cuba and immigrants from other Latin American countries and how that plays out in the book?

GG: That's a great question. It’s interesting because often in the media, or even talking about books, people refer to the “immigrant experience.” I don't think there is such a thing as the immigrant experience. I think it's flattening, really, and I think even within “Latinos” there are still hugely different experiences. 

Cubans, especially the older generations, had huge privilege. Because of the laws at the time, any Cuban who touched the ground in the U.S. was on a path to citizenship. And a lot of those early generations of Cubans coming here were escaping communism and had enjoyed a level of wealth and privilege in Cuba. They were mostly white, so there were all of these privileges coming in that set them up for success in the U.S. It’s so based on race and class.

And so that's obviously a really different experience than even within my own family, thinking about my mother and my father, who emigrated from Mexico, it was such a different experience. It was such a different experience in terms of how they were treated by the systems in the U.S. I wanted to be real about that. Just because Jeanette is a “Latina,” or the daughter of immigrants, doesn't necessarily mean that she's gonna see her experience reflected in someone who's coming from a different country under different circumstances. That's clear in their interactions and in Ana and Jeanette's relationship as well. 

Rate this book
Clear rating
Rate this book
Clear rating
Rate this book
Clear rating
Rate this book
Clear rating

GR: And why did you choose to make Ana from El Salvador? Is there a reason you chose that country in particular? 

GG: I think another thing that happens is that we tend to think of immigration and undocumented immigrants as Mexican. The reality is that the majority of people who are crossing the border are from Central America, especially during that time when Ana's mother, Gloria, is immigrating to the U.S. I wanted to accurately reflect the time period when I started writing those chapters.

I was also working in deportation defense work and organizing around detention, and I was thinking a lot about the women who I was frequently talking to. It made sense to me that that they would be from Central America. 

GR: Are you still involved in immigration issues? 

GG: I do some organizing work sometimes, but not as a full-time job the way I was years ago. 

GR: I’m curious about books on Cuban history that you would recommend, both fiction and nonfiction.

GG: Let me think. There are definitely interesting writers in Cuba writing about Cuba, but it's harder to get those books in the U.S. But in terms of Cuban American writers, an early writer I read was Cristina GarciaDreaming in Cuban is just rendered beautifully and lyrically, and is a multigenerational saga as well. I've recently enjoyed an anthology called AfroCuba. It's an anthology of Cuban writing on race and politics. There's another recent anthology called Cuba on the Verge that I think is good and has essays both by Cubans and non-Cubans and deals with contemporary Cuba.

GR: A big part of this novel revolves around passed-down stories and actual books. What are the books you hope are still being read in 150 years?

GG: I think a book that probably will be read in 150 years is Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar. Also maybe Giovanni's Room by James Baldwin. Those are books that I feel like I have turned to [at] different points in my life that have resonated. I hope people will still read them in 150 years. 

GR: It's amazing how many authors bring up James Baldwin when I ask this question! 

GG: That makes sense. His words make sense as much today as they did then, so that makes sense. Maybe Elena Ferrante, too. I feel like regardless of when those books are set, the way she explores relationships between women is always going to resonate. Oh, and Fiebre Tropical by Juliana Delgado. It’s unlike anything I've read before in terms of its use of language and bilingual narratives, and I hope it’s a book we’re reading 150 years from now and that it influences the way we think about language and writing. 

GR: I wanted to end by asking you about working with Roxane Gay and how she has influenced you as a teacher and mentor. 

GG: She's been an incredible mentor. She was one of the first people who—when I was still afraid to even call myself a writer—really believed in my work and really championed it. She’s meant everything to me, and it was wonderful working with her. She has really good taste in books and really opened up my reading life. She has shaped the way that I think about stories and also the political and the social within a novel. I learned a ton with her, and her dedication to championing new women writers and writers of color has been a real model for the kind of writer and citizen that I want to be. I'm so grateful for her teaching and the way that she has continued to support my writing, being in the publishing industry, and having a book coming out. It's been wonderful.

Gabriela Garcia's Of Women and Salt will be available in the U.S. on March 30. Don't forget to add it to your Want to Read shelf. Be sure to also read more of our exclusive author interviews and get more great book recommendations.

Comments Showing 1-4 of 4 (4 new)

dateDown arrow    newest »

message 1: by Jacqueline (new)

Jacqueline I loved her comments how women support each other.

And the reminder that each immigrant experience is unique.

And, alas, we are also reminded how the underpinnings of present US life is still based on race and class.

message 2: by Teejo (new)

Teejo The interview has piqued my interest to read the novel!

Dorie  - Cats&Books :) I'm glad I stumbled upon this interview, I just started this novel today :)

message 4: by TMR (new)

TMR I’m so excited to try these.

back to top