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Photo Credit: Andria Lo
Photo Credit: Andria Lo

'Of Women and Salt': Reckoning with the Past

In her debut novel, Gabriela Garcia writes about a mother and a daughter, and a family legacy that begins in Cuba before either were born

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The daughter of immigrants from Cuba and Mexico, Gabriela Garcia was raised in Miami and over time became a long-time feminist and migrant justice organizer, and a promising writer and poet.

Her debut novel, Of Women and Salt (MacMillan, 2021) is an attempt to capture the lives of Cuban women both in present-day Miami and Cuba, and explore the challenges of migration, legacy and survival. 

The starting point of the novel is present-day Miami, where a young girl called Jeanette is battling addiction. Jeannette is also determined to learn more about her family history from her reticent mother, Carmen, a Cuban immigrant, and makes the snap decision to take in the daughter of a neighbor detained by ICE. Carmen, still wrestling with the trauma of displacement, must process her difficult relationship with her own mother while trying to raise a wayward Jeanette. Steadfast in her quest for understanding, Jeanette travels to Cuba to see her grandmother and reckon with secrets from the past destined to erupt. 

“I was raised in a very matriarchal family. My mother was a single mother. She had a sister. My grandmother had all sisters. I have all sisters,” she told NPR.

In the book, she added, “I wanted to sort of just center on the women and how they survive in this society.”

The novel then zigzags to a 19th-century cigar factory, offering a kaleidoscopic portrait of betrayals — personal and political, self-inflicted and those done by others — that have shaped the lives of these extraordinary women.  The novel is also an exercise to “tackle immigration, addiction, and sexual trauma with ambition and a poetic voice,” as reported by ELLE, and the complexities of Latinx immigration narratives, and how to write about male violence without centering violent men. 

On the other hand, writing about Jeanette and her mother, and other women in the book, she wanted to show the frustration that she sometimes has about how Latinx identity is portrayed as a monolith.

“Growing up in in a city like Miami that has a lot of Latinx immigrants from all over Latin America, it was always really clear to me that these kinds of class and racial divisions existed,” she told ELLE. “ I wanted to explore that on a lot of levels — in Miami, in Cuba. I wanted to speak to the truth of that reality.”

"A haunting meditation on the choices of mothers, the legacy of the memories they carry, and the tenacity of women who choose to tell their stories despite those who wish to silence them, this is more than a diaspora story; it is a story of America’s most tangled, honest, human roots,” her publishers note.

Garcia is the recipient of a Rona Jaffe Foundation Writer's Award and a Steinbeck Fellowship from San Jose State University. Her fiction and poetry have appeared in Best American Poetry, Tin House, Zyzzyva, Iowa Review, and elsewhere. She received an MFA in fiction from Purdue and lives in the Bay Area.

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