Also published on this date: Shelf Awareness for Wednesday, September 30, 2020

Wednesday, September 30, 2020: Maximum Shelf: Of Women and Salt

Flatiron Books: Of Women and Salt by Gabriela Garcia

Flatiron Books: Of Women and Salt by Gabriela Garcia

Flatiron Books: Of Women and Salt by Gabriela Garcia

Flatiron Books: Of Women and Salt by Gabriela Garcia

Of Women and Salt

by Gabriela Garcia

Strong women and the nuanced complexities of mother-daughter relationships that reverberate through each generation are at the heart of Gabriela Garcia's debut. Of Women and Salt spans 19th- and 20th-century Cuba into present-day Miami, Texas and Mexico, and captures five women's often fraught emotional connections to each other, their deepest secrets and their unresolved traumas as it shifts in time and perspective.

Cuba, 1866. María Isabel is the only female employee at a cigar workshop in Camagüey, in a town with a mix of peasants, slaves, farmers and wealthy landowners. To break up the daily tedium of rolling cigars, a lector, Antonio, reads to the employees from classic novels, including Victor Hugo's newest work, Les Misérables. One day, a letter arrives from Hugo himself, pledging to "speak up for Cuba as I spoke up for Crete" and giving hope to the workers as conditions in Cuba begin to reflect the country's conflicts, precarious economy and impending war. Hugo encourages the workers by writing, "Who are we? Weakness? No, we are force."

With Antonio's help, María Isabel begins to understand the power of words and stories, and how books can provide comfort and strength during times of struggle. She accepts Antonio's offer to teach her to read and write her name, along with his gift of a treasured book (Cecilia Valdés) and his marriage proposal. On the day that their daughter Cecilia is born, María Isabel discovers the tragic meaning of "we are force" for herself as she learns to embrace a fortitude of spirit that she will unknowingly bestow upon the women of her family for more than a hundred years.

Miami, 2014. Jeanette, the great-great-granddaughter of María Isabel, has been battling a longtime addiction to drugs. Now in recovery for the third time, she struggles with the emotional pain that prevents her from breaking free of the destructive influences of her past mistakes, sexual assault, domestic abuse by her boyfriend, and her mother Carmen's stoic, perfectionist and controlling nature, which hides her love for Jeanette.

When Jeanette witnesses her El Salvadoran neighbor Gloria being taken from her home as part of increased enforcement by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), she becomes concerned for Gloria's young daughter, Ana, who is left behind--and is somewhat surprised by her own sudden maternal instinct to care for and protect the child. She takes Ana in for several days despite Carmen's insistence that the girl isn't Jeanette's responsibility, that she shouldn't get involved. Reluctantly, Jeanette acquiesces; a call to the police results in Ana also being taken away, her destination and fate unknown yet presumed.

Gloria and Ana's disappearance awakens Jeanette's desire to visit Camagüey, where her 80-year-old grandmother (whom she has never met) still lives. She hopes to understand why Carmen left Cuba decades earlier: "Cuba this, Cuba that. Cuba Cuba Cuba. Why anyone left a place only to reminisce, to carry its streets into every conversation, to see every moment through the eyes of lost home, was beyond her. Miami existed as such a hollow receptacle of memory, a shadow city of people who needed to put their past into perspective."

Jeanette tells Carmen, "I want to know who I am so I need to know who you've been," not fully accepting that "politics" is the real reason behind the grandmother's and daughter's decades-long silence--"I don't understand how abstractions like politics divide."

Politics is, of course, an undercurrent throughout Of Women and Salt. Garcia infuses her plot with Cuba's complicated and tumultuous history. She forces readers to examine "if loss unspoken becomes an inherited trait" and to question the multitude of ways that outside influences--governmental upheaval, drugs and abuse, duplicitous people, the specter of war--shape our understanding of ourselves, create shared mythologies and revise family legacies.

Garcia, the daughter of Cuban and Mexican immigrants, portrays each of her characters' interconnected stories with a deeply personal understanding of how the immigration experience is an individual one that shapes one's self-identity and sense of survival--if not for oneself, for one's children. Carmen demonstrates this in response to Jeanette's addiction. "But no mother on the outside could possibly know what it was like to face a truth like the one she'd been presented with: that it was her own love killing her daughter, that she needed to become stone, marble, not a mother at all, to save her daughter." When Gloria is transported without Ana to the Texas Regional Residential Center, she questions whether she even should be a mother; later, upon release, she and others are rounded up in a van and simply left in Mexico. Their only choices are to make another (potentially fatal) attempt to cross the border, return to their home country or stay in Mexico. The ramifications will last for many lifetimes.

Of Women and Salt marks the debut of a powerful literary voice, one that authentically amplifies and honors the stories and struggles of immigrants throughout generations. --Melissa Firman

Flatiron Books, $26.99, hardcover, 224p., 9781250776686, April 6, 2021

Flatiron Books: Of Women and Salt by Gabriela Garcia

Gabriela Garcia: Championing Stories That Center Immigrants

(photo: Andria Lo)

Gabriela Garcia's fiction and poems have appeared in Best American Poetry, Tin House, Zyzzyva, Iowa Review, Michigan Quarterly Review, the Cincinnati Review and Black Warrior Review. She received a Rona Jaffe Foundation Writer's Award and a Steinbeck Fellowship. She has an MFA in fiction from Purdue University, where she also taught creative writing. Garcia was raised in Miami, currently lives in the Bay Area and has worked in music, magazines, technology and feminist and immigrant rights organizing. Her debut novel, Of Women and Salt, will be published in seven languages (Flatiron Books, $26.99, April 6, 2021).

You are the daughter of Cuban and Mexican immigrants. How did your family's background and experiences influence this novel?

Jeanette is one of the central characters of the novel and also a child of immigrants (Cuban in her case), so certainly I was able to tap into some of my first-generation experiences and navigating between different worlds. I also grew up traveling to Cuba and Mexico a lot, and questions about what it means to be connected to a place but also a privileged foreigner with an outsider lens drove some of the writing, particularly the chapters set in Mexico and Cuba.

How does the immigrant experience impact you as a writer?

I think one of my impulses in crafting this novel was thinking about my own parents' immigration paths and how that illuminated for me the fractures that exist in the community in which I grew up in Miami. Latinx is not a monolithic identity and the "immigrant experience" varies greatly based on factors like race and class. My mother was a Cuban immigrant at a time when Cubans (overwhelmingly white Cubans) were welcomed with open arms and received an automatic guarantee of citizenship and a lot of help along the way. My father came from Mexico and didn't become a citizen until I was well into my 20s. He was subjected to rampant xenophobia and racism, often at the hands of other Latinx people. I grew up acutely aware of how the label served to erase Black and Indigenous people, hide inequalities and allow white Latinxs not to have to interrogate white supremacy and colorism within our communities. I wanted to write about Latinx Miami and the very different immigrant experiences in Miami honestly.

This is a timely novel. What message do you hope readers take away from this story?

The injustices of this country's immigration system have always been timely to me. Before pursuing my MFA in creative writing, I worked as an organizer in migrant rights movements at the height of the Obama administration when deportations ramped up to levels previously unseen and family detention was born. I started writing the chapters that take place in such a facility long before Trump's presidency or the current media focus, and they are centered on those years. I hope the spotlight on the daily atrocities that take place within the system remains regardless of election outcomes, and that we champion stories that center immigrants, especially by immigrant writers, always. I don't write with a message in mind, but rather try to write into the obsessions and questions that haunt me more than anything. I was interested at the human, individual level: What does it mean to suffer violence on the body, through patriarchy, through work and then within a system that also sees your body as a target?

All of your main characters are very strong women in spirit and personality. Of your characters, is there one with whom you identify most?

There are certainly pieces of me in each of the women I write about, in everything I write about, though I am not fully like any of my characters. Jeanette was possibly the easiest to tap into because we are of a similar age and grew up in Miami, and maybe that's why I gravitated toward that voice so often in the novel. But even so, we're different! For one, Jeanette grew up in a wealthy enclave with wealthy parents, which was not my experience, and had parents who embody a political stance (against travel to Cuba for example) that differs greatly from my own experience. But her wildness, her confusion in a world seeking to define her womanhood, her rebellious nature... I connected to her most in those ways.

One of the themes in this novel is the relationship between mothers and daughters, particularly secrets that have the power to resonate for generations.

I've always been really interested in all relationships between women, and mothers and daughters are some of the most interesting ones. So often, particularly in writing about immigrant mothers, the mother figure is reduced to an all-encompassing motherhood marked by suffering and sacrifice. Some of the mothers in my novel do suffer, do sacrifice, but they are also individuals with motivations and desires beyond the fact of their motherhood. Gloria sometimes wishes she weren't a mother. Carmen makes choices and keeps secrets to the detriment of her daughter, Jeanette. I think about how much is unknowable about our own mothers, about the depths and multitudes of self that don't belong to us as their children. And about how we are shaped by so many forces that we cannot always see--larger histories certainly but individual histories too.

There is a very poetic feel to your prose, which isn't surprising since you are also a poet. How does poetry play a role in your fiction?

That is a great compliment, because I read and admire a lot of poetry, and I am constantly interrogating how to write better sentences. I think about rhythm and cadence a lot, about voice a lot. I wanted the voices in the novel--even within a single character--to reflect each moment in time and in that character's life. For example, Jeanette's voice in the chapter in which she meets Mario for the first time and is first falling into addiction is faster, more detached than in other chapters. I wanted to capture that euphoric feeling of falling hard and fast for a person, for a drug, in the way I shaped sentence length, sounds, repetition.

The concept of "we are force" is seen within each of your characters, almost as if a message passed down through the generations. Who are some of the women you get your strength from?

I grew up in a matriarchy--women have absolutely carried me. My mother was a single mother, and I also grew up part of my life with my grandmother. My mother's best friends were disowned by their families after they came out as lesbians, and they became chosen family, my grandmother's other children whom she took in, long before I was born. My aunts were mostly all single mothers who relied on each other. I owe these women my life. --Melissa Firman

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