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

Powered by: Xtenit