Of Women and Salt, Gabriela Garcia’s debut novel, fuses memory with history. The lives of five generations of Cuban and Cuban American women, and an El Salvadorian neighbor and her daughter, intersect in unexpected ways that reveal matriarchal choices, intergenerational trauma, and what it means to be an outsider in the largest context—country, family, and even one’s self. Nine female voices coalesce inside poetic and political prose that resonates with precision and heart. The complexity of motherhood is given full consideration as the bond between mothers and daughters is portrayed with aching authenticity.
Masterfully maneuvered is a nuanced, though also familiar and attentive, story on migration, legacy and survival’s impact on matrilineal descendants. Garcia captures loneliness, discrimination, harsh realities, the desire to be seen and the residual effects of abuse by men. None of these women feel fictitious. They are recognized as our aunts, sisters, girlfriends, neighbors, the old woman with her head lowered at the bus stop and holding a cleaning caddy, another pushing a baby stroller while wearing sunglasses that can’t shade her bruises, and those in positions of power like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez who spoke recently about being a survivor of sexual assault: “But when we go through trauma, trauma compounds on each other.”
As a little girl I, like Jeanette, the central character of the novel, didn’t understand my mercurial mother. Her name was Margaret but everyone called her Tish. Why not Peggy? Madge, Maggie, Midge or even Meg? It was near impossible to discover an authentic detail about her. Tish’s childhood, age and significant dates were kept secret. The way she kept her past obscured, or finely embroidered, made it difficult to know what was true, or false. It drove me crazy. In a journal I wrote: Loving her was as laborious as hating her. Though not providing me with answers to my Mom’s concealed history, Garcia’s book imbued me with greater insight and compassion. If my mother were still alive, without a note, as a stand-in for all that went unspoken between us, I would have sent her this book. The decisions she made, or had to make, and why our love was a steady struggle, feels infused in these pages.
Of Women and Salt brings questions into mind and does so with exceedingly accomplished compression. Garcia combines different threads that focus on Cuba, America, detention, deportation, addiction and privilege. They leave the reader with a multitude of emotions that lap over and over like ocean waves. Twelve sharpened chapters, with a distinctive relationship to images, metaphors and pacing, kaleidoscopically tilt, reframe and bring into view time and place with a specificity that canvasses 19th-century Cuba in a cigar factory to present-day Miami and Mexico. In doing so, the audience is gifted with alternating perspectives. Garcia’s pure artistry of visible and invisible labor is cheered on by YOU-GO-GIRL female ambition. It would seem improbable to work—the range of topics, inventive form, and multiple viewpoints—and yet this author is a force exemplifying: We are more than we think we are.
In the opening prologue, Carmen, a political refugee from Cuba living in Miami, pleads for Jeanette, her daughter battling addictions, to want to live.
Yesterday I looked at photos of you as a child. Salt soaked, sand breaded, gap toothed and smiling at the edge of the ocean, my only daughter. A book in your hand because that’s what you wanted to do at the beach. Not play, not swim, not smash-run into waves. You wanted to sit in the shade and read.
Teenage you, spread like a starfish on the trampoline. Do you notice our crooked smile, how we share a mouth? Teenage you, Florida you, Grad Nite at Epcot, two feet in two different places. This is possible at Epcot, that Disney tiny-world, to stand with a border between your legs.
Sun child, hair permanently whisked by wind, you were happy once. I see it, looking over these photos. Such smiles. How was I to know you held such a secret? All I knew was that you smiled for a time, then you didn’t.
Who among us has never viewed our family photo album with a forensic eye? Countless times, my handfuls of stolen snapshots were the only tools I had to unearth mysteries. Garcia holds room for the spaces of the unknown of a story, trusting that it will be the propulsion. Her bountiful intuition recognizes the intuitive terrain of connections between the past and the portal of our births where there exists an inherited and unspoken narrative. Living in the world is hard won and murky, for some of us it’s blood-soaked, and to prevail as an outsider sets in motion secrecy and silences necessary for survival.
Carmen: And I never told you the reason I came to this country, which is not the reason you think I came to this country.
I. STRUCTURE TO FEEL LIKE MEMORY
THE BELIEVER: The book’s “unspoken” memory, time-hops and in-scene sections function as character and purposed-plot that advance storytelling options by utilizing “structure” to serve as both a vessel and as narrative context. Talk about that.
GABRIELA GARCIA: I wanted to write against traditional linear “Western” story structure. To write a book that traversed generations and allowed for different modes of tone and style. I didn’t want to write a long historical saga that followed every generation of characters in depth. Rather, I wanted the structure to feel like memory and historical accounting does—like glimpses, with spaces of unknowing, that shift depending on who is telling the story and when, on what they are willing to see.
BLVR: Did you envision that memory, working within this book, would play a role that was pertinent to the plot?
GG: I was thinking a lot about stories as I wrote the book—how we are born into narratives, how those narratives are passed down, how they shift. We often take memories—and how we make sense of them—as truth. In the novel, certain characters like Carmen and her mother Dolores are living in two completely different stories. They remember the same event—what happened right before Carmen left Cuba—but have an entirely different context for interpreting what happened and each of their truths is “The Truth” to them. And I think that’s often how misunderstanding happens, when we assume other people are living in the same story as us.
BLVR: Were there books that influenced your approach to writing this novel?
GG: I’ve always been drawn to novels that do interesting things with form. I remember being fascinated by the way David Mitchell occupies entirely different genres and voices and styles in Cloud Atlas. Or the way Percival Everett metafictionally layers a novel within a novel in Erasure. I loved Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad and more recently Tommy Orange’s There There. My novel is different from all of these, but I was thinking about the possibilities of structure and stylistic shifting that all of these are doing in their own ways.
BLVR: What shapes and images were you working with to create this multifarious structure? Was music an influence? And, did mainstream publishing bristle against it?
GG: I was lucky to work with an editor who understood my vision and appreciated the shape and structure. There were other editors, and I’m sure readers, who wanted the novel to be more of a sprawling family saga that traced every generation in detail and would be maybe twice as long. But I felt strongly about the structure and feel of what I was going for and thrilled to work with someone who didn’t want me to turn my book into a different kind of book. I thought of the book kaleidoscopically—I hoped each chapter would add a different dimension or shift perspective on previous chapters. I always think about music in terms of rhythm and sound of the prose, but I like thinking of it on a larger scale too—every chapter sounds different. There are punctuation shifts and sentence structure shifts and shifts in tone, and I was thinking about how sound in each chapter could fit what was happening plot-wise, emotionally, and in terms of character shifts.
BLVR: Does one develop, or find, structure?
GG: This probably depends on the writer and also the project. I know for example that I’ve started writing certain stories with a particular structure in mind but found a different path either as I got further into the story or during the revision phase. In this case, I had an idea for the structure, but let the connections form kind of organically.
BLVR: At what point did you feel that you were on the right track toward accomplishing what you had envisioned for your novel?
GG: I don’t know if I ever reached that point! It’s hard to ever feel fully satisfied with any piece of writing and not doubt my own perceptions of the work. But it’s always gratifying when a reader connects to the writing in the ways I hoped they would, and that encouragement from early readers helped. For a long time, I had no idea whether what I was trying to write—not exactly linked short stories but not a traditional linear novel either and shifting radically in tone and style—would even work. And it’s possible it doesn’t for some people! But it meant a lot when the structure resonated with some of the writers and mentors whose opinions I highly value early on, and that kept me going.
BLVR: This novel was developed in your MFA program at Purdue University. Was there a big shift in the material when it went through the publishing process?
GG: I turned in the completed novel as my MFA thesis, though I revised and edited before publication. The novel didn’t radically shift, but I did add a couple of additional chapters. It was also helpful to put it aside for a few months, and pursue other writing, and be able to come back with some distance.
II. BORN INTO STORIES
BLVR: An untold story is a story—unspoken becomes an inherited trait—and this factors into the marrow of your material with its weight fueling multitudes of tension. It also recycles the Hugo quote – There is visible labor and there is invisible labor, in perhaps a more shifting-kaleidoscopic lens. There’s no simplification of issues, but rather an invitation to view them with greater complexity. Does this resonant with you?
GG: I was thinking about the ways we are all born into stories we don’t know. Everything that came before shapes who we are and how we move in the world, but we don’t have access to that past, only whatever stories about the past already exist, and those have been filtered before they reach us. There is so much we can never know. In the novel, for example, there is the way Carmen’s upbringing and relationship to her mother shapes so much of how she performs her own motherhood. Jeanette, Carmen’s daughter, doesn’t know that story at all, has no access to Carmen’s secrets, yet this story has shaped so much of her life.
BLVR: What has been overlooked most in conversations about your novel?
GG: A lot of conversations have focused on the novel as literature “about immigration,” and it’s interesting to me because most of the characters are not immigrants at all. Migration is certainly one prism through which parts of the book can be understood, but I often appreciate talking about all the other dimensions, the way most of the characters are outsiders of some form, for example—a child of immigrants visiting the country her parents left and realizing it does not belong to her, or a U.S. “expat” and Salvadoran family having wildly different experiences in Mexico.
BLVR: In Miami Beach, a mural was commissioned for the exterior of the South Pointe Elementary. Watching it come to life coincided with my reading your novel. Originating from the Latin word “murus,” meaning wall, a mural can be painted in a style that is realistic, highly stylized, or completely abstract. I’ve loved seeing the wall-story in my neighborhood emerge. Each day a new dab of color informs, and hints, toward an image as time functions to unfold increments of the story. As a passerby, I’m engaged with it, like I was, and still am, with your book. You utilize white spaces, which, to me, represents the avoidance of having everything known, and that allows for questions to live in the unknowing. How do you make room for ‘white space’ and distinguish it as “prose” and “actionable thought,” not spacing? What’s important to you about it?
GG: That’s a great way to think about layering the writing until a fuller picture emerges. I write poetry in addition to fiction, and that’s when I most think about “white space” and how the text is functioning as shape and object. But in fiction I’m also writing into negative space—spaces of unknowing—and deciding what information to give the reader at each point. Sometimes it’s a function of plot, but sometimes it’s also a consideration of character perspective. I wanted the story to get bigger, or emerge as in the case of the mural, with each new perspective while also leaving room, as you said, for questions. It’s a delicate balance.
III. WHERE THE STORY WANTS TO GO
BLVR: Are you able to verbalize your ideas about a book project in advance—that is have a rough, overall, trajectory? Or, do you have to draft, revise and discover your story?
GG: I tried to plan—I had a rough idea of the shape and ending when I started. But then the novel went in a totally different direction. So it’s a little of both for me—I like having something, however murky, that I’m writing toward, while remaining open to where the story wants to go.
BLVR: Informed by reading and attending workshops, I’ve come up in the literary ranks without an MFA. So I’m unsure about how to talk about the literary device of ‘mirroring’ between the mother and daughter relationships of Carmen & Jeanette and Gloria & Ana. Your mirroring feels intuitive, a soft inlay that might be overlooked in the best way because it’s life-like. Were you conscious of the seamless mother and daughter mirroring? Maybe that’s not even the right question. Tell me what “mirroring” brings up for you. How does it strengthen the story?
GG: Ha, I’m not even sure we ever talked about mirroring in my MFA! It’s not something I was intentionally thinking of as a literary device—I hadn’t even considered these two relationships mirrors to be honest. The mother-daughter relationship is so different between the two. Perhaps each relationship illuminates aspects of the other, but I wanted them to feel complex in their own ways.
I knew early on that I wanted the novel to involve the two families intersecting—I wanted to be able to splinter into different narratives. I’m glad it read seamlessly for you! I was thinking of how to layer enough information to provide forward momentum in the novel and so that it didn’t feel incomplete, while constraining myself enough so that the novel stayed true to the shape and intention, and allowed room for questions and gaps.
BLVR: How do metaphors and images shape your stories?
GG: I often start with image. The chapter “Harder Girl” starts with a teenaged Jeanette discovering a body washed ashore, and I was drawing from a similar experience my sister had, a story that never left me. In another chapter I was drawing on an image of a panther inside a house, something I culled from a newspaper article I’d read years ago. Sometimes I’m not sure how a plot will develop or who the characters are yet, but an image offers an opening into the story.
BLVR: This story primarily set in Miami feels crucial, like its pulse points, muscle and bones—it’s magnificent beauty and mystery as you wrote: It’s never really dark in Miami Beach, even on a moonless night. It’s a place of tensions, polarities and possibilities. The panther reminded me of being on Lincoln Road in 1995, as a man walked by with his leashed lion collared with a thick rope, followed by someone with a harnessed Rhodesian Ridgeback, bred to track lions. I gave a heads up to the dog owner and cautioned a family with small kids rounding the corner, who responded by racing toward, not away from the spectacle. I’m guessing no editor questioned the plausibility of the panther?
GG: That’s such a wild story and somehow entirely plausible. No, no one questioned my inclusion of the panther. What struck me most was that the neighbors all said they’d had no idea there were all these animals in the home.
IV. TRUSTING THE READER
BLVR: The power of economy in this novel displays the cleverness of saying less to say more. How did you know when to cut back and trust it was all there—embedded in the lines, actions or even expressions of the characters?
GG: A lot of it is in trusting the reader—understanding, as you said, that so much can be communicated in just a gesture or an act or a line of dialogue. I try to make sure that each element is serving another—that descriptions are illuminating something about character or adding a dimension to the plot, etc. It’s sometimes easier during revision to see what is unnecessary or over-explained and make cuts.
BLVR: What books have made it possible for the intertwined, fractured narrative, sans chronology, to find greater acceptance in mainstream publishing?
GG: It’s hard for me to glean what is desirable to mainstream publishing. Post-modernity welcomed a wave of books that played with structure and notions of time and meta-reflexivity, so I think there has long been room in the publishing landscape. And even going further back writers like William Faulkner were writing fractured, non-linear narratives. I had no idea whether publishers would be interested in my novel, and I’m sure for some editors and readers, the structure doesn’t work for them and their tastes, which is fine! Some people in the publishing world have compared my novel to There There by Tommy Orange or Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi, and I think they’re probably speaking to the structure. Those are books that did really well, so I’m sure plenty of editors are open to fractured narratives.
BLVR: If your book could help bring about change to the immigration issues, what would that look like?
GG: I don’t operate under any delusion that my fiction about individual characters will spur systemic change, and I reject the idea that “empathy” spurs change or that reading is in and of itself a political act. I do write into the questions I myself grapple with or to make meaning of experiences that surround me in the communities of which I am a part. I worked for many years as an organizer focused on deportation defense and anti-carceral work, so these preoccupations inevitably figure in my work. If reading my book spurs someone to concretely support organizing around the abolishment of ICE and detention, I of course welcome that. But I didn’t set out to change minds or teach or feed an outsider gaze; rather I was making meaning for myself navigating this world of deep power imbalances.
BLVR: Chapter 3 “An Encyclopedia of Birds” is brilliant. Throughout the book are reverberations of ‘little-known’ facts as metaphors for migration.
The burrowing parrot also known as the Patagonian conure also known as the burrowing parakeet is the only bird species with eyelashes. This is a little-known fact. Another little known fact is that burrowing parrots, while often purchased as pets, become exasperated and violent if caged for too long. Burrowing parrots need interaction. They need color. If you separate two burrowing parrots, in short order the one left behind will die. She will die of loneliness.
The burrowing parakeet, the only species with eyelashes, works as an ideal metaphor to many aspects of those held in detention centers—it’s humanizing and slams into all the wrongs of caging immigrants in detention centers. Who are the writers that influence your work with metaphors and research?
GG: Thank you. I don’t think about humanizing characters since I think of them all as fully human at the start, but I wanted the birds to function on various layers. They can function as metaphor, but they also illustrate who Gloria is as a character—her quirks, her voice, the way she thinks and processes. There are so many writers who I look up to in terms of metaphor and image. Han Kang’s The Vegetarian is a stunning use of metaphor. I love the imagery throughout Samantha Hunt’s The Dark Dark. And of course I turn to a lot of poets—Natalie Diaz, Ada Limón, Kaveh Akbar, there are so many!
BLVR: When did the burrowing parakeet enter into play? Did you recognize it immediately?
GG: A few bird facts I’d stumbled upon previously figure into that chapter. I can’t remember if I already knew about burrowing parakeets or if I came across them as I did additional research into birds. But I was looking for birds that displayed agency or that could defend or attack. Or I was looking for ones with rare characteristics or behavior, stemming from unexplained desires. I didn’t want those images to feel solely beautiful or passive.
BLVR: Talk about the craft of turning research into art and literature, not merely factoids on a page.
GG: I don’t normally write historical fiction, so this piece was tricky to figure out. Research can become a distraction, since it feels easier than writing most days. And it can be hard to come across really interesting information that just doesn’t fit into the actual narrative. I had to kill some research darlings. Eventually I learned to just write after some basic research until I came upon something I didn’t know. Then I’d research that particular thing and dive back into the writing.
BLVR: Did you feel “inherited” pressure for your book to be successful?
GG: I hoped my book would find readers, but I had no expectation of the level of attention it’s gotten. And I didn’t feel any outside pressure or anticipation that the book would perform a certain way. Basically I’ve just been incredibly bewildered and grateful that so many readers have connected with the book.
BLVR: How are you processing the tremendous coverage your book is receiving? Any self care tips you can share?
GG: It’s far beyond my wildest dreams! I’m so grateful, of course, that so many people have connected with the book. And as a private person who has never felt comfortable being the center of attention, it’s intense becoming a kind of public spokesperson for my book. I’ve been trying to disconnect as much as possible, and carve out time for the mental quiet space I need to feed the private, writerly part of myself. Protecting that time, or making space for it, has been really important.
BLVR: Tony, my husband, a cigar smoker, is my first reader and editor. Whenever I give him pages, the handoff comes with a Liga Privada L40 or a Trinidad Fundadores. Do you have a favorite cigar?
GG: I’m partial to Cuban cigars. I like Cohibas of course, but my favorite is the mellower Romeo y Julieta.