Q&A with Gabriela Garcia: ‘Of Women and Salt’ and the Cost of Survival

Kyubin Kim

Of Women and Salt (224 pages; Flatiron Books), the first novel by Gabriela Garcia, follows four generations of women, from 19th century Cuba to present-day Miami. While the book primarily concerns Cuban American Jeanette’s journey to recover her matrilineal family history, Garcia weaves in the characters’ personal testimonies with a delicate understanding of how women’s lives are preserved incompletely, lost in migration, or erased. Training her eye on the Cuban diaspora and humanizing the nascent debates about U.S. immigration, Garcia meditates on the strength of women and frames motherhood as not mere sacrifice for the future generations, but affirming the inherent “here and now” value of women in our lives.

Garcia, whose story “Mrs. Sorry” appeared in Issue 116, spoke to ZYZZYVA about the novel via email.

ZYZZYVA:  The novel begins with Carmen admitting to her daughter Jeanette that “I never said, All my life, I’ve been afraid. I stopped talking to my own mother. And I never told you the reason I came to this country, which is not the reason you think I came to this country. And I never said I thought if I didn’t name an emotion or a truth, I could will it to disappear.” What made you want to explore these intergenerational gaps of understanding we see in Of Women and Salt?

GABRIELA GARCIA: I’ve always been interested in relationships between women in my writing, and mother-daughter relationships are some of the most intense and complex. There was a point coming out of childhood when I stopped seeing my mother solely as my mother and began to understand that there were whole dimensions to her that I’d never access, and a whole past, a whole other life, I’d never understand. I was interested in exploring all the different ways the women in the novel see each other from where they are standing, how those gaps in knowledge or comprehension shape and shift their sense of each other, their flawed notions of truth. I think writing the novel just reinforced that I can never know all of the multitudes that exist in anyone in my life. 

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Z: The novel centers on the stories of a single family’s matriarchy as evident by the family tree that precedes the preface. Why and when did you decide to extend the stories of one family outward during your writing process—for instance, to include the stories of Salvadoran immigrant Gloria and her daughter Ana?

GG: I started wanting to write about Miami and writing about Miami honestly meant expanding the story outward from solely this one Cuban-American family’s perspective. As the daughter of Cuban and Mexican immigrants, I was always keenly aware of the divisions along racial and class lines that exist in Miami, despite its status as a Latinx-majority city, and was exhausted by monolithic depictions of Latinidad or “the immigrant experience” that didn’t account for this complexity. So I wanted to show how these two families’ lives come into focus when they are living next to each other, the stark differences in their experiences of the same place.

Z: Of Women and Salt feels remarkably cohesive, even while weaving a breadth of narrators, locations, and eras.  What made you choose a nonlinear narrative structure and how do you determine the “right” container to tell a story?

GG: I knew early on that I didn’t want to write a linear story in the traditional “western” storytelling mode. So much of the book is about stories—the ones we tell ourselves and the ones we can never know, how they are passed down, how they change. So, I wanted the chapters to have the fractured feel of memories and historical accounts, and to make room for spaces of unknowing. And I wanted to write in different modes—chapters switch point of view and voice and style. I’ve always admired versatility—writers who can publish two things that read like two different people wrote each one. I had no idea at first whether the shape I envisioned would work, and for some readers it might not. But I’m personally invested in pushing back on colonial notions of only one mode of storytelling, and went into the writing wanting to experiment.

Z: The reiterative nature of violence against women is very apparent in your novel, from Jeanette’s toxic, addiction-enabling relationship with Mario to Dolores’s physical abuse at the hands of her husband, Daniel, and even how the wealthy department store client Isabel is demeaned by her abrasive husband. This reminded me of your essay about transgressive fiction in The Believer. How do you imagine Of Woman and Salt to fit, or perhaps create, an entirely new definition of transgressive fiction in a culture that seems to gaslight those who speak out against violence?

GG: My essay was essentially about how so much of what’s been labeled transgressive is actually par for the course, particularly male violence, so that when these boundaries are transgressed, they end up reinforcing that violence rather than illuminating something new or interesting. I wasn’t explicitly thinking about my own work as transgressive, but I knew that I wanted to write about patriarchal violence while centering only women. The novel opens with two matrilineal family trees and the only voices in the novel belong to women. Everyone else sort of exists at the periphery, and even while the lives of these women are interrupted by male violence and state violence, I was most interested in how they sought agency, and in the bonds forged between them. I didn’t want to paint these women as solely “strong” or “resilient” in the face of this violence, but to show the real breaks in relationships and self that can occur as a result. We place a greater burden on women (and queer people) to “survive” than on men to stop trying to kill us, and sometimes survival comes at a cost. 

Z: As a daughter of immigrants and a member of a diaspora myself, I was so compelled by the ways you approached writing about Cuba as “homeland” in the perspectives of both Jeanette, a Cuban American “foreigner,” and Maydelis, a La Habana native. Oftentimes, writers of a diasporic community often get criticized for inauthenticity or essentializing culture. Could you explain your research process for the parts of the novel set in Cuba and Mexico, and how you reconciled this pressure to do justice to your homeland and past?

GG: You’re right that writing about a place that might emotionally feel like a “homeland” but that we can experience only through a diasporic lens is tricky territory. And that’s exactly what I wanted to explore in the interactions between Jeanette and Maydelis. Jeanette goes to Cuba, as many children of immigrants do, thinking she’ll better understand some essential part of herself. And in many ways Maydelis is able to see Jeanette more clearly than she sees herself—see the ways she assigns meaning and is unaware of what colors her own perceptions. I was thinking a lot about these tensions between communities and “outsiders.” Elsewhere in the novel, a Salvadoran family navigates life in Mexico working for a woman from the United States who is often quite clueless about her own subject position. I think that perhaps my interest in these tensions comes from interrogating my own role as a writer, and certainly a diasporic writer with a foot in multiple communities, often.

In terms of writing about Cuba and Mexico, I spent most of my life traveling to both countries frequently. Unlike the character of Jeanette, I didn’t have any tensions in my family around visiting Cuba, so I spent a lot of time there and have built a strong community there. I did a lot of archival research to write the two chapters that take place in the more distant past. But for the more contemporary chapters set in Cuba and Mexico I relied a lot on observation and on conversations with friends and family and others, particularly around their experiences with Cuban-Americans traveling to Cuba. I wrote those chapters thinking about my own positionality.

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