Gabriela Garcia on the Interplay Between Literature and Class Consciousness
The Author of Of Women and Salt Talks to Jane Ciabattari
Gabriela Garcia grew up in Miami, the daughter of a Cuban mother and a father from the small city of Irapuato in Mexico. Of Women and Salt, her first novel, centers on multiple generations of mothers and daughters, from a female worker in a 19th-century Cuban cigar factory to her great granddaughter in modern-day Miami, with a powerful side story about a Salvadoran mother who risks everything for her daughter.
There are no wasted words in Of Women and Salt. Garcia packs a suite of distilled stories into a mere 200 pages, sliding expertly from one place to the next, one narrative time zone to another, her language fluid and specific enough to carry us along. It’s a remarkable debut, with the shimmering image of Les Miserables at its core, winking at us from beginning to end. Our virtual conversation was west coast-based—she was in Oakland, where she has been situated throughout the pandemic, I in Sonoma County.
Jane Ciabattari: When did you first decide to be a fiction writer? And to write Of Women and Salt?
Gabriela Garcia: I’ve been writing as long as I can remember—I used to literally dictate stories to my mother before I knew how to write. But I didn’t begin to take myself seriously as a fiction writer until I got into an MFA program about a decade after working various jobs in music, media, and political organizing, and thinking that my fiction and poetry were something I did on the side and that I probably wouldn’t ever actually publish. That early belief in my writing meant a lot to me. I had started writing snippets of what would become Of Women and Salt before graduate school, but I wrote the bulk of it during those three years of study.
JC: What was it like to study with Roxane Gay at Purdue?
GG: It was great. She saw this book from its beginnings, was on my thesis committee, and has been an incredible source of encouragement and mentorship. It meant a lot to work with a Caribbean-American writer who understood my project on many different levels. And she has pushed me as a writer, and as a person, and modeled the kind of literary citizen I want to be in the world.
JC: You make vivid references to salt throughout the novel—sea salt in Miami and in Cuba, the salt on the skin of the fevered body of a woman trying to detox. What is the meaning of the title, and how did you choose it?
GG: I write poetry in addition to fiction, and I think that I conceived of the title in much the same way as I come up with poem titles. I went through the novel and tried to notice some of the images and words that came up more than once. And I knew I wanted women in the title because all of the voices in the novel belong to women, and I wanted to center that from the start. It’s not a literal title in that it’s not culled directly from a phrase in the book, but I hoped that it evoked a feeling and a sound and an image that could set an entry into the text.
JC: Your own family has roots in Cuba. How did that inspire and influence Of Women and Salt? And your roots in Mexico?
GG: I grew up traveling to Mexico and Cuba frequently and to this day I speak to my family and friends in Cuba on an almost daily basis. So some of the parts of the novel that take place in Cuba and Mexico draw on some of those personal experiences throughout the years and on conversations with Cubans and Mexicans. A lot of the book also takes place in the US, and I’d say I was equally influenced by my perceptions as a first-generation daughter of immigrants and by the privilege inherent in traveling freely and knowing that no matter how much a place like Cuba feels like my second home at this point, I will never have the same experience as someone born and raised in Cuba. And I was interested in exploring those unacknowledged tensions that exist, for example, between US-born Jeanette and her Cuban cousin or Gloria working for a US “ex-pat” in Mexico.
JC: How did you research the 19th-century thread of the novel, which begins in 1866 in a cigar factory in Camaguey, where Maria Isabel is the only woman cigar roller?
GG: The spark began when I visited an exhibit in Cuba that showcased letters from Victor Hugo to Cuban independence fighters, and I learned about Victor Hugo’s popularity among cigar rollers and independence fighters. And that sent me down a rabbit hole of researching cigar lectors and the relationships between writers and workers in 19th-century Cuba. I ended up doing a ton of archival research, combing through some of those original newspapers and letters and texts, and trying to develop a story around that found text.
JC: Literacy, reading, and the value of the written word are highlighted as Antonio, the lector on the factory floor, reads the newspaper (La Aurora) and then from novels and plays: The Count of Monte Cristo, Les Miserables, King Lear. Antonio is reading the second volume of Les Miserables when the novel begins. You are drawing from history here, correct?
GG: Yes, I was referring directly to the actual books that were popular in cigar factories of the time and from real newspaper articles. Growing up, my family was really into cigars, and I’d often bring my dad cigars from Cuba. I grew up around Montecristos and Romeo y Julietas, but I never knew the history—I never realized that these names were drawn directly from the books read by lectors to cigar workers. And once I discovered the newspapers targeted to cigar workers I became really fascinated by this interplay between literature and class consciousness and independence movements.
JC: You were able to give such texture to Maria Isabel’s perceptions. For instance, as she listens to the lector read Les Miserables, “She thought of escape, of recapture. She thought of herself. Of what it would be like if someone wrote a book about her. Someone like her wrote a book.” It seems as if you, as author, are in dialogue with Maria Isabel at this point. Is that what you had in mind?
GG: I was mostly thinking about what it would be like to hear so many stories that maybe connect to you at some level or are sometimes even about you, but in which you are never the author. And maybe, in different ways, this also true of me as an author.I wanted to explore the ways you can reshape a story—make it yours—and the ways you cannot.
I think often about Toni Morrison’s famous line that “if there is a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it,” and I’d never read a book that spoke to the kinds of historical reverberations, tensions, privileges that were clear to me as the daughter of Mexican and Cuban immigrants, with very different immigration paths to the US and treated really different by the US, because of race and class and history. I don’t know that I was intentionally gesturing toward that with that line, but I was definitely thinking about the friction between stories and mythologies and authorship.
JC: When did you first encounter Cecilia Valdes, the novel by Cirilo Villaverde, which Antonio reads to the cigar rollers as a special treat for Maria Isabel, privately comparing her to the heroine?
GG: I first learned about Cecilia Valdes because there is a sculpture depicting her character in Vieja Habana, in an area that’s also sometimes referred to as “la loma del angel,” after the subtitle of the book, not far from a statue commemorating Cirilo Villaverde. A lot of Cuban friends and family had mentioned this as a seminal text they learned about in all of their schooling. It was a controversial book at its time, because it spoke of class divisions and slavery and relationships between Cubans of different races and classes, but it was read in some cigar factories and championed by pro-independence and abolitionist Cubans. It was interesting to me because it was one of the few literary depictions of Black and mixed-race Cubans at the time but was written by a white, Criollo author.
And it made me think a lot about the patriarchal, white gaze and how it’s possible for some stories to be both revolutionary and so absolutely conventional or expected. So much of Maria Isabel’s relationship to Antonio is about survival and acceptance and what that looked like at the time, while also seeking some kind of reclamation and subversion. The book felt like an entry into that conversation.
JC: Not to give anything away, but it’s remarkable how you weave a precious book, Les Miserables, and a quote from that book, into the rest of your story. Did you have this in mind all along?
GG: I knew that I was really interested in stories—how they get passed down, what’s left out, who gets to tell them, how their value is ascribed, how they can be reclaimed or not. And a book, a quote, marginalia became a vehicle to explore this idea. I wanted to explore the ways you can reshape a story—make it yours—and the ways you cannot.
JC: Jumping to contemporary Miami, you introduce Jeanette, who is struggling with the sinkhole of addiction. How did you outline her search for her roots in Cuba? Did you travel to Havana, and then Camaguey, as Jeanette does?
GG: I’ve traveled a ton to Cuba since I was young, unlike Jeanette, and was traveling a lot back and forth while writing the novel. I didn’t have that tension that Jeanette has with her mother about traveling to Cuba and have spent extended time in Cuba, though I know that for a lot of Miami first-generation Cuban-Americans that tension exists, and I wanted to depict that—what I imagine it’s like for a Miami Cuban-American visiting Cuba for the first time who has never been and for whom Cuba has always existed in the imaginary.
JC: Gloria, Jeanette’s neighbor, is the Salvadoran mother taken away by ICE early in the novel. Her arrest disrupts the stability of her daughter Ana, who is only seven or eight. Their journey—reunion in a Texas detention center, forced departure from the US for Mexico, challenges of survival after that—is far too common today. How did you research this aspect of the novel?
GG: It’s definitely far too common today, but it was also far too common in 2012 to 2014 when I started writing that chapter. At the time, I was working as an organizer focused on deportation defense and detention, and working mostly with Central American women who were sometimes escaping sexual violence only to encounter the same kind of sexual violence in family detention, which came into being around that time. Getting any kind of widespread media attention for these stories was incredibly difficult at that time. I was drawing mostly from my visits to these family detention centers and my conversations with the women I was working with when I wrote those chapters.
JC: Your novel shifts points of view, locations, time frames, in a masterful way. What were the challenges of creating this narrative collage?
GG: I didn’t want to follow a traditional linear story structure and wanted the book to reflect the kind of multi-voiced, episodic, stylistically varied manner stories and histories are passed on, even within the same narrator. And I’ve always been really excited by writers who can take on a lot of different styles of writing within one work—I wanted to explore writing in that mode. The challenge was making the work cohesive within this structure—I realize that if a reader goes into it expecting a traditional historical saga or something of the sort, this might not be their thing. So I tried to signal these shifts early on.