Behind the Scenes of the Best-Selling Novel “Of Women and Salt”

Author Gabriela Garcia on Cuban history, writing matriarchal fiction, and what it was like growing up in Miami as the daughter of Cuban and Mexican immigrants.

Behind the Scenes of the Best-Selling Novel “Of Women and Salt”

In her new novel, “Of Women and Salt,” author Gabriela Garcia chronicles the lives of five generations of women.

Cover photo courtesy Flatiron Books; author photo by Andria Lo

As a child growing up in Miami, writer Gabriela Garcia was surrounded by women. The daughter of a single mother, a Cuban immigrant, she was fascinated by the lives of women navigating patriarchal cultures and the relationships formed among them: mothers and daughters, sisters, friends.

Garcia, who also writes poetry and other fiction, grew up traveling frequently to Cuba, which allowed her to see the country from the perspective of those who left, as well as those who chose to remain. Her debut novel, Of Women and Salt (March 2021, Flatiron Books), combines much of her experience in Cuba. But it also ties in her work as an organizer on behalf of women and families held in migrant detention centers and the life of her father, who immigrated to the United States from Mexico.

After selecting her novel as our June AFAReads pick, we sat down with Garcia to discuss her inspiration for the novel, her travels to Cuba, and the ways in which she places women’s stories at the center of everything she does.

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This is an intergenerational novel, centered around Jeannette, a young woman struggling with addiction, and her mother, grandmother, and female ancestors dating back to the 19th century. What inspired you to write such a story?

I’ve always been really interested in thinking about novel structure, and I knew that I didn’t want to write a traditional structure: a hero’s quest, there’s a conflict and it’s resolved, and falling action, and it follows a sort of linear timeline. That’s very based on European models of storytelling, like Aristotle’s theories of the monomyth, and I was thinking about other forms of telling stories.

I was thinking about the way that storytelling has functioned in my family, for example, when we’re just sitting around a dining table telling stories and we move into the past and that bleeds into a present-day story and different people see it from different perspectives and there isn’t always one point that everything is rising towards.

I wanted to disrupt the traditional structure and have my novel mimic [what I grew up with] as much as it could. I was also thinking about the way historical accounts work, where things seem very different when you see them from a different perspective. I tried to sort of capture that feeling as much using many different voices, many different styles, and having the novel sort of move in and out of different consciousness.

How did growing up surrounded by women influence this novel?

Growing up in this very matriarchal world made me deeply interested in tracing women’s lives. Most of my writing is solely focused on women. I never write in male perspectives or am interested in following that. Part of it is that I was always seeking more of that in my reading. I remember being assigned literature in high school and it was rare that women’s perspectives were centered. I knew that that was what I wanted to write.

And did your upbringing in Miami affect your view of Cuban history?

That’s a really complicated question. In many ways, I grew up differently from a lot of the people I grew up around—the children of Cuban immigrants in Miami—because I grew up traveling to Cuba frequently. There’s a lot of political tension around people in Miami traveling to Cuba. A lot of my friends never traveled to Cuba or their parents had no interest in going back to Cuba.

But I did travel to Cuba frequently. I had a lot of contact with a lot of my family members in Cuba. I had the U.S. perspective, the Miami perspective, and then I had a very different perspective when I was traveling there, talking with the Cubans who didn’t necessarily have an interest in immigrating to the U.S.

Did you also visit Cuba as part of your research for the book?

I was certainly traveling while writing the book and even doing some of the writing while I was in Cuba. There was some particular research I did in Cuba, especially the historical chapters. The opening chapters take place in a Cuban cigar workshop during the 19th century. A lot of the research came from a museum exhibit I visited that featured letters from Victor Hugo to workers and independence fighters at the time. That sparked my interest in the interplay between literature and the class consciousness and political movements in the 19th century.

Was that common at the time, to read to workers?

It was, yeah. It still continues to this day in some cigar workshops. All of the reading material in that chapter is drawn from real-life source materials. Those newspapers aimed at cigar workshop workers are real, and the excerpts of literature are all real text that was popular in the workshops.

Growing up in this very matriarchal world made me deeply interested in tracing women’s lives.

Part of what made me interested in that history of lectureship, people who read books to cigar workers as they rolled tobacco, was that my family was really into cigars. I grew up around a lot of these cigars called Romeo y Julietas and Monte Cristos and I never knew that those names were literally drawn from books that were popular in those cigar workshops, historically. I was so fascinated by that history and the way those stories shaped something as tangible as a cigar in the present day.

You’ve mentioned that some of the scenes in the detention centers came from your own work as a migrant justice organizer. How did that work experience influence the book?

I was mostly working around deportation defense, so working with a lot of women who were in detention, often in these family detention centers that were being built around the time, around 2014.

They were often detained with their children, and I got to know a lot of these women really well. I got to sort of understand how these detention centers function, what they’re like, and during that time, I was writing some of what would eventually become those chapters. Not really thinking about it as a novel, but just my own way to process this work I was doing.

The detention centers are horrifying—you highlight a lot of what we didn’t really hear in the news back in 2014.

I have a lot of people tell me that my book feels very timely, which is interesting to me because those parts of the book take place in 2014, or not at the present time. But those issues of family detention were happening before the Trump presidency or before it was a widespread national conversation. When I was working on this stuff, it was really difficult to get any kind of national mainstream media attention on what was happening in these detention centers. That was the biggest shift into the Trump presidency—that this became a widespread national conversation. I’m often, like, This was always a timely issue in the work that I was doing and certainly is still a relevant conversation because it’s still happening.

How do you think your parents’ immigration to the U.S. was different from that of people coming today?

Often people talk about the immigrant experience or the immigrant experience in fiction, and I don’t really believe in one immigrant experience. I think there are many different immigrant experiences and they’re very much tied to race and class and the economic dynamics of migration.

As I was writing, I wasn’t necessarily thinking how different my parents’ immigration paths were from those of the current day—which they certainly are—but the way they were very different from one another’s.

My mother immigrated from Cuba, and until very recently Cubans were given preferential treatment in the U.S. There was the Wet-foot, Dry-foot policy—so as long as you touched ground in the U.S. coming from Cuba, you were on a path to citizenship—and there were economic resources available. During those first waves of migration, Cubans were also coming from wealthy backgrounds in Cuba, escaping communism and loss of property, and often were white immigrants into Miami, into an established ethnic enclave.

That was different from my father’s immigration path from Mexico, which never had those kinds of privileges. Growing up, everything in terms of how they were sort of treated and the resources available to them because of where they were coming from and their pushes to migrate, made me very aware that Latinidad is not a monolith, that the immigrant experience is varied based on a lot of different factors.

Why did you use the word “salt” in the title in relationship to the women’s stories?

In addition to writing fiction, I also write poetry. And I often think about my titles in fiction in the same way I think about my titles for poems. It’s not a literal title; it’s not a phrase that appears in the novel. But I knew I wanted “women” in the title because the book is all in the voices of women and centers women.

I went through and looked at the words and images that came up more than once and could hold a lot of different meanings and salt was an element that came up multiple times. It came up as sweat, as ocean, as air; it came up in so many different ways and salt can have so many different meanings.

I don’t really believe in one immigrant experience. I think there are many different immigrant experiences and they’re very much tied to race and class and the economic dynamics of migration.

It can be tied to those elements. It also has an element of danger, especially in the Caribbean, or is tied to different things like [the Afro Caribbean religion] Santería as it relates to curses or bad luck. It can be interpreted in many different ways and that’s what I liked about the title, that you can sort of look at it from many different angles in much the same way the book functions.

Are there archetypes that your female characters represent?

I don’t know that I necessarily am writing into archetypes as I am writing against them. Some of the ideas that exist around motherhood, for example—in particular, immigrant mothers as all sacrificing, all suffering, and encompassing only motherhood. Not that the mother characters or the immigrant mother characters in my book don’t suffer or sacrifice but I wanted them to feel like a lot more.

Their relationship to their own motherhood is often complicated. There are points where Gloria questions whether she really wanted to be a mother, or where she resents the sacrifices she’s forced to make because of the situations that she’s in. I wanted to complicate some of those ideas around motherhood and sacrifice. I think I sort of wanted each of the women to feel really complex even uncomfortable at times. They’re all very flawed in their own ways.

Cuba and Mexico are also characters. Do you want to comment on that at all?

I’m often thinking of place and setting. I’m always interested in what place can illuminate about character, for example. You can understand Jeanette in one way within a setting in Miami and a different way when she’s in Cuba. You can understand Anna one way in Miami versus in Mexico or Gloria in Mexico versus in a detention center in Texas.

I’m interested in writing very detailed settings but not just solely to illustrate what somewhere looks like. Rather: What are the details that these particular characters would be drawn to and why? And what would it be like to experience this setting from a very particular perspective?

How do you see the relationship between arts and human rights?

I think it’s completely embedded, one in the other. Even if someone talks about a piece of art or a piece of writing as not being political, I think it is. The choice to avoid a more overt political stance is a political choice probably born of a certain perspective of privilege or being unaware that you’re writing from a certain perspective.

Politics is personal and it’s tied to everything. When I sit down to write I’m not necessarily thinking, I have this political message, let me get it out through my writing. That’s just embedded in who I am and what I’m interested in and how I think about my characters and how I think about how they move in the world. I don’t buy into the idea that authors don’t have positions, don’t have a subjective perspective.

Do you think you could write about another culture with this much truth?

I’m always thinking about my own subject position in whatever I’m writing about. I’m very aware that my perspective as a U.S.-born daughter of immigrants going to Cuba is not ever going to be the same as a Cuban born and raised and living in Cuba. And similarly my perspective on Mexico.

I haven’t lived in Miami for a decade, but it’s still the place I write about most often. Personally, I need a kind of intimacy with a place to write in a way that feels honest. Even in places I’ve lived for many years, I’m still figuring out my place or understanding what they are, whereas Miami feels very intuitive to write about. That’s not to say that you can’t write about other places you’re less familiar with, but it requires a deep level of community-building and humility and a lot of work to not mess that up.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

>>Next: What It Means to Be American

Aislyn Greene is the associate director of podacsts at AFAR, where she produces the Unpacked by AFAR podcast and hosts AFAR’s Travel Tales podcast. She lives on a houseboat in Sausalito.
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