Review: Of Women and Salt by Gabriela Garcia
Our community in the Twin Cities has been engaged for nearly a year in the uprising that followed the murder of George Floyd—an uprising that keeps rising in wave after wave. Activists, particularly young women of color and their allies, have exhibited a relentless drive for change, a fierce determination to end systemic racism, white supremacy, and patriarchy.
In a moment of transformation like this, good books, true books, often become guides and illuminators. I can’t think of any voices more attuned to this moment than those that populate Gabriela Garcia’s new novel, Of Women and Salt. In this beautiful book, women endure class, race and gender oppression, violence, marginalization, and cultural displacement, and they fight back, guided by their children, mothers, and grandmothers—and, delightfully, by another book.
Just twelve chapters, many of which read like stand-alone short stories, Of Women and Salt is mostly a world of Cuban and Cuban-American women. At first, I was sure that Maria Isabel, from 1866, would be my favorite, speaking across generations with her passion for literacy (and her baby named Cecilia). Through the words of Victor Hugo to “the women of Cuba,” words she drinks in and lives on, she creates a legacy:
Fugitives, martyrs, widows, orphans . . . Certainly we are overwhelmed; you no longer have your voice, and I have more than my own: your voice, moaning, mine warning. These two breaths, sobbing for home, calling for home, are all that remain. Who are we, weakness? No, we are force.
We are force, passed down as the inscription in a copy of Hugo’s Les Misérables, seems inscribed on these characters even when they don’t understand the language, even when they calculate how much the antique book might sell for, how many highs it could purchase. They all live Maria Isabel’s legacy. But by the end, the first-person voice of Miami-born Jeanette, six generations down, stole the narrative for me, so skillfully written are her chapters, so alive and authentic her battles with addiction, generational silences, and unspoken trauma.
Four of the chapters belong to Jeanette and one to her mother, Carmen, whose voice also commands a powerful epigraph. Four tangentially related chapters feature Gloria, a Salvadoran immigrant who is deported from Miami to Mexico, and her daughter, Ana. This set of chapters might better have become a second novel on their own. I was left wanting to know more about Gloria, whose heartbreaking immigrant experience, so different from Carmen’s, reaches deep into those cages on our border:
I am sorry I had nothing else to offer, Ana. That there are no real rules that govern why some are born in turmoil and others never know a single day in which the next seems an ill-considered bet. It’s all lottery, Ana, all chance. It’s the flick of a coin, and we are born.
The remaining chapters belong to Jeanette’s cousin, their grandmother, and Maria Isabel—mothers and daughters all. This spare family saga tells us only so much, because, as Garcia explains, “I wanted the chapters to feel the way memories and histories feel — fractured, like glimpses and echoes with some spaces of unknowing.”
Books like this one don’t directly point us toward a better world, but Garcia’s rich and generous imaginings of immigrant women’s stories open possibilities for connection and change. Her book feels true. It feels like an illumination.