The women in Gabriela Garcia’s “Of Women and Salt” are trapped in interstitial spaces. They’re caught between the dream of a better future and the harsh realities of poverty, loneliness, and discrimination; between the need to be seen and loved and the abuse they suffer at the hands of men; between the idea of home and the struggles of undocumented migration and political exile. At once a multigenerational saga about Cuban women learning to survive after losing everything and a brutally honest look at the immigration system in the United States through the eyes of a Salvadoran mother and daughter deported to Mexico after building a life in Miami, this novel captures the beauty of refusing to surrender.
Jeanette lives in Miami and refuses to visit her mother, Carmen, a Cuban immigrant whose family history is drenched in blood and political upheaval. Jeanette dreams of going to Cuba and wants to learn more about her family history, but Carmen doesn’t discuss her past and refuses to speak to her own mother back in Cuba. When Jeanette takes in Ana, the daughter of a neighbor who’s whisked away by ICE to a detention center in Texas, her act of kindness ties her family’s history to that of Ana’s in deep, invisible ways. Jeanette struggles with addiction and the strained relationship with her mother, who never noticed the abuse Jeanette’s father inflicted on her. Ana and her mother, Gloria, are kept in a detention center and then get deported to Mexico despite being from El Salvador. While they’re expected to make their way back to El Salvador, they stay in Mexico and spend years in that new country trying to save enough money to somehow return to the US. “Of Women and Salt” is a mosaic novel about displacement that goes from the 19th-century cigar factories of Cuba to the cold rooms of present-day detention centers near the US-Mexico border, with stops in Miami and Mexico along the way. Strong, flawed, extraordinary women are at the core of the narrative, and the way their pasts shaped them plays a huge role in the way they in turn shape their daughters’ lives. Garcia’s clean, straightforward prose cuts like a scalpel to expose the pain of leaving home and the trauma — both physical and emotional — that shatters the women in her book. This honesty makes “Of Women and Salt” a hard, uncomfortable read because there are broken ribs, murder, lost teeth, hunger, and abuse here, all presented in real, heartbreaking passages. However, every page is full of writing that illuminates the depth of each character’s suffering in unforgettable ways. For example, Gloria’s pain as she thinks of Ana from the isolation of the detention center pushes the issue of separated families to center stage:
“The papers they won’t translate call it Texas Regional Detention Center. I am alone. I don’t know where my daughter is — I hope still in Florida, safe somehow, or on her way here, if safe in Florida is not an option. I pray for her every night. I pray on the concrete floor at the side of my bunk until my knees are raw and tender and I can barely stand. Some nights, my knees bleed. There is a smear of red beside my bunk. I call the smear Ana. Ana is my daughter’s name.”
While there is beauty — and plenty of beautiful writing — in “Of Women and Salt,” unprocessed trauma rests in the novel’s dark heart like a tumor. Jeanette wants to belong, to be loved, but the abuse she suffered, and her mother’s inability to see it, drive her into the arms of Mario, a man who drags her into a life of addiction. Carmen refuses to speak to her mother because she witnessed a brutal act of violence that scarred her forever. Gloria works all the time to provide for Ana, but neglects her health in the process with devastating consequences. Ana has lost everything, but she dreams of crossing the border again and returning to Florida. These women all feel like they don’t fit it, like they belong nowhere and can never go back home, and that makes them lost souls regardless of where they are. This unprocessed trauma and the strength and resilience these women show in its presence morph into a haunting set of intertwined stories about migration that are meditations on the choices mothers make with their best intentions in mind, and the disastrous effects those choices can have.
“Of Women and Salt” is an impressive debut about heritage, baggage, and needing the kind of “love that erases everything that came before it.” It’s also a novel about motherhood seen through the filter of diaspora. Garcia is already an accomplished short fiction and poetry writer, but this novel shows she’s also an outstanding novelist and an exciting new voice with a talent for bringing humanity to the page.
OF WOMEN AND SALT
By Gabriela Garcia
Flatiron Books, 224 pp., $26.99
is a writer, editor, professor, and literary critic living in Austin, Texas.