Gabriela Garcia never could have imagined that after winning the Rona Jaffe Foundation Writer’s Award in 2018, her literary career would take off so quickly.
But when you have Roxane Gay singing your praises on Twitter, the literary world is going to take notice.
Garcia, who grew up in Miami and is now lives in California's Bay Area, worked for various publications — including New Times — after graduating from Fordham University in 2007. But she returned to school in 2015 to earn her MFA in creative writing at Purdue.
It was there, while working on her thesis, that she found a mentor in Gay. The resulting debut novel, Of Women and Salt, is set for worldwide release this week — not to mention critical acclaim, including a designation as Book of the Month for Gay's Audacious Book Club.
Tonight (Tuesday), Garcia will discuss her new book with Maite Morales, the senior program coordinator of CasaCuba at Florida International University. The virtual conversation, sponsored by Books & Books and the Miami Book Fair, begins at 7 p.m., is accessible free of charge via Crowdcast.
Of Women and Salt follows generations of characters (and their secrets) from Cuba to Miami and back. The story begins in cigar factories on the island, where the workers roll while listening to readings of Cecilia Valdés, a classic of Cuban literature by Cirilo Villaverde. A Spanish translation of Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables also drives the plot. The readings are banned. The first Cuban revolution unfolds.
“I was actually in Cuba a few years ago, and I went to an exhibit at a museum, and they had these letters from Victor Hugo to Cuban independence fighters and workers during the 19th century that were on display there," Garcia tells New Times. "I became really interested and fascinated in that sort of dialogue between a writer and a political movement. So I started to look into that a little bit.”
While examining the literary inspiration for the names of cigars her family “was always very into and grew up around, like Montecristos and Romeo y Julietas,” Garcia learned that “they were all written by European white men or Spanish-descended white men in Cuba. And I was thinking about what it would be like to be someone like [the character] María Isabel in the factory. Everything she would hear, even about herself, was through this particular gaze.
“And then I thought about: Is there a way to reclaim some of those words? How are stories passed on, how do they change, who gets to tell them? And that sort of felt like a good entry point into what a lot of the novel is, which is interrogating stories, and how they’re passed down, and the stories we don’t tell ourselves about ourselves, and the ones we do.”
Through the novel, Garcia, the daughter of a Cuban mother and a Mexican father, examines racism, sexism, and classism both in Cuba and in the U.S. in vivid ways that help readers to understand, in Garcia's poetic prose, why a Black female activist powerhouse like Angela Davis ultimately left the Communist Party. It's also the reason historian Howard Zinn insisted on telling regular people’s stories — as Garcia does so well in her debut — while skewering labels, as Zinn did in Marx in Soho.
Stateside, Of Women and Salt takes the reader for a ride on Miami’s Oxy Express, to the pain clinics where her characters Jeannette and Mario — along with lots drivers with out-of-state license plates — feed their opioid addictions.
“Miami, in particular, is the place that I grew up and that I have a lot of love for,” Garcia says, explaining why she didn’t want to write a sanitized version of the city.
Some scenes draw on Garcia's teenage years going to all-ages clubs, including a real-life incident involving her sister.
“She was out drinking in South Beach with her friends, and then they were walking on the beach and stumbled on a body that had washed ashore," Garcia recounts. "At the time, they were underage and drinking, so they were like, ‘Are we gonna get in trouble? What do we do about this?' That always stuck with me.”
In the chapter titled "Privilegio," an American expat named Nancy, who's living in Mexico, believes she's self-aware. “You see in the chapter that she’s not," Garcia explains, "and I think there are many moments like this.” Same goes for other characters, from a Cuban keen on telling tourists what they want to hear to a race-conscious American visitor who thinks she’s above it but is nevertheless open to letting a Black local take the blame for her own misdeed.
“It’s impossible to ever really know a place from the same perspective as someone who is there," Garcia sums up.
Of Women and Salt: A Virtual Evening with Gabriela Garcia in conversation with Maite Morales. 7 p.m. Tuesday, March 30; booksandbooks.com. Admission is free with RSVP via crowdcast.io/e/gabrielagarcia.