Gabriela Garcia’s Debut Novel Tells an Immigrant Story That Echoes Through Time

Early on in Gabriela Garcia’s debut novel, a young woman listens to a lector read from Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables while rolling cigars in a Cuban factory. It is 1866, and the Ten Years’ War for independence will soon begin. The young woman imagines Paris. She imagines escape. She wonders “what it would be like if someone wrote a book about her,” or, even wilder, if “someone like her wrote a book.”

Garcia, the daughter of immigrants from Cuba and Mexico, hadn’t always dreamed of becoming a novelist. Although she has been writing since she was a kid growing up in Miami, it was only after a decade out of college, which she spent working in various “writing-adjacent” jobs, that she decided to pursue an MFA. She had never taken a workshop before enrolling, but by the time she graduated, she had a draft of what would become Of Women and Salt.

Chapter by chapter, the book leaps through time and space, creating a taut, lyrical patchwork of characters, connected by blood or by circumstance, whose lives have been shaped by nature and nations. In contemporary Miami, Jeanette, a struggling addict, watches as her neighbor Gloria is abducted by ICE agents. Jeanette takes in Gloria’s abandoned daughter Ana, even as her own mother, Carmen, encourages her to call the police. The reader follows Gloria to a detention center, and then across the border to Mexico, and through time, to witness generations of Jeanette’s family struggle in Cuba and outside of it.

Garcia’s constant narrative shifts, both daring and assured, are also purposeful. “I was trying to capture the experience of history reverberating,” she says, “in ways that sometimes feel tangible and sometimes don’t, and that sometimes have echoes.” These echoes are the key to Of Women and Salt and they are keenly felt by each of Garcia’s characters, almost all of them women written against many familiar tropes of motherhood—the strong woman, the long-suffering, all-sacrificing immigrant mother—as a way of ensuring each one’s full humanity, preserving all their bonds and breakages.

At 36, Garcia has been heralded as an important new voice. A recipient of a Rona Jaffe Foundation Writers’ Award and a Steinbeck Fellowship, she now lives in Oakland, California, where she writes full time. This latest burst of attention doesn’t seem to faze her. “I’m open to people taking what they take from the novel,” she says. After all, Garcia is a writer who tends to think in long arcs of history.