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In many ways, Of Women and Salt is a novel of our times as it deals with issues of race and gender, empowerment, opportunity, and marginalisation. Yet it is about so much more, too. For in telling the stories of several generations of Latina women, Gabriela Garcia’s novel is very much like a Cuban cigar: it rolls in on itself, layering and concealing, revealing the endless spirals of discrimination and injustice that are unique to neither time nor place.
The main character is Jeanette, whose life in Miami is defined by stays in rehab and attempts at getting clean. She becomes briefly entangled with Ana, a Salvadorean schoolgirl brought to the States in the trunk of a car. The narrative switches from one person’s tale to another, interspersed with scenes from the lives of older members of Jeannette’s family. We hear from her mother Carmen (“pearls, slacks, wrinkle cream, a box of blank thank-you notes”) who, as an early immigrant from Cuba, enjoys a comfortable, middle-class life in the States. We hear, too, from Maria Isabel, her great-great-grandmother, the only female worker in the cigar factory when the Spanish militia comes. And we hear from Dolores, her grandmother, who fears for her children’s lives as the Communist uprising breaks out. Other voices narrate their stories against this backdrop of revolution and war, which serves as a reminder of the history and politics by which so many destinies are forged. “I’ve always been really interested in historical forces and how they shape everything about the present moment,” Garcia has said, her interest in connecting the past with the present, the “here” with the “there,” reflected in her fragmented approach to both time and space.
In all this back and forth, Garcia consistently exposes the fraudulent nature of dreams. The lives that Ana and Jeanette live in present-day Miami turn out to be just as difficult and precarious as those their mothers lived in their countries of birth. None of them have it easy regardless of their backgrounds or the places from which their families have come. Indeed, as the daughter of Cuban and Mexican immigrants, Garcia has a self-confessed interest in exploring and exposing the variety of immigrant life. “I don’t think there is such a thing as the immigrant experience,” she says, describing the catch-all term Latino as “flattening,” since it ignores the diversity of individual narratives. Indeed, one of the greatest strengths of the work is its ability to capture and convey all the nuance and complexity of both immigrant communities in the US and the Latin American societies from which they come. In Cuba, Dolores accuses a neighbour of stealing because “you can’t trust black men.” It is a prejudice that travels, resulting in many Cubans in Miami, as Jeanette so wryly observes, regarding themselves as “another kind of white,” quite distinct from other “Latinos.” Similarly, in Mexico, the privilege that divides Ana’s wealthy employer Roberto from “gente de afuera” like her demonstrates the pervasiveness of this racial discrimination. As Garcia so deftly shows, privilege is not the preserve of wealthy, white Americans but a system of hierarchy and power based on divisions of class, race, and gender that operate just as “well” in Cuba or Mexico as they do in the US.
Everyone, it seems, is disappointed, but perhaps in the end this disappointment is easier to live with than the ghosts of the past. For these women are damaged. They have all suffered violence and abuse perpetuated by men. And here again the contemporaneity of the novel comes to the fore, Garcia taking care to position her women as survivors rather than victims. These are women who act, not always doing what is right but doing what they must. They call the cops on undocumented minors. They steal. They commit unthinkable acts. For their imperative is only to survive, an imperative that is captured as a mysterious inscription in an antique copy of Les Misérables: “we are force.” The inscription becomes a leitmotif throughout the novel, crossing oceans and rivers, bridging time and space to bind each individual story to the others and forge a collective resistance to violence and oppression.
What is disconcerting, however, is the suggestion that there is an inevitability to this violence, that it is perhaps an integral part of the female experience. It is Carmen, Jeanette’s mother, who hints at this: “I was afraid to look back because then I would have seen what was coming,” her lament suggesting that the past is somehow a reliable indicator of the future. Is this necessarily so? Is male violence really a thing that is repeated over and over with only the tiniest of variations, like each new leaf of tobacco that is rolled around and on top of the others? It is a sad proposition but one that no doubt deserves to be made.
Garcia’s prose is rich and compelling. There is a lusciousness to the writing that beautifully captures the tropical urbanity of Miami: the “pastel, mini-mall suburban blight” of its streets, the “blood orange” mornings, and the thick, heavy heat that “licks the skin.” There is even an appearance by a wild animal in a wonderful scene that confronts the uptight Carmen with her carefully constructed self. Yet where Garcia excels is in her ability to relate extremely difficult narratives in a way that remains upbeat and full of colour. Her writing is dense with evocative, sensory detail. The Spanish names of dishes, the sting of spice on her characters’ tongues, plunge Garcia’s readers into a sizzle and chatter that they can almost taste and hear. The jarring, false optimism of the Texas detention centre in which Ana’s mother, Gloria, is held has them wincing in discomfort. A notice there reminding detainees to “KEEP DETENTION SAFE” fails spectacularly to grasp the true precarity of those it claims to protect. The jauntily named bird and frog blocks, hovering absurdly between crèche and jail, are typical of this baby-proofed, infantilising space that both disguises and denies its true purpose.
Such disconnects are at the core of this vibrant and engrossing work, and they are approached with dignity and elegance. For all its engagement with topical issues, the novel is in no way dogmatic. It is moving and important, original and sharp. It may be her first novel, but I’m already looking forward to reading more by Gabriela Garcia.
Of Women and Salt
By Gabriela Garcia
224 pages. Picador