On Borders and Belonging: Gabriela Garcia’s “Of Women and Salt”

May 23, 2021   •   By Freya Marshall Payne

Of Women and Salt

Gabriela Garcia

IN HER WRENCHING DEBUT novel-in-stories, Of Women and Salt, Gabriela Garcia meticulously weaves a mesh of parallels between Latinx mothers and daughters. The novel opens, by way of preface, with Carmen appealing to her daughter Jeanette to get sober so they can actually start communicating with one another. “Maybe there are forces neither of us examined,” she says. “Maybe if I had a way of seeing all the past, all the paths, I’d have some answer as to why: Why did our lives turn out this way?” Early on, we learn that Jeanette, too, has wanted this connection but has been unable to ask: “[E]ven as a child, Jeanette understood that another narrative she couldn’t access had shaped her life. She didn’t have the vocabulary to say, I want to know who I am, so I need to know who you’ve been.


The narrative builds through different voices, tenses, and tones. The 12 intertwined stories transport us through time and place, providing glimpses into different moments not only in family histories but in women’s individual life-stories. The first three episodes illustrate something of the connections and disjunctures: from Cuba just before the start of its war of independence against Spain, where a suitor reads Carmen’s grandmother, María Isabel, Cirilo Villaverde’s canonical novel of Cuban race and class conflict, Cecilia Valdés, we shift to Miami, where Carmen’s daughter, Jeanette, witnesses an ICE raid and takes in the child left behind, Ana, then to the detention center where Ana’s mother, Gloria, is sent. At times, these spatial and temporal shifts gesture toward story lines to which we do not return. Slowly and cumulatively, the juxtaposed narratives bring home to the reader the links among seven central women characters — links that are often obscure to the characters themselves.


Garcia, who worked as an organizer for women’s and immigration charities, and has grappled with her own story of migration, wrote a first draft of Of Women and Salt as her MFA thesis at Purdue. There, she was advised by Sharon Solwitz and championed by Roxane Gay, herself an accomplished writer about trauma. All of these influences are palpable here, and yet this is also a true poet’s novel: a painstaking attentiveness to rhythm and metaphor allows Garcia to sketch complicated, thorny parallels between mothers and daughters. One recurrent theme across the stories is the simplified expectations we tend to impose on working-class people, assuming their lives are either pure happiness or pure suffering. The phrase “we are force” becomes a motif throughout the novel, referring to power within as well as power over. The phrase starts as a fortifying mantra for María Isabel, taken from a letter the exiled Victor Hugo wrote to Cirilo Villaverde’s widow, which she transcribes in her own copy of Cecilia Valdés. When Jeanette reads the handwritten note, she sees it instead as an external force: “I am forced to love you.” She adds a message reflective of the complex multiplicity the novel manifests time and again: “[W]e are more than we know.”


The basic commonality linking these women’s lives is the intimate and structural violence that has shaped them, down to their strategic silences — the hope that the violence didn’t really happen, the imperative to keep it “private,” the fear that it could have been worse. A mother stays with her husband despite his abuse because she thinks it is best for her daughter; the daughter does not tell her mother that her father is abusing her because she thinks her mother loves him. A mother does not tell her daughters that their father tried to kill her because she thinks it best that they never know; the daughter judges her for the actions she took to free them, unaware that they needed freeing. And eventually, appallingly, when we have been granted an inkling of “all the past, all the paths,” we see that the women continue to fail to grasp their commonalities: the pressures of racism and misogyny that structure their lives; their negotiations of home and belonging; and their struggles for survival, both within the home and across borders.


Garcia’s characters often adopt a disciplined silence as a strategy of survival and of protecting their daughters. Carmen, whose life is “mastered” rather than lived, practices a self-control that crosses into self-censorship and spills out into censorious judgments of other women. She is riled by women and girls who speak too much, and she spends much of the novel failing to address her emotional separation from her daughter, silently navigating it with visits to Cuban restaurants and offerings of Cuban food (“Her mother never shows up without food she has made the night before, claiming she has made too much, that she doesn’t want a refrigerator full of leftovers”). In these passages, Carmen’s only available expression of motherly care invokes the folkloric motherland, but even this cannot smooth over the rough edges of their mother-daughter relationship, which are like an invisible border between them. All the while, Carmen’s inner monologue continues to offer blunt lessons of survival, thinking, for example, that Jeanette “needed to learn[,] the past haunted you only if you let it.”


The realities of protecting someone, Jeanette discovers when she briefly takes Ana in, are painful. Faced with the “impossible choice” of trying to keep the child or sacrificing her to the police, Jeanette balks at what would be a deep betrayal: surrendering a child with a traumatic past to an alienating, violent bureaucracy that sees women merely as Alien Registration Numbers, not stories. Jeanette conceives of the choice in terms of motherhood: “[S]he remembers, remembers so deep it hurts, why she never thought mother of herself. ‘I’m sorry,’ she says, and she’s saying it to every mother in the world.”


For Garcia, however, there is no monolithic motherhood, just as there are no perfect sacrificial mothers, the kind of role often ascribed to “good” migrant women — sometimes by their own daughters. Ana and María Isabel both want to free their mothers of the hardship of being working-class Latinx women, but Ana can only do this through idealizing motherhood. We see the tensions play out in a vivid scene — typical of Garcia’s incisive vignettes — that speaks not only to the specifics of Ana and Gloria’s relationship, and their life in Mexico after deportation, but also to the wider questions of racialized migrant experience:


Her mother wasn’t the doting type. Ana had made her a card once, for Mother’s Day, and written Thank you for sacrificing everything for me. “Is that what you think?” Gloria asked her that night. “That I’m supposed to sacrifice everything for you?” Ana hadn’t understood what she did wrong, what she could have possibly said that was wrong. Her mother apologized shortly after, thanked her for the card, told her that she loved her, that she was tired. She knew her mother was tired. That’s why she helped. That’s why she worked.


Four years prior, in the detention center, Gloria had pondered motherhood as a “question mark, a constant calculation of what-if. What if we just gave up?” At the same time, she fights inwardly with the need to be seen as the good immigrant, swallowing her need to scream, smiling though she wants to claw, “because I need to seem good.” She and the other women in the detention center form an alternative family: faced with no options, they “will save one another because no-one else is coming.” Gloria imagined them all as birds — “families made of birds” — because, she thinks, if God exists, “she is surely a bird, surely a migrating bird doing battle, surely she will break these walls.” At the same time, she is aware of how some birds are killed by the journey, lured by lights only to be impaled on spikes when they land. Her observation that “[b]irds fly even if it kills them” is a stark reminder of the desperate necessity of migrants’ attempts at freedom, and the enduring reality of the violence they experience. But Gloria also allows herself to imagine her daughter wielding all the power that she, herself, doesn’t have, voicing all the anger she can’t express, as a version of this bird-God, a chick with claws:


They have blood-red irises crowned by sea-blue plumage. They have red crests that rise up like crowns. This is how I picture my daughter, flying through these gates to me, shedding handcuffs and perplexing Immigration officers as she expands her wings and flaps them vigorously, as she rises past the walls, past the chicken wire, past the guard booth. This is how I see her coming to me, arms spread, sun in her belly, royalty made of delicate bone and feather and laughter. My daughter, knowing she is royalty and ready to spread her killer claws.


Home, in the novel, is violently policed by the state and, moreover, is violent in itself. The rich literature on meanings of “home” has moved toward thinking of it as malleable and iterative, an element of our self-fashioning — especially for those of us who grew up between nations and identities. For the migrant women in this novel, however, it is anything but: home is what establishes boundaries that exclude. For the second-generation immigrant Jeanette, Miami has the power to “call her home,” rather than home being something she can forge around her own identity. The only place Ana calls home, Florida, had, in her mother’s words, “never considered you hers, had always held you at arm’s length like an ugly reflection.”


Home, for the women in this novel, is also not a place of safety: sexual and gender-based violence appears in almost every story in the book. In one viscerally horrific scene, a woman is almost murdered. As Garcia shows again and again, the expectation of violence structures her characters’ hopes and aspirations. In the story “Prey,” Carmen investigates traces of blood and mysterious noises at a neighbor’s house, suspecting them to be traces of a “wild beast,” perhaps a big cat. “Had she imagined it all?” she wonders. “Was she so desperate to think every other home held violence lurking?” The belief functions as a coping mechanism, almost as an absolution — if every home is violent, then she and her daughter couldn’t escape even if they wanted to — but it also serves as a powerful reminder that having a home, for too many women, does not mean having a place where they feel complete belonging or even simple safety. Garcia has made the powerful, and I think correct, decision neither to center nor to humanize any of the violent men in the novel, leaving them one-dimensional, affording them no redemption. This choice, and the decision never to position writing as a form of healing, disrupts comparisons with Isabel Allende’s 1982 novel The House of the Spirits. That said, both are, in their ways, accomplished and brave works that speak out against Latinx intergenerational trauma.


The greatest success of this debut novel, for me, is the devastating way Garcia shows that the violent enforcement of gendered (non)belonging takes place simultaneously at the national and personal levels. Jeanette’s struggle to feel at home in her body is captured through nationalist metaphors of “language and borders and [the] landscape of a relationship.” Subtly, these stories suggest troubling questions about women’s self-perception: that they often see their bodies the way predatory men do, crafting versions of themselves with an eye toward what a certain man might think of as authentic. It’s a deeply uncomfortable revelation of the most insidious effects of rape culture — one that Jeanette is astutely aware of:


I know deep down I am other girls. They spin in me and around me. I am of them […] Sasha […] is no longer my best friend, because her boyfriend told her he thought she should dress more like me (clarified: more sexy) and so she realized I was not another girl to him or that she was not a special girl. All the categories collapse at the behest of the men who make them and […] it is just easier to pretend that we have any control in the first place.


The strength required to survive as a Latinx woman, trying to forge a life for herself, translates to making a series of heartbreaking decisions, precisely because choices are so limited and personal agency so bounded by interpersonal and structural violence. While Garcia’s women have great inner stamina, they lack the collective strength of solidarity.


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Freya Marshall Payne is a writer currently researching her PhD on women’s experiences of homelessness at the University of Oxford. Her writing has appeared in various venues, including The Guardian, The Times Literary Supplement, and Vice. She is also a co-convenor of the Oxford Centre for Life-Writing’s pandemic life-writing project. She tweets @fmarshallpayne.