A debut novel about migration, family and survival is everything ‘American Dirt’ wasn’t
Gabriela Garcia didn’t know it at the time, but she started writing parts of her debut novel when she worked as a migrant organizer.
It was 2014, and Garcia was fighting to keep detainees from being deported. A few times she visited the women who were being detained in centers like Karnes County Residential Center and the South Texas Family Residential Center — the largest family immigration detention site in the U.S.
At the end of those days, Garcia gathered her observations into poetic vignettes, drawing on scenes and conversations with detainees. Years later, some made their way into her highly anticipated debut novel “Of Women and Salt,” out March 30 from Flatiron Books.
“I was not thinking about them as a book,” said Garcia, 36, in a recent video interview from Mendocino, where the Oakland resident was on a weeklong getaway. “I think I was just trying to process a lot of it myself.”
Garcia wrote the bulk of the novel as her MFA thesis at Purdue University, where she studied with Roxane Gay, the bestselling author of “Hunger” and “Bad Feminist.” The resulting work is a nonlinear, multigenerational narrative set in Cuba, Mexico and the U.S. about a lineage of prideful and resilient women bound together by legacies of survival and trauma.
Publishers Weekly called “Of Women and Salt” “riveting”; O Magazine said it was “stunningly accomplished”; Harper’s Bazaar dubbed it a “sweeping tour de force.” Gay picked it for her Audacious Book Club. Drawing on both research and personal ancestry, the novel seems to answer the call of many critics of last year’s much-hyped immigration thriller, “American Dirt” — for authentic stories that focus on unique and specific migrant journeys.
Garcia was born in New York City and moved to Miami when she was about 5. She moved back to New York for her undergraduate degree at Fordham University, lived in Lafayette, Ind., while earning her master’s and moved to Oakland in 2019 for the Steinbeck Fellowship at San Jose State University.
As a first-generation daughter of Cuban and Mexican immigrants, Garcia grew up questioning what it means to be both here and there — to belong and be a foreigner in your home country. Frequent childhood visits to Cuba and Mexico led to a deep understanding of what she calls the “myth” of the prototypical immigration journey.
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“I think that so much of the immigrant experience is shaped by class, race and circumstance,” she said. “My parents had very different immigration paths to the U.S. and were treated very differently by the U.S. and its systems, so I was always really aware of those differences and also how Latinx identity is not a monolith.”
Her mother was welcomed into the U.S. with open arms and guaranteed citizenship when she arrived here from Cuba. Her father’s story was starkly different. He was subjected to racism and xenophobia and didn’t become a citizen until Garcia was in her 20s.
The author thinks a lot about the forces and perspectives — personal, political and historical; conscious and unknowing — that shape us.
Those forces are at the root of her debut, which begins in 1866 in a cigar factory in Camagüey, Cuba, and jumps through space and time to Mexico and the present-day U.S., weaving together the lives of five generations of mothers and daughters. There’s the story of Ana, whose life changes forever after her mother is deported. There’s Dolores, who does the unthinkable to protect herself and her child from her drunken, violent husband. There’s Carmen, a Cuban immigrant processing a complicated relationship with her mother while raising her daughter, Jeanette, who’s battling addiction.
“Of Women and Salt” keeps its focus, always, on the women.
“I’ve been really shaped by growing up in a matrilineal family,” Garcia said. She was raised by a single mother after her parents divorced when she was in third grade. “My mother had all sisters, her mother had all sisters, I have all sisters.
“Many of the women in my family were also single mothers or single women who always supported each other, and we formed this really tight bond where I never felt like I was missing anything,” she said. “That’s certainly something that I didn’t think about growing up but that shaped a lot of how I think of family.” It led to a book in which “when men do show up, they’re sort of at the periphery.”
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Inside a packed room in Culver City on Thursday, Myriam Gurba, Roxane Gay and other writers of color talked about “American Dirt,” Macmillan and the “crisis” in U.S. publishing.
The contemporary piece of the novel follows a woman much more like Garcia herself. Jeanette also grew up in Miami and is Cuban American. She battles a drug addiction and a toxic romantic relationship. When Garcia was in high school, she too was in a toxic relationship, and she often got into trouble for “drug stuff.”
Sometimes Garcia found it more difficult to draw on her own life than her family’s struggles or the detained women she tried to help.
“I felt like I had to go to a dark and difficult place and think about my own relationships, my own experiences as a young woman,” she said. “But I often find that when I’m most scared, or when it feels most difficult to write something, that’s where the most interesting writing is.”
Yet here, as in the rest of the novel, Garcia’s imagination diverges from personal or documentary truth. Jeanette is not an autobiographical protagonist. Unlike her, Garcia frequently traveled to Cuba with her family growing up. “I didn’t have those tensions Jeanette has with her mother about traveling back to Cuba,” and she didn’t grow up in a wealthy family.
Purdue writing professor Sharon Solwitz isn’t surprised to see the early praise for her former student’s debut. She was impressed with Garcia’s writing from the start.
“It wasn’t only that she wrote good sentences and interesting stories; she seemed to have so many paths of narrative that she could go down,” recalled Solwitz, Garcia’s thesis adviser.
The author started about three novels at Purdue, and they all could have been “quite good,” said Solwitz. “Then she discovered a subject that had more resonance for her.”
With her first novel out this week, Garcia isn’t quite ready to write another — but eventually, she will. For now, she is writing poetry and short stories and reading more, an activity she struggled with during the pandemic. She just finished Brandon Hobson’s “The Removed” (she loved it) and started Jamie Figueroa’s “Brother, Sister, Mother, Explorer.”
As a “shy person who doesn’t like attention,” she’s getting used to the fact that she’s about to get a lot more of it. “So much of my writing process involves being in a quiet place within myself, and so it feels difficult to connect to that writerly part with everything that’s public facing.” Still, she says, “I think I’m adjusting.”
Brandon Hobson’s “The Removed” braids together the narratives of a family — two living women and two men they lost — as all of them muddle their way forward.
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