Gabriela Garcia, OF WOMEN AND SALT

Gabriela Garcia, OF WOMEN AND SALT

Gabriela Garcia joins Zibby to talk about her debut novel, Of Women and Salt, which was a Good Morning America pick for April. The two discuss the variety of mother-daughter dynamics the book captures, why Gabriela wanted to portray immigrant characters in a particular way, and the importance of setting the story in her hometown of Miami.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Gabriela. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss Of Women and Salt.

Gabriela Garcia: Thank you so much for having me.

Zibby: First of all, congratulations on this being a GMA pick for April, and the best-seller list and everything else and all the lists that you’ve made and everything. You must be so excited. That’s awesome.

Gabriela: It’s super exciting. It feels unreal still. I feel like it’s happening to somebody else. I’m just so excited that so many people have connected with the book.

Zibby: It’s truly beautiful. I’ve literally been recommending it left, right, and center at all these events. What are you reading? What are you loving? I was like, this book is so good. I also then slip in, and it’s only like two hundred pages. I feel like it’s actually a little bit shorter than most novels that have been coming out lately or that I’ve been reading. Did you do that intentionally? I have a zillion other questions.

Gabriela: Yeah, I knew I wanted to write a compact novel and to offer these brief glimpses of these people’s lives rather than a traditional historical epic that’s four hundred pages. I didn’t want to trace the whole life of all of these women, just offered in snippets. I feel like throughout the pandemic, I’ve struggled to concentrate and read and have appreciated some shorter reads. I’m glad that was exciting to you.

Zibby: Moms don’t have time. That’s funny. I saw an interview with you where you were talking about your own background and how having grown up in Miami to parents who are from Cuba and Mexico inspired writing about a character like you who you didn’t feel like was particularly represented and that your experience hadn’t been written about in this same way. I was hoping you could talk a little about the inspiration for this book and how it came to be, especially as a debut novelist. This is so great.

Gabriela: Thanks. None of the characters are really autobiographical. I’m actually pretty different from almost every single character in the way I grew up and everything. What I was referencing in that is that I grew up in Miami, which is one of the few cities, maybe the only one, I’m not sure, that’s LatinX majority. There are all of these divisions along racial lines, along class lines. Maybe being the daughter of a Cuban immigrant, of a Mexican immigrant who had different paths to migration in the US, I think I always sort of felt that tension. I wanted to write about Miami and all of its complexity and these really very different families who are living next door to each other. There’s Jeanette, the daughter of Cuban immigrants. She witnesses her neighbor Gloria, who is Salvadorian, be taken by ICE agents. Her daughter is accidentally left behind. That’s the catalyst that brings these two families together. I was interested in mining some of that complexity in Miami.

Zibby: I loved all the imagery of Gloria and her fascination with birds when she was in the deportment camp. I don’t know what to call it.

Gabriela: Family detention center.

Zibby: Family detention center. Sorry, thank you. You have a fascination — maybe I shouldn’t say it’s fascination. You include animals in a lot of different places with the jaguar surprise and the bird analogies. I just feel like you weave in all these very natural world elements into the narrative. Tell me about that.

Gabriela: It’s interesting. I think I didn’t even necessarily notice that until people started pointing it out to me. It makes sense because I myself have always been sort of fascinated by birds and animals. Maybe some of what I was gesturing toward is the wildness that exists in people. These different animals offer a kind of glimpse into these characters and how they think and how they see the world. In particular, the character of Gloria who’s really into birds, I wanted to show this other facet of her personality as she’s going through this really difficult experience. She’s just this complex, interesting person.

Zibby: And how some birds even commit suicide and how some birds are so bereft when they’re away from their loved ones that they can’t survive, it was just this really powerful image, among many.

Gabriela: I remember coming across that fact about those birds, the plunge to their death. That image just stayed with me for a really long time. I was like, I want to include this in something that I write.

Zibby: You also did such a great job, I thought, first of all, of creating all these characters who feel completely lifelike, but also talking about their relationships with men along the way and their relationships to their own sexuality, whether it’s being a young girl at the gas station provocatively leaning in and ending up at a bubble party, to Mario and Jeanette’s on again, off again, essentially abusive relationship, to other male figures in the book. You had this one paragraph I was hoping to read from the beginning about when Jeanette had broken up with Mario. You said, “That other life feels so distant now. All she can feel when it’s just two voices across an expanse is the knowing that still survives, the body her fingertips memorized, the universe of a relationship, all its language and borders and landscapes, a geography she studied for years and still does not understand, a man who pummels a fist into her side the same day he takes in a kitten found laying in the crock of a stairwell during a rainstorm. Nobody knows about the fights that got physical. Nobody knows these phone calls still happen. She thinks of Anna in the next room listening to the credits, thinks how even the best mothers in the world can’t always save their daughters.” Wow, that was beautiful. Tell me a little more about this passage and how sometimes you have to hold onto pieces of the relationship when you know you shouldn’t.

Gabriela: I think especially when it comes to abusive relationships, there’s such a complexity in relationships. Rarely do you ever meet someone who’s just fully a monster and has no other aspects to their personality. In that case, she’s struggling with that. She’s struggling with the tenderness and the connection she has in this relationship while also, this man is incredibly violent and toxic to her. I wanted to plumb that a little bit. There’s always this question of why women don’t leave. It’s really complex. There’s so many reasons. I think one of them, too, is that some of these relationships can be really confusing. In that section, Jeanette is struggling with that and how to situate herself in this relationship history that she has with this man. Part of what it’s pointing to, also, is the way that when two people have an intense intimacy, other people can look at that relationship from the outside, but nobody truly, truly understands it at all except the two people who are in it. That can be really difficult to communicate. She’s also thinking about that, just the universe of their relationship that is so enclosed.

Zibby: Then you have Jeanette who’s struggling with the aftermath of her extrication from this relationship and addiction, and then her mother who was literally channeling Martha Stewart on Thanksgiving and trying to make sure everything in her surroundings were completely perfect, and how different you made that mother and daughter. There’s so many mother-daughter relationships throughout this book that are all so interesting because, of course, that relationship is such a unique one that has so many different iterations. The fact that she cares so much about how she looks and how it seems, and then her daughter is almost the opposite. She shows up looking her best in a tank top and jeans or something like that. Tell me a little more about that relationship and the need to control or to seem like everything is okay when it’s really not.

Gabriela: I think you’re right. I think mother-daughter relationships can be some of the most intense, complicated relationships. Both Jeanette and her mother are dealing with the aftermath of trauma and violence, but they deal with it in very different ways. Both are sort of destructive to themselves but are just very different. Carmen is bearing a lot inside of her and just trying to portray herself as having it all together. That damages a lot of her relationships. Part of what I really wanted to do in the book in portraying these mother-daughter pairs is point to the complexity of motherhood and these characters. I wanted to write against some of the tropes that exist about women being strong or immigrant mothers in particular being suffering and sacrificing all the time. Not that the mothers here don’t suffer or sacrifice, but they’re so, so much more than that. They’re so much more complicated. Gloria, at some points, questions if she even wants to be a mother. Carmen is distracted by all of her own inner turmoil and struggles to really see her daughter. They’re really complicated in that way. Also, they’re all surviving circumstances, but like I said, I didn’t want them just to be strong survivors. I wanted to also show the cost of that survival. Sometimes you’re able to survive in this patriarchal, misogynist world that they’re in, but there’s a huge cost to that, too, in the self. I was thinking about all of that when I was thinking about motherhood.

Zibby: I got the chills when Jeanette found, when she found the book that said “force written” in the margin. Oh, my god, what a moment, especially because all your scenes, they’re all just so visual. You can feel the dust when the car breaks down in the village. You can hear the creaks of the porch with the grandmother and her sleeveless dress. You just have all these moments that are so amazing. Then to discover these ancient books and, of course, have the first thought be like, well, could I sell an old book like this? This notion over centuries and across generations of force and how people get through things, is that one of the takeaways? Not to encapsulate your book in just one thing, but just our will to survive, essentially.

Gabriela: I think there’s so many different ways of thinking about that word, force. I think maybe that’s why I was drawn to that phrase in these letters from Victor Hugo to Cuban workers. I think there’s that. There’s what you said, the force, the will to survive. There’s always the way there are historical forces at play that sort of pass through the generations. There are the ways that some of these women are forced into circumstances where they have to fight for agency. I think there’s so many different ways of looking at that phrase. I was drawn to that kind of ambiguity and the fact that it can mean all of these different things that are at play in the novel.

Zibby: Gabriela, tell me how you became this amazing novelist. I know you have an MFA. How did this start? Did you always know you wanted to be a writer? Did you always write fiction? How did we get here?

Gabriela: I have always loved writing since I was a little girl. Before I could even write, I used to tell stories to my mom. I would dictate them. She would write them down. I feel like I’ve been writing fiction and poetry and everything all my life. It’s not something that I pursued seriously until a good ten years after graduating from undergrad. I didn’t study creative writing in undergrad. I never took a workshop, actually, until my MFA. I had many different jobs in music, in magazines. Eventually, I became an organizer working for feminist organizations and migrant justice organizations. I was doing writing in all of these jobs, but not creatively. Then I just got to a point where I really wanted to take my fiction seriously. I thought, I’ll apply to these programs that I’m really interested in. If I don’t get in, I’ll just continue down this path. If I do, I’ll dedicate myself to really pursuing this. I was really excited to get into one of the programs that I was really excited about at Purdue. The novel really came together in those three years of my MFA.

Zibby: Are you working another novel now? What are you up to now?

Gabriela: I haven’t started on a novel. I do want to write another one. Right now, I’m mostly writing poetry, mostly working on short stories.

Zibby: Did you ever conceive of this book as short stories? Was it ever short stories about some of these women?

Gabriela: I sort of knew when I started that I didn’t want to write a chronological, linear storyline. I wasn’t entirely sure of how I wanted that structure to work. There was a point where I was like, maybe this is a linked short story collection, like a novel in stories. Then I started adding in pieces that didn’t really work as standalone stories. At some point, I just gave permission to not have to define exactly what this is. That’s the backstory behind the structure.

Zibby: When you’re not writing, what are some of the things you love to do?

Gabriela: I’ve been roller-skating a lot during the pandemic like many people.

Zibby: I don’t know anybody else who’s been roller-skating during the pandemic.

Gabriela: Really? Maybe I’m just hyperaware of it because I started roller-skating. I feel like there are all these roller-skating videos. People have gotten into it.

Zibby: Really? Oh, my gosh.

Gabriela: They made this impromptu roller rink by my house by the lake. It’s just a parking lot. A bunch of people go out there to roller-skate. It’s really fun. I read a ton, obviously. I draw a little bit. I like to draw. What else do I do?

Zibby: What kind of books do you like to read?

Gabriela: I read fiction, literary fiction. I read a lot of poetry too. Sometimes I read nonfiction, memoir stuff. I read pretty broadly.

Zibby: Do you still keep your activist hat on?

Gabriela: Yeah, I’ve done some with organizations I previously worked with this year, but not in a full-time capacity like I used to do. It’s really hard to try to juggle that with all of the writing stuff and the book coming out. I’ve been mostly focused on book stuff.

Zibby: I bet. Do you have advice for aspiring authors?

Gabriela: The thing that’s been absolutely most helpful for me has been being part of writing communities. If that’s in the form of an MFA, it’s that just in the form of attending more literary events wherever you are, creating that community. Writing can be such a solitary pursuit. Being part of a community has just really sustained me, nourished me. That would be my advice, to either find or create those communities.

Zibby: Awesome. Great. Thank you so much. Thank you for this beautiful, beautiful book. I truly loved it. These characters are going to stay with me for a while. Is this going to be a movie? Did it get optioned yet? I’m sure it has.

Gabriela: Not yet.

Zibby: What? That’s crazy. Even just the image of the cigar factories and reading under the — amazing. I could just go on and on. I won’t bore you. I’m sure you’re used to this. Congratulations. Well done. Awesome. I can’t wait to see what else you write.

Gabriela: Thank you.

Zibby: Have a great day. Thank you. Buh-bye.

Gabriela Garcia, OF WOMEN AND SALT

OF WOMEN AND SALT by Gabriela Garcia

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