Opening in a cigar factory in Cuba with a lone female cigar roller at the start of the Ten Years’ War, Of Women and Salt by Cuban-Mexican-American Gabriela Garcia is a multi-generational novel that tackles addiction, immigration and deportation, mother-daughter relationships, and abuse. It is a complex novel that is both heartbreaking and thought-provoking.
Reading more like interconnected short stories than a novel, Of Women and Salt offers an expansive, though certainly not all encompassing, view of the Latinx experience – from the Cubans who made their way to the United States and the families they left behind, to Central Americans battling an increasingly complex immigration system in the US today.
What I loved about this book is that it presents such an intimate view of the immigrant experience – how leaving one’s home country affects not only the person who left, but those left behind, and the generations to follow, whether the one who left did so willingly, out of necessity, or by force.
Through 12 stories, we meet María Isabel, the cigar roller in Camagüey; her granddaughter Dolores in present-day Cuba with an estranged daughter, Carmen, in Miami. Carmen’s daughter, Jeanette, travels to Cuba to meet her mother’s family and struggles to understand how they can put up with the dual currency system and political oppression. In another story, Jeanette takes in a 9-year-old girl left behind when ICE trucks arrive for her mother, Gloria, who we come to know through her time in a detention center hoping her daughter will be safe and not forced to join her.
In today’s political world, there is a view that the Cuban experience is different from that of other Latinos. We see that too often in the discussion about the “Cuban vote” and, while that view may be true for some; many younger, namely millennial Cuban-Americans, are challenging this narrative, asking why the experience of their families is somehow different from that of immigrants arriving in the US today. I love that Of Women and Salt brought that experience to this novel – stepping out of the multi-generational story to introduce new characters and revealing the flawed system that so often leaves children out of the equation when adults are deported. (For more on this, “In the Country We Love: My Family Divided” by actress Diane Guerrero is an excellent non-fiction account.)
Of Women and Salt is a powerful work of fiction that feels familiar – the women in the book offer so much dimension that it’s easy to feel a connection and investment in their stories. While multi-generational books can often feel cluttered, this left me wanting more. That’s a good sign coming from a debut author, and I look forward to reading more from Garcia in the future.