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Gabriela Garcia's 'Of Women And Salt' Connects Two Mother-Daughter Stories

SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:

We are force. This sentence threads through the winding stories of generations in the new book "Of Women And Salt." It's Gabriela Garcia's debut novel examining the history of two families, one Cuban, one Salvadoran, who come to the U.S. at different times and under different circumstances. Gabriela Garcia joins me now to talk about her book. Hi there.

GABRIELA GARCIA: Hi.

MCCAMMON: Early on in your novel, we hear this phrase from one of the key characters, Maria Isabel - we are force. Where does that come from and what does it mean?

GARCIA: Yeah, it's originally in a letter from Victor Hugo to independence fighters and workers in Cuba. But I was really struck by this phrase because I was thinking about all of the multitudes within women - how they're more than just immigrants or mothers or any of these other labels that are sort of imposed on them. I was interested in the historical forces that, you know, sort of unite all of these women throughout the novel.

MCCAMMON: And Maria Isabel is a Cuban factory worker in the 1860s. She's poor. She's trying to take care of her mother, who's in poor health. And if you would, I'd like you to read from a passage where Maria Isabel is contemplating a marriage proposal.

GARCIA: (Reading) She said yes, though she meant perhaps. Wedding vows had long ceased to signal escape. She said yes because she had nothing left, and a learned man seemed as hopeful a prospect as she could conceive. And she sensed that he too sought a conciliation through marriage. In Maria Isabel, Antonio had found a way to flee without lusting after other shores, had found a reason to feign a braver face each day. She knew, and despite the weight of it accepted her role as liberator of a frightened man. Maria Isabel thought it had always been women who wove the future out of the scraps. Always the characters, never the authors. She knew a woman could learn to resent this post, but she would instead find a hundred books to read.

MCCAMMON: When I read that passage, I was drawn especially to this idea of women weaving a future out of scraps. I wonder if you'd tell me more about that passage and what you were thinking about there.

GARCIA: Yeah. I mean, I was raised in a very matriarchal family. My mother was a single mother. She had a sister. My grandmother had all sisters. I have all sisters. And a lot of the women in my family and my community were, you know, single mothers and sometimes dealing with, you know, the aftermath of failed relationships. But I never felt a lack in any of that. And also in particular with this passage, you know, I was thinking about Maria Isabel working in a factory where she was finding this kind of escape and joy through literature but also all of the books that were read to her, which are the actual books that were read to cigar factory workers during that time, were written by mostly European white men. And so she's hearing about herself always through this particular gaze.

MCCAMMON: You mentioned growing up in a matriarchal family. The mother-daughter relationships in this book are kind of the heart and soul of the book, I would say. And I want to start with Carmen and Jeanette, who are Cuban American. How would you describe the state of their relationship?

GARCIA: I think it's a complicated relationship. I think, you know, Carmen loves her daughter, but in many ways, they don't understand each other. And there are also all of these secrets and silences between them that start to erode the relationship.

MCCAMMON: And then there's Gloria and Ana. They live next door to Jeanette. And when we meet them, Gloria's been detained by ICE while Ana is at school. Ana's alone. And Gloria has shielded her daughter from some uncomfortable facts about their lives. One of the things that comes through in your novel, "Of Women And Salt," is how the lives and decisions of these characters are propelled to some degree by male violence. Why do you think it was important to write about that?

GARCIA: I wanted to write about what it's like to grow up in a violent, patriarchal society while not censuring those men. And so the book is only in the voices and perspectives of the women, and the men sort of exist at the periphery. And a lot of them are violent in various different ways. So I wanted all of it to sort of just center on the women and how they survive in this society.

MCCAMMON: I understand that you're also a poet in addition to a novelist, and I can hear that in some of your prose. I'm wondering if you would read another section where Jeanette, who battles drug addiction, is remembering what it was like sort of just before she became enmeshed in using heroin and also in a complicated relationship with a man named Mario, who also suffered from addiction.

GARCIA: (Reading) Mario and me - we are headed to hell hand in hand, but I don't know this yet. I just know it's not one oxy anymore. I just know I'm falling in love, too - with it, with him - becoming the same thing, falling in love, falling in love. Nobody says rising in love.

MCCAMMON: Gabriela Garcia's new novel is called "Of Women And Salt." Thanks so much for talking with us.

GARCIA: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.