Gabriela García’s highly anticipated debut novel Of Women and Salt will inevitably draw comparisons to Jeanine Cummins’ American Dirt — an analogy García is well aware of.
“I think in many ways, there’s a lot of pressure on me, having written the lead title coming out of Flatiron after the American Dirt controversy,” García said. “There’s so much pressure on Latinx authors in general, especially because so few books authored by us receive resources.”
Both novels center on Latin American immigration experiences; claim Flatiron Books, a division of Macmillian, as their publisher; and have received numerous accolades. Yet the similarities between Of Women and Salt, a multigenerational family tale that centers Jeanette, a Cuban American woman grappling with addiction in present-day Miami, and American Dirt, a book about a woman named Lydia who flees Mexico with her son to escape violence after her husband is murdered by the leader of a drug cartel, end there. Among their most critical differences is that American Dirt — which led to the creation of #DignidadLiteraria, a network of authors and activists pushing for more Latinx representation in the publishing industry — was widely criticized as harmful and stereotypical. The controversy not only revealed the dearth of Latinos in all roles in book production, but also highlighted the need to redefine what constitutes a Latinx story.
There’s so much pressure on Latinx authors in general, especially because so few books authored by us receive resources.
“Writing Of Women and Salt really reinforced for me how Latinx identity is nebulous and not monolithic and gave me the opportunity to write against the flattening of latinidad and first generation experiences,” García said, adding there’s still an “Anglo, white, monolithic idea of what supporting Latinx writing looks like” and that the publishing industry needs to give a platform to more Black and indigenous voices. “Part of the problem happens when we call for more representation and stop there – we end up with the same representation we had.”
The complicated nature of identity is something García explores in Of Women and Salt, which shifts location and time periods as often as it shifts perspectives. The novel begins in 2018 with a plea from Jeanette’s mother, Carmen, and just as quickly transposes the reader to 19th century Camagüey, where Jeanette’s great-great grandmother, María Isabel, is working in a cigar factory. These aren’t the only characters we hear from either; some of the twelve chapters in Of Women and Salt are also told from the perspective of Jeanette’s grandmother Dolores, her cousin Maydelis, and Jeanette’s neighbor Gloria. Though Gloria and Jeanette never meet, Gloria, an undocumented Salvadoran immigrant, figures prominently in the book after Jeanette witnesses ICE taking her neighbor into custody. Gloria is separated from her daughter, Ana, who was at school when ICE arrived at their doorstep, so Jeanette decides to temporarily take the young girl in. Of Women and Salt’s final chapter is narrated by Ana, who returns to Miami some years later in search of Jeanette to thank her for her support after Gloria’s deportation.
“I knew I didn’t want to tell a linear one-voice story,” García said. “I’ve always been interested in writers who take on many different writing styles in one piece of work.”
Part of the problem happens when we call for more representation and stop there – we end up with the same representation we had.
García, who said she began writing “snippets of what would later become the novel” when she was an MFA student at Purdue University, was greatly influenced by her experiences growing up as a Latina in Miami and her work in migrant justice organizing. The author, whose parents are Cuban and Mexican immigrants, said she worked on several campaigns for families in detention centers in Texas as well as with immigrants in Florida and New Jersey. The people she encountered there and her family were at the forefront of her mind when she began writing Of Women and Salt.
“I’ve thought a lot about being the daughter of immigrants from Cuba and Mexico. My own parents had different paths to immigration and these two parts of my identity reflect different experiences,” García said. “The challenge was to combine all these pieces I’d been thinking about for a long time into an interconnected story.”
When Of Women and Salt is released March 23, García will have much to celebrate; the writer said she struggled with feeling confident in her writing and had once considered the thought of being a published author “audacious.” If she had her way, she said she probably could have “toyed with” the novel for years but thanks to her mentors — including Roxanne Gay, who she worked with at Purdue — she finally got to a place where she felt comfortable turning it in.
I’ve been really moved by the ways people sought out art and writing during this time.
“It’s a really strange feeling trying to find space for celebration and milestones when there’s so much sadness and hardship,” García said. “I’ve been really moved by the ways people sought out art and writing during this time.”