A Space of Unknowing: Talking with Gabriela Garcia


It starts with a loose thread.

What unravels is a prismatic multigenerational debut that follows five generations of women—mothers and daughters—across the Cuban diaspora. To say Of Women and Salt, written by debut author Gabriela Garcia and forthcoming from Flatiron Books tomorrow, has attracted some early attention would be a profound understatement; it has appeared on almost every much-anticipated list you can think of. Be it for its gorgeously poetic prose or—what many would call—timely subject matter, Garcia has announced her arrival well before her date of publication.

From nineteenth-century Cuba to present-day Miami and Mexico, Garcia threads the lives of Latinx women bound by inherited trauma and the stories—both known and unknown—passed down between them. Jeanette battles addiction in present-day Miami. Her mother, Carmen, a Cuban immigrant, is reticent in offering stories about her own upbringing in Cuba, still processing the trauma of displacement and her difficult relationship with her own mother. After taking in the daughter of a neighbor detained by ICE, Jeanette resolves to travel to Cuba to meet her grandmother and bridge the gaps in her family history that have—for as long as she can remember—felt like a dislocation in self.

Stringing together detention, deportation, addiction, privilege, and survival despite it all, all while rebuking the idea of a singular immigrant identity and experience, Garcia honors the complex interior lives of women who share their stories with tenacity and conviction. What results is an intersection of stories that live in the overlap of personal and political, and exposes the grim legacy of a system that eclipses any timely angle.

Garcia and I emailed back and forth, talking about her own family’s past, the questions that lead to writing this novel, and why she refutes timeliness in fiction.


The Rumpus: This book is a multigenerational odyssey. Did you follow one narrative thread, which split along the way, or did you sort of have a bird’s-eye view of five generations of stories from the get-go?

Gabriela Garcia: I knew that I didn’t want to write in a traditional linear form and that I wanted to challenge myself to experiment with many different voices and styles, but I wasn’t entirely sure what that would look like when I first started writing. Early on I thought that perhaps I would write a novel in stories, but then I started working in chapters that didn’t work as standalone pieces. And I kind of followed the threads that seemed most interesting to me—the characters and family members that I myself had questions about or wanted to explore further—and whatever plan or story I had in mind when I first began went out the window. The novel ended up going in a totally different direction.

Rumpus: Which character did you want to explore the most at first? Why?

Garcia: At first I didn’t have a specific character on which the novel hinged, but as I wrote I kept returning to Jeanette, and she kind of became the central character. I think she was maybe the easiest to access, because although she is quite different from me, we are both daughters of a Cuban immigrant, grew up in Miami, etc. So there were a few entry points to her character that I felt I understood.

Rumpus: Are there any overlaps with your own upbringing as the daughter of Cuban and Mexican immigrants? Are there any characters you relate to the most, and, if so, how?

Garcia: There are some ways that I could envision the daughters of immigrants like Jeanette and Ana based on my own dynamics with my parents and the ways I’ve negotiated and understood my relationship to Cuba and Mexico. But more so than my upbringing, I was thinking about how different my own parents’ immigration paths were, based on factors like race, class, and countries of origin. And that influenced the way I thought about the immigrant characters in my novel coming from really different realities.

Rumpus: I’m personally interested and invested in what is passed down from generation to generation, so this book speaks to me—especially Jeanette’s intense yearning to know more about her mother’s past in Cuba. Did an interest in your own family’s story set the stage for this book? If so, how?

Garcia: I’ve always wondered about my own family’s past and about all of the past I can never recover or have access to. When I was writing the book, I was thinking a lot about how much our lives are shaped by stories, both the ones we know or tell ourselves, and the ones we don’t know. I was also thinking about the tensions that exist in some Cuban American families around travel to Cuba—I had a lot of friends growing up who had never been and whose families kind of forbade it. I didn’t have those tensions in my family, and we regularly traveled to Cuba, but I wondered what it would be like for someone like Jeanette who goes for the first time and for whom Cuba and her mother’s past have existed as an imaginary, a kind of deeply flawed mythology.

Rumpus: Did any of your friends’ stories growing up stand out in particular when writing this book?

Garcia: Well, with Jeanette I was thinking about the people I knew who maybe had a curiosity about Cuba growing up or had family there but felt like they would be betraying their family if they traveled to Cuba. That was very different from my experience, but was present for many, many children of early-wave Cuban immigrants.

Rumpus: One of the things this book sets out to rebuke is the monolithic idea of the immigrant experience—that being Latinx doesn’t just mean one thing. How has your own upbringing in Miami influenced your writing and why was it important for you to combat this inaccurate narrative that, more times than not, fails to factor race and class into the equation?

Garcia: Miami exemplifies how Latinx is not a monolithic or cohesive identity because it’s the only large city where people categorized as Latinx make up the majority of the population. Yet it’s a city with deep divisions marked by race and class and ethnicity. Growing up in Miami, as the daughter of Cuban and Mexican immigrants, I was very aware, for example, of the very different realities that existed for Cuban immigrants and Mexican immigrants. Cuban immigrants, especially the older generations, had a direct path to citizenship as soon as they touched ground in the US, and those first waves of immigrants were overwhelmingly white and had enjoyed a level of wealth and privilege in Cuba before the revolution that set them up for success in the US. So, I don’t believe there is such a thing as “the immigrant experience,” because there are such different experiences based on race and class and what drives migration. It was important to me that I reflect a real version of Miami which was truthful about the divisions that exist.

Rumpus: I think a lot of immigrant narratives, include the depiction of immigrant mothers as suffering and sacrificing, and while some of the characters of this book do exhibit these qualities, they are also so much more: they have secrets, desires, vulnerabilities. They are imperfect. Why was it important for you to look beyond their identities as mothers?

Garcia: The suffering and sacrificing immigrant mother is definitely a trope, and to me it leaves little room for questioning why we laud suffering and sacrifice in the first place, why we expect this of immigrant mothers rather than critiquing the material circumstances that create suffering and the kinds of macro and micro inequities that force sacrifice. There’s a part in the novel where Ana gives her mother Gloria a card thanking her for “sacrificing” everything for her, and Gloria has a moment where she asks Ana if that’s what she expects of her, and that’s what I was thinking about. Gloria is often dreaming of all of these other paths for herself, and sometimes even questions how she feels about motherhood, while at the same time fiercely loving her daughter. I wanted there to be room for that kind of complexity, and for characters that are often deeply flawed and contain multitudes.

Rumpus: There’s a link between Cecilia and Dolores, symbolized by an “X” in the family tree that precedes the book. Why did you choose not to disclose this woman’s identity, not even her name?

Garcia: I was thinking about the way historical-knowing functions, especially within a family—how we often understand a story in glimpses, can never see the full picture, know some of the characters but not others, imagine our own mythologies into the empty spaces. I knew that I didn’t want to write a traditional family saga that delved into every generation but rather that I wanted the associations to coalesce around certain echoes and resonances. So, the X is just a space of unknowing.

Rumpus: I think a lot of the stories we make up for ourselves take root in that space of unknowing. Is storytelling as survival one of the things you wanted to communicate to your readers?

Garcia: I think storytelling can be about survival, and even making up stories into those spaces of unknowing can be about survival sometimes. But I think stories have many different functions, and they can even perpetuate harm sometimes. I wanted to explore the complexities of storytelling—the silences, what is left out, who is telling them, when and whether reclamation is possible, what is true and what is myth.

Rumpus:. There are still many who disregard the idea that trauma can be passed down—a common question people ask under the search result “intergenerational trauma” is “is intergenerational trauma real?—despite actual evidence that proves otherwise (e.g., Native Americans experiencing higher rates of depression, substance dependence, etc. as a result of loss of population, culture, and land suffered by previous generations). Is intergenerational trauma something you’ve researched and what would you say to those questioning the legitimacy of the research in this field?

Garcia: I wouldn’t claim any expertise at all, but I’m familiar with some of the research, and I’m intrigued by some of the findings around epigenetics that point to actual biological theories of how trauma is passed down. But I think what’s clear, regardless of where someone falls on the research, is that the legacies created by historical traumas are real and have reverberating effects. I think this is true on a larger scale—and maybe easier to see on a larger scale—but also within families. And, I think some of the tragedy in the novel is rooted in characters not wanting to acknowledge this, not wanting to talk about it, not wanting to look at the past.

Rumpus: I think a lot of people understand the bevy of emotions that come from observing someone you love—especially family members—actively avoid or evade questions about their past for a plethora of reasons. What would you tell someone who still has questions tethered to who they are and where they come from, and may never get the answers they seek?

Garcia: I guess I would question whether we can ever get the truth. Part of what’s hard is that stories are filtered through the storyteller so understanding the lens is also important. I’ve certainly heard lots of stories about different family members’ pasts and questioned whether I would’ve interpreted that past in the same way. It’s so complicated. In many ways, we just have to accept that there is so much we will never know.

Rumpus: The phrase “we are force,” which lives in the spine of an old copy of Les Misérables, travels through this book, from Camagüey, Cuba in 1866 to Miami in 2019. What made you choose this story, and the phrase written within, to be a link between the mothers and daughters in this book?

Garcia: The quotes in the nineteenth-century chapter are from actual books, correspondence, and newspaper articles that lectors read to Cuban cigar rollers during that time. I first encountered the phrase “we are force” in a letter from Victor Hugo to Cuban independence fighters that was on display at a museum in Cuba. I was fascinated by this interplay between literature and workers and politics. I remember being struck by his letters to the “women of Cuba” in particular. It was interesting to me that tobacco workers were exposed to all of this literature, and that it influenced entire political movements, but that the books were overwhelmingly written by white men and that even depictions of Cuban women or addresses to Cuban women came through this avenue. I wondered what it would be like for María Isabel to find her world opened up by these readings, to find power in them, while at the same time being aware of the voices missing and the space she herself is given and not given to forge her own story. I was interested in these questions about stories, in whether reclamation is possible, how stories even function and are passed down, and the phrase felt like a way into those questions, both literally and figuratively. And I loved all of the different ways to think about force, historical forces but also the forceful bonds that can exist between women in different ways.

Rumpus: A lot of people would call this book “timely,” but deportation and the atrocities occurring at the border and the separation of parents and children in detention centers have affected immigrants well beyond just one presidential term. Is this why most of the chapters take place before our previous president took office? 

Garcia: You’re right. I push back on the idea of “timely” topics in fiction, because it’s like, timely to whom? I wrote the chapters that take place in a detention center long before I knew Trump would ever become president, so that’s really the reason they are set during that time. I started writing some of it while I was working as an organizer and working on deportation defense work and talking to a lot of women in detention. At the time, getting any kind of large-scale media attention on what was happening in these detention centers was exceedingly difficult. And I worry that the same is happening now. 

Rumpus: Did writing this book help you come to terms with the things in your own family’s past that you told me you didn’t have access to or will never recover?

Garcia: That’s an interesting question. It certainly made me think about how much I don’t know and how I relate to my own family or the women in my life, but I don’t know that I came to terms with anything! It’s more like I have more questions.


Photograph of Gabriela Garcia by Andria Lo.

Greg Mania is the author of the memoir Born to Be Public. More from this author →