Victor Hugo, Cuban Rap, And Working With Families Facing Deportation: Here's What Inspired "Of Women And Salt"

Gabriela Garcia shares the art, music, and history that inspired her while writing her debut novel.

Black and white cutout of Gabriela Garcia's headshot, placed in front of her book, "Of Women and Salt."

The BuzzFeed Book Club spent April reading Gabriela Garcia's debut novel, Of Women and Salta poignant story following multiple generations of Cuban and Cuban American women as they grapple with grief, addiction, and intergenerational trauma. (Read the first two chapters here.) We asked Garcia to tell us about the inspiration behind the book — what she was reading, listening to, and thinking about. Here's what she had to say.

Different threads of Of Women and Salt came to me at different times. Some of it came to me years ago when I was working as an organizer primarily focused on deportation defense work. I visited a couple of the family detention centers that were cropping up around the country, growing in size each day as deportations ramped up across the country. I started writing these little snippets, observations. I think it was my own way of processing. And some of that writing developed into the thread of the novel that is about Gloria and Ana, a Salvadoran mother and daughter who are neighbors to Jeanette, a character whose family immigrated from Cuba in a very different manner.

Pieces of Jeanette’s family’s story also came to me in different ways, like once, on a trip to Cuba, when I visited a museum exhibit that featured letters from the author Victor Hugo to Cuban independence fighters and workers in the 19th century. My family had always been into cigars, and I’d grown up around Montecristos and Romeo y Julietas, but I had no idea they were named after favorite books read to cigar workers in tobacco factories. My interest in this history sparked the chapter that features Maria Isabel, who is the only woman working in a cigar factory in 1866.

When I started writing the novel, I knew I didn’t want to write a linear story that followed a traditional story structure. I wanted the book to feel fractured, the way memory feels fractured, the way we pass on stories. And so I started combining these different threads that had come to me at different times into a narrative about two families whose lives come together in ways they don’t foresee and that illuminate other kinds of fractures — between mothers and daughters, along racial and class lines, between the stories women tell themselves and the ones they can’t see. I thought a lot about how stories function as I wrote my own.

Because the book has so many origin stories, my inspiration takes a lot of forms.

I listened to Danay Suárez, a Cuban singer and rapper I discovered many years, and Ibeyi, Cuban-born sisters in France who sing in English, Spanish, French, and Yoruba. I also listened to a lot of Lianne La Havas, Celeste, and Perfume Genius. If I ever made a playlist for my book, all of these artists would be on it.

Casa Victor Hugo in La Habana is where I first encountered letters from Victor Hugo to Cuban independence fighters and workers in the 19th century. That interplay between literary culture and a political movement during a fraught moment of vast inequities in Cuba became fascinating to me.

Walking through Vieja Habana and seeing the statue of Cecilia Valdés (from the 1839 novel of the same name, by Cirilo Villaverde) in front of the Ermita del Santo Angel Custodio church got me thinking about the roles of that character and book in shaping Cuba's literary imaginary.

My aunt was very close friends with the late Cuban-born artist Ana Mendieta, and I've gone with her to visit some of the sites of her "earth-body" sculptures in the mountains in Jaruco. I thought a lot about her work around womanhood, violence, identity, and belonging, and in particular about her trans-national artworks in Cuba and the U.S. at a time when there was little dialogue between the two countries.

Irapuato, my father's hometown in Mexico, also figures in the novel. My grandmother's house is right by the train tracks on which freight trains carry migrants from Central America up to the US border. I used to walk by those tracks with her before I understood any of the tensions, any of the political context. ●

Gabriela Garcia is the recipient of a Rona Jaffe Foundation Writer's Award and a Steinbeck fellowship from San Jose State University. Her fiction and poetry have appeared in Best American Poetry, Tin House, Zyzzyva, Iowa Review, and elsewhere. She received an MFA in fiction from Purdue and lives in the Bay Area. Of Women and Salt is her first novel.

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