Monday, June 28, 2021

Of Women and Salt by Gabriela Garcia

Gabriela Garcia’s 2021 debut novel is really a collection of interconnected stories, spanning several generations of women. The first story is about women cigar rollers in pre-Castro Cuba.

The air thickened. Maria Isabel had by then breathed so much tobacco dusts she developed regular nosebleeds, but the foreman didn’t permit workers to open the window slats more than a sliver—sunlight would dry the cigars. So she hid her cough. She was the only woman in the workshop. She didn’t want to appear weak.

A quick overview: Carmen came from Cuba to the U.S., and has always felt displaced. Her daughter, Jeanette, is addicted to drugs, and is determined to find out more about family history, and thus goes from Miami to Cuba to learn  more from her grandmother  than her very reticent mother will tell her. Carmen has taken in the daughter of neighbor who has been detained by ICE. Jeanette travels to Cuba and the stories of the three women unravel in  snippets via the stories of women who write down their histories. 

Once in Cuba, now under Castro, she begins to hear or read the stories. 

Study has become a habit among them; today they leave behind the cockfight in order to read a newspaper or book; now they scorn the bullring; today it is the theater the library, and the centers of good association where they are seen in constant attendance.

While the author is quite willing to expose the difficulties of the poor in Castro’s Cuba (and the racism that is denied, and claimed to be only an American problem), she makes it clear that most are much better off than before when American corporations took from Cuba its wealth of natural goods and gave back little.

The grandmother in Cuba has seen the brutal treatment of those who shout for change. She sees the coming revolution that is born of blood and poverty.  Married to a disenchanted intellectual who joins the struggle, she is denied access to the group of agitators once he knows she is pregnant. 

She placed one hand on her belly and felt the something  in her move and stretch as if seeking its freedom, felt as if the whole world were her womb. She wanted to write her own words. She wanted to write her life into existence and endure. Perhaps a piece of her knew death crouched close.

While much of the book is concerned with the political struggles that led to the overthrow of corrupt, American controlled dictators, and then the new set of problem under Castro, the author is also swept away by the incredible natural beauty of Cuba. In a chapter titled “An Encyclopedia of Birds”, the birds a metaphor for captivity and the struggle for flight and freedom:

The burrowing parrot also known as the Patagonian conure also as the burrowing parakeet is the only bird species with eyelashes. This is a little-known fact. Another little-known fact is that burrowing parrots, while often purchased as pets, become exasperated if caged too long. Burrowing parrots need interaction. They need color. If you separate two burrowing parrots, in short order the one left behind will die. She will die of loneliness.

Birds fly even if it kills them.

She speaks of the baby jails where the children of deportees are kept, and of the children’s crayon drawings of birds, there is no sun in the drawings. 

I don’t know what you remember, but they didn’t tell us where they were taking us. I thought we were going before a judge finally. I thought I could argue my case, my credible fear. I had practiced. Instead they boarded us onto a bus with bars on the windows and dropped us off in Mexico. We were Salvadoran by nationality but Mexico was just a few hours away, and that’s where we’d come from , so there they left us. Said, Find you way home. We were supposed to be turned over to Mexican immigration officials, but I guess they didn’t show up. Or they thought we were Mexican.

Story after story about women and children. 

Jeanette had added her own words, We are more than we think we are

I will leave you with the last words of the book which sum up the author’s view well.

And though Ana had no idea why Jeanette had written those words, she chose to believe the sentence, the scribble, was a cry across time. Women? Certain women? We are more than we think we are. There was always more. She had no idea what else life would ask of her, force out of her, but right then  there was cake and candles and this, a gift. She thought that she, too, might give away the book someday, though she had no idea to whom. Someone who reminded her of herself maybe. Someone drawn to stories.

Garcia is a wonderful story-teller, and she understands the power of stories. 

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