Of Women and Salt: A Beautiful Novel from Flatiron Books Rubs Salt in the Wounds of the Black Caribbean
In Of Women and Salt, debut novelist Gabriela Garcia exposes the matrilineal wounds marking a long line of Cubanas. While Garcia does so to treat their injuries, salt can represent danger in the Caribbean. It is a thing thrown at you, not a curse but close; it can suck you dry of any goodness. Of Women and Salt demonstrates how one family’s salt dessicates them, preventing them from experiencing joy’s full spectrum. By the end of the narrative, Carmen, the protagonist’s mother, begs her daughter, Jeanette: “Tell me you want to live, and I’ll be anything you want me to be. But I can’t will enough life for the both of us.” Through complex and nuanced mother-daughter relationships developed across five generations, Garcia shows us that history compulsively displaces the present. As a Black woman with Dominican roots who has struggled with my family’s own complex lineage, I empathize with this generational weight.
Of Women and Salt opens in Camagüey, Cuba, as the island struggles to liberate itself from Spanish colonial rule. The year is 1866 and we are introduced to Maria Isabel, a lover of stories and the only woman in her town to work in a tobacco factory. Garcia writes, “For Maria Isabel, a scorching anxiety had long replaced those lofty early notions: freedom, liberty. She hated the unknowing. She hated that her own survival depended on a shadowy political future she could hardly envision.” Through Maria Isabel, Garcia summons the presence of Emilia Casanova de Villaverde, a historical figure who belonged to a wealthy, creole family that owned slaves. While Casanova de Villaverde purportedly did not share her family’s racist views, the political activist nonetheless benefited from their class status and whiteness. Like Jose Marti and other Cubans who wrote from the comfort of their homes or exile, Casanova de Villaverde wanted Cuba to experience freedom from Spain. Her political goals, however, involved establishing power dynamics in Cuba that uplifted the likes of her family at the expense of Black Cubans.
It’s not hard to understand why white creole Cubans spoke only to one another and never to the likes of the Cuban Liberation Army, those actually working toward freedom. Black Cubans comprised most of the army’s forces but Black people were seldom included in the vision that white creoles imagined for an independent Cuba. In Of Women and Salt, a revolutionary lector secretly reads Casanova de Villaverde’s letter, which she penned from exile, to the women of Cuba. In the letter, Casanova de Villaverde demonstrates her unyielding support for Cuban women and affirms their plight. Towards the end, she states, “Who are we, weakness? No, we are a force.” This declaration then animates five generations of women.
The narrative darts throughout time and North-American space, shifting away from Maria Isabel in 19th century Cuba to present-day Miami with Jeanette and Carmen. Next comes 20th century Cuba with Dolores and her daughters, and then the narrative lands in contemporary Mexico, and the US, with Ana and Gloria. Jeanette, the main character, is an addict who suffered childhood trauma. She is also bound up in a generational cycle of grief passed down to her matrilineally. With her mother, Carmen, Jeanette feels transparent: “See me, see me, I think. Just for this one moment, see me. I am sinking. I am screaming, Tell me how to live, Mommy.” In the thrall of her toxic ex-boyfriend, Mario, Jeanette states, “…I try to be all things and nothing, and sometimes I feel that I am dissolving and I lean into the mirror, like my mother, and touch my face: I am still here.” Jeanette always belongs to others, never to herself.
When the novel opens, Jeanette is trying to stay afloat, above her addiction. Then, her neighbor, Gloria, is taken by ICE, and Jeanette shelters her young daughter, Ana, forming a strong bond while caring for her. However, in a matter of days, Carmen convinces Jeannette to surrender Ana to ICE. This part of the story made me uncomfortable–as the daughter of immigrants, documented and undocumented, I do not know one person who would surrender a child to ICE. This decision speaks to the privileged position people like Jeanette and Carmen hold in the United States. The traumatic and complex experience of being undocumented is unfamiliar to them. While Carmen belongs to a group of Cuban migrants encouraged to find relief in the US due to the country’s deep resentment of Fidel Castro’s regime, Ana and Gloria are denied refuge from violence in El Salvador. They are framed as the wrong sort of refugees and are criminalized “illegal.” With Ana gone, Jeanette becomes adamant about uncovering her own past. She understands that the wounds she tries to numb through her addiction are not entirely her own. She inherited them.
Soon after the incident with ICE, Jeanette travels to Cuba to visit her cousin and estranged grandmother for the first time. She starts drinking, and finds Maria Isabel’s copy of Les Misérables with the inscription: “We are a force.” In a desperate attempt to get her life in order, Jeanette snatches up the novel and plans to sell the antique book when she returns to the US. At this moment, Jeanette’s decision making and thinking process become painful to read; that a person reaping the benefits of life in the Global North would mine the history and resources of an exploited place to save herself unsettled me. Garcia, however, masterfully produces a complex female character who compels readers to root for her. With the profit from her book sale, Jeanette plans to improve her life, pay her rent, and send money to relatives in Cuba. The latter part of her plan, to play savior to her Cuban family, springs from guilt over her theft and betrayal. Still, the gesture endears the reader to her. By this point in the narrative, Garcia has humanized Jeanette and connected the reader to those who came before her. When her grandmother, Dolores, whom the reader knows intimately by now, claims that the antique book has been stolen by Yosmenny, a Black neighbor, Jeanette returns the book to its place, and Jeanette’s fate seems inevitable.
In Of Women and Salt, Garcia gestures towards race and ethnicity, including race relations between Cuban characters. When Garcia brings her readers to 19th century Cuba, she mentions creoles, mulattos, and the relationship between enslaved and free Black people. From Dolores’ point of view in 20th century Cuba, Garcia writes, “She knew her children looked feral in comparison–dirty and darker and poor.” I cringed at this line and later, it is established that Dolores’ daughter, Carmen, is a white Cuban carrying a racist, colonized mindset. Nonetheless, Garcia fails to dig into race until the end of the book. When Dolores tells her granddaughter, “You can’t trust Black men,” Jeanette thinks, “But it isn’t as though Black Cubans fare better in Miami, where racism is polite, quiet. This is the fact: In Miami, Cuban is synonymous with white. In Miami, Cubans will scoff when you call them Latino. ‘I’m not Latino, I’m Cuban,’ they will say. By which they mean, I am white, another kind of white you don’t know about, outsider.” I found myself on the edge of my seat thinking Garica was about to “go there” at this moment, but she disappointed me by tiptoeing around the opportunity.
Jeanette, a non-Black character, lacks legitimacy, and critical insight, when it comes to articulating racist dynamics. Racism is never “quiet” or “polite.” After making Yosmenny, the only Black character in the novel, bear the lazy and heavy trope of Black thief, Garcia’s lines struck me as abusive, tone-deaf, and disingenuous. Despite Garcia’s identification of Black, mulatto, and white Cubans, she does very little to acknowledge that all of the stories within the novel center Cubans who have survived due to the violence of racial capitalism. The Cubans allowed to leave Cuba, with the exclusion of the Mariel Boatlift, are seldom Black, and that is deliberate. Jeanette’s family doesn’t only benefit from whiteness; they also hold class privilege. Jeanette’s father, also Cuban, is a surgeon in Florida. It was refreshing to read a non-Black Latina acknowledge Caribbean identities, but it was agonizing to watch her fumble the acknowledgement of how racism is the very reason her characters held privilege in the US and on the island. While Garcia attempts to contribute to the larger conversation of race and ethnicity in Cuba, Black Cubans remain peripheral. That is a problem, period.
The most memorable Black Cuban character, Yosmenny, does not arrive until the end of the book. When Jeanette steals Les Misérables, Dolores reflexively blames Yosmenny. In doing so, Garcia creates a Black character that leans heavily on an age-old stereotype defined by theft and criminality only to leave the conflict of anti-Blackness unresolved. As soon as Jeannette returns the book, Yosmenny’s significance evaporates and Dolores remains a racist, old white Cuban. This plot device frustrated me. It speaks to the ways in which many non-Black authors are careless and anything but intentional when creating and inserting Black characters into their plots. Yosmenny’s character reminds us that all representation is not good representation. She also demonstrates the wisdom of poet Melania-Luisa Marte: “Black people are being given a seat at the table, but not everyone has to clean after the dinner is over and done with.”
Of Women and Salt is not about Yosmenny. It concerns Jeanette and her family’s matrilineal trauma. Still, I cannot unsee the fact that historically and presently erased people continue to go unseen or are turned into stereotypes used to advance a plot. Garcia isn’t doing the work of creating characters that show and challenge the rawness of racism in colonized spaces like Cuba because, perhaps, it isn’t hers to do. Blackness in Cuba is not Garcia’s lane, but white supremacy in Cuba is.
For centuries, white Cubans have excluded Black Cubans from their spaces. Through Dash Harris, an expert on Black Latin-American history, I learned of Luis Delfin. In the early 20th century, Delfin, a Black Cuban man, had to leave Cuba to attend Tuskegee University, a historically Black university in the US, because white supremacy on the island foreclosed his academic advancement. Garcia slid into the lane that willingly narrated whiteness, detailing a very realistic racist, Cuban grandmother, but then abandoned her exploration immediately. Why? What is stopping non-Black writers from doing anti-racist work through storytelling? What is keeping non-Black Latines from exploring their privilege in Latin America and the US? While Of Women and Salt tells a necessary story, I remain adamant about the fact that we still need more stories. We cannot continue to have elementary conversations around race, identity, and privilege in the Caribbean and Latin America just to make outsiders comfortable. We must raise the bar. Of Women and Salt cannot be the only Cuban-American novel in the years to come. Most importantly, In order to write our own authentic narratives, Black authors with roots in the Caribbean and Latin America are deserving of the space and the abundant pay that some non-Black Latine authors receive.
As a Black woman from the US with Caribbean roots, I’ve found a deep affinity with Cuba, one that I don’t necessarily find with other cultural counterparts. This appreciation springs from the way Blackness is obvious to the naked eye upon arrival. I am not alone in this. Marjua Estévez, a Caribbean-American writer who often speaks of and to the Black Caribbean diasporic tradition, states:
“My adolescent understanding of Cuba was tragically informed…by my considerable time in Tampa Bay, where there was and still remains a large white, conservative Cuban population. My personal visits to the island in my adult years, ones that were in fact orchestrated by other Black Caribbean women with deep-rooted tethers to Cuba, showed me who Cubans really are. The Capital of Havana alone is an overwhelmingly Black city with a profound leaning toward ancestral knowledge and has managed to keep intact their indigenous forms of worship, for instance, despite slavery, forced migration, and political warfare. Cuba was the largest slave colony in all of what we know today as Latin America—it can be seen upon arrival in Cuba. Blackness is prevalent in Cuban culture. From how Cubans cook their meals, to how they keep their dead alive, to how they manage, to love.”
Because of the Cuba I’ve been privy to through my own experiences, as well as through other Black folks with Caribbean roots, I was left disappointed not to see the overwhelmingly Black side of Cuba. By doing the bare minimum when it comes to Blackness, Garcia did what non-Black Caribbeans and Latines do often: ignore an entire population. A Black Cuban man living on the island in his 30’s shared:
“Here in Cuba, Black folks are treated like every other Black person in the world. It’s very hard, no matter how you put it it’s heavy because you can see the difference between Black and white people in Cuba through their homes and people’s living conditions. The relationship between Black and white Cubans is what it is. When I go to the MLC stores [fully stocked supermarkets] or the embassy to fix up my paperwork, they don’t look at you, it is as if you don’t exist, and if they look at you, you already know what they’re thinking. Here in Cuba, white Cubans are your friends, but when they see they have more possibilities to come up than you, they stop talking for you, they stop looking for you.”
Perhaps Garcia isn’t responsible for highlighting this part of Cuba. However, as someone who I assume researched the island in depth, it’s infuriating that Black folks were diminished to a stereotype that served as nothing more than a stepping stone for Jeanette’s character development.
Despite grief, political turmoil, abuse, and addiction, the six lives presented to us in this novel remain grounded and prepared to keep pushing through. Garcia’s beautiful prose, which poetically depicted the fortitude her characters displayed in order to survive, kept me engaged and invested in Of Women and Salt.
“We are a force. We are more than we think we are,” writes Garcia and by the end of the novel, Jeanette makes space for the power of her ancestors to take root and do some good. Her death makes space for Ana to mature and tap into resources and privileges she could not have touched otherwise. In a way, Jeanette becomes a martyr. And still, Black folks, Black Cubans, Black readers have to walk away from this Of Women and Salt empty-handed. That’s fine though. As our survival shows, we, Black folks, got our own ancestors, our own stories, and our own backs. We gon’ be alright.
Lorraine Avila is the author of Malcriada and Other Stories. She is a Black Bronxite with Caribbean roots in the Dominican Republic. Her mission is to break free from generational trauma by continuing to rupture the traditions of silence. Avila has a BA from Fordham University in English and Middle East studies with a minor in Creative Writing and an MA in Teaching from New York University. She is an anti-racist educator; her expertise lies in middle school literacy. Her writing has been published in Latino USA, Catapult Magazine, Asteri(x) Journal, Hippocampus Magazine, Moko Magazine, The GirlMob, Accentos Review, La Galeria Magazine, and Blavity. Follow her on Twitter @lorraineavila_ or visit her website www.lorraineavila.com