The Salt Roads by Nalo Hopkinson - A Novel - 2003 - 410 Pages
“The Salt Roads should be required reading for the next century. An electrifying bravura performance by one of our most important writers.” —Junot Diaz, author of The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao
“How do I know anything? How is it that my arms stretched out in front of me are so pale? How to I even know that they should be brown like riverbank mud, as they were when I was many goddesses with many worshippers, ruling in lands on the other side of a great, salty ocean? I used to be many, but now we are one, all squeezed together, many necks in one coffle. ”
― Nalo Hopkinson, The Salt Roads
So far this year I have been stunned by the depth and Beauty of two novels by writers hithertonow unread by me. The first was The Master and Margarita by Michail Bulgakov The Salt Roads by Nalo Hopkinson is just amazing beyond my powers to describe how I feel about it.
The Salt Roads focus on the lives of three women of color, living out the consequences of enslavement by Europeans.
We begin on a sugar plantation on Saint-Domingue (now Haiti and The Domican Republic) in the opening years of the
18th century. Mer is a slave on a sugar plantations. (Saint-Domingue was a French colony from 1659 to 1804). She is respected as a healer, using knowledge she brought with her from Africa. Sugar plantations were run in a terrible brutal fashion. Slaves were worked to death in a few years then replaced either with new imports or slave born children. When we first encounter her she is with her companion Tipinge, they have accompanied Gerorgina to the River to bury her still born child. Georgina is her early teens and works in the House of the plantation Master. The father is white man. It is now we learn the meaning of the title, The Salt Roads and are introduced to Lasirén, an African Goddess whose rebirth is enduced by their cries. The Goddess tells Mer she born from song and prayer.
Later on the river bank Lasirén asks Mer to find out why the salt roads are drying up. Mer now narrating,
“"The sea roads, they're drying up."
"The sea is drying up?"
"Not this sea, Stupid child!" Her tail slapped, sent up a fountain, exploding and drenching me. "The sea in the minds of my Ginen. The sea roads, the salt roads. And the sweet ones, too; the rivers. Can't follow them to their sources any more. You must fix it, Mer"
I did a word count on “salt”, it occurs 83 times. Some times it is sea salt, on food or licked from the body of a lover.
Terrible things happen on the plantation. Slaves are whipped for working too slow and can be burned to death if they are viewed as a threat by the whites. Slave women are at the sexual mercy of white men. In turn some slaves working as cooks in big houses begin to introduce slow poison into food and water. Some houses are burned. We attend meetings of slaves plotting revolt. Some of the slaves, who greatly out number the whites, are very eager for this and others fear the consequences. Some slaves inform to the masters to gain status or seek revenge for offenses.
The next two women are drawn from history. Jean DuVal is remembered as the mistress of the French poet Charles Baudelaire. She was born 1820 in Haiti and died in Paris about 1870. With her mother she moved to
Paris in 1842. When we first encounter her she has a day off at the brothel she works at and is having an intense sexual encounter with another woman of African descent. There are long very x-rated descriptions of oral sex which contribute another kind meaning to salt.
To Baudelaire creole women like Duval were exotic and sensual, and not a proper. Their relationship lasted on and off for twenty years. He does support her and her mother until for a while his own mother cuts way back on his allowance, not approving of his Life Style. DuVal is for a time visited by Laserin who is one of The four narrators.
We meet our third central human character. Thais, also known as Meritet, Mary, and Pretty Pearl, is the third main human character. She is a Nubian slave and prostitute living in Alexandria, Egypt. She will become Saint Mary of Egypt.
She and a fellow slave prostitute Judah decide to run away from their Masters to visit Jerusalem,then known as Aelia Capitolina. She is inhabited by Lasirén who influenced her decision to visit a famous church. As she enters the church she has a miscarriage. Her blood is considered a desecration of the church by all but one who guides her toward her destiny.
There is so much of interest here. In the midst of a section on Jean Duval Mer May appear. The narrative structure is very imaginatively rendered in a mix of long and short sections. Many intriguing minor characters come and go.
I was deeply drawn into The Salt Roads. In all three segments we see the intertwining of sexuality and prostitution over long periods of history. Sex is also an escape and a way to reconnect with the ancient Salt Roads.
“Nola Hopkinson’s first novel, Brown Girl in the Ring, was published as the winner of the Warner Aspect First Novel Contest in 1998 and won the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer and the Locus Award for Best First Novel. She has published five additional novels, including the Andre Norton Award–winning Sister Mine, and three collections of her short fiction.
Hopkinson has also proven herself an adept editor, guest-editing an issue of Lightspeed Magazine and editing five anthologies, including Whispers from the Cotton Tree Root: Caribbean Fabulist Fiction and So Long Been Dreaming: Postcolonial Science Fiction & Fantasy. Hopkinson has also won the British Fantasy Award, the Aurora Award, the Gaylactic Spectrum Award, and the Sunburst Award. She has taught at Clarion East, Clarion West, and Clarion South and is a professor of creative writing at the University of California, Riverside.
SFWA President Mary Robinette Kowal adds:
“I have loved Nalo Hopkinson’s work since 1999 when I discovered her through the short story “Precious” in a Datlow/Windling anthology Silver Birch, Blood Moon. Each new piece continues to delight me and stretch me as a reader and makes me bolder as a writer.
“Naming Nalo as Grand Master recognizes not only her phenomenal writing but also her work as an educator who has shaped so many of the rising stars of modern SFF.” From
I hope to read through her body of work