The Salt Roads: A Novel by Nalo Hopkinson

The Salt Roads: A Novel by Nalo Hopkinson

The Salt Roads is a bold statement about black womanhood across historical space and time past. The novel unfolds in magical chronology; it is a fantasy/magical realist novel that is grounded in history, but woven together through the movements of a spirit-being, Ezili and the Ginen goddess, Lasirén. The spiritual relationship is never fully explained — adding to the magical aspect — between Ezili, Lasirén and the human women whose bodies these spirits inhabit at various moments in time. The salt roads of the title is the trail of tears black women have cried, the salt of those tears having dried and laid a path for all those who came after. It is a well-trod path. Ezili and Lasirén live and relive, walk and walk again on that same path, possessing different bodies.

The plot revolves around three disparate stories, loosely connected by a shared history of racism, gendered suffering, and life-affirming black sexuality. The first lifetime that the novel opens with is that of Mer, an old Ginen woman, a respected elder and healer in the enslaved community in an unnamed French colony in the West Indies. Through her eyes and hands, Mer/Ezili helps the Ginen on the plantation survive their white master’s rages, their unpredictable cruelties. In this lifetime we also encounter Makandal, the male counterpart to Mer/Ezili, another magical being who also seeks to help the Ginen survive, but in different ways. Mer is the female, the feminine, the woman who knows what other women in this oppressed world need to survive. Makandal is the male, the masculine, the combative counterpart.

The second body Ezili occupies belongs to a mixed-race woman in France in 1842, Jeanne Duval (aka Lemer and Prosper). Jeanne is a dancer, an actress, a courtesan, the mistress of a white man. She embodies black sensuality and sexuality in all its forms. Here I think is Hopkinson’s great contribution: the boldness of her sexual prose disrupts the negative images history has painted of black women’s sex. Historical depictions of black women as sexual beings pose Her as savage, deviant, an object to possess. Hopkinson wipes that away. Jeanne Duval is a powerful sexual woman, human and frail and vibrant in her sexuality. She is a temptress, but sex is her weapon, one she has full control over.

The third manifestation of Ezili/Lasirén is called Thais, Meritet, Mary, and Pretty Pearl. Her time is in ancient Egypt. As in Mer’s lifetime, Thais’ experiences are deeply gendered; her body is a sexual, reproductive source and her life is shaped by oppression under forces larger than herself.

Hopkinson’s prose is beautiful, song-like in parts, especially in the sections where Ezili and Lasirén’s voice(s) narrate events. Their spirit presence is attached to, but not fully part of their human manifestation’s consciousness. They are experiencing humanity through the bodies they possess as much as they are imparting their power and strength to these women.

The novel is not a historical fiction in the traditional sense; it is not factually informative, but it conveys the affect and emotional experience of enslaved, black, women’s history. It conveys the psychological tensions of this history. It also shows the reader a different way to view the historical enslaved black woman, a woman who has become an archetype. Hopkinson revises Her, suffuses Her with a humanity through raw sexuality and the materiality of her womb.

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