Published in 2003 by Warner Books, Nalo Hopkinson’s The Salt Roads is as rich and dazzling as it is visceral and exhausting. Through the eyes of Lasiren, a Loa, and the three women whose lives become intertwined with her consciousness, Hopkinson leads her readers on a journey many lifetimes long and centuries apart.
The Salt Roads begins, in the most literal sense, on a Haitian sugar plantation during the life of an older slave woman named Mer, but it will cross time and space to show us France during the life of Jeanne Duval, and even more time and space to the journeys of Thais of Alexandria during the Roman Empire. It finds its richest inspiration in Carribean lore, history, and spirituality, but Hopkinson’s novel also pays respect and honor to other African roots – from the Arabic-speaking Muslims to the ancient worshippers of Hathor. Even more than saluting them, Hopkinson embraces them; she melts them into her story to profound effect. But across all the time, space, and culture The Salt Roads traverses, a single thread ties her novel firmly together: the struggle of the Ginen, the enslaved African people. Thus the story begins in its chronological middle, with “matant” Mer.
Mer is a healer, trusted more than the local doctor, and a devout of the Ginen gods and the ancient African spiritual traditions. It is these two characteristics which lead to her being at the river near the plantation in the dead of night, burying a stillborn child while praying to “Mama” Lasiren, goddess of the water. It is that moment that Lasiren says she is “born from song and prayer. A small life, never begun, lends [Lasiren] its unused vitality. [She’s] born from mourning and sorrow and three women’s tearful voices… from countless journeys chained tight in the bellies of ships… from hope vibrant and hope destroyed… of bitter experience… of wishing for better…”
The circumstance of Lasiren’s ‘birth’ sets the tone for the rest of her work in the human world, for her mission in this/these particular incarnation(s). She will do many things in the course of The Salt Roads – manifest herself to Mer, possess Jeanne Duval throughout most of Jeanne’s carnal, tumultuous life, and inadvertently turn Thais into St. Mary of Egypt – but they will all serve her purpose to free, in one interpretation or another, the Ginen.
Lasiren is not always successful (her possession of Mer during a particularly volatile time on the plantation leads to Mer’s tongue being cut out), nor knowledgeable in the way one might expect of a deity (she must learn to control bodies and to influence minds), but her fight is timeless, multifaceted, and earnest. It manifests itself in small ways, like guiding Jeanne through a youth full of suffering and poverty to old age in relative comfort and happiness, and it manifests itself in large ways, like becoming Erzulie Dantor during the Haitian slaves’ battles for freedom. If Lasiren’s character is a symbol for the struggle for freedom, then her power is the embodiment of hope. Through Lasiren’s manifestations, and the salt roads that are the Ginen’s connection to her (and by extension, their heritage), Hopkinson explores a history that is rife with suffering, ornamented with perseverance, and rich in enduring culture.
It’s difficult to summarize the plot of The Salt Roads or to provide a story arc in a conventional sense; there is no climax or traditionally ‘satisfying’ end. Mer does not see freedom in her lifetime, Jeanne dies crippled and decimated by sexually transmitted disease, and the last we see of Thais has her wandering through the desert, possibly forever. But their lives do see minor victories: A few generations after Mer, a successful slave revolt will give rise to the first generation of free Haitian blacks. Jeanne dies at an old age, with a husband who loves her, despite being the black, dancer daughter and granddaughter of a prostitute. Thais doesn’t return to living her life of slavery on her back, and goes down in history as the “dusky saint” of Egypt. All are manifestations of small measures of freedom and escape, of Lasiren’s love for her people.
The message of The Salt Roads is neither an admission of defeat, nor a writ of contentment, but a promise of success to come. It is heartwarming and depressing, at times, in equal measure, and a riveting story. While accessible to those without knowledge of Afro-Carribean culture and lore, appreciation of the artistry of The Salt Roads’s authorship deepens with any amount of it. Hopkinson’s novel is raunchy, vivid, and beautifully crafted; “eat salt” and don’t miss it!
Hopkinson, Nalo. The Salt Roads, Warner Books, New York © 2003.