Author Archives: mkhalifa503
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.
This guy has some other great stuff, so feel free to check out his channel. A lot of it is about race, sexism, etc. (he had some great stuff on the Sarkeesian episode, as well as some Trayvon-related vids). The principles of this one can be applied beyond race, and is a great thing to keep in mind whether you’re talking to someone about cultural appropriation or the use of inclusive language. As the keynote at a Social Justice Summit I attended said, “trust intention, but name impact.”
Dear Ms. Gearhart,
You have no idea who I am, but you might as well know I’m one of those people who have been digging around in your papers at the University of Oregon. I’m sorry for reading so much of your personal correspondence, but it’s so interesting. One thing I kept wondering about whenever I read your fan mail (yes, I went through that stuff, too – sorry) was how you received/interpreted those letters. There was an outpouring of support for the “Times of Harvey Milk”, and for your role in it (and for good reason!), but I was curious how you felt about the familiarity with which some fans wrote to you.
Obviously, many of the letters were heartwarming and sweet, and there were a fair number of letters that seem to be from friends you knew before your movie-related fame. But what about the people who wrote to you as if they knew you personally? I recall reading one letter that sounded like it came from an old friend who hadn’t seen you in a few years… it was only after reading the paper attached to it addressed to SFSU and asking the first recipient there to find a way to get it to you that I realized the fan didn’t even know you well enough to have your mailing address! Did you welcome this kind of fandom? What was it like knowing that the effect of your words was so profound that people would write a lengthy letter and send it off to no one in particular in the blind hope that it would find you? It seems at once touching and impertinent, but I wonder what you thought about it at the time. Has your view changed at all since then?
Speaking of changes over time, I read that you describe yourself as “a recovering political activist”. What is it you find yourself needing recovery from the most? Is there anything you miss about the political activist life(style)? If you could go back and do it all again… would you? What would you do differently? If there was one thing you’d want future generations to remember about you, and about what you’ve done here, what would it be? I ask because I remember vividly a fan letter from a young man thanking you for your role in the Milk documentary (speaking of which, did you see the newest movie about him, and if so what did you think of it?), and your effect on his life. I remember it not only for the content, but for the small note you made in the corner: “answered 12/26/84”. I can only imagine what you wrote (do you remember?), but I’m sure it was something befitting the beauty and heart of the original letter. It made me wonder which you cherish the most: the effects you had in individual peoples’ lives or the amazing things you accomplished in the “bigger picture” (I know they go hand in hand, but I still think it’s an interesting question).
I’m really not sure how to end this letter (it’s something I’ve always struggled with, along with lengthy asides in ubiquitous parentheses), except to say thank you. For the great reads, for your role in the world we live in today, for the impact on individual hearts and minds, and for the journey you and your generation set us upon. And I’m sorry if my letter comes off as unqualifiedly familiar as the ones to which I referred earlier.
Sincerest best wishes in all regards.
Muhammad M. Khalifa
Interesting article, it seemed especially relevant to our discussion at Osher, etc. of what it means to be a feminist.