What I’m Reading: The Salt Roads

I sat down to write this tonight and spent two hours following links in RaceFail09 instead. Oops. But I’m glad I did it, even if it did come directly out of my sleepytime. There’s still a lot of good stuff happening out there, and the best thing I read tonight is Cat Valente’s piece on the power and importance of stories. (Yes, I am seriously author-crushing on Cat Valente right now. And what? I just wish I hadn’t lost my brand new copy of Palimpsest on that otherwise extremely awesome trip to Hartford.) There are also lots more things open in tabs. I will look at them tomorrow. Yes I will.

And speaking of RaceFail09, one of the things it brought to my attention is this LJ challenge to read 50 books by people of color in a year. There’s no way I’m going to read 50 in a year. My adolescent self would be appalled to hear me say it, but with all of the time I spend using my Eee PC on the train and being glued to the computer most of the time that I’m home and awake, there’s no way I’m going to read 50 books total in a year. But reading reviews of books by authors of color led to thinking “Hey, that sounds like something I’d enjoy!” and adding things to my library list, and I am being more conscious about where my attention goes and reading more stuff by people of color. And it is good.

Last week I read Nalo Hopkinson’s The Salt Roads (this part cross-posted to 50books_POC). I’ve been meaning to read Nalo Hopkinson for ages, particularly but not only because every time SF/F authors of color come up in conversation, her name is one of the first mentioned. I borrowed Brown Girl In The Ring from a friend last year and loved it. And even knowing I liked Hopkinson’s writing, The Salt Roads blew me away. It follows three woman, who have in common that they are sometimes hosts for the goddess Ezili. Mer is a plantation slave in Haiti in the time leading up to the revolution, a healer and the doctor for her plantation and several around it. Jeanne is a dancer and performer in Paris a century or more later, and Charles Baudelaire’s mistress. And Thais is a slave and a prostitute in fourth-century Alexandria. All three are well-drawn and sympathetic, especially Mer. And speaking of Mer and the Haitian revolution — I know that the history they teach in school consciously privileges some stories over others, but it still always amazes me that almost everything I know about the Haitian revolution I’ve learned from reading fiction. The only successful slave revolt in history (I want to say the only revolutionary war that’s succeeded without outside help, but I’m not as sure of that one), and nary a mention of it in history classes. And this was living in Miami, which has a significant Haitian population. Shame on us. Of course, now that I’ve noticed, it’s on me to do some learning that’s not from fiction. Anyway. The book talks frankly and beautifully about racism and slavery, interracial relationships, revolution, and the strength of women. It’s a riveting read.

I loved The Salt Roads not only for its vivid, seductive language and clear look at how slavery and racism have affected people and woman at different points in history, but for its queerness. The book doesn’t talk about queerness and homophobia the way it does about race and racism, but they’re undeniably present, in all three storylines. And not just queerness, but bisexuality. Or rather, loving both men and women, since our own concepts of sexuality and sexual identity can’t be mapped onto the past that way. Mer’s lover Tipingee, a fellow slave, is also married to a man she deeply loves. Her feelings for both are portrayed as real and lasting; at one point she thinks of herself and Mer as “wives to each other…even when they had had husbands.” On the next page, we read that the other slaves’ respect for Mer means that

if she and Tipingee wanted to play madivinez with each other like some young girls did while they were waiting for marriage, well, plenty of the Ginen felt life was to brief to fret about that. So long as Tipingee was doing her duty by her husband, most people swallowed their bile and left them be. Tipingee esteemed her Patrice for that, how he had never tried to take the joy of Mer from her. Another man would have beat her. Patrice had gotten to know that her love was bigger for having so many to love

The love between the two women is matter-of-fact and beautiful, and neither of them seems to fret about it or what it says about them as people.

There is no indication that Thais is anything but straight, though I of all people am not making any assumptions based on that. (I do, sometimes. At least now I usually notice it.) Either way, in her storyline we have both her best friend and fellow slave/prostitute Judah, who “lik[es] to go with men,” and her favorite client Antoniou, a Greek sailor who “like[s] boys and women.”

And Jeanne, while seeming to want Baudelaire for more than just the financial security he provides, and most certainly loving a man as a life partner later on in the story, spends days on end in bed with fellow dancer Lise toward the beginning of the book. She thinks while they scry for Lise’s true love that “if I had looked for my own love in that pot, I knew I would have seen only Lise, but she and I weren’t rich women, to make of our tribadism a secret marriage.” So the acknowledgment of the world being a hard place for queers is certainly there, but never becomes the focus.

And these characters exist, and are natural, and play their part in the story. And no one ever questions whether Tipingee or Jeanne can legitimately love or be attracted to both men and women, it’s never implied that they’re confused or fickle or will get over it in time. It’s refreshing, and I love it.

2 Responses to “What I’m Reading: The Salt Roads”

  1. 1 Liz
    19 March 2009 at 5:15 pm

    This may not be quite your cup of tea but give Flying into the Sun a look. You might like the setting as Katherine finds her life moving her from London to Thailand, because of things she didn’t ever imagine happening. Her life is turned upside down and her heart is turned inside out. Really — it’s that common theme of spiritual growth in responding to what life hands you.

  2. 2 purpleshinycrafter
    20 March 2009 at 2:26 pm

    The combination of Palimpsest and the LJ entry you linked to has gotten me into a serious author-crush also 🙂 And I’m pretty much in the same place as far as the 50books_poc community–I don’t even want to *think* about how long it’d take me to get to 50 books of any kind, which would make my book-devouring middle-school self *so sad*. But your review has gotten me interested in The Salt Roads, and it’s definitely going on my reading queue. And I should remember to read the reviews on the LJ community for more inspiration on what to read next. (It’s way too active for my friends page.)

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