My second thought: “Holy crap, there’s lesbian sex twice in the first fifteen pages—why doesn’t the blurb for this book make it clear that’s it’s queer?”
Uh, let’s back track a little. I’ve read Caribbean-born and raised, current Torontonian Hopkinson’s first and most recent books and enjoyed both, but I really loved The Salt Roads. It’s an ambitious, wide-reaching novel that is at once historical, spiritual, magical, and fantastical. I love the kind of historical fiction that reimagines and brings women from the past alive and into the spotlight, and Hopkinson does this so well, but she also refuses to stay within the bounds of realist historical fiction. There’s a dash of Caribbean voodoo, fourth century Christian pilgrimages, and smoky visions emerging out of a pot of surprising liquids. It’s a tantalizing, fabulous mix and a moving recreation and celebration of black women’s voices and spaces, with a lot of attention to shadism throughout.
Another thing I loved about The Salt Roads was that it follows three very different women, in different times and places. The first woman we meet is Mer, who is a loving but hard woman and a doctor, midwife, and plantation slave in (probably?) mid 18th century Saint Domingue (Haiti). (The novel never tells us exactly when, but an historical figure, a rebellious one-armed man who escaped his plantation in 1751 is one of the slaves who lives on the same farm as Mer). Mer’s snarky voice is the first thing you see when you open the book. She’s examining a pregnant woman and she mutters “It went in white, but it will come out mulatto in a few months’ time, yes?”
Mer is one of the oldest slaves on the plantation, having been there twelve years, and serves as a kind of mother figure and spiritual leader. At one point she thinks: “So hard to be the one asking for aid instead of giving it.” This pretty much epitomizes this calloused, strong woman who is both terrified of and intrigued by the plots of rebellion and the possibility of living outside the system of slavery. Her closest support is another woman, Tipingee, with whom she was “sisters before Tipingee’s blood came; wives to each other after, even when they had had husbands.” There are atrocities in Mer’s world, of course; but Hopkinson focuses on the community and individual loves and desires, creating a queer, black, feminist revisioning of the narrative of slavery in the Caribbean.
Mer’s is the most explicit struggle for freedom, but both of the other main characters are searching for this as well. The second character Hopkinson introduces us to is Jeanne Duval, a biracial woman originally from Haiti who is living in Paris. I was thrilled to find out that Jeanne is a real historical person! She was actually a long-term lover and muse of the 19th century French poet Charles Baudelaire. I love this kind of historical writing, giving voices to women who have been overshadowed by the famous men that they were connected with. Oh yeah, and she’s also queer, and the first scene we meet her in has her in bed with another dancer/entertainer, Lisette.
A tiny pulse from Lisette’s thigh beat under my ear: stroke, stroke, stroke. I contemplated the thick red bush of her jigger, so close to my face. I breathed her scent in deep. ‘You smell…’ I said.
‘I smell of cunt,’ she laughed, making my head shake as her body shook. ‘And spit, and that honey dust you wear. And I have your face powder all over my skin.’ She raised up on one elbow. I hung on to her uppermost thigh for purchase. Oh, so warm, so fair, her skin! She said nothing, just reached a hand to me. I felt a tug along my scalp. She was stroking the length of my hair, spread out so all along her legs. ‘Beautiful,’ she breathed. ‘My beautiful Jeanne.’
Just so you know, it gets more explicit after that, but you’ll have to pick the book up to find out how exactly. Jeanne is also looking for freedom: economic, sexual, and artistic. Her opportunities as a black woman in 1840s Paris are severely limited, and although her real love is Lisette, it’s not really practically viable for them to be together. She turns to Baudelaire, with whom she has, to put it mildly, a very interesting relationship. There’s all sorts of class and racial issues going on with them, and Baudelaire is kind of a typical self-involved poet jack-ass, although he does love Jeanne in his own way. It’s fascinating to watch Jeanne navigate the intricacies of her emotional, sexual, and financial relationship with him and to pursue her own desires and dignities while working with her narrow options.
The third woman, who isn’t introduced until much later in the novel, is also an historical figure: Saint Mary of Egypt. She goes by Thais in the novel, and is a sex worker like in Christian accounts of her, although not in the derogatory, oh it’s so terrible how she enjoys sex way that those writings frame her life. In fact, in Hopkinson’s re-telling she was sold into prostitution and slavery as a girl, and is working towards her freedom when she decides to take a trip to Jerusalem on a whim with her gay fellow prostitute Judah. The man (who later is also deemed a saint) who discovers her and declares her to be holy is portrayed as a crackpot who sees something in her that is not there, and Thais and Judah leave him unceremoniously in the desert, going in search of food (even though she’s supposedly fasting).
Connecting these women and others, is Elizi, a spirit who flows free sometimes and possesses human bodies at others. When the bold type appears in the novel, you know you’ve encountered her (and perhaps other goddesses). These parts of the book are surreal, brief interposes between the more straightforward narratives of the three women.
I feel like I’m failing to adequately describe this encompassing, rich, beautiful novel. Just go read it, people.