Teaching Notes: The Salt Roads
Nalo Hopkinson’s The Salt Roads combines folktale, myth, historical fiction and science fiction. It tells the story of a newborn Ginen goddess (called Lasirén or Ezili) coming to awareness of herself as she travels through the lives and consciousness of three women: Thais, a prostitute living in ancient Alexandria; Mer, a healer in Saint-Domingue, and Jeanne, Charles Baudelaire’s partner/mistress. Despite living in different times and places, the three protagonists of the novel are all caught in slavery or servitude of varying types and severity, and they share a number of bodily characteristics and experiences. The three women’s lives seem to fit together like puzzle pieces, making them into one composite goddess. One of the most interesting ways this novel engages their embodiment is through what it does with reproduction and specifically pregnancy. (Full disclosure: this is the aspect of the book I take up in my dissertation.) None of the protagonists give birth during the book, but they are all nevertheless intimately tied to and concerned with pregnancy. While Mer, Thais, and Jeanne are not quite mothers in the biological sense, they all gestate and raise Ezili, making not only motherhood but pregnancy itself a collective endeavor.
The protagonists’ individual life stories also come to very different kinds of endings (Jeanne’s trajectory is linear, Mer’s is cyclical, and Thais is a sort of helix in which she comes full circle but is also fundamentally transformed), and collectively they lend to the novel a variety of rhythms and counter-rhythms, like an intricate work of jazz. The fractal nature of the human characters is reflected in Ezili’s eventual knowledge that she is also fractal: when she meets other goddesses, she states, “My own face gazes back at me from those infinite reflections. And it is all their faces” (304).
Some thoughts and ideas for teaching:
- The hermeneutic circle: When I taught this novel in general education literature, it was difficult even for an honors section. The first two days we met to discuss it, students told me it was very hard for them to grasp what was happening, especially in the Ezili sections. I had thought when I assigned it that although it was hard, they would get what was going on within the first fifty to seventy-five pages and that the payoff was worth it. But when they told me they still had no idea what the Ezili sections were a third of the way through the book, I suddenly remembered that I hadn’t either the first time I read the book—it had actually taken me quite a while to piece it together, but I’d had the patience for it as someone who had chosen to read this book and wouldn’t be expected to write about it within a week or two of finishing it. When I had that realization, I “spoiled” the book for my students. I was unsure if it was the right thing to do, but they assured me that it was, and that knowing what and who Ezili was made her sections much more gripping for them. When I teach the concept of the hermeneutic circle I often say it’s better understood as a spiral; once the class had finished this book, it lent itself rather obviously to that discussion both because of the reading experiences they’d had with it, and because of the ways it reflects the spiral shape in its structure and content. We debated whether it would have been better to know less or nothing when reading The Salt Roads for the first time, what we would never be able to reduplicate from our first encounter with this book, and what we would get out of it in subsequent readings.
- Obscenity: This book is dirty, and I mean that in the best possible way. It has some scandalously hot sex scenes. When I taught it, I asked students well in advance to let me know if they anticipated objections to reading explicit material, and I made accommodations. (Namely, I provided a list of the page ranges they could skip over if they were uncomfortable. Only one student took me up on that offer, as far as I know.) But we also discussed the role of the dirty dirty sex in the book as a whole—what is the point of pushing readers’ buttons (ahem) with descriptions of cunnilingus, pegging, and semi-incestuous groping? And how do those scenes work in concert with the book’s descriptions of menstruation, childbirth, and miscarriage? What is the overall effect and value of saturating this novel with scenes of feminized embodiment? And how does this theme play with categories of grotesque and sublime, normative and non-normative?
- Lists: On the first day of discussion, I embraced the plenitude of this book and encouraged students to do the same. I often start discussions of novels by asking students to list themes and literary elements they’d like they to track as we read. For this novel we listed themes of: slavery/bondage; religion/magic/syncretism and the nature of god(s), women’s embodiment and processes; reactions of/relationship to readers; material wealth and belongings; movement/travel—whether forced, coerced, influenced, prevented, or free; mind/body relationships/philosophies; sexuality, relationships and power; writing, editing, storytelling, and historical revision; time, linearity, and paradoxes; math and fractals; narrators and their variations in style and form. I added onto this exercise instructions to list physical objects and everyday behaviors to track. We came up with: salt, food, spices, sugar, powder, sand, water, fire, smoke, tears, sweat, blood, scars, magic, spells, scrying, curses, dancing, performing, storytelling, poetry, myths, names, vision, sight, reflections, mirrors, clothing, animals, insects, and money. Finally, we listed historical people, events, settings, and terms as they came up and sent us to the Internet: Makandal/Mackandal, Charles Baudelaire, Jeanne Duval, St. Mary of Egypt, obeah/obi, maroons, lwas/loas, Aelia Capitolina in the mid-340s, St. Domingue in the mid-1700s, and Paris in the mid-1800s. Whew! The point of all this listing was that there is no way the class could deal with everything happening in this book, so we set up right from the start that it was something to be divvied up and approached selectively. The big themes guided our class discussions, but for the other lists, I asked every person in class to pick one or two everyday objects and pay attention to them as we read, and one historical person, place, time, or thing to look up. That’s it. They brought their objects and research into the discussions as they wanted to, and it added unexpected layers and facets to our discussions. I might have us look at a scene for what it says about a relationship, and a student might chime in pointing out how the relationship is demonstrated through an exchange of clothing. I also appreciated not being expected (by students or by myself) to know everything about the book’s historical settings. A student would ask a question about the temple in Jerusalem and I could say, “Did anyone research this topic? What did you find out?”
- Empathy and narrative perspective: I look forward to teaching this book in my spring class for English majors, a class derived from my dissertation research. In my chapter on pregnancy, I examine this book for how it uses a fetal character’s narrative perspective, and how that unusual storytelling move assigns and questions empathy with the fetus and with the women who gestate her. Reading this book alongside the other SF empathy books of the course (The Left Hand of Darkness, Embassytown, etc.) should produce some fascinating discussions.