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May 30, 2011 / Lee Skallerup Bessette

Retelling Stories, Changing the Past: Nalo Hopkinson’s The Salt Roads

After this week, it will be all Dany, all the time. But until then, I have an essay I need/want to write on Nalo Hopkinson‘s historical/speculative fiction novel The Salt Roads. Funny story, it’s a book that I totally overpaid for at the Science Fiction Research Association, an advanced copy that was signed by the author herself. It’s a book that’s stuck with me but one that I have always struggled with.

What is the muck, the sludge that blocks Voodoo goddess’ Ezili’s path through the water? Why is she trapped inside Jeanne Duval, the historical mistress of Baudelaire, so often? And why, halfway through the book, do we meet Meritet and her journey to becoming St. Mary of Egypt? Finally, what’s going on in Saint Domingue, later Haiti? It was frustrating for me, and while each re-reading brought more understanding, it wasn’t until I started researching the real histories for this essay did I begin to put the pieces together.

History has not looked kindly on Jeanne Duval (aka Jeanne Lemer). What we know of her is largely limited to what Baudelaire wrote in his poems and letters. To read his biographies to is read about a women who ultimately helped destroy the great poet. Who knows Meritet’s story, other than what has been recorded and written by monks and priests. Mer, in Haiti, struggles against a male rebellion that ultimately costs the women of the slave communities. Towards the end of the novel, her tongue is cut out, not by the slave owners, but by Mankandal, “The Black Messiah” of Saint Domingue.

These Black women have been silenced by history, written out or written poorly by men. I imagine that the blockage that Ezili experiences is the blockage of the historical narratives as they have been long written or understood. Hopkinson rewrites these three women’s stories, using the voodoo goddess of love and sex to link them all. Why not use “magic” or elements of the fantastic to retell women’s histories, including the history of a saint, one that is full of fantastical elements already?

I’ll save the rest of my thoughts for the actual analysis that I need to write, but what interests me here is how it relates back to work I’m doing (or, more accurately) going to be doing on Dany. He writes and re-writes his own narrative, his own history and story repeatedly. He has also used elements of what we would usually call magical realism, specifically in Pays Sans Chapeau, where he clearly writes between two worlds, “pays réel” and “pays rêvé.” How is what Dany does in his “fictions” (particularly in his retellings) any different than what Hopkinson does here with these histories?

When it comes to genre fiction (historical fiction, autobiography, science fiction, etc), there are always a long list of rules that much be followed in order to fit into the genre. We spend a lot of time fitting them into the definitions or showing how they subvert those traditions (often in the name of postcolonial discourse). Hopkinson describes The Salt Roads as being “historical fantasy” while Laferrière calls his whole oeuvre his “Autobiographie Américaine” although each of his books is labeled a different form of fiction.

Of course the question of history and memory is an old one. But these two authors literally challenge their readers to reevaluate how they understand these two concepts. I’m finally (finally!) making sense of Hopkinson’s rich, dense (and largely ignored in academia; one would imagine it’s because it represents a break from Hopkinson’s earlier work that could more easily be categorized as science fiction) novel. I only hope that I can gain this sort of insight into Dany’s work, too.

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