Nalo Hopkinson was born in Jamaica and lived in the Caribbean until she was about 16 years old, when her family moved to Toronto, Canada. She has written many short stories, two novels, and also has editing credit to her name. Identifying with the LGBT community, Nalo (NAH-lo) considers herself a writer of all sorts - Caribbean, Canadian, black, queer, and feminist.
"The sea roads, they're drying up."
"The sea is drying up?"
"Not this sea, Stupid child!" Her tail slapped, sent up a fountain, exploding and drenching me. "The sea in the minds of my Ginen. The sea roads, the salt roads. And the sweet ones, too; the rivers. Can't follow them to their sources any more. You must fix it, Mer" (pg. 65).
The novel begins by introducing the character of Mer, who is a healer in the slave community of a Caribbean plantation. In the beginning scene, she is seen delivering a mixed baby that is stillborn. As she, her helper and lover, Tipingee, and the baby's mother, Georgine, go to bury the baby at the river's edge, their mixed prayers to three different deities delivers Lasirén into being, launching her into the lives of the three main characters. She appears to Mer, subsequently, to inform her that it is her duty to pave the sea roads clear. And as her story progresses, her duty becomes clear. As the slaves around her are rallied by the demagogue, Makandal, to rebel against their white slave owners, or backra, Mer must watch as they risk their lives to pursue a dream that one iconoclastic human being is misleadingly placing in their minds. The slaves working in the homes of plantations across San Domingue are encouraged to inject poison into the food and water of their white owners. As Makandal incites more people, Mer's story comes to a climax as he orchestrates the arson of the home of Seigneur Simenon, the plantation owner. Her body finally inhabited by Lasirén's presence, Mer attempts to save the white folk and in essence the wrath they will ensue on her fellow slaves. However, Makandal and the slaves pin her down and cut off her tongue. As turmoil dies down with the burning of Makandal and his absence, the slaves return to their old ways. And Mer, given the chance to escape and be free of her enslavement, declines, knowing that her place is with the slaves on the plantation, healing those in pain and paving the roads clean for Lasirén.
Another story that Hopkinson weaves into the story is that of Jeanne Duval. She is an actress and singer in Paris, France, that becomes the mistress of the author and poet, Charles Baudelaire. As he sets her up in her own apartment with her mother, Baudelaire eventually gets his inheritance taken away from him to be managed by a finance manager. As his wealth dwindles, so does the balance of power in his relationship with Jeanne. Scraping by, both Jeanne and Baudelaire must find ways of obtaining their needs. Baudelaire needs to support his mistress and Jeanne needs to help her ailing mother. However, Jeanne's mother dies and soon thereafter, Jeanne becomes infected with syphilis, and suffers a stroke that leaves her right side paralyzed. As she moves from her apartment to the sanatorium and back again, she is visited by her stepbrother, Joël, who ultimately causes a falling-out between her and Baudelaire and later, the selling of her furniture while she is away at the sanatorium. Alone and at an utter loss at her abandonment, Jeanne is confronted by, Moustique, her brother's friend. He takes her in, and in her sadness and loss of beauty and youth, Jeanne finally comes to find herself loved and content.
The third character that Lasirén inhabits is Thais, a Nubian prostitute living in Alexandria, Egypt. Thais' journey begins when she and her slave friend, Judah, gather their scarce belongings and even scarcer money and escape their enslavement to Aelia Capitolina, or present-day Jerusalem. However, finally reaching their destination, they find themselves in a foreign place with no money, but what their bodies can offer. As they approach the famous Christian church that Thais desired to see, she finds that she has been carrying a baby, but miscarries it in the church's courtyard. Soon after, she finds herself wandering the desert for months, on little water and barely any food. As she contemplates her surroundings and finds herself trying to listen deeply and intently to nature, her thoughts, and even the thoughts of others, she comes to a revelation. Speaking with Lasirén and learning about the goddess' origins and place in the world.
The story takes place in multiple settings, switching from character to character as well as place to place. Mer's story takes place in Saint-Domingue, during the late 17th century. It is a time when French colonization was taking place and slaves were used on plantations to harvest crops for trade.
Jeanne's story takes place in Paris and Neuilly, France during the 1840s.
The novel moves from first person point of view to third person point of view throughout the whole novel. When telling the stories of each of the three main characters, Mer, Jeanne, and Thais, the point of view is in first person, as each protagonist narrates the story as she sees it. It is also limited, for the characters do not appear to know every thought and detail about other characters, but what is generally accepted as true.
Also, the goddess Lasiren speaks from a first person point of view. When she speaks, the text in the novel appears differently, highlighting her other-worldliness.
There are also times when the story is told from a third person point of view. And those are times that tell the story from another's perspective, usually a lesser character, but they do not adopt a first person point of view.
Mer describes the goddess as “young, smooth; she was fat and well-fed. The bush of her hair tumbled bout her round, brown, beautiful face in plaits and dreadknots, tied with twists of seaweed” (pg. 64).
“I stick to my work. I do what I’m told. Each day I live is another day I can help my people” (Pg. 67).
“Mer always had a strange way of talking about death…about how it was good to leave life and flee away from this place where the colourless dead tormented them daily” (pg. 14).
“I should be beautiful. Always I am an entertainer” (pg. 172).
“You’re dancing well, My Jeanne. Dancing in the groove I’ve laid for you, dancing a new story to your life” (pg. 354). (Lasirén to Jeanne.)
“I am a woman, and I am loved” (pg. 355).
“she is dark skinned, this beauty, and ruddy like copper. No salt-pucker of bitterness in her” (pg. 265).
“this is our life…we’ll work till Tausiris decides to release us” (pg. 277).
“I am determined that we keep going. Something is wrong with this Thais…I nudge her to keep walking” (pg. 299). (Lasirén to Thais.)
Georgine- A young slave girl who gets pregnant by a white carpenter man a few months after she comes of age. It is because of her stillborn child that she, Mer, and Tipingee mourn and conjure up the Ginen Goddess. Later, she gets pregnant again and gives birth to a healthy baby boy.
"Good, strong girl, Georgine. I didn't think she would be. And silent too, like a grown woman should be...She's just a whore, though" (pg. 26). (Mer's thoughts on Georgine during the birth of her child.)
"I put my arm around the little thin body of this girl a third my thirty-something years..." (Mer comforting Georgine, pg. 36).
Makandal - Slave on the Saint Domingue plantation. Leader of the slave uprising who refuses to eat salt, giving himself the powers of the gods, which include morphing his body into animals. He has a gimp hand, and every animal he turns into shares this trait. He is burned at the stake for setting the house of Seigneur Simenon on fire.
"There is another power; this Ogu. Not a fractal reflection of me, but something else. New. Male" (pg. 322). (Lasiren about the spirit that overpowers Makandal.)
Patrice - Slave on the Saint Domingue plantation. Husband to Tipingee and father of Marie-Claire. He escaped the plantation a year before on Christmas, but returns exactly a year later to support Makandal and his rebellion. During his marronage, or flight, he was free and had established a family of his own separate from the plantation to whom he returns later.
"Few more days, and you realise you're walking different. your back is straighter. You feel tall, tall. You're tired when you settle down to sleep at night, just like here on the plantation, but you fall asleep thinking of all the things your labour will bring for you. Not for you master. For you. That's what it's like" (pg. 372). (His description of life in the bush, away from the plantation and free from enslavement.)
Ti-Bois - Child slave on the Saint Domingue plantation. Learns from Mer the ways of healing and will ultimately become the healer of the plantation when Mer retires to another manor.
"Poor little one. Never enough to eat, not the kind of food that would make him grow strong... Sweet child" (pg. 136).
Charles Baudelaire - Lover of Jeanne Duval. He is fascinated by her dark skin and often corrects her poor grammar. He supports her for over a decade with money, shelter, and clothing. He loses control of his inheritance to a finance manager and must make ends meet for himself and his mistress. He attempts suicide at a restaurant, leaving in a will all his estate to Jeanne, but is rescued. Even after Jeanne's paralysis and unfaithful actions, he still watches out for her and takes care of her. He eventually dies at home in his mother's home.
"Mother of memories, mistress of mistresses,
O thou, my pleasure, thou, all my desire,
Thou shalt recall the beauty of caresses,
The charm of evenings by the gentle fire,
Mother of memories, mistress of mistresses!"
--From "The Balcony," by Charles Baudelaire (pg. 338)
Lisette - Entertainer and prostitute. Lover of Jeanne. She and Jeanne have dreams of marrying wealthy, well-off men and they both do so in the end.
"Yes, I suppose it is. It's what we dreamed of, you and I. Fine men and fine fortunes" (pg. 362). (Both Lisette and Jeanne's view on success and happiness.)
Joël - Stepbrother of Jeanne, although their relationship is questionable because of their sexual tendencies. He comes back for her during her paralysis and cares for her. However, he soon falls deep in debt because of his gambling habits and asks his sister for money from Baudelaire. During one of her stays at the sanatorium, he takes all her furniture and attempts to sell it without her knowledge. He is then sent to jail by his friend Moustique. After serving his time, he is set up in his own plantation in the Caribbean the same friend.
"He said nothing, but he thumped th wall as he strode out. Big Hands, Joël had. Heavy hands. He slammed the door" (pg. 258).
Moustique - Chef and owner of restaurant. Friend of Joël. He puts Joël in jail after he learns of his illegal actions. He then comes back to Jeanne's apartment to care for her and tell her about her brother. He and Jeanne fall in love and they live together.
"Why, the smooth-tongued charmer! I found myself smiling and inclining my head to him, like I was some grand lady" (pg. 252). (Jeanne's words about Moustique when she first met him.)
Judah - Friend of Thais who works as a male prostitute in Tausiris' tavern. He accompanies Thais on a trip to Aelia Capitolina and stays by her side as she wanders the desert for months.
"Giving his loving away for free, he was, since he was earning his money in other ways. He said the sailors were all beautiful, even the ones with scars or damaged limbs" (pg. 286).
Antoniou - Frequent patron of Thais. He gives her the idea to travel to Aelia Capitolina, but then abandons her when they arrive, seeking another brothel.
"He was a good man, Antoniou. As I cleaned myself up, I could hear his deep, hearty voice out in the bar. Always telling stories from his travels" (pg. 269).
Priest Zosimus - Priest who finds Thais and Judah in the desert. He believes that Thais is a prophet or saint who speaks the word of Mary.
"He looked at me as though I were a leper. 'You couldn't enter the house of our Lord,' he whispered, 'because you debauch your body with men'" (pg. 384).
Jeanne is an entertainer, enslaved by the restrictions of her skin color and the limited opportunities they offer. She is constantly reminded of her inadequacy and low social status, rendering her helpless in many ways. Her bonds are her biracial heritage, and her labor, being mistress to a wealthy man. She is also a slave, in a sense, to her lover, Charles Baudelaire. Their relationship is run by money and security. She initially accepts his advances because of her need to support her ailing mother.
Thais is a slave to Tausiris, a tavern owner, and is forced into prostitution and entertainment by her master. She uses her body as currency, trading it to buy her way away from Alexandria to Aelia Capitolina and essentially everything from food to transportation as well. However, she doesn't view this as her downfall or her African heritage as a problem, but instead finds ways of finding worth in them. She is not ashamed, even after her revelation with Lasirén, in her prostitution, but revels in her own independence and decision to partake in it.
Loss of Identity - Jeanne, in an attempt to escape the lifestyle that so embodied lower-class, African women of her time, tries to cover her sense of shame with ornate clothing, fancy hair, and powdered faces. However, her mistrust and denouncement of her own culture and identity lead to her own sense of dissatisfaction and lack of self-worth. She believes her life would have been better and happier if she had lighter skin. However, it is when Jeanne is reduced to her unglamorous, natural self that she can truly understand her life.
Racism - Hopkinson deals with the problem of racism in her novel by addressing its ability to denigrate and denounce men and especially women of African heritage. Through the use of her characters, she displays her belief that, despite their hardships and problems, African women must endure them and be proud of their heritage and culture. When Jeanne tries to escape her own ethnic background, she finds herself lacking still, in spite of her attempts to appear white. Her unhappiness stems from her unwillingness to accept her own roots and embrace the color of her skin. Mer, unlike her fellow slaves, knows that rebellion will not be a quick solution to their problems. Instead, she bides her time, giving what help and counsel she can, and helping the slaves fight back, not through insurrection, but through livelihood and pride in their culture.
There are also traces of racism within the African race itself. Snide comments are made about the shade of skin, implying that the lighter you were, the higher you were ranked in class. This coincides with all the houseworkers, like Marie-Claire, being lighther than their fellow slaves who worked out in the fields under the sun all day. The desire for lighter skin is also seen through Jeanne and Lisette after they look in the chamber pot for their future loves.
"Your mother would name her monstrous, it seems, not beautiful. Your mothe would think the ginger woman's pale brown skin too near the colour of dirt" (Lasiren to Jeanne, pg. 56).
"I looked on this fair-skin, soft-hand house girl, still fainting from her labour" (Mer to Georgine after the birth, pg. 33).
"Isn't that what she wanted? A cream-coloured child?"
"Matant, the baby would have gotten browner? If he lived?" "Maybe so. If you had let him run too much in the sun." "No. I would have made him wear a hat every time he went out. Wouldn't want him to get black. Only... If he had got a little bit of brown to him, not too much, maybe he would see me in his face that way, know who's his mother" (Georgine and Mer on the color of Georgine's newborn's skin, pg. 34).
"Oh! It's not true! It's not! He was so foul, Lemer." She wept. "Black as the devil! I am to be wedded to a black, and toil all my days killing pigs, and have nigger babies" (Lisette to Jeanne after her vision in the pot, pg. 22).
Feminism - Mer, Jeanne, and Thais all break the typical roles bounded to a woman. Mer, respected by all enslaved on her plantation, is the closest thing the Ginen have to a doctor. She is strong and responsible, and proudly serves as a leader. She is often depicted as stronger and wiser than the men in the field; breaking away from the stereotypical slave woman.
Jeanne counters the dominance often associated with males in literature. When loving Charles, she takes the upper hand and has full control. "I will show you how to prepare a woman--nay, even a man, should you come to that--so that they are eager and ready for your embrace" (pg. 149).
Thais has a wild and free spirit, and she follows it on a long journey across the sea. Unlike the other female prostitutes who feel bound for life, Thais demonstrates risk-taking by having the courage to quickly pack and leave. She does not choose to stay and have her life lived under someone else, but instead takes control.
Water- Water is where Lasiren lives. She is the Goddess of water and bears its gifts. Throughout the novel, water is associated with comfort. Mer and other slaves on the plantation often go to the river for peace and quiet, to wash, and to fish. It can representing a personal cleansing as well. When Thais prepares for customers, she washes herself with water and does the same once she has finished. The novel ends with Thais wishing to be in water; "We can wash in the Jordan. That'll be good enough" (pg. 389).
"The muffled sounds and damp dripping for some reason soothed me. Being near water always had" (pg. 151).
"Best you pray to Aziri, have some water near you; man can't make your labour flow smooth like the river" (Tipingee to Georgine during Georgine's labor, pg. 26).
Salt- Salt is a unifying element of the women in the novel. They all shed salt tears and taste/smell the bitterness of salty sweat during sexual encounters. Lasiren is called forth by these heavily salted moments, and that is how she travels from woman to woman.
"I open my mouth to try to sing the three-twist chant I can hear, and tears i didn't know beforethis were called tears roll in a runnelled crisscross down the thing that is my face and past my...lips? to drip aslt onto my tongue. At the binding taste of salt, I begin to fall once more" (Lasiren beginning to travel through the salt she feels, pg. 46).
"Salt tears sprang from my eyes, I could feel them" (Mer- pg. 64).
"At the binding taste of salt, I begin to fall once more" (Lasiren- pg. 46).
"Georgine let the salt water run freely from her eyes" (pg. 33). "I wriggled up beside her and held her until she was still again. I licked my lips, sucking salt" (Jeanne, pg. 16). "I was born in brackish water, salty as tears. Jeanne cries often. We have salt in common" (Lasiren about Jeanne, pg. 157).
For the Ginen people, salt is a way to humble yourself to the gods.
"If you only eat unsalted food, fresh food, we believe you make Lasiren vexed, for salt is the creatures of the sea, and good for the Ginen to eat, but fresh-fresh is the flesh of Lasiren, and if you eat that, it's pride" (pg. 68).
"I humbled myself and ate salt" (Mer, pg. 100).
Using both similes and metaphors, Hopkinson gives the text a richness that echoes its bold text and vivid images. She also uses nature, as in the simile, "brown like rich riverbank mud," to appeal to the senses and return to a more natural and intrinsic view of each statement set forth. Returning to such sentiments, Hopkinson allows readers to connect to her ethnically-rooted characters and to tie images of oranges, mud, and rivers, all very familiar, to ideas that are represented in the novel, such as skin color, physical appearance, and identity.