Exploring Modern Magical Realism

b y   t a m a r a   k a y e   s e l l m a n   ~   M A R G I N

THERE ARE few elements in Caribbean writing which are more ubiquitous than salt. Or more complicated.

Naturally, salt holds a special significance to island folk. Just read a handful of Caribbean stories or poems to witness the element's undeniable influence. Salt heals and aggravates, buoys and dehydrates, preserves and erodes, scratches and softens, protects, seasons, cleans, cures and reflects. What follows is a handful of salt—references as they relate to the Caribbean magical realist experience. And believe me, we're not just talkin' seasoning here...—Tamara Kaye Sellman

SALT, as pain

From Peepal Tree Press: Kamau Braithwaite "has written a series of poems-into-prose, works which explore his 'time of salt', the series of deep tragedies which shook his life to its foundations (the death of his beloved wife and literary collaborator, Zea Mexican [Doris Brathwaite], the hurricane which destroyed his library, and his personal encounter with the dark violence which erupted in Jamaica in the 1980s onwards)."

SALT, as conduit

...And speaking of the 'time of salt'... Kamau Brathwaite has a personal audiotape archive of Caribbean radio broadcasts from which he makes references to radio 'trance'-missions' (as executed in MR/Magical Realism and “The Time of Salt," among other works). His theory is this: as Vodun initiates are possessed by loas, radio voices are channeled by poets. Brathwaite thinks of these transmissions as connecting contemporary life with what he calls "ancestories," cultural histories that must be explored and restored in order to find healing in the Caribbean identity.

SALT, as translator

Book description from "Black Salt collects two decades of [Edouard] Glissant's poetry and makes it available for the first time in English. It is a poetry that is aesthetically distinguished and historically significant, characterized by potent metaphors of local identity. Published in France as Le Sel Noir, the volume brings together in English translation three separate poetry collections from Glissant's early years, Le Sang Rivé (Blood Riveted), Le Sel Noir (Black Salt) and Boises (Yokes). Read together, these three works embody Glissant's project to develop a Caribbean literature no longer contained by European language. He incorporates conventions of orality and ties the poems concretely to a Martiniquan experience of history and geography/geology, expressing an ongoing search for identity in a struggle between memory and forgetting..."

SALT, as captor

from one of Lorna Goodison's poems... "Loose now the salt cords binding our tongues"

SALT, as pathway

Nalo Hopkinson's "salt roads" refer to the passage back to Africa from the Caribbean where so many souls were displaced by slavery.

SALT, as identity

From John F. Kennedy (, he wasn't Caribbean, but you'd think he was by this quote...)

"I really don't know why it is that all of us are so committed to the sea, except I think it's because in addition to the fact that the sea changes, and the light changes, and ships change, it's because we all came from the sea. And it is an interesting biological fact that all of us have, in our veins the exact same percentage of salt in our blood that exists in the ocean, and therefore, we have salt in our blood, in our sweat, in our tears. We are tied to the ocean. And when we go back to the sea--whether it is to sail or to watch it--we are going back from whence we came."

SALT, as curse

Earl Lovelace's novel, Salt, is set in Trinidad. The reader is first introduced to the legend of Guinea John, an ancestor of Blackpeople, who put two corn cobs under his armpits and flew away from enslavement to his native Africa. The curse of salt is this: his descendants have eaten too much salt and have grown too heavy to fly. They can't follow him, and are instead left to the despair of life on the island, a metaphor applied with post-Emancipation urgency to islanders--Asians, Africans, and Europeans--who need, as Lovelace suggests, to disconnect themselves from the old reality in order to re-enter the world anew. Salt will be released in paperback format in September 2004 by Persea Books.

SALT, as resource

There is 38 times as much saltwater on earth as there is freshwater. The sea contains enough salt to cover the continents with a layer 500 feet thick. In the Caribbean, you will find island roads made of salt. Salt is a major export in the Caribbean, much of it sold for use in oil refineries.

SALT, as protector

Trinidadian folklore tells of an vampirish woman, the soucouyant, who can only be killed by stuffing her skin with salt after she has slipped out of it, as is her evening-time curse.

(For a soucouyant story written as a script in patois:

SALT, as heritage

Salt and Roti: Indian folk tales of the Caribbean, by Kenneth Vidia Parmasad, shares Indo-Trinidadian folklore which Parmasad collected from the old grandmothers and storytellers. The stories reflect a wealth of the culture brought by Indian indentured servants to Trinidad.

SALT, as liberator

The title of Frances Temple's children's novel set in modern Haiti, "A Taste of Salt," comes from a legend of zombies who mindlessly slave for their masters, unless they have a taste of salt. The salt brings on an awareness of their condition and they rebel.

SALT, as life force

from Derek Walcott's The Sea is History: “in the salt chuckle of rocks"

SALT, as truth

Walcott also describes the uneasy paradox of dazzling Caribbean culture with the cooler comforts of Western culture as an expression of "the heart's salt history."



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