Vol. 94: Toni Cade Bambara’s The Salt Eaters

Posted on 7 June 2013

When I was younger, my mother’s bookshelf was my library. It was home to many novels that are central to Black woman’s literature. I could grasp plots that featured grown-up experiences, but much of the subtext and external references escaped me. This didn’t stop me from voraciously consuming everything I could get my hands on for I was too young to know the limits of my comprehension. There was one novel, though, that even the obtuseness of youth failed to carry me through.

There was not much of Toni Cade Bambara’s impenetrable novel The Salt Eaters that I could comprehend. After I graduated from my mother’s bookshelf, I went to Spelman College, where I was assigned other books central to Black woman’s literature. The Salt Eaters was referenced in my classes, but never assigned. Years later, Bambara’s American Book Award-winning work was selected for my book club. I was threatened by the mere mention of it, but deep down, I relished the idea of grappling with this enigmatic and illusive narrative.

When I started to read, I recognized the book’s merits: intriguing and engaging language; colorful, humorous, and perceptive characterization; a widely ranging fountain of references, which romp through Afrosyncretic religions, scientific concepts, Greek gods, activist culture, Southern life, and more, leaving no stone unturned. But within twenty pages, I was reacquainted with The Salt Eaters’ challenges.

The story structure is completely nontraditional. It is a whirlwind of memory, stream of consciousness, internal reflections, flashbacks and social commentary. The front story is supremely simple: over the course of the novel’s entire arc, a woman who has tried to commit suicide sits on a stool in an infirmary while a nontraditional healer tries to heal her. From there the narrative accepts no limits. We journey through the main character’s life (both past and present). Through the healer’s internal conversation, we meet a spirit woman who resides in the healer’s head. The main character’s husband gives us new perspective on the main character and introduces us to a local arts center along with its characters and coalitions. We bounce along with the thoughts and reflections of travellers, pausing to jump into their bus driver’s head where the spirit of his dead friend resides. The point of view is omnivorous, featuring many, many more characters than can be absorbed with ease.

Here is a novel that demonstrates complete disdain for the temporal. This is not due to an inability on Bambara’s part to frame a narrative—none of her other works follow this nontraditional structure. She insists on communicating one of the core tenants of the novel—that everything is linked to the larger whole and nothing exists without everything else—through the reader’s experience. There is no time or space that enjoys primacy; there is no privileging of the “now.” In the world of The Salt Eaters, nothing and no one can be understood without unraveling several strands of history and memory—strands that, when touched, further unravel, splicing into numerous directions so that you are left scrambling to keep pace with the vastly diverging and multiplying points of view that emerge from the fleet imaginings of Bambara’s pen.

Due to my advance knowledge that The Salt Eaters would be a challenging read, I started reading three weeks before book club (I usually devour a book in a week with time to spare). Initially, I felt as if I were doing more wrestling than reading. The spiraling thoughts and references are—quite frankly—exhausting. However somewhere around page 100, I developed a strategy for engagement. Whenever the plot strands were too splintered or we dove too deep into one character’s effusive point of view, I jumped ahead. When I found a plot point to pull me back down to the ground, I returned to the passage that had disoriented me. Whenever a new character was introduced, I bestowed imaginary space before the point-of-view shift, thereby treating each character’s vignette as a stand-alone story rather than part of a novel.

Once I was over the hurdles, there was plenty to fascinate in The Salt Eaters. When I am indulging myself as a writer, I love to play with point-of-view, visceral images and spirituality—and I recognized that impulse in Bambara’s work. There were a slew of quotable passages that I unearthed and shared with others. I found her bravura stimulating—the guts to write an entire novel in your own language with dizzying references and a spare narrative structure stunned me.

Bambara’s daring to write what came through her exactly the way she wanted to did not just intrigue me as a reader, it energized me as a writer. The Salt Eaters does not situate itself in any specific genre. It’s not quite mainstream fiction, nor is it quite speculative; while it’s experimental in structure, it is not experimental in content. There is a tension between her wide-ranging intellectual references, her avant guarde approach, and her unapologetic concern with people of the earth—the salt eaters. Reading it was like downing a bracing double shot of something homegrown and bathtub-brewed. “Do what you want to!” it flashed at me in bright letters.

Writers need difficult books on their shelves—we need writers who throw tantrums, who disregard conventions, who make unwieldy works, not so that we can pattern ourselves after them, but so that we can dive headlong into our own version of inconsistent, indignant, messy creativity. For me, it’s not the content that I want to emulate, but Bambara’s bold decision to go her own way. I have spent too much time standing between genres, frozen like a rigid pillar of salt. I fear that my speculative readers will not read my mainstream works, but the truth is, I am not either/or. I have always operated in erotica, speculative fiction, and mainstream fiction at once. I am interstitial—I am a writer of speculative stories who is writing a conventional novel. I don’t know what that will mean for my career and my identity in the public eye, but I do know that a paradoxical novel like The Salt Eaters frees me to birth stories that range from the “normal” to the weird, and to claim them all unapologetically as my own.