Salt has the ability to bring out flavor, to absorb elements, to transform. So too does Nicole Walker’s writing. Her book Quench Your Thirst with Salt is unlike any I’ve read. For starters, it’s a mixed-genre book, which means Walker interweaves so many genres and styles together it becomes a whole new thing in itself, like mixing various foods together and discovering to your delight that a totally unique flavor has emerged. Walker mixes scientific descriptions of the environment with bold memoir, striking life observations with lyricism that borders on poetry. These elements illuminate one another. You have to taste it for yourself to understand.
Walker’s stories are about growing up as a woman in Utah, unbound in Mormon country. But they are not only her stories. These are stories of human interaction, stories of the land, and stories of human interaction with the land. Walker ties these elements together brilliantly. “Which would you rather be?” she asks us, “A grain of sand made by erosion? Years and years of wind and water wearing you down? Or would you rather be built up from layers of brine shrimp poop? . . .To grow from something gross suggests a rare ability to overcome your circumstances.”
Walker’s essays are filled with equal measures of sardonic wit and uncontrived poignancy. She fearlessly and generously offers the most intimate details and ponderings, especially regarding her alcoholic father and her sexual experiences. “Of course, the day I lost my virginity was the day he started drinking, it seemed to me,” she says. “The revelation of my sexuality drove him to hide behind liquor. But maybe not. Maybe the changes did not correlate. Maybe like water and salt, the two just dissolved into each other.” Walker often blends such interpersonal and elemental dynamics, creating morsels of fresh insight.
Walker alternately thrusts you in front of a mirror and a window. This gives you a broader understanding of the world and of the self, each making sense in light of the other. She lets the process of nature speak for itself, which in turn speaks for the parallel nature of humans. In the piece titled “Transubstantiation,” she begins by writing, “Transformation is a two part process: a combination of substitution and disappearance. . . The new element fully replaces the first. The first element: you can’t find it anywhere.”
Yet Walker doesn’t hold this, or any, observation at arm’s length for safe, vague contemplation. She takes you by the hand and pulls you all the way in, unapologetically. We learn about the transubstantiation of carbon, coal, and diamond. She interweaves the scene of herself as a young girl lying under a scrub oak, with a Mormon boy on top—“all two hundred of his pretend Bishop-like pounds, hairy as a Bishop, tall as a Bishop, as practiced as a Bishop saying that the parting of the legs is like Moses parting the sea and if God didn’t want it to happen, then the legs wouldn’t part.” As the situation spirals and her body begins to harden “under the weight and pressure,” she says, “the metaphors begin to mix: how much disappearance is required for transformation?”
Walker alternates points of view in these essays, sometimes narrating extremely personal stories in first person, sometimes explaining the environment in third person, sometimes addressing the reader in second person. In one story from the final chapter, “Where the Wild Things Are,” she oscillates between inhabiting the predator mind and the prey mind, writing as “he” then “she” then “I” all within one movement. And it works. She delves into the messiness of it all, unafraid of “getting into the head of the fucker” as well as into the heart of the fucked: “She didn’t expect nice words. She wonders if with salt comes sweet.”
In structure and style, this is one of the most layered, inspiring forms I’ve come across. In content, this is some of the bravest, most honest writing I’ve encountered. Walker’s experiences in Quench Your Thirst with Salt are her own, her body is her own, but we share an anatomy. And her nakedness gives us, too, the power of transformation.
Chelsey Burden is originally from Kingman, Arizona. She is earning her MFA in Creative Writing at Northern Arizona University, where she also received her Bachelor’s degree in Women’s and Gender Studies/Sociology. She works on Thin Air Magazine, as well as at the Flagstaff Library, where she reads as many books as she can for free.