There Were Women on Noah’s Ark
Sarah Blake's "Naamah" imagines the story from the perspective of Noah's wife
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Sarah Blake and I met last year at the AWP Writing Conference in Tampa, where we bonded not over writing, but rewriting. The Bible, to be exact. I’d recently finished a version of The Book of Genesis for my nine-year-old son, stripping away the dogmatic aspects and giving the whole thing a secular-humanist, feminist spin. Blake’s work, on the other hand, was far more focused and ambitious: a novel entitled Naamah (Riverhead Books) that imagines the Great Flood from the perspective of Noah’s wife, Naamah.
The Biblical tale is a familiar one. Seeing that the world is wicked, God makes it rain for forty days and forty nights, flooding the earth and killing all its inhabitants. Well, almost all of them. Having second thoughts, God speaks to the virtuous Noah, detailing plans for a large boat, an ark. God tells him that once built, Noah is to take to the ark with his family and seven pairs of all the animals of earth. Once the flood waters recede, God essentially reboots his creation, promising never to punish humankind with such destruction again. Within that very short text, wherein the men — Noah and his three sons — are named while the women are referred to only as the wives, Blake’s wonderful novel takes place.
While attending to the many duties of maintaining a floating menagerie, Naamah experiences a wide range of emotions. She grieves for her deceased lover, a woman named Bethel, and deals with the trauma that comes with surviving the apocalypse. She struggles with isolation, and the pressures of being the family matriarch, in charge of birthing animals and humans, doling advice to her sons and daughters-in-law, and helping to bolster spirits as days aboard the ark become months. Seeking a relief from monotony, she takes to the water in long swims and discovers a whole world beneath the waves, replete with an angel and ghosts. Meanwhile, at night, in dreams, she communicates with the birds, puzzling over the nature of God’s plan — should God even have one — and her place within it.
With prose as luminous and heady as it is grounded in Naamah’s strong physicality, Blake creates a complex woman in a complicated yet terrifyingly simple situation. It’s these juxtapositions — how Naamah is both human and mythic — that makes the book such a powerhouse of a debut. Blake spoke with me about it, unpacking some of the work that went into writing Naamah, and how her poetry background (her previous collections include Mr. West and Let’s Not Live on Earth) contributed to how she constructed her debut novel.
Brian Gresko: Though the legend of the Great Flood looms large in our culture, in the actual text of The Book of Genesis it’s a very short story. Of all the tales of The Bible, what drew you to this one?
Sarah Blake: I think it was when I got to this part of Genesis: “7:24 And the waters prevailed on the earth one hundred and fifty days. 8:1 Then God remembered Noah, and every living thing, and all the animals that were with him in the ark. And God made a wind to pass over the earth, and the waters subsided.” I thought of Naamah on that ark, adrift, with no sign for five months that the waters would ever go down. And with this implication that God had forgotten them, if he had to come to remember them. It was horrifying to me — the idea of the ark, the floating, the animals, the noises, the smells, the impossibility of it all. I became obsessed with the woman put in that position.
BG: The name Naamah isn’t one of your own choosing, it comes from a very old midrash, a Biblical exegesis written by Judaic scholars. Did you do a lot of research about Naamah in particular that informed her character? Or about the other women aboard the ark?
SB: All of the women’s names are taken from the ancient Jewish text the Book of Jubilees, or Leptogenesis. Sadie from Sedeqetelebab, Neela from Ne’elatama’uk, and Adata from Adataneses. But while the Book of Jubilees expands on their family, it doesn’t offer too much more information about the story of the ark. Mostly it’s more specifics about the timeline, the moons and months when particular things happened. There are some other stories that say that Naamah was in charge of the seeds and plants, and I brought that into my book. There are others that say she sang, but I gave that characteristic to Sadie instead. I never saw Naamah as much of a singer. I imagined her growing to detest the animals too much to sing to them.
BG: Naamah’s relationship with the animals is fascinating. At the book’s start, she’s literally become blind to them — her vision is unimpaired except for when it comes to the beasts, which she can’t see. I’d love to know more about that decision, which is so central to the book, and so surprising.
SB: I wanted the ark to be magical straight off — or if not the ark, the reality of the ark — or if not the reality of the ark, the reality of Naamah — or perhaps just Naamah herself. I imagined all the difficulties that the animals created, but the idea of not seeing them not only made them more dangerous but magnified their sounds, their smells. The ark is something we’re all somewhat familiar with, so as quickly as I could, I wanted to make the ark unfamiliar. I also needed a physical manifestation of Naamah’s discomfort in and distrustfulness of her position.
BG: Did Naamah come to you from the start as a character full of anger?
SB: Not anger — certainly frustration. But whenever she feels anger or doubt or frustration, it’s always balanced by the gratefulness she feels to be alive, to have been saved, chosen. And that constant tug, away from anger, is one that I think she resents. Greatly. So yes, she came to me right away with all of these layers to her feelings about surviving, survivor’s guilt, and all the implications that entails for her relationship with God. Getting to write into all of that — until I understood how she felt and how she would speak to those things and how that would affect her relationships and choices — that was one of my favorite parts of writing this book.
BG: That complex layering of emotions seems to play out directly in her sexual relationships. One of the most engaging aspects of this novel is that Naamah is both powerfully and centrally a maternal figure on the ark, a true matriarch, while also being alive to her sexuality as an individual. Some of my favorite scenes were of her with her former lover, a widow named Bethel. How did that aspect of Naamah’s character develop?
SB: Yes! That seems pretty inherent to the experience of parenting. I feel pretty asexual as a mother. I try to be shameless and direct about my body around my son. But of course I’m a sexual person. And my body is how I experience both sex and sexiness. So there’s this very strange duality to not just how I spend my time (when I’m being sexual or not) but also in my relationship to my own body, my very understanding of it. I guess it existed before motherhood, but, boy, did motherhood draw it out to its extremes. So I knew that same sort of thing would be happening for Naamah, mother of three adult sons and three adult daughters-in-law, wife of Noah, potentially, for centuries, and also the lover of many people as they came through her life. I’m so glad I captured that for her.
BG: The memories that Naamah has of caring for her sons as infants resonated with me as a stay-at-home father. It seems that at no other time is a human more god-like than when caring for a very young child; you create their entire reality for them, you are their world. I wondered if her experiences as a mother amplifies the crisis of faith she experiences on the ark. She has no assurance that God won’t destroy them again. For all she knows, God may continue to be a harsh and uncompromising father who scorches the Earth whenever He’s displeased. That’s a terrifying prospect to consider.
SB: I hadn’t thought about it like that — that she might have experienced a version of godliness and, because of it, been more thrown by her perilous position. I found raising my son led and leads me to more helpless feelings than god-like ones. I think I carried that into the book for Naamah as well. I think Naamah’s crisis of faith is most amplified by being put into a position of godliness for the very first time, something she’d never experienced, never imagined. And from that position, yes, I think she’s all the more certain that God might punish them all again. Until she gets to talk to Him later in the book.
BG: Pretty early on in the novel, Naamah begins a practice of taking long swims from the ark. Beneath the water she finds an angel, and later, the spirits of the dead. This, along with her dreams, is such a wonderful and surprising aspect of the book, and one that adds real tension as the story progresses. How did this element of Naamah’s story come about? Was this entirely of your own invention, or was there any precedent for it in the research that you did?
SB: Before I wrote prose about Naamah, I’d written poems about her, and even a short screenplay. The first thing I knew about the book, all the way back to that screenplay, was that Naamah was going to take up swimming. That seemed like the most logical response to this feeling of being trapped, which I imagined overwhelmed Naamah on the ark. But once she was in the water, what an opportunity! It felt like a space where anything could happen. In the short, Naamah sees a woman, but the screenplay is just about over at that point. I was so excited to figure out the mystery woman when I went forward with prose. Would she be only a vision? Or would it be God? A dead woman? Bethel even? Or an angel? I’ve always been curious about angels, fascinated by their characterizations and how they’ve been carried through into contemporary fiction/media. So once I thought that it could be an angel, that was all I could think about.
The angel and her village of dead are completely of my own invention, though it has been pointed out to me, since finishing, that she could be read as an origin story for the devil and hell.
BG: To me, this book perfectly sits in-between a kind of narrative realism — Naamah as a character has a familiar and specific psychology grounded in her body — and a fable in which she’s enacting a complex drama about a woman’s role in a patriarchal world, and an individual’s relationship to the divine, among other possible interpretations. From a process perspective, what was it like to walk that line?
SB: Perhaps this is where my being a poet helped me the most. I always try to stick as closely as I can to the truth of whatever narrative I’m telling, the truth of the character and their world, and I trust that any parallels that are developing will be fitting and, in their own way, true. Those parallels are not entirely my business; they’re the reader’s. I must only watch for ways I definitely don’t want the text to translate. But it was more of a concern for this book being a retelling of a tale from Genesis. I knew it was more of a concern for a novel than, say, a one-page narrative poem, where you can track the fable, the metaphor, and it never gets too unwieldy (if it goes astray in a poem, you can lead it back). Writing this book required more faith. I had to commit to all of the truths of Naamah and believe that the other side, the murkier depths, the reflections, would read over in a way that made sense to me. Of course, I got to revise, but I found that I was happy with the ways the story dipped into parable, the ways Naamah stands also as symbol.