JTA via Alma — In the Hebrew Bible, we get the stories of few women: There’s Eve, obviously. There are the matriarchs Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah. There’s Queen Esther, our Purim heroine, and Judith, a Hanukkah heroine. There’s Miriam the Prophetess, Moses’s sister who danced the whole night long; Hannah, the first woman who prays; Ruth, the first convert.
But notable are the women who aren’t named. (Only around 10 percent of the 1,400 or so individuals given names in the Hebrew Bible are women.) Take Noah’s Ark, for example. We learn all about Noah, of course, but have you ever wondered about his wife, the woman who became the matriarch of all future generations of people? Me neither, before reading Sarah Blake’s new book, “Naamah.”
In “Naamah,” Blake reclaims the tale of Noah’s wife, who goes nameless in the Bible. In the novel, Blake has named her Naamah (she chose the name from the Book of Jubilees, an ancient text that tells the same stories that are in Genesis, but with greater detail; Noah’s wife, in this telling, is named Na’amah. But Judaism — outside of Beta Israel, the Ethiopian Jewish community – doesn’t recognize the Book of Jubilees as canonical).
We had the opportunity to chat with Sarah Blake about “Naamah,” matriarchs, feminist retellings, and how she never wants to break a reader’s heart.
This interview has been lightly edited and condensed.
What led you to want to tell Naamah’s story?
I was re-reading Genesis for a poetry project I was working on. I couldn’t believe in re-reading it how much of the story of the ark I hadn’t understood; it hadn’t really made it through to me that it was over a year that they were stuck on that ark. Looking at what that would’ve meant to the adults involved, given the task of being with every animal on earth, on an ark, for over a year … it just sounded hopeless and terrifying and noisy and sickening. I got really attached to the idea of the woman that would’ve been the wife and the mother and the person who had to survive all of that. I wanted to get to know her, and how she would’ve survived, and I wanted to offer her ways of escape and see what she would do with them. There were endless things that kept drawing me towards her story, and all the different parts of it.
Did you learn the story of Noah’s Ark growing up?
I had heard it in — this is so bizarre — Quaker meetings, a few times when I was seven. But, I already knew the story at that point [because] I remember when they told me, I wasn’t surprised. I don’t know when I actually first heard it.
Do you wish it was taught differently to kids? Or told differently?
I do find it very surprising that the retelling of the story of the ark is quick. The 40 days and 40 nights is what you think is the long part; the rain is what’s quite impressive, or it always was to me. In my mind I was like, oh man, 40 days and 40 nights, and then there’s enough water on earth to cover trees and mountains! And then I just thought, the rains went away and then they got off.
So that was a big part that struck me, when [Genesis says], ‘Oh yeah, God didn’t think about it for a while, and then he did, and he’s like, okay, I’ll start this drying process. And here will come a wind, and here will come a place where it drains out.’ There are a few little details about it, but even then, it takes months. And then there’s the birds — in the story I was taught, I don’t even think I got the birds. So I’m not sure I necessarily need to see that… but I would like if more retellings got into how large and long and weird the 14 months is.
There’s implications that the building of the ark takes years. So the whole [story] is kind of flattened, and doesn’t seem as terrifying cause their lives are so long. If you were told now you’re gonna make a boat for three to five years of your life, and then live on it for a year, and then start from scratch, I would be like, ‘I’m gonna be older by then! I don’t know what I’ll be like, or capable of, or what hormonal situation I’ll be in!’ [Laughs]
But I do like how that adds to the magical nature of it — of everyone just being like, ‘Yeah, sure, we will do all of this, and we’ll do it in the time it takes, and we won’t stress about how long it takes, and we’ll just keep walking away from our life to build this giant ark, and return to people that we know are going to die.’ The whole time, did they not tell them they were going to die? There are still questions that I feel like I really didn’t get to answer that I want answered myself.
What was your research process like?
I did re-read Genesis more times than I can count. And I researched animals a lot, and I researched things as they came up. So, a lot of it would be extrapolations on better documented periods of history, like Sumerian culture and Egyptian culture. But mostly: I didn’t research too much, because I really wanted to have the freedom to give her what she needed and focus more on her emotional life. I tried to be just more faithful to Naamah herself, and what I thought she might do.
You write, “The longer she is on the boat, the less she trusts Him, and His feelings toward her, and His choice of her for matriarch.” I never really thought too deeply about the story of Noah’s Ark, that his wife would be the matriarch for everyone in the future. Can you talk a little about this, and how the idea of “matriarch” weaves through the story?
It was hard to imagine being the woman that would be told all of the rest of the world, for the rest of time, would be able to trace back to you.
I mean, that is insane!
That seems insane. It seems when it happens to other people — in stories, in mythical tellings — it’s less pronounced than it was here. Here, they were pulled away from everyone else, watched everyone die, got stuck on water, and didn’t know how long that would last. And then they knew that from there, it would be their job, and if they didn’t create all of life, that would be it. So it’s this incredible drive to want to create people, but also know that as you did, you were going to create a world that had begun with you.
I was really taken by Naamah’s relationship with Bethel, her lover before the flood. Why did you choose to include that story and create that character?
I was really taken by the idea of everyone being hundreds of years old. They’re not as specific about [age] with Naamah, but they are with Noah, [who is] around 500 or 600 years old [Genesis 5:32]. So, I assumed that she was, too. And I assumed their marriage was probably centuries old. Because the other little detail you get [is] that after the boat, you find out that [their son] Shem, when he has his first son, is 100 [Genesis 11:10]. Which meant that in their terms of thinking, that is young-ish. So, that implies to me that Naamah and Noah had probably been married since around 100 years old.
Now you’ve got a marriage that’s centuries old. And, to me, it seems quite natural that marriage was going to mean something different, and that other serious relationships would probably come in and out during that time period, and that wouldn’t be a horrible thing, but just an inevitable thing.
Bethel I saw as one of Naamah’s most recent loves. And I didn’t talk about whether [Naamah and Noah] had more over the years, and who those would’ve been, but in my head, they had existed. Bethel arose really naturally to me in understanding just the length of time [before the flood]. I fell in love with Bethel. I thought she was a really necessary character to put a little bit of release on the tragedy that was the flood; it was something that Bethel wasn’t terrified about. If you only had it from Naamah’s perspective the whole time, I think the flood would’ve been this one-faceted tragedy that I’d always imagined it as, and I wanted the flood to have a little more depth. It still confuses me, the ways in which some people thought it was a good thing. God obviously thought it was the right thing… I was really drawn to all of that.
How do you see your story fitting into other feminist retellings of the bible? Anita Diamant’s “The Red Tent” immediately came to mind for me.
I know, and I have to read “The Red Tent,” I can’t believe I haven’t read it! I know it’s about Dinah, and I’ve written a few poems about Dinah — and I think that story is remarkable as well.
But yeah, I can’t answer that question too well. In talking about retellings recently, I realized I haven’t read too many retellings outside poems because I’ve been a poet for so long. I do know a lot of [poetry] retellings, like Marie Howe’s work, a series of poems in “The Kingdom of Ordinary Time,” about Jesus’s mother Mary. And then her newest book of poems is called “Magdalene,” about Mary Magdalene. A. E. Stallings does these great poems about the Greek myths, and so does Louise Glück and Rita Dove, and there’s all these amazing persona poems that are often giving voice to character you’re somewhat familiar with. Like Carmen Jiménez Smith takes on some of the fairy tales. So the poetry world I feel like is what got me poised to really think about retellings. I’m just usually thinking about them happening much more quickly than a 300-page novel.
The novel feels a lot like prose poetry, it flowed so beautifully. I noticed your previous books are all poetry; what was this transition like for you, from the world of poems and shorter works to a novel-length story?
It was shocking to me, actually. In college, as part of the creative writing minor, I had to write short stories and I was dreadful at it. I just avoided fiction. I took a lot of classes in grad school studying short stories as a form; I loved to read them and write essays about them and how they work and all their craft choices and putting them in the context of their time — I love all of that. But I just avoided writing them forever, because I just didn’t understand prose.
My mother would always say, “Just wait ’til you’re older.” I didn’t know why she had such confidence, but she did! [Laughs.]
And then, in 2016 with the election, I was feeling kind of lost. I was working on these persona poems, and I had already written a few poems about Naamah. And a friend had asked me to write a short screenplay, just to see what that would be like, and I sent it to her, and that was about Naamah. I just couldn’t get her out of my head. And I [thought], I’m just gonna have to sit down and let whatever comes out, come out. I poured out a few thousand words of writing pretty quickly. And I was like, oh my gosh, I think I’m writing prose, and then I just kept making time for it as my son was in school, or at the Y doing classes.
I fell in love. I wanted to spend time with Naamah every day, and that meant writing this novel. She took me through a time of feeling really hopeless and unsure of how to move forward, unsure of what to look at and tell my son about what was happening. Naamah helped save me, it felt like.
Besides Naamah, what’s your favorite biblical story or heroine?
As a high schooler, I became quite obsessed with “Jesus Christ Superstar.” My mother always was playing soundtracks. We had cassettes, and I think I wore out my “Jesus Christ Superstar” cassette until it didn’t play anymore…
One side of my family is very Jewish, and one side is very Catholic, but neither of my parents were interested in having religion inside the house. We celebrated the holidays. And we had a lot of Jewish dinners. Because it was through the dinners, my experience of Judaism was the ritual. I saw more of the prayers, the seders — I didn’t get the stories until later.
Obviously, Eve is amazing. And I really enjoy Dinah’s story. I really enjoyed rewriting Lot’s wife in poems. [In my poem “Lot’s Wife”] I have it that she turned into salt, but that was like just for a minute, and then she turned back again, and she just runs away from everyone.
As an adult, I’m realizing that some of the reasons I was less interested in [biblical stories] was me making assumptions that I think were kind of passed down through the patriarchy. If I actually look at those stories with my own contemporary feminist understanding, they are women I can identify with. It kind of made the Bible open up to me in a whole new way, to realize those stories can look very different.
But I would say in my childhood growing up, I just loved Judas. I’m sure that’s “Jesus Christ Superstar” talking, but who doesn’t want to sing all of Judas’ parts really badly?!
Last question: What do you hope readers take away from “Naamah”?
I hope it’s a really empowering and joyful experience. I’ve been thinking about that a lot, especially as I start new projects: If I’m gonna write novels, which is totally new to me, and have this totally different relationship to a reader than I’ve had before, what interests me the most? For me, I think it is joy and empowerment. I don’t ever want to break a reader’s heart. Not that there can’t be heartbreaking things, but I don’t ever want to do that.