The world we left behind
Debut novelist Sarah Blake offers a new heroine of biblical proportions: Naamah, wife of Noah, who finds hope amid an interminable sea.
I have been writing poetry since I was 10 years old, and I never thought I would write anything else. Poems are perfect. They’re stimulating little machines of power and grace. They can take different forms, registers and presences. They can be read aloud or in your head, and that changes how you experience them. You can ask anything of a poem—to be short or epically long, to have one voice or multiple, to be quiet and subtle or brash and bold, to quote sources or to forget the real world, or to be a mix of it all. If someone makes you think poetry is a small wedge of the written word, they’re wrong.
After my son was born, my relationship to poetry changed. For a year, I could hardly read or write. And as I began to read again, after that year, reading felt strange. I felt removed from it. An observer. And what I observed was that every poem, whether it was lyric, narrative, language or experimental, was engaging my brain in the same way, hitting it in the same spot. I had never noticed it before, and in trying to figure it out, I started writing very long narrative poems that were attempting to develop a different kind of relationship between reader and character. I’d never written anything longer than five pages, and suddenly 60-page epics were pouring out of me while my son was in childcare at the YMCA.
Soon I wasn’t writing poems anymore. I was writing screenplays. I was flooded by dialogue. It was the only way I wanted to tell stories. My brain was working something out, and I wasn’t sure what it was. And then my friend, who’s a director, asked me to write her a screenplay for a short film, about anything I wanted. And I immediately thought of Naamah, the wife of Noah, stuck on the ark. I imagined her taking up swimming, swimming in floodwaters filled with the dead. I sent the screenplay to my friend, and we chatted about it, envisioning it set on a stage with strange props and big fans and everyone naked. I loved it in that moment, and when the moment passed, I didn’t think about it again.
But after the 2016 election, I experienced a kind of hopelessness I didn’t know how to confront. Art seemed dwarfed. I didn’t want it to feel that way, but it did. When I wrote poems, they came out didactic, and I couldn’t stand them. And the dialogue stopped coming to me. Everything stopped. I started planning ways to volunteer in my community and ways to flee the country, all in the same few days. It felt like living a dual life: one of determination, to help stop the erosion of rights in our country, and one to prepare myself to get out.
And all of this led me back to Naamah. I thought of her stuck on that ark for over a year, with no communication with God, with everyone she knew dead, with all those animals needing her. That was hopeless. That was miserable. It was clear that she was someone I needed to spend time with: the woman who’d faced it all and held it together.
The setting of the ark unlocked something in me. All the senses at work there. All the animals to learn about. The large family in their faith. The real and surreal already blurring at the story’s outset. There was the scale of the ark itself to try to understand. I drew pictures of it, what it might look like on the water. I returned to the book of Genesis, reading the passages over and over again. Next to my document window, I kept open a timeline of the ark, from the coming of the rains to the release of the birds. One part of me always rooted in the story as it has been told for millennia.
As I wrote Naamah’s story, I worried that I wasn’t writing a novel. I thought, Maybe I’m just figuring out more ways that narrative works. I will look up, and the story will have ended, but it will have been for me alone, not for Naamah. It was a difficult feeling to navigate: Was the story mine or Naamah’s? If it were solely mine, it would sit happily in a drawer. If it were Naamah’s, the world might yearn to know it as I had yearned to know it.
When Naamah became entwined with an underwater village of dead children and the angel who’d created the village, I had to know what she would do, who she would choose to stay with—the angel or Noah. Every day I sat in my house and wrote about the animals, the family, the dangers and isolation, the ways to escape. Everything needed to be considered; the choices had to be made. Mine or not, the story could not continue without me returning to the page. I owed it to Naamah to continue. And the book became hers, through and through.
Sarah Blake has previously authored two poetry collections, Mr. West and Let’s Not Live on Earth. In Blake’s debut novel, Naamah provides guidance and stability to both humans and animals aboard Noah’s ark, but she also seeks solace in the mysteries underwater, where a seductive angel watches over a flooded world.