The Rumpus Mini-Interview Project #189: Sarah Blake

By

Chances are you’re familiar with the story of the Great Flood from the Bible. Even if you aren’t religious, like me, you know that there was a flood, an ark, and a dude named Noah who was spared to pile a bunch of animals on said ark, all because God decided to Ctrl-Alt-Delete humanity. Or something like that. But regardless of whether you’re a believer or not or somewhere in between, you probably don’t know much about Noah’s wife, mostly because we’re barely told anything about her—she isn’t even named in the New Testament. Allow Sarah Blake to fix that.

Naamah finds her voice (and name) in Naamah, out now from Riverhead Books. Naamah is Noah’s wife, the matriarch of all future generations, and, most importantly, herself. The reader gets the chance to experience the biblical story from her perspective, all while Naamah contends with womanhood, faith, and, ultimately, her place in the world—both old and new. Blake expertly weaves the classic biblical story with her own queer and feminist retelling, even going as far to abandon all labels of sexuality to celebrate the unbridled desires, dreams, and hopes of a woman the reader will cling to long after they finish reading.

Blake is the recipient of a Literature Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts and her writing has appeared in the Kenyon Review, the Threepenny Review, Slice, and elsewhere. Naamah is her debut novel.

I spoke recently with Blake about reclaiming one of the most famous stories in the Bible, queerness and identity, and the imperfect beauty that is Naamah.

***

The Rumpus: We know few women from sacred texts. Of course there’s Eve. There are matriarchs like Rebecca and Rachel, among others. But very few women’s stories are told, and even fewer women are actually named. What made you hone in on Noah’s wife, who remains nameless in the Bible? 

Sarah Blake: I was re-reading the story of the Great Flood, and I realized for the first time that Noah’s family was stuck on the ark for over a year. I couldn’t believe it! And I couldn’t stop thinking about Noah’s wife, in particular, stuck in that position.

Rumpus: Why did you choose to name her Naamah?

Blake: Her name came from the ancient Jewish text the Book of Jubilees, or Leptogenesis, where her name is Na’amah. Most of the women’s names came from that text. Adata from Adataneses, Neela from Ne’elatama’uk, and Sadie from Sedeqetelebab.

Rumpus: The emphasis in the book is on Naamah’s emotional life. How does the setting of the ark—being sequestered to one place for a prolonged amount of time—lay the foundation for her internal exploration? 

Blake: You captured it right there. She’s stuck on the ark for so long. All she can see is water. Her chores are endless. Her future is unclear. At the beginning of the book, she can’t even see the animals anymore, as if her body is trying to protect herself from the difficult truth of her situation. Even imagining her walking through the ark’s perpetually dark hallways made me think of how much she’d have to turn inward, call upon such depths to get through every step.

Rumpus: Your book contains a number of dream sequences, each imperative to Naamah’s emotional story (or “arc,” if you’re into puns) throughout the story. How do these vivid dreams buoy Naamah’s realization of self?

Blake: The dreams are this very powerful space. First, because it’s where Naamah is not bound by her reality, and that’s such a necessary escape for her. Secondly, because it’s in this space where God, via the Metatron, is chasing after Naamah. But His meddling lets in Sarai and Jael as well. It’s her relationships with Sarai and Jael that teach Naamah so much about herself and her power. 

Rumpus: Your inclusion of queerness—specifically Naamah’s—is both beautiful and powerful. Why was it important, to you, to include that as a facet of Naamah’s identity?

Blake: When I imagine Naamah, she’s centuries old, in a centuries-old marriage, in a time without many of the religions we’re familiar with today. I hope that means she existed in a world with less shame. I also pictured a world with less societal structures and different ideas about what makes a marriage. Polyamory seemed nearly inevitable in a relationship that lasted centuries.

An openness to bi- and pansexuality seemed obvious, too. I think of how many different types of love I have in my own life, and the varying levels to which I’m sexually attracted to those people. And then, what if I had centuries to find and love more people? Who would I hold, who would I kiss? That’s how I came to Naamah. If you asked Naamah to name her sexuality, she wouldn’t understand the question. She wouldn’t understand how or why one would categorize attraction.

And we need queer people in our canons, our myths, our worldviews, our traditions, our stories, and our faith. There’s nothing to suggest Naamah (as well as many other people in Genesis) were not queer.

Rumpus: Naamah’s relationship with God is complicated, to say the least. She feels a tremendous pressure to deliver something that’s expected of her, yet she doesn’t really know what that something is. How do her frustrations inform her growth throughout the story?

Blake: Yes! What is that something?! If He can do anything or everything, He doesn’t need her to do anything, so why does He want her to do something? She thinks about this question from every which angle, and it drives her to do all sorts of things, to the point that her family worries that she, and perhaps all of them, will be punished. Sometimes she’s willing to risk that! Her frustration is what always pushed the story forward. And I wanted to ease it for her.

Rumpus: Your previous books are all poetry. Did you face any challenges transitioning to a novel-length story, and, if so, how did you overcome them?

Blake: I didn’t. I’d been writing very, very long narrative poems and screenplays, so I’d already been thinking about different shapes of stories. Then in 2016, it felt like something broke in me and my writing process changed completely. I had to spend time writing every day to feel like I was moving through that time, pulling my body through it.

Rumpus: You’ve mentioned in your interviews with NPR and Guernica that you felt trapped before you started writing Naamah. Did writing it offer you solace from feeling stuck?

Blake: So much! Naamah saved me.

Rumpus: Sacred scriptures are, in a way, poetic. Is this part of what drew you to a retelling of a biblical story? 

Blake: Yes, I love the language of Genesis. I loved reading and re-reading the chapters about the flood. And I loved getting to incorporate that language into my story. 

Rumpus: Naamah becomes the matriarch of all future generations of people, but after I finished reading this book, I felt connected to her less as a biblical figure and more as a friend. She’s beautiful, charming, and resilient. She’s also crass and sometimes selfish. She’s funny. She’s imperfect. She has desires; she’s unequivocal in her expression of them. She’s caring. She’s weird. How did you reconcile these two very different roles—the matriarch of generations to come and a friend we find ourselves missing the second we finish the book—in a retelling of a story that everyone is familiar with?

Blake: How do I put this? I don’t believe in matriarchs in the way that I don’t believe in celebrities. I don’t like putting people on pedestals, or forgetting there are shortfalls and complexities in each person. For me, there’s no such thing as an icon. Which is kind of sad, but it is the way I lead my life. Perhaps this is the result of a life filled with icons who were later revealed to be monsters.

With Naamah, I wanted the complicated side of her to be the one that was celebrated, to be worth celebrating.

***

Photograph of Sarah Blake by Nina Subin.


Greg Mania is a New York City-based writer, comedian, and award-winning screenwriter. His work has appeared in Vanity Fair, Out, PAPER, The Rumpus, and HuffPost, among other international online and print platforms. His first book, Born to Be Public, will be published by CLASH Books in Spring 2020. Follow him on Twitter: @gregmania. More from this author →