Former National Endowment for the Arts fellow Sarah Blake tells her students to "make it weirder," and her work bears that out as a mantra. Her surreal feminist novel, Naamah, was named a Best Book of 2019, by O, The Oprah Magazine, Thrillist, and HeyAlma. Her debut poetry book, Mr. West, chronicled both Blake's life and pregnancy alongside the life of Kanye West, while her second collection, Let's Not Live on Earth, sends readers to a colony of earthlings living on Mars. Her e-chapbook, where she deals with her mother's diagnosis of a brain tumor, is accompanied by a downloadable workbook that contains mazes, writing and drawing prompts, and seek and finds. Ever the innovator, Sarah Blake spoke with former Literary Mama Reviews Editor Camille-Yvette Welsch to talk about how she balances the reality of motherhood with the wilds of her imagination.
Camile-Yvette Welsch: In Naamah, your eponymous protagonist has to deal with all of the mental load of packing for two of every animal in the world as well as her family in anticipation of a flood that will end the world. Added to that burden, she has no idea when the waters will recede and they will be able to find land again, or what, exactly, they will find there. Even with the sheer magnitude of her task, I found myself understanding her plight in some small way. In fact, though this character is ancient, she is also very modern. How did you weave together both the modern and ancient experience of women in this book, and was it important to you that it be both?
Sarah Blake: That temporal displacement is a sort of magic born from this story, I think. I tried to write as honestly as I could about what I thought it would be like for Naamah. I really wanted to inspect what her task was, the big and small parts of it.
I also wrote this book to figure out how to survive a hopeless time. So I purposefully put a lot of myself into Naamah to see—does she deserve to survive now? How about now? What if she's awful like this? What if she's selfish? What if she's crass? Does she still hold it together? Does she get to get out of this alive? Does she get to be happy?
The result was this modern ancient woman. And it was comforting to see this consistent sense of womanhood unfold across millennia. It was also deeply unsettling.
CYW: Naamah's sexuality is fluid, and her sexual experience is not limited to her husband Noah. In fact, there is the suggestion that after hundreds of years of marriage, it simply can't be. What kinds of questions did you want to raise about marriage and sexual identity for both men and women?
SB: I did want to push the idea that the commitment of marriage could take many different forms, especially when it stretched across centuries. But honestly, it's hard to imagine that much time. My mother just died before her 36th anniversary with my dad. Life isn't that long—we know, we know—so it was a real pleasure to imagine centuries-long lives for these characters. So much of the pressure came off of them when they had that kind of time.
I also really wanted to push the idea of more fluidity when it comes to our sexual identities. I think, like anything, our feelings change/grow/deepen/etc. over time. That there's any sort of bipolar identification to our sexuality is absurd to me, and it's an unhealthy thing to teach anybody.
CYW: Why are you attracted to Biblical women and their stories? How do you think Naamah's experience as a mother impacted her character? How did your experiences as a mother impact how you conceived of the character?
SB: I've become obsessed with women I was dismissive of as a child. I thought the women were weak, and I didn't identify with that, and they angered me. As I grew up, I realized that the women were not necessarily weak—that these women were more of a reflection of who was telling these stories. So I've been returning to those women and reimagining them until they're women I'm proud of and interested in for all their complexities. And in the process, I'm forgiving my critical, naïve child-self, too.
CYW: In your second volume of poetry, Let's Not Live on Earth, you write of a mother sitting with her son, and the son slaps another child across the face. You end the poem, "I know people are judging me as a mother all the time." You also note that people have had some outsized reactions to your novel, Naamah. How is the judgment the same and how is it different? How do you overcome it? Or do you?
SB: Oh man. The judgment one gets as a mother—I find that much harder to take than the judgment I get as an author. Maybe because I've had a longer time as an author. And I've been in workshops since high school, learning how to take what I need from feedback. I need a motherhood workshop where I develop a thicker skin! Just kidding. That'd be awful.
When people judge my work as an author, I find it so understandable. People's tastes are different. Some people don't like dream sequences! My mother didn't like talking animals! To each their own! But judgment as a mother—that seems unfounded. Every child is an individual and every parent, too, and the dynamic between those two individuals is going to be ridiculously unique. As long as there's no abuse going on, I think people need to mind their business. But while, logically, I think this, I know this, I'm not great at brushing off even a harsh look from another mother.
CYW: In your poems, there is a lot of fear about what could potentially happen to us as women, what could happen to our children, to our planet. There is a sense of being endlessly vulnerable. How has motherhood escalated that for you and how do you see it impacting your writing?
SB: Endlessly vulnerable is exactly it. Motherhood escalated that for me in those first few months where SIDS was a possibility. I needed to sleep next to my son to ease my fear. And then I slept next to him just so I could get more sleep! A lot of that fear eased off as he grew bigger. But it returned when he went to school, and I learned about who in our neighborhood owned guns, and as I followed the news of shootings all over America. My writing has always been driven by my anxiety and what disturbs me, so all of these new fears found their way into my writing.
CYW: You wrote Mr. West at least in part during your pregnancy. How did your writing life change during the pregnancy and after?
SB: During pregnancy I was writing like normal! Thankfully. Afterwards, I had a lot of trouble writing and reading. A whole year went by before I read a complete book again. My brain couldn't hold onto things. I could do revisions of poems. And I wrote a few bad poems. But mostly I had to wait it out. After about a year, my writing came back to me. And it was transformed! I wanted to write really long poems and linked poems. I wanted to sustain long, long thoughts across pages and pages of writing. I'd never written like that before. It was exhilarating.
CYW: You move easily between genres, often blurring the lines. Naamah is thought poetic and Let's Not Live on Earth ends with a long sci-fi story poem in sections. Do you see the separation between genres as relevant, and how do you decide which genre you will write in?
SB: Well thank you for saying I move easily between genres. It doesn't always feel like that at home! I do feel more comfortable now that I've been going back and forth for a few years. It feels so different for me to write poetry vs. fiction, so that delineates the genres for me. Poetry is a high energy process for me. I'm usually drafting an entire poem in a sitting, and it's going off like fireworks as I make leaps that carry me down the page. It's hard to fall asleep after I write a poem because it's gotten my mind moving so quickly. But fiction is a sustained effort over months and months—it feels like I'm moving through something thick. It's almost meditative for me. And that difference carries over to my reading habits, too. When I read poetry, I'm looking for something that makes my brain work differently than it's been working all day. I want the poems to catch my synapses by surprise. When I read fiction, I don't need that. I want sentence variety, character depth, strangeness, biting images and insights, and plot moves I can't predict. But it can be soothing—I love to read good fiction before bed.
CYW: You won an ALMA for Best Biblical Retelling for Naamah, and the book was listed by Oprah as one of the 23 best LGBTQ books of the year. You also have devout Christian readers opining on the book. What is it like to operate between so many different groups who often think of, and may use, your book in different ways?
SB: It's amazing! I wasn't sure anyone would like this book. It's such a risk to take a story everyone knows and completely reinvent so many aspects of it. But it's speaking to people the way it spoke to me, and I'm so grateful.
CYW: What advice do you have for other mother writers who are trying to balance writing/creativity with rearing children?
SB: I didn't get to write my novel until my son was in a full-day first grade program in our public school district. And my partner and I had made so many choices over years and years to make it so that I didn't need to take a full-time job by the time we made it to first grade. So I'm not sure what advice I can give. I know people who have made writing a priority when they had so much less time. But I couldn't pull that off. I am in awe of those people. I needed so much time to let myself stop thinking about laundry and errands and dirty toilets—to know I could write and address those things. I do want to say that you can forgive yourself if you can't give it your all when you don't have the time to give it your all. It takes more than the time at the computer to write. It takes daydreaming time and reading time and finding inspiration time, and all that time at the computer, too. I also often need someone to tell me that art is important. My husband is the one who always tells me this when I start questioning the universe and life and purpose and everything. So if you need to hear that today: art is important. Your art is important. Your time spent making art is valid.