Fictionalizing the Mythological

Freedom to Read Week, Feb. 22-28, 2015

Entry #8: author Barry Webster on Bible stories, censorship, and the dangers of being “almost banned.”

Timothy Findley’s Not Wanted on the Voyage is frequently challenged by Canadian school boards. Parents have tried to get it off school curricula and out of public libraries. Most of these attempts were not successful officially, yet such efforts can lead to a more dangerous situation.

Not Wanted on the Voyage is one of those Canadian works (along with Alice Munro’s Lives of Girls and Women: A Novel and Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale) that has not been banned but is one of the ‘almost banned,’ which can be worse. A book labelled as controversial becomes the victim of a more insidious type of censorship. Teachers avoid teaching certain novels and librarians quietly remove books from their shelves to avoid controversy, which can affect careers and livelihoods. For some, standing up for free speech doesn’t seem worth the trouble.

Not Wanted on the Voyage shares similarities with the Charlie [Hebdo] cartoons, not in tone but in outlook. Both are critical of organized religion, particularly of the fundamentalist variety. Findley’s book is a retelling of the Noah’s Ark story. As a child growing up in a fundamentalist Christian family, I considered the Noah story (along with ‘Jonah in the Whale’) one of my favourite Bible stories. I liked the part about the animals neatly lined up in pairs as they enter the ark and the scene at the end when the dove brings Noah the olive branch.

Findley brings to the surface the cruelty implicit in this popular tale. Noah is not portrayed as a devout follower of God but as a vicious patriarch. His rebellious wife is the book’s real hero. More importantly, Findley doesn’t focus only on the passengers on the ark but also on those who weren’t let on board, the rest of humanity who were “not wanted on the voyage.”

The traditional Noah’s ark story justifies mass genocide in the name of religious dogma; implicit is the view that some people are on God’s side and the rest (basically most of humanity) are against him and deserve to be drowned. In Findley’s version, Noah, like the murderers of the Charlie cartoonists, misunderstands and demonizes people whose beliefs are different from his own. When you no longer define people as human beings and instead view them as demons, murder is only a step away. Findley’s novel is more relevant now than ever. I have trouble imagining what arguments parents used to justify removing it from libraries.

To be frank, I think that in the end these would-be censors are performing a type of service. At least they recognize that literature is important and can powerfully affect society. I think a more problematic view is one that diminishes literature, defining it merely as irrelevant entertainment or innocent self-expression on the same level as cake-decorating or creative macramé. At least the censors have got one thing right: they understand that literature has the power to profoundly transform our way of thinking and change the way we live.

Barry Webster’s latest book The Lava in My Bones was a finalist for the Lambda Literary Award and the Ferro-Grumley Award. In 2013 he was awarded an Honour of Distinction by the Dayne Ogilvie Prize presented by the Writers Trust of Canada. His first book The Sound of All Flesh won the ReLit Award for best short fiction in 2006. His fiction has also been shortlisted for the National Magazine Award, the CBC-Quebec Prize and the Hugh MacLennan Award. He is currently working on a novel about the fall of the Berlin Wall.