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.