Bill Moyers talks with Anne Provoost, who has written several provocative novels for young people, treating subjects as diverse as sexual abuse, guilt, penance, and mercy, the seductive power of fascism, and in her latest, the story of Noah and the ark during the Great Flood of Genesis.
WATCH A CLIP
BILL MOYERS: Hello, I’m Bill Moyers. For thousands of years now the stories of the Bible have invited a wide range of interpretation and analysis. There’s a reason for it, summed up by Israel’s David Grossman recently when over a hundred writers from around the world came to New York to talk about faith and reason. “Sometimes we can study one verse of the Bible for half a year and we do not consume it. You cannot consume it. It’s endless. It’s really an ocean.”
BILL MOYERS: On the panel was Belgium’s prize-winning writer of children’s books, Anne Provoost:
ANNE PROVOOST: You can tell me a story that really happened and could happen and it would be useful for me. Because maybe you would teach me how I could cope with grief. But what you’re doing in a fairy tale and what you’re doing in myth is you’re telling stories that can’t even happen. What do I buy for that when I have a crisis?
BILL MOYERS: Anne Provoost has written several provocative novels for young people, treating subjects as diverse as sexual abuse, guilt, penance, and mercy, the seductive power of fascism, and in her latest, the story of Noah and the ark during the Great Flood of Genesis. It’s theme: what happens when the boat is full?
BILL MOYERS: Anne Provoost, if you had been living when God told Noah to build an ark to save a chosen few from a terrible impending flood, and you learned that your name was not on the passenger list, that God intended to drown you, would you choose another God?
ANNE PROVOOST: I certainly would. And that’s really what the story that I wrote is about – this whole question of, you know, what happens to you if that’s your verdict, if that’s your future, if that’s what your God is planning for you?
BILL MOYERS: It’s hard to worship a God who plays favorites unless you are on the invitation list, right?
ANNE PROVOOST: Well, of course we are talking here about an Old Testament God, and I was very interested in that God.
BILL MOYERS: How did you get interested?
ANNE PROVOOST: Well, I used to live in the United States for awhile. And back then already I was collecting children’s books. Because I, you know, deep down, I’m a mom, you know.
BILL MOYERS: How many children?
ANNE PROVOOST: Before I had children. I have three children. Before I had children, I was already collecting their books, you know. And there’s a wonderful book that I’m sure many people here in the United States will know or remember. It’s a picture book by Peter Spier. And it only has pictures. But it’s the story of Noah and the ark. It’s an old book and what you see, at some point, is you see the animals embark. And then you’ll see a bunch of animals sitting outside in one frame, and then in the next frame, in the next picture, you’ll see they’re all, you know, they all have wet feet. And in the next picture, you only see the trunk of the elephant right above water level, and the nostrils of the giraffe. And in the next picture, all you see is water. And that was really, really confrontational to me. And that’s really what made the twist in my head thinking, you know, let’s look at this story from the other side because it’s such an interesting story.
BILL MOYERS: Well, your account looks at the story of Noah and the ark from the flood up. From the victims, from the drowning people. The people not on the ark.
ANNE PROVOOST: From the people in the shadow.
BILL MOYERS: Those people in the shadow of the ark. The original story in the Old Testament looks at it from God’s angle, and Noah’s experience.
ANNE PROVOOST: It’s the old story of the, you know, whether, it always depends. If you’re going to report on a battle, you can always tell it from the side of the winners, and of the losers. I’m not saying that in my book, I’ve changed the winners and the losers. But I changed the perspective. And it’s always very useful because even when we talk about history in terms of war and peace, what we say is completely colored by who turned out to be the winner. I mean, how would we have spoken about Germans if the Germans had conquered us all? And we would have been much more oblivious. And our attitudes would have been completely different. But of course, I will talk to people all the time who will say, “This is my childhood story, you know. You’re taking it away from me. Because I always thought as a very positive, gentle, optimistic story. And I never thought of the people who were left behind. And I don’t want to think about them because it’s very confrontational.” But that, of course, is what, as an author, you want to do.
BILL MOYERS: Did you ever read the novel SCHINDLER’S LIST or see the movie? You saw the movie?
ANNE PROVOOST: I saw the movie.
BILL MOYERS: Do you know that the author, the fella who wrote that, Thomas Keneally, he called his first draft, SCHINDLER’S ARK. Because he —
ANNE PROVOOST: Oh, interesting.
BILL MOYERS: — he thought the ark was a great metaphor for what Schindler himself did in Nazi Germany of saving eight hundered, nine hundred, a thousand Jews from doom.
ANNE PROVOOST: But there again, you would have a very strong sense of saving the people who are innocent. While I think the story of Noah and the ark is really saving the people who are good, and thus condemning all the others, which to me is a very different matter. And that’s what, you know, what really interested me in this story, is for me looking at that story, I don’t necessarily think that this is a saving. Because the flood is coming.
The order, you know, the idea of the flood is coming from that God. He’s choosing, and that’s, you know, he’s not choosing because he wants to save the people for an evil that he doesn’t have any power over. It’s his evil, which is the flood. And that’s a gold mine for an author.
BILL MOYERS: At first you think he’s saving a good man from a calamity. Then you realize he’s saving Noah from a good God who is also a bad God. This God is one and the same, good and bad.
ANNE PROVOOST: Right. And this God is destroying his own creation. So, you wonder, you know, why do you create something that will turn out to be this bad? And then you’re going to probably punish them for it? Maybe there’s something wrong in the making.
BILL MOYERS: Not only that, but he chooses Noah, who we thought was a good man. But the moment the flood is over, Noah comes off of the ark, gets drunk, abuses his grandson.
ANNE PROVOOST: Exactly.
BILL MOYERS: I mean, twice in a row God has messed up.
ANNE PROVOOST: Right.
BILL MOYERS: Doesn’t say much for intelligent design, does it?
ANNE PROVOOST: See, I think that’s the whole power of this story is that, you know, you think at first sight that this is a black and white story. And then it turns out that the good guy has a human character, and is diverse and human, and a psychological mess, you know. And that’s where the stories tellers come in and want to know more about this man. Because that’s exactly what’s happening in the story is that you don’t get away with interpreting it as a good against a bad story. It’s more complicated than that.
BILL MOYERS: What conclusion did you reach from your research about what God means when God says, “I will save the righteous?” Who is righteous? What is righteousness?
ANNE PROVOOST: I’m suspicious towards any group of people saying that they were chosen. Because throughout history, and I’m not only looking at the Jewish historic line, but every people at some point probably have said this. They’ve said this group of people is the chosen.
Now what strikes me is that never ever in history do you have a group of people that says well here’s us, but that group there, these other people, they are chosen. So, whenever you have a proclamation of being chosen, it’s always a self-defining process. It’s always the people who are chosen who say they are chosen. They never say that about the other. They always say that about themselves.
If you’re going to do that as a group. If you’re going to say, “I’m chosen,” it loads you with a very heavy burden. And the story, once the people are on the ship, is very much about the feeling of guilt that you get by saying, “We are superior.”
BILL MOYERS: Did you write this story as a mother, a mother of three children? Because the children, I’ve often thought, the children who died in the great flood, you know, that they were neither righteous nor unrighteous. And yet, they perished by the tens of thousands, if you want to believe this story.
ANNE PROVOOST: They play an important part in the book where you know they’re drowning. And some of them, and describing them, they’re wearing beautiful gowns because they were loved by their parents. And, you know, no parents will ever think, “I have a bad child, it deserves to drown.”
BILL MOYERS: It’s an old question, you know, why must the innocent die? We’ve all heard the cry. “Why did the bullet get my buddy and not me? Why was I the only one to walk away from the crash? Why did cancer take my brother —
ANNE PROVOOST: Right.
BILL MOYERS: — and not me?” I mean, this is one of the oldest questions in the human experience.
ANNE PROVOOST: I would even take this a step further. And I would think that this moment that you’re describing in life which I call the fatal instant —
BILL MOYERS: The fatal?
ANNE PROVOOST: The fatal instant in life.
BILL MOYERS: The moment something radically changes?
ANNE PROVOOST: Well, changes forever, and there’s an element of irreversibility where you cannot go back in time, you know, it’s the moments in life you experience where you say, “I wish I could turn back time. I wish I could change the, what do you call it, the fingers of the clock.”
BILL MOYERS: Hands of the clock, right.
ANNE PROVOOST: The hands of the fingers, I call it.
BILL MOYERS: It’s alright.
ANNE PROVOOST: I think everybody at some point in his life experiences that. And of course, the most ultimate moment in your life that this happens to you is your own death. But then, you’re not going to contemplate about it anymore. But it happens before your death. It happens when something happens to your children. It happens in all the examples that you give — the cancer that strikes your brother. I would think that that’s not only the crucial question in human life.
But it’s very much the definition of what literature is about, is about how this comes about, how this happens to the character, whoever that is in the book, and then how this character copes with it. When I write books about gods or authors who may think they’re the same – changing time and playing with time — that may be a very interesting exercise for my brain. But what will I do with that knowledge the day my fatal instant has arrived? What will I do with these stories if my child crosses the street and it dies in front of me, and I want to turn back the time and I can’t? Because, you know, this whole philosophy or this whole thinking about literature — it helps us. It makes it richer. It enforces us. It empowers us. It emancipates us for the big moments in life. Does it? What do I buy the moment something really bad happens to me, for these stories? I’ve given this a lot of thought because it seems so easy.
It seems so easy for a writer to do what is impossible. You have so many situations, especially in children’s movies, which I find pretty. It worries me, where a bunch of people will be standing around a person and this person is dead. And they’ll be mourning. And then suddenly, somebody will, and then suddenly, you will hear a cough. And then the eyes will open. And it appears that the person wasn’t dead. So, what the filmmaker, the movie maker is doing is, he’s reversing time. Somebody’s dead. And then the next second, turned out to be fake. He’s alive. Happy ending.
BILL MOYERS: Rainbow.
ANNE PROVOOST: Rainbow. We can do that in stories. But what do we buy for it when in the real life, we experience that nobody starts coughing? Nobody opens his eyes. People are really dead. And I also want to know what this does to our children, you know, watching these movies over and over again where people always nearly die but they never do for real.
BILL MOYERS: But don’t you think people are looking for in fiction and in movies, what many people are looking for in religion, to slip free from time, to become like God, timeless? Doesn’t that explain the hunger for God as well as the hunger to read, to escape the body and time?
ANNE PROVOOST: There is definitely a big parallel between those two. And definitely, people are looking for the same things in religion as they are in literature. I’m pretty convinced of that. Then again, I think we have to be aware of that. I wouldn’t dream of wanting to define my art as a way of escapism, a way of getting away of the reality that we really, you know, have to admit that we can’t quite cope with. In that sense, I would think that religion or faith also has to reflect upon itself and wonder, you know, what is it we’re looking for?
We don’t want religion to be a kind of escapism. We want it to be more than that, right? We wouldn’t want to establish a whole philosophy around something that is really trying to get away from reality. But then, my question would be: why do you have to move that outside of yourself? Move it inside of yourself, and it will be there. You can find it there. It doesn’t mean to be–
BILL MOYERS: You can find what?
ANNE PROVOOST: The mystic, the religious experience, the experience that I would call transcendence. The feeling that you can have in your fatal instant, you don’t necessarily have it, but you can have it if you want, that your fatal moment in life, the moment that you feel everything is turning and twisting does not necessarily have to be a bleak, empty hole. But it also can give you that moment of power or insight that even though something terrible is happening to you at that moment, you can and you will be able to do that maybe through literature or religion. You can feel related with all the other people in history and all the people in the future that have gone through the same thing as you did. And I think that’s exactly what people are looking for in religion, this support, this feeling of, “I’m carried by others who went through this.”
BILL MOYERS: There are so many questions come to one when reading In the Shadow of the Ark. But there was one question that halts me in particular. I mean, can you trust a God who doesn’t get it right?
ANNE PROVOOST: That’s one of the questions, of course, that Re Jana, she’s the main character in the book, is asking. She says, “Well, if your God is going to drown the world, if your God is going to bring a flood, then why don’t you pick a different God?” So to me, as, that is the question I want to ask. Why would you trust a God that at this moment, doesn’t come back to give us the right book. You know, through history, he’s given the Jewish people a book. And he’s given the Christians a book. And he’s given the Muslim books, and so there’s big similarities between these books, but there’s also contradictions.
I would think that, you know, he needs to come back and create clarity and not let… he shouldn’t let us fight over who’s right. He should make it clear. So, my personal answer to your question, “Should we trust,” I wouldn’t.
BILL MOYERS: A God who doesn’t get it right, you wouldn’t?
ANNE PROVOOST: I wouldn’t. I would think if this God isn’t in me, because for me if you ask me does God exist, I will say of course he does. He does in the heads of all these people who believe in him. There’s a great essayist in Belgium who wrote a wonderful essay on the parallel between art, love, and faith or religious faith, in a sense that she points out that the love that I feel for my man, you know, for my favorite, my beloved, is there. It exists. Nobody will doubt it. But nobody else sees it because I’m the only one in love with him.
To me, religion follows the same pattern in the sense that God is there because he’s there for the people that keep him in their heads. And they keep him as a sort of lantern to follow, to find the way. But for me personally, I feel he has to stay there. He has to stay in those heads. Because if people are going to bring him outside their heads and say, “Well, I’m here and he’s there,” and that’s what he’s asking me to do because it’s in his books or then the ethical responsibility that I should feel is there. It’s no longer here. And that’s risky because I can push the ethical responsibility away from me. If he’s going to stay in here, I will know that he’s me. He’s in me. And I will always remain responsible.
BILL MOYERS: Is there no God in your head?
ANNE PROVOOST: I think there is. But, you know, very often when I speak to people who believe in God, and I say what I believe, the relation is so close that I think we all believe. We only define it differently. What I believe in is the strength of, can come from an ethical conscience, and that we should all nourish and try to educate, and that we should try to have. And when I define that for myself, it’s probably going to come very close to the definition that most people who believe in God have of their religion, of their religious beliefs. So, we’re very linked. Only, I don’t call it God, but it’s the same concept. I call it ethics.
BILL MOYERS: I think there’s a genius in your creation of the young girl in your book whom you have stowed away.
ANNE PROVOOST: Right.
BILL MOYERS: One of Noah’s sons stows her away on the ark. So she’s the hidden ninth passenger. Right?
ANNE PROVOOST: She’s the hidden, what do you call this? The moral? She’s the unconsciousness of these people. She’s what’s going to come back to take revenge because it’s chewing on them. They know that what they’ve done wasn’t right. So she’s like the bomb ready to explode in their faces, and she’s there on purpose, because she’s the mirror. She will hold it in front of them after. And say, “What on earth did you do by choosing yourself? Why didn’t you give your space to a child who for sure is innocent? To Lame? Why didn’t you push overboard these animals and move in people?” That she’s the – now I have the word — the consciousness of the whole bunch in that ship.
BILL MOYERS: As well as the conscience.
ANNE PROVOOST: Yeah the conscience. That’s the word I was looking–
BILL MOYERS: Well, both work.
ANNE PROVOOST: Right. Yeah.
BILL MOYERS: She makes them aware.
ANNE PROVOOST: Right.
BILL MOYERS: The consciousness. But she’s also delivers the imperative.
ANNE PROVOOST: Right. Do we have a contribution? And does it matter what we do?
BILL MOYERS: That’s the ethical dimension you’re talking about.
ANNE PROVOOST: Right. Right.
BILL MOYERS: What is the message of IN THE SHADOW OF THE ARK?
ANNE PROVOOST: There’s 500 in every page. I can give you a couple. One of them definitely is that the story of people who get space or get a spot or get room on the boat, it’s not over yet. That we still are fighting for a spot on top of everybody else. The pyramid is still there, and everybody’s struggling to be above. And that we’re leaving out many people. That we should build a bigger ship that implies all. That we have messages of doom hanging over us and that we’re not reacting to them. That it is dangerous to tell each other that you’re, or tell the others that you’ve been, chosen. That there is the possibility to escape through solidarity. You can smuggle stowaways on board if you want. You can try. That it is worth putting your honor over your life or other things at risk for doing that, for making a big gesture. That some things are worth a lot. That’s just a few of the messages.
And I’m sure I could, for each message that I just conveyed, I could give you a completely contradictory one. Because I can be very pessimistic as well. So I think there’s also messages there of the impossibility to educate us as a humankind. Our stubbornness to learn. Our always repeating ourselves and making the same mistakes from the history. Our not learning from history. That is in there, also.
BILL MOYERS: IN THE SHADOW OF THE ARK. Thank you very much, Anne Provoost.
ANNE PROVOOST: Thank you.
This transcript was entered on June 26, 2015.