Friday, October 18, 2013

If Neima's Ark Is a YA Version of The Red Tent...

...then why don't I mention my YA heroine, Neima, getting her period in either Forty Days or Forty Nights?  This is the kind of crazy question that keeps me awake at night, and in case it occurred to anyone else as well, I decided to address it here.

For those who aren't familiar with it, The Red Tent by Anita Diamant is one of the most well-known novels inspired by a biblical story, and probably the best-known novel to examine biblical times and characters from a female perspective.  Since Neima's Ark also focuses on what the women in Bible stories might have experienced, I like to think of my book as "the YA Red Tent."

The "red tent" of Diamant's title is a menstrual tent, where women separated themselves from the rest of their community while menstruating and giving birth.  In the book, the tent becomes a symbol of the bond between women and the strength they find in their femininity.

Even readers unfamiliar with The Red Tent might know that Jewish women traditionally bathed in the mikvah, or ritual purity bath, after each period.  That detail, I chose not to include because as I explained in my author's note, Neima's Ark takes place before the establishment of organized Judiasm.  Menstrual tents or huts, however, probably did exist in some cultures around the time of Neima's Ark.  So why didn't I include something like this, or at least mention Neima's period as something that might be significant?

Basically, it comes down to the same reason I made so many other choices about what to include and not include in my book: we really don't know what much of daily life was like during the Bronze Age, in most cultures, so my novel inevitably involved guesswork, imagination, and choices about what would or would not add to the story.  And I decided to explore Neima's role as a woman in other ways in my book.

In the tenth anniversary edition of The Red Tent, the author mentions that her own choice to include the red tent was due as much to the story she wanted to tell as to history:

"First, it’s important to note that I have never claimed that the women of the Bible actually used a menstrual tent; there is no historical evidence to support such a claim.  However, since there have been menstrual tents and huts throughout the premodern world, it seemed historically plausible to give them one."

(From a Q and A with the author added to the tenth anniversary edition.)

In case you were wondering, I did look into how women dealt with their periods in ancient times.  First, we have to remember that women wouldn't have had their periods as often back then.  Good ol' Wikipedia says:

Monthly menstruation for decades on end is not the historical norm. Women in prehistoric times, as estimated by research among contemporary hunter-gathered populations, probably had far fewer periods (about 160 ovulations over their lifetime) than modern women. Women of pre-industrial societies most likely experienced later menarche (around 16 years of age), earlier first births (19.5 years), frequent pregnancies (on average six live births), and long periods of breastfeeding between pregnancies, with births at intervals of 3 years. By contrast, the modern woman living in an industrialised country begins menstruating earlier (on average 12.5 years of age for American girls), first gives birth later (24 years), has fewer pregnancies (two or three), scarcely breastfeeds (3 months per birth, with half of American infants never breastfed at all), and undergoes menopause later. She can expect about 450 periods in her life."

When ancient women did have their periods, they dealt with it either with rags or sheep's wool, or by simply letting the blood flow unimpeded.

If you're still reading...I also considered that Neima likely wouldn't have had a period on the ark at all.  Poor nutrition and stress can often cause women (especially younger women) to temporarily stop having periods, and Neima certainly dealt with both stress and hunger on the ark.

So there you have it...the answer to all the questions you never asked!


  1. This is a really great post, I loved The Red Tent, and I love how much detail/thought you put into the series.