Sarah Henstra on The Red Word

Lauded by no less than Tom Perrotta as "the smartest, most provocative novel I’ve read in a long time," The Red Word is Sarah Henstra's second fiction title (after her acclaimed YA debut Mad Miss Mimic), a campus novel set in the 1990s whose politics and preoccupations evoke our current zeitgeist. In many ways The Red Word is a #Me Too book, but its questions are much larger than a hashtag and Henstra has readers grappling with complicated questions about rape culture, culpability, and justice—all the while delivering a gorgeously written novel that's really hard to put down. 

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49th Shelf: It’s always kind of funny when a book is declared as “timely” because it takes years to make a book, and I imagine this one has been in the works for a long time. Could you talk about your own timeline in terms of writing and your road to publication? How timely is this book really?

Sarah Henstra: That’s true! "Timely" makes it sound like one day you take a look at what’s blowing up Twitter and say "Oh yeah, gonna sit down a sec and write a novel about that." What a terrible plan that would be! Even if by some miracle you write it really fast (which I did not), and get it perfect right out of the gate (which I did not), novels take forever to come into print via traditional publishers—especially if it’s your first one or if you wrote it for a new market (which I did). I started The Red Word in 2013, and sold the book shortly after my YA novel Mad Miss Mimic came out in 2015. Editing and production took even longer than usual—they wanted to coordinate Canadian/US publication dates, get the right blurbs on the jacket, and so on—and I suppose that the long wait worked in the book’s favour, as more and more people have meanwhile become interested in some of the issues it grapples with, such as sexual harassment and violence. That topic was current five years ago when I started writing, but now it’s so buzzworthy that my book is trumpeted as “timely.”

49th Shelf: And speaking of time, can you talk about the significance of your novel being set in the 1990s? Also, what narrative opportunities and challenges did that period offer you? How would the novel be different if it were set in the present?

Sarah Henstra: From the start I conceived of this story as a set of events that leaves a lasting and traumatic mark on the novel’s narrator, Karen—so much so that she is compelled to re-visit them, to re-tell the story for herself, fifteen years later (in 2010, when she’s in her mid-30s). In that “present-day” frame, Karen’s long-term relationship has failed and she’s feeling stuck and uninspired in her career; in many respects the past is more lively and real to her than the present. She needs to go back and pick through the wreckage of her college years in order to salvage what was important and let go of the rest, including her own lingering sense of culpability and guilt.

The 1990s was a time when third-wave feminism took academia by storm. Identity politics, feminist critical theory in the classroom, and grass-roots student activism campaigns made college a heady and exciting place for young women who found their professors and fellow students engaging in very different conversations than they’d been exposed to at home or in high school. I suspect going off to college feels like this in every era—like discovering a brand-new world—but the 1990s was my undergraduate era, and part of the pleasure for me in writing this story was to (re)create, through memory and period detail, that historical moment. 

I suspect going off to college feels like this in every era—like discovering a brand-new world—but the 1990s was my undergraduate era, and part of the pleasure for me in writing this story was to (re)create, through memory and period detail, that historical moment. 

49th Shelf: The Red Word is hard work, in the very best way. It complicates binaries, messes with our notions of right and wrong, justice and injustice. Why was it important for you that this book not be a polemic? And was it difficult to make that happen?

Sarah Henstra: The Red Word tackles complicated subject matter, so I felt it warranted a complicated treatment. My decision to have the Raghurst women stage their attack on the fraternity the way they do arose from two separate impulses I felt as a writer, one having to do with what story I was telling and the other with how to tell the story. In the 1990s on college campuses (as elsewhere), the dice were so loaded against the survivors of sexual violence that justice seemed an impossible prospect. The young women in the novel are so frustrated with inequality, so sick of recording and reacting to the misdeeds of the frat boys without seeing any real changes, that they believe this is the only way forward, and they’re convinced—for a while, at least—that the ends will justify the means.

In terms of the story’s structure, I sought a scenario that would leave open the maximum number of possible resolutions in order to allow readers to remain curious and to consider a wide variety of perspectives and points of view. After all, it’s the unexpected consequences of the plot—those surprise moments when events blow up way past the characters’ intentions—that keep us reading.

I’ve always liked Susan Sontag’s assertion (in her 2004 lecture on South African Novel laureate Nadine Gordimer) that good novelists are "moral agents" precisely because the stories they tell don’t moralize but instead "enlarge and complicate—and, therefore, improve—our sympathies. They educate our capacity for moral judgment." It definitely took this book longer to find a publisher because of its lack of a "redemptive" or "hopeful" resolution, though. "What is the takeaway here for feminism?" one editor asked me. Luckily, the editors who strongly connected with it (Amy Hundley at Grove, Susan Renouf at ECW) loved it precisely for its refusal to come down cleanly on one side of the conflict. 

It definitely took this book longer to find a publisher because of its lack of a "redemptive" or "hopeful" resolution, though. "What is the takeaway here for feminism?" one editor asked me. Luckily, the editors who strongly connected with it loved it for precisely its refusal to come down cleanly on one side of the conflict. 

49th Shelf: Are there ways in which the current conversation around #MeToo is limiting the way readers are reading your book, or has that conversation broadened (or focused) their attention for such matters? 

Sarah Henstra: That’s a really good question, and I don’t know the whole answer yet (released two weeks ago, The Red Word has only begun finding its readers). I hope my book offers some historical perspective on the current movements in that it puts a pin in the timeline one generation ago—when the issues #MeToo addresses were regularly coming up for discussion but the terms of the discussion weren’t agreed upon at all. For example, in campus dorms and sorority/fraternity houses in the 1990s, the line between “bad sex” or a “mistake” and “sexual assault” was too blurry to see, especially in the case of the blind-drunk, or even passout-drunk, hookup. Nowadays social media today helps to set the terms more effectively and more universally, so that for the first time, rather than isolated groups of women attempting to define sexual violence or consent, we’re all able to participate in the same conversation.

Nowadays social media today helps to set the terms more effectively and more universally, so that for the first time, rather than isolated groups of women attempting to define sexual violence or consent, we’re all able to participate in the same conversation.

There’s a big gap between conversation and political change, though. In The Red Word the Raghurst women try forcibly to bridge this gap between talk (in the classroom, at the potluck parties) and action (against the fraternity). Without the groundwork for change properly in place, such efforts are doomed from the start. Ideally, today’s hashtag campaigns will generate enough pressure on institutions and legislators that real change happens. I’m hopeful that the movement today will find the necessary momentum and traction that earlier efforts couldn’t quite muster.

You can probably tell I’ve been getting asked about The Red Word’s relationship to #MeToo a lot lately. Reactions to the story so far seem to break down roughly by age group. Older readers are aghast at the debauched behaviour of my characters, male and female, and even have a hard time suspending their disbelief that campus life could be like this. Middle-agers enjoy seeing their own university experiences mirrored here to varying degrees, and the millennials are disappointed at what the frat boys get away with in my story and want to see more hope for the future.

You can probably tell I’ve been getting asked about The Red Word’s relationship to #MeToo a lot lately.

Aspects of the book I haven’t had a chance to talk about very much yet, given the #MeToo focus on sexual violence: art-making and photography, the way (Karen’s) grief compels and shapes the story, Greek epic, kinship/friendship, female sexual desire. But it’s still early days…

49th Shelf: A campus novel seems like a perfect convergence of your respective selves, the fiction writer and the academic. How do your two professional lives inform each other?

Sarah Henstra: For a long time I kept my fiction writing closeted at school, where I was more publicly focused on academic research and publishing. Creative writing was a private escape from the combined early-career stresses of a heavy teaching load, publish-or-perish, and parenting young children. My first (unpublished) novel was a young adult dystopian fantasy, and I think I steered that way to evade my internalized literary critic. Does every writer have one of those tweed-wearing, pipe-smoking, frowning male professors in her mind, asking her who she thinks she is to imagine she could write anything worth its literary salt?—or is it just me, because I spent too many years in classrooms with those guys?        

In any case, I got over it (got over myself, in other words!) through a combination of a few things: one, I discovered that my colleagues at Ryerson are universally supportive of and interested in my fiction. Two, I realized that, since my students are reading YA outside the classroom all the time, they are my audience—so how could my life as a prof ever be separate from my life as a novelist? And three, I saw that as both a prof and a writer I’m deeply invested in and curious about young people, their theatres of study and learning, and the power structures (and imbalances) that shape these theatres.

I saw that as both a prof and a writer I’m deeply invested in and curious about young people, their theatres of study and learning, and the power structures (and imbalances) that shape these theatres.

To explore these subjects in The Red Word I drew on memory but also my everyday “insider” experiences as a university teacher. A lot has changed since my undergrad years: at least in Toronto, the student body is more diverse and more likely to live at home with parents, commute to school, and work off-campus part time to pay tuition. But universities are still pretty elite places, and a lot of effort still goes into covering up scandals and maintaining a pristine public image.

49th Shelf: What are some Canadian books and authors that you’re particularly excited about right now? 

Sarah Henstra: Golly, where to start? How to narrow it down?? From the dozens—hundreds?—of Canadian books I can’t shut up about, here’s an arbitrary sampling of five: 

  • I’ve just started reading Christine Higdon’s novel The Very Marrow of Our Bones, and I’m already enchanted by the dense, moody imagery and the surprising plot turns packed into just the first few chapters.
  • I adored Scaachi Koul’s One Day We’ll All Be Dead and None of This Will Matter, a collection of bitingly funny essays that consolidates many of the themes she writes about on BuzzFeed: immigrant experience, racism, staying brave in the face of Internet trolls (something at which Koul is an expert), and how rigidly gender is policed both in her ancestral India and the West.
  • Kari Maaren’s YA fantasy novel, Weave a Circle Round, achieves that tricky balance between a brainy, rollicking time-travel puzzle-plot and believable characters with relateable emotional experiences. It’s also replete with mythical and literary references that tickle my English-prof fancy; Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan,” for instance, figures centrally in the plot.
  • I’m a big fan of Aaron Tucker’s nerdy/conceptual poetry (he writes gorgeous lyric poems with html-markup language woven through them), and now he’s written a novel I can’t wait to read called Y: Oppenheimer, Horseman of the Apocalypse, about the reluctant father of the atomic bomb.
  • I got to read a not-final version of Sarah Selecky’s upcoming Radiant Shimmering Light, and this is a title I’ll be shouting from the rooftops! It’s mysterious and sparkly and poignant and hilarious in the same way Selecky’s short stories are (in This Cake Is For the Party), and it portrays the world of online self-empowerment programs (and more to the point, online sales) with uncanny accuracy.
March 26, 2018
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