Over the next few weeks, we’ll be in conversation with all of this year’s English-language Governor General’s Award winners. We begin our special #GGBooks series chatting with Sarah Henstra, author of the novel The Red Word.
The jury called the book "Groundbreaking and provocative ... this is an astonishing evisceration of the clichés of sexual politics as they exist not only on our college campuses, but also within broader present-day society. Alternately heartbreaking, funny, and critical, no one gets off easily. The Red Word plumbs the depths of literature, mythology, history, philosophy, and a host of contemporary issues—an utterly effing good read."
Sarah Henstra is an Associate Professor of English literature at Ryerson University. She is the author of Mad Miss Mimic, an historical tale for young adults, and We Contain Multitudes, slated for publication in 2019. The Red Word is her first work of adult fiction. Sarah grew up in Abbotsford, British Columbia, and now lives in Toronto.
THE CHAT WITH SARAH HENSTRA
Trevor Corkum: The Red Word is described as “smart, dark, and take-no-prisoners look at rape culture.” Can you talk more about the creation of the novel?
Sara Henstra: I wanted to write about life on a university campus, where I’ve spent my entire adult life (first as a student, then as an English professor). The novel’s narrator, Karen, moves back and forth between two opposing worlds: her women-centred, progressive, feminist student house and the party-driven, sexist fraternity house where her boyfriend lives. She gets caught in the middle of an intense public scandal involving a sexual assault accusation.
TC: How has the novel been received? What types of response have you had from readers?
SH: The novel has garnered generally positive appraisals from critics and quite strong feelings from readers. Most readers seem to recognize aspects of their own college experience (sometimes to a chilling degree) and enjoy the discomfort of sympathizing with characters whose behaviour is, from the outside, pretty reprehensible.
TC: In the era of the #MeToo movement, did you feel any particular fears or responsibilities as you wrote?
SH: I wrote the book before #MeToo, but while I worked on the story, I felt a strong commitment to avoiding any imposition of my own moral and ethical biases and to keeping the narrative options open as long as possible. I wanted to spend serious time in the company of these characters—the frat boys and the militant feminists—and not dismiss their ideas or allow them to become two-dimensional.
TC: What does it mean for you at this point in your career to win the Governor General’s Award for Fiction?
SH: It’s still early days ... But as I show up at my writing desk each morning, I’m noticing that I’m already bringing to the work an expanded sense of creative possibility and permission. Go deeper, this award seems to be telling me. Go farther! It feels like a blessing and a challenge all at once.
TC: 49th Shelf is built around a community of readers and fans of Canadian literature. What Canadian authors are you reading these days?
SH: I’m in the middle of restauranteur Jen Agg’s bad-assed memoir, I Hear She’s a Real Bitch. I’m so inspired by the way Agg describes brutal setbacks (like bankruptcy) along the road to her success; the throughline is about self-forgiveness and learning from mistakes (i.e., grit).
I loved the sparkly prose and sheer weirdness of the stories in Paige Cooper’s collection Zolitude. And Vivek Shraya’s I’m Afraid of Men is a sharp, manifesto-like essay based on her experiences with toxic masculinity before, during, and after transitioning.
I’d been meaning to read Marion Engel’s Bear for many years, and I finally just ordered it after hearing the novel discussed in a CBC doc about the human/bear relationship and learning, later that same day, that Engel won the 1976 Governor General’s Award for that taboo-smashing book.
Excerpt from The Red Word
The Gamma Beta Chi chapter house was about the same distance as Raghurst from the campus but on its north side, where the student ghetto gave way to the bigger, older, and more expensive homes of professors. My bike ride was still only ten minutes.
The front lawn of the frat house was littered with furniture and sprawling male bodies. It looked like all the boys had moved permanently outdoors. The brick building loomed up behind them into the maples. Even in the full sunshine it was as shadowy and misshapen as a Victorian asylum, its upper stories encrusted with dormer windows and rickety balconies. The tableau was a cross between a beer commercial and a Brueghel painting, and I was immediately sorry I’d left my camera at Raghurst.
Mike popped up from one of the couches on the lawn and came down to meet me on the sidewalk. “Hi, honey,” he said. He held my jaw on both sides and kissed me in front of everybody.
I squirmed out of his grasp. “You’ve got lipstick now,” I said, swiping his lip with my thumb.
“Gentlemen, this is Karen Huls,” Mike announced. He hoisted my bicycle to his shoulder and carried it up the steps to the porch.
“Hi, Karen Huls,” they all droned, like kindergartners greeting their teacher.
“Hi, Karen Huls,” said Bruce. I hadn’t seen him there on the grass but I saw him now, feetfirst flat on his back shorts no shirt hands behind his head elbows out. A golddark valley between his thighs and goldbright tufts under his arms — the secrets of Bruce’s body laid out carelessly for the whole world.
I’d begun reading the Iliad for Dr. Esterhazy’s class, and I kept picturing the hero Achilles as Bruce Comfort. Blessed by the gods, the book said. Beloved by Athene. I pictured how Bruce’s broad chest would look plated in bronze, how his blond hair would become shaggy and sweat-stiffened under his iron helm. Even if I had brought my camera with me, I couldn’t very well take a photo of Bruce Comfort — not in front of all these frat boys, not in front of Mike. But if I could, oh, if I could! I wouldn’t bother with the beer-commercial tableau at all. Here was the essence of the scene, right here: It would be a single close-up of Bruce’s ribs curving under his skin, sweeping down into the grass like the hull of a wargoing ship.
Achilles was described in the Iliad as “godsfavored.” I liked how the translator would mash two English words together when no single one could accurately capture the Greek.
“Offer the lady a drink, Frodo.” A thin brother with dark hair curling out of his shirt shoved the boy next to him off the couch.
“I’m Frodo,” the boy told me, blushing. He had watery, pale blue eyes and blond eyebrows. “Would you like a rum cooler? White wine?”
“Beer’s good, if you have it,” I told him. There was a chorus of shouts at this — approval, it sounded like — and a number of requests for refills.
I followed Frodo through the dark, oak-paneled foyer into the kitchen, and Mike followed me, saying, “Frodo’s helping out because you’re our guest and I’m your . . . host. Otherwise I’d be doing the bartending. Libations are my expertise.”
A blond brother met us in the kitchen doorway and introduced himself as Chris. “So you’re Code Blue, I take it,” he said.
“What are the other options?” I asked.
“Karen, Charlie. Charlie, Karen.” Mike nodded at a fullback type with coppery hair sitting at the table, wolfing scrambled eggs with a spoon clenched in his big fist. The room smelled of sulfur, stale sweat, and alcohol.
Chris pointed to sheets of colored circles arrayed on the table. Stickers. “White, pink, red, and black,” he said.
“And green, for pukers,” Charlie supplied. “I don’t think you’re supposed to tell girls, though.”
“Tell us what?” I said.
“You don’t want to be black. That’s all you need to know.” Chris swigged the last of his beer, added it to the dense collage of empties on the counter, and cracked a fresh one.
Excerpted and adapted from The Red Word by Sarah Henstra. © 2018 by Sarah Henstra. All rights reserved. Published by ECW Press Ltd. www.ecwpress.com
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