Writing Women’s History: An Interview with The Red Word’s Sarah Henstra

Women's March

Online movements like #MeToo have forced an important conversation on power, consent, sexual harassment and assault into the spotlight which has led to real world actions like the Times Up Legal Defense Fund.

As it’s the first day of Women’s History Month, we wanted to take the time to chat with author Sarah Henstra ahead of her Toronto Lit Up book launch on March 8th.

Henstra’s arresting novel, The Red Word, is set on an American campus where a Canadian sophomore, Karen Huls, deals with the conflict of dating a member of the Gamma Beta Chi fraternity while living with the radical feminists of the Raghurst house. We asked Henstra why she chose to write about rape culture, and campus culture, in her book:

SH: “I was interested in the clash between ideas and real life that can happen to university students when they begin to learn about “big ideas” in the classroom—those world-changing philosophies and political ideologies that inspire dissatisfaction with the status quo—and at the same time are let loose from their parents’ and teachers’ supervision for the first time and tend to go a bit wild. Pitting the radical sisters against the fraternity brothers was a way for me to explore this ideas-vs.-practice tension in real time, in the dramatic space of the story.”

henstra-the-red-wordIt’s true. The novel explored the shifting and differing perspectives of its female characters on what feminism is and should look like in practice. So what was it like writing all of those perspectives?

SH: “I’ve been a feminist scholar for three decades now, so I’ve seen firsthand a lot of the debates and changes in feminist thinking. The argument of feminism is breathtakingly simple: women deserve to be taken as seriously as men. Most people can get on board with that idea, right?

But how to go about transforming the political, economic and cultural structures which prevent the idea from being a reality—that’s where feminism necessarily explodes into a kaleidoscope of analyses, debates, proposals, programs, curricula, campaigns, and so on. It was a lot of fun for me to recreate some of the discussions I’ve had over the years with other feminists, and to develop a cast of characters who are actively trying out these disparate ideas, trying to put them into practice (for better and for worse!).”

Henstra references Greek mythology a lot within her book but also in how the narrative is structured. We wanted to know, in the spirit of Greek myths, what she foresees in 2018 with regards to feminism.

SH: “Uh oh, prophecy! A dangerous enterprise even for the ancient Greeks: Tiresias was blinded and Kassandra was universally disbelieved and considered insane. That said, I think it’s safe enough to predict that the #MeToo movement has achieved some traction now and will lead to positive changes in legislation and social policy.

In particular, on university campuses, I predict that we’ll at least see a decrease in the number of incapacitated rapes—sexual assaults on blackout-drunk, sleeping, unconscious, or passed-out women (a staggering 1 in 6 female freshmen are subjected to this, according to a 2015 study). If young men were ever fuzzy on whether it was okay to do this, consent education is now making it crystal clear that it is not. I’m aware that this is a pretty low bar, and I’m hopeful it will keep rising.”

From the 2017 Women’s Marches to the current #MeToo movement, female voices are being amplified to express their outrage over constant inaction. Solving these issues will require ongoing social and political conversations that will extend far beyond the month of March. We hope Sarah Henstra’s provocative first novel will be a facilitator for thought-provoking dialogue, and will inspire readers to spark meaningful conversations of their own.

Before you disembark, here are some fun bonus questions we asked Henstra:

On women who inspired her book or who’ve inspired her personallySexual Personae by Camille Paglia.

SH: “Many of my own professors and fellow students, both in undergraduate and grad school, served as inspiration for the characters in the book. I was never taught by a Dr. Esterhazy (the charismatic feminist professor in the novel), exactly, but I was hugely supported and inspired by the generation of feminists that came before me in academia.

Camille Paglia wrote a massive, brilliant and controversial book called Sexual Personae in the 1990s about male vs. female archetypes in mythology and art (in it she calls Emily Dickinson “the female Sade”). I re-read this book as food and fuel for The Red Word. Same with Gloria Pinkola Estés’ Women Who Run With Wolves, which is mentioned in the novel a couple of times.”

On who she would bring to our world from Greek mythology

SH: The goddess Artemis (Diana to the Romans) would be a badass force for feminism and environmentalism nowadays. She’s the indomitable huntress unerring with her bow and arrow, protector of the forest animals and pre-pubescent girls.

In The Red Word, Artemis is figured as Dyann Brooks-Morriss, the boldest and most fearless of the young women who plot to get fraternities banned on campus. Her extremism gets her into trouble in the novel, but I wanted her character to be as epic and memorable to readers as she was to the story’s main character, Karen.

sarah-henstra-cr-paola-scattolonSarah Henstra is a professor of English at Ryerson University. She is the author of the young adult novel Mad Miss Mimic. This is her first work of adult fiction. She lives in Toronto. Photo credit: Paola Scattolon