Books·Canadian

The Red Word

Associate professor and writer, Sarah Henstra, looks at gender disparity in campus life.

Sarah Henstra

As her sophomore year begins, Karen enters into the back-to-school revelry — particularly at Gamma Beta Chi. When she wakes up one morning on the lawn of Raghurst, a house of radical feminists, she gets a crash course in the state of feminist activism on campus. The frat known as GBC is notoriously, she learns, nicknamed "Gang Bang Central" and a prominent contributor to a list of rapists compiled by female students. Despite continuing to party there and dating one of the brothers, Karen is equally seduced by the intellectual stimulation and indomitable spirit of the Raghurst women, who surprise her by wanting her as a housemate and recruiting her into the upper-level class of a charismatic feminist mythology scholar they all adore. As Karen finds herself caught between two increasingly polarized camps, ringleader housemate Dyann believes she has hit on the perfect way to expose and bring down the fraternity as a symbol of rape culture — but the war between the houses will exact a terrible price.

The Red Word captures beautifully the feverish binarism of campus politics and the headlong rush of youth toward new friends, lovers and life-altering ideas. With strains of Jeffrey Eugenides' The Marriage Plot, Alison Lurie's Truth and Consequences and Tom Wolfe's I Am Charlotte Simmons, Sarah Henstra's debut adult novel arrives on the wings of furies. (From ECW

The Red Word won the 2018 Governor General's Literary Award for fiction.

From the Governor General's Literary Awards jury: "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."

Henstra wrote an original short story called Perseus/Andromeda/Medusa for the special CBC Books series Borders.

From the book

I receive two bits of news less than thirty minutes apart:

It is eleven-thirty in the morning, September 20, 2010. Here on the eighteenth story the sun trampolines off Lake Ontario and strikes both the floor and ceiling. I've just made my breakfast, squinting against the glare on the kettle, and I am back at my desk in the bedroom with the blackout drapes pulled tight. I am pretending to work, but the image I've got open in Photoshop on my monitor screens is not for work. It's an arrangement of hydrangea and coneflower in a tarnished silver vase. They are two images, in fact, shot at two slightly different exposures. I am toggling back and forth, fiddling with saturation levels, when the first news arrives. It's an email message from Annabeth Lise with the subject line Karen I am so so sorry. Her nanny's mother has died in the Philippines.

I scroll through three quarters of Annabeth's frantic, rambling message before I grasp her point. Her point is the International Conference on Lifestyle Photography, three days away: She is so, so sorry but there is just no way she can swing it; I will have to give our "Domestic Dreams" presentation on my own; she could send me what she's written so far but it's so rough at this stage; I'm so good on my feet that she knows it'll go great; the photos are the best part of these things anyway, right? Annabeth really is so sorry.

She owes me big-time, she says.


From The Red Word by Sarah Henstra ©2018. Published by ECW Press.

Interviews with Sarah Henstra

Sarah Henstra on exploring campus politics, rape culture and the issue of consent in her debut novel, The Red Word. 3:09

The 2018 Governor General's Literary Award winners

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