The Next Chapter

How stereotypes about feminism drove novelist Sarah Henstra to write The Red Word

The writer and associate professor takes real world issues to a fictional campus.
Sarah Henstra tackles the culture of silence surrounding gendered violence in her novel, The Red Word. (Paola Scattolon/ECW )

In Sarah Henstra's novel, The Red Word, a group of feminists at an American university plot to bring down a notorious fraternity. A plan is hatched that goes off the rails — and the book examines consent, rape culture and politics as they play out on a mid-1990s campus. 

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

Academic war zones 

"The Red Word is the story of an epic war between two student houses on campus. One is a group of young, female students new to third wave feminism. They're looking for ways to apply these ideas to their daily lives. The other house belongs to a fraternity whose main objective is to party. The girls in the student house have decided that fraternities are one of the biggest problems on campus and wage a campaign to get them banned. One of the things I wanted to explore in The Red Word was the murky terrain of party culture and the free-for-all that can unfold at a fraternity party."

Talk vs. action

"I started this book many years ago and the discussion was quieter. There was a lot of discussion around gendered violence on campus and consent education, but there was not as much consensus around how that should look or what that should mean. My exploration of these issues in The Red Word definitely had to do with rape culture, but it had more widely to do with a sense of talk versus action. Feminist education can feel like a whole lot of talk that doesn't make any difference in the real world. So I wanted to explore a plan of action taken through to its logical consequences by a group of women who got sick of that schism between what they were learning from their professors and what they were seeing around them."

Sarah Henstra's comments have been edited and condensed.