A timeless story of youthful idealism
Sarah Henstra’s The Red Word chronicles students’ debates
When Emma Sulkowicz graduated from Columbia University in 2015, the fine arts student carried a mattress across the stage, assisted by four other young women dressed in caps and gowns. As part of her senior thesis, Sulkowicz had dragged that dorm mattress around campus all year to protest the school’s response to her complaint that she had been sexually assaulted by a fellow student. Her performance led to hundreds of other students across the U.S. picking up their own mattresses for a national day of protest.
The bulk of Sarah Henstra’s explosive new novel, The Red Word, takes place on campus during the 1990s’ third wave of feminism, when “girl power” butted up against the punk politics of the Riot Grrrl movement. But Henstra’s story is timeless in how it captures youthful idealism and anger, alive still in fierce activists such as Sulkowicz. The Red Word, takes place on campus during the 1990s’ third wave of feminism
The Red Word is told from the perspective of Karen, a sophomore student whose life is fraught with contradictions. She literally stumbles into living with a group of radical feminists while dating a guy who belongs to the fraternity Gamma Beta Chi, unaffectionately known as “Gang Bang Central.” When her new housemates devise a subversive plan to take down GBC, Karen is forced to confront her own conflicted politics and uncertainty over her friends’ true motives. A shocking revenge plan that leads to more violence and doubt about who is on the “right side” haunts Karen for the rest of her life.
Henstra, a professor of English literature at Ryerson University, jokes that writing a book set on campus is akin to “the priest writing about the church.” In The Red Word, Karen is invited to join a mythology class led by a feminist scholar who becomes an intellectual hero for the young women. Henstra loved writing the classroom scenes, capturing the students’ debates, their seeming outer confidence and inner insecurities. “Those scenes came naturally to me,” she says. “I spent many, many years as a student in these kind of conversations, but also as a fly on the wall listening and thinking, ‘I don’t know what I think about all this stuff.’ ”
After the 2015 release of her first book, Mad Miss Mimic — a young-adult mystery about a young heiress who gets mixed up with the opium trade in Victorian London — Henstra was surprised to learn that her Ryerson students were avid YA readers. Their admission got her thinking more about their lives and experiences, and how they compared to her own. She recalled how her brain would hurt after a literary theory or women’s studies class, and the heady emotions that came with learning about the world’s injustices for the first time. “I remembered the feeling of leaving high school and my parental home and feeling every single idea I was being introduced to was changing everything,” Henstra says. “Changing the way I woke up in the morning, the way I read the newspaper, changing the way it looked outside. I was so ripe for influence.”