A time­less story of youth­ful ide­al­ism

Sarah Hen­stra’s The Red Word chron­i­cles stu­dents’ de­bates

Toronto Star - - BOOKS - SUE CARTER Sue Carter is the edi­tor of Quill and Quire

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.”

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