Sarah Henstra, Toronto writer and Ryerson literature professor, won the 2018 Governor General’s Literary Award for English-language fiction earlier this week. She nabbed the celebrated $25,000 prize for her adult fiction debut, The Red Word, winning over more established literary heavyweights, such as Miriam Toews and Rawi Hage.
“It’s a thrill for sure, but I am still getting used to the idea,” Henstra told the Ryersonian. “It still feels a little bit unreal to me. I had high hopes of course, but this is my first work for adults – I didn’t expect to hit it out of the ballpark on my first book.”
The Red Word was published this past spring in Canada, by ECW Press. The novel focuses on a timely and hot-button topic – sexual assault on university campuses.
The novel takes place in the mid-’90s, at an unnamed Ivy League school in the United States. It follows a young Canadian sophomore who is torn between two worlds, after she moves in with a group of radical feminists – while also dating a man belonging to a fraternity infamous for its sexual accusations.
“It’s a timely book in the sense that people are curious about gender politics, and the treatment of women. These are topics which have been playing out in the media,” Henstra said.
She also said she believes the themes of sexual abuse and campus rape culture have been singled out and amplified by the current conversations surrounding the #MeToo movement. But Henstra noted that what readers have especially responded to is a more universal theme that many can relate to – the college experience.
“The book appeals to people because it’s a campus novel,” she said.“Many of us went to university, many of us are in university now, and so it’s an experience that readers can relate to.”
The chair of the English department, Andrew O’Malley, said he was delighted for Henstra.
“It’s wonderful to see her have this tremendous success. She’s really reinvented herself as a novelist and it’s spectacular to see how successful her career has been.”
O’Malley said he hopes Henstra’s win will help promote the creative writing expertise within the English program. The department has been thinking of introducing a minor in creative writing, and O’Malley said Henstra’s award will help this process.
“There’s a huge appetite among students for creative writing courses,” he said.
Indeed, Henstra said that since winning the award, students have eagerly inquired about the creative writing courses she teaches.
“I think there has always been a strong interest in creative writing within the English department, and I think there is a lot of room for growth here,” she said.
The Governor General’s Literary Award for fiction is worth $25,000, and this year’s award ceremony will be held at Rideau Hall in Ottawa at the end of November. A full list of the 2018 award winners is available on the Canada Council for the Arts website.