OTTAWA — Toronto author Sarah Henstra says she thinks her win at this year's Governor General's Literary Award for English-language fiction signals that Canadian readers are hungry for literature that tackles thorny cultural issues.
Henstra is among the winners announced Tuesday for her first foray into adult fiction, "The Red Word," set at the epicentre of the polarized debate about sexual assault on university campuses.
The novel follows 19-year-old Karen Huls, a Canadian student at a prominent U.S. college in the 1990s, who is awakened to the ambiguities of gender politics after moving in with a group of radical feminist activists while dating a member of a fraternity notorious for drug-fuelled misogyny.
'You sure this isn't a joke?'
When she found out she had won the $25,0000 award, Henstra said she first had to make sure that someone wasn't trying to pull a fast one on her.
"You sure this isn't a joke?" Henstra recalled asking a prize administrator, shaking with shock at the news.
A peer review described the work as "groundbreaking and provocative," and an "astonishing evisceration of the cliches of sexual politics." The committee also uncharacteristically invoked foul language in their citation to applaud Henstra's incisive blend of ancient mythology and contemporary issues.
I don't offer easy answers in the novel, and I think that was difficult for some publishers to imagine how they would frame that for readers.Sarah Henstra
But before the deluge of critical acclaim, Henstra, who also authored the 2015 young adult novel "Mad Miss Mimic," said she struggled to find a publisher for "The Red Word," which eventually landed at ECW Press, because of the novel's prickly subject matter and reluctance to issue black-and-white moral judgments.
"I don't offer easy answers in the novel, and I think that was difficult for some publishers to imagine how they would frame that for readers," Henstra said in a phone interview in between classes at Ryerson University, where she teaches English literature.
Henstra said her students have connected with the book, and while some have been dismayed by the lack of justice for the characters they consider to be the story's antagonists, they recognize the "fog of war" that takes hold when the ideas they learn about in the classroom play out in practice.
'Vocabulary is much clearer now'
Teaching also gives Henstra a first-hand glimpse of how the feminist discourse has changed with a generation of activists emboldened by the #MeToo movement and versed in the fluidity of gender.
"I think the vocabulary is much clearer now, and more agreed upon now, than it was in the 1990s," said Henstra. "We're able to have a much wider conversation now, and get many, many more women's experiences into the conversation."
Henstra said the persistence of mythologies about gender, which she explores both in the novel and the classroom, can instill a sense of "hopelessness" that these notions are so deeply ingrained in our culture, they can never change.
I think it speaks to a kind of courage we have as readers in Canada right now.
But she said the Governor General's Literary Award's recognition of "The Red Word" suggests that a new kind of mythology could be emerging as conversations about gender take centre stage in the literary world and beyond.
"I think it speaks to a kind of courage we have as readers in Canada right now," said Henstra. (There's) a kind of a real thirst to engage with these issues in real ways, and to grapple with them rather than try to jump to easy solutions."
The Governor General's Awards, founded in 1936, are among the country's oldest literary honours. English and French awards are handed out in seven categories with the winners receiving $25,000 from the Canada Council for the Arts, which administers the prizes.
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This year's prize for non-fiction went to Darrel J. McLeod of Sooke, B.C., for his debut "Mamaskatch: A Cree Coming of Age" (Douglas & McIntyre), which judges hailed as an intimate examination of gender fluidity, familial violence and cultural hybridity told with "phoenix-like strength."
Cecily Nicholson of Burnaby, B.C., won the poetry award for "Wayside Sang" (Talonbooks), which offers a discursive look at the migration of the black diaspora around the border between Windsor, Ont., and Detroit.
Jordan Tannahill won the honour in the drama category for his reimagining of art history with "Botticelli in the Fire & Sunday in Sodom" (Playwrights Canada Press).
In the young people's literature category, the text award went to Jonathan Auxier's "Sweep: The Story of a Girl and her Monster" (Puffin Canada). Toronto's Jillian Tamaki won the illustrated book award for "They Say Blue" (Groundwood Books).
The English translation honour went to Phyllis Aronoff and Howard Scott in Montreal for "Descent into Night" (Mawenzi House Publishers) by Edem Awumey.
The awards will be presented Nov. 28 in a ceremony presided over by Gov. Gen. Julie Payette at Rideau Hall in Ottawa.
Publishers of award winners also receive $3,000 and the finalists for each award get $1,000.
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