van Herk, Aritha

Aritha van Herk, novelist, anthologist, essayist (b at Wetaskiwin, Alta 26 May 1954). Aritha van Herk, the daughter of Dutch immigrants, was raised on a farm in the Scandinavian community of Wetaskiwin. She was educated at the University of Alberta, where she earned a BA in English and an MA in Creative Writing. She joined the English Department at the University of Calgary in 1983. Van Herk challenges conventional notions of gender, genre, and geography in her works of fiction and criticism.

Aritha van Herk's novels feature protagonists who liberate themselves from restrictive and culturally sanctioned female roles. Her first novel, Judith (1978), is the story of a woman who gives up her secretarial job in the city to take over her father's pig farm. Judith won the Seal Books Canadian First Novel Award and brought van Herk national and international attention. The feminist politics reflected in Judith are similarly expressed in The Tent Peg (1981), in which the main character disguises herself as a man in order to accompany a geological expedition to the North.

In No Fixed Address: An Amorous Journey (1986), van Herk recasts the conventions of the western. The book portrays a female picaresque rogue who travels the prairies selling ladies' underwear; van Herk's parody provides a social and cultural critique of women's destinies. Her fourth novel, Restlessness (1998), is focused on the final day of its protagonist's life. Dorcas relates and reflects on her nomadic life and chronic homesickness, as she waits to be killed by the assassin she has hired.

Aritha van Herk is a well-known literary and cultural critic. She labels her 1990 Places Far From Ellesmere a "geografictione." This work blurs the generic boundaries of fiction, autobiography and theory, as van Herk conflates her own experience of travelling in the Canadian North with a retelling and critique of Tolstoy's Anna Karenina. Some of van Herk's many essays and reviews are collected in In Visible Ink: Crypto Frictions (1991) and A Frozen Tongue (1992). She has also edited several anthologies of fiction from western Canada. Van Herk's 2001 book Mavericks: An Incorrigible History of Alberta won the Grant MacEwan Author Award. Mavericks also inspired a gallery of the same name, installed in Calgary's Glenbow Museum in 2007. Van Herk is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada.