Aritha van Herk

Portrait Aritha van Herk
© Trudie Lee Photography

Aritha van Herk , the daughter of Dutch immigrants, was born in Wetaskiwin, Alberta, Canada. She grew up on a farm and then studied Canadian Literature and Creative Writing in Edmonton. Her debut novel ‘Judith’ appeared in 1978 and won the Seal First Novel Award.  Judith is a young woman who works as a secretary.  She decides to leave behind a rather ambivalent relationship with an older man from the city in favour of moving to the country and starting her own pig farm.  Aritha van Herk writes about women striving to be independent and about the search for complex female identity. This can be seen in her choice of evocative strong female roles which are inspired by representative women in Biblical and ancient mythology.  The character of Judith falls into this category; linked to both the Old Testament figure of the same name, who beheaded the warlord Holofernes, and the Greek sorceress Circe, who turned Odysseus’ men into swine.  This feminist perspective has both provoked and interested literary critics. Her other novels also set out to question and to trouble gender stereotypes.  J. L., the protagonist in ‘The Tent Peg’ (1981), works as a cook for an all-male bush camp of exploration geologists in northern Canada, a situation that sets up a complex battle for respect.  The narrative begins realistically, but becomes progressively more mystical and fantastical, coloured by the landscape and the multiple perspective from which the novel is revealed.  The Canadian wilderness plays a metaphorical role, nature influencing the socially determined categories of male and female and ultimately dissolving them.  Van Herk is persistently interested in the contradictory roles of woman as ‘mother-earth’ as opposed to temptress or murderess.  J. L.’s name derives from the Biblical heroine Ja-el, who actually killed her oppressor by driving a tent peg through his temple.  Her third novel, ‘No Fixed Address’ (1986) follows a contemporary picara who looks for trouble and adventure on the backroads of the prairies.  Since 1983 Aritha van Herk has been teaching Creative Writing and Canadian Literature at the University of Calgary.  She has also published a range of critical books, articles, and reviews, including ‘Places far from Ellesmere’ (1990), ‘In Visible Ink: Crypto-frictions’ (1991), ‘A Frozen Tongue’ (1992), and ‘Mavericks: An Incorrigible History of Alberta’ (2001).  These consist of experimental and subversive essays in which she puts together elements of Canadian history, fiction, literary theory and biography.  Her latest novel, ‘Restlessness’ (1998), explores the melancholia of travel and the temptations of homesickness. Aritha van Herk lives in Calgary.

© international literature festival berlin