Aritha van Herk, AOE FRSC, is a Canadian writer, critic, editor, public intellectual, and university professor.
She was born in Wetaskiwin, Alberta (near Edmonton). Her parents and elder siblings immigrated to Canada from the Netherlands before she was born. She grew up in a bilingual home, speaking English and Dutch. In 1974, she married Robert Jay Sharp, who is a geologist. Van Herk studied Canadian literature and Creative Writing at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, graduating with a B.A. Honours in 1976, and an M.A. in 1978. Since 1983, van Herk has been teaching at the University of Calgary. She teaches Creative Writing, Canadian Literature, and Contemporary Narrative.
Van Herk’s writing career began with the publication of her M.A. thesis in 1978. Judith a novel that explores a feisty female protagonist’s experiences in both rural and urban Canadian spaces, was the first winner of the Seal First Novel Award (C$50,000) from McClelland and Stewart, which granted the book international distribution throughout North America and Europe. With her second novel, The Tent Peg (1981), van Herk continued to focus on issues of both female experience and the Canadian wilderness in a narrative where the female protagonist disguises herself as a man in order to get a job as a cook in a northern geological bush-camp. Van Herk established herself as a postmodern novelist by challenging classic myths and mythology, upending notions of both gender and genre, and experimenting with humour and magic realism. Van Herk would continue to subvert literary conventions with her third novel, No Fixed Address: An Amorous Journey (1986), a parody of the picaresque genre in which underwear saleswoman Arachne Manteia traverses the Canadian prairies in her vintage Mercedes Benz. The novel, nominated for the Governor General’s Award, won the Howard O'Hagan Award for Best Alberta Novel. Like No Fixed Address, van Herk’s fourth novel Restlessness (1998) questions and subverts narrative form, and features another female character on the fly. In this reversed Sheherazade tale, Dorcas, a nomadic protagonist in a self-reflexive narrative about how to avoid both story and travel, paradoxically divulges her own life story to the man whom she has contracted to kill her.
Van Herk has published numerous works blending fiction and criticism, which also offer a complementary exploration of her relationship with place. In particular, van Herk has rooted and uprooted conceptions of the Canadian west and the far north. In 1990, she initiated a new genre she called geografictione, with Places Far From Ellesmere. As a travel narrative that analyzes the very concepts of both travel and narrative, Places Far From Ellesmere questions the mapping of works of fiction, as well as the journeys that take place within fiction itself, most notably Tolstoy's Anna Karenina. Van Herk wrote the afterword for the 1990 New Canadian Library edition of Marian Engel's novel Bear.
Van Herk has also published two collections of essays and ficto-criticism, In Visible Ink (crypto-frictions) (1991) and A Frozen Tongue (1992). Both works question the boundaries of the traditional genres of fiction, memoir, poetry, and criticism that van Herk’s writing characteristically seeks to combine yet circumvent.
Most recently, van Herk’s work has focused on the history of Alberta, with Mavericks: an Incorrigible History of Alberta (2001), winner of the Grant MacEwan Author’s Award. Mavericks inspired a permanent exhibition by the same name. It opened at Calgary’s Glenbow Museum in 2007, was nominated for an Alberta Tourism Award in the category of Alberta Pride, and won the White Hat of the Year Award from the city of Calgary. Audacious and Adamant: the Story of Maverick Alberta (2007) was published to correspond with the Mavericks Exhibition.
Van Herk continues to publish prolifically; her short stories, essays, articles, and book reviews regularly appear in The Globe and Mail, Calgary Herald, Alberta Views, Elle, Chatelaine, Canadian Fiction Magazine, Canadian Geographic, and The Walrus, as well as numerous other national and international periodicals and newspapers.
Van Herk is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada since 1997, and has served on numerous juries, including the Governor General’s Award and the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize. As a university professor she has guided many of her graduate students to literary success, including Anita Rau Badami, Thomas Wharton, and Jessica Grant. She continues to travel extensively, presenting both her creative and critical work all over the world.