“Alberta has the best, best, best stories!”
Writer Aritha van Herk would know, because she tells them. And as a professor of Creative Writing, Canadian Literature and Contemporary Narrative at the University of Calgary, she helps unlock the talents of her students so they can tell them as well.
A child of immigrant parents growing up on a farm near Wetaskiwin, Alberta, Aritha learned two things early: the necessity of hard work and that she wanted to be a writer.
The work ethic came with the territory, but Aritha struggled to find the education to achieve her dream. She notes that this is still the case for many young writers, part of the impetus for her work in the U of C’s Creative Writing program as a teacher and mentor – at once exacting and compassionate – for her students.
As the first woman in Canada to receive a tenured position in Creative Writing, Aritha notes that early on she experienced ingrained resistance to women in literary academia. At one point a professor told her “Women never write anything worth reading.”
A mainstay of Calgary, Alberta and Canada’s literary scene, she has written seminal works of fiction, non-fiction and criticism, garnering national recognition, all the while honouring the stories of her native soil.
“The stories from Alberta are as good as or better than anywhere else in the world and our history is fascinating,” she says, noting that even today the cultural pull of central Canada can obscure that fact. ‘It is a constant struggle, if you don’t live in central Canada to be published. The centre is a magnet.”
In her work Aritha tells more than just Alberta stories, but gives voice to women’s stories and perspectives too.
She points to the many women featured in her book Audacious and Adamant: The Story of Maverick Alberta and the accompanying Mavericks exhibit at the Glenbow Museum.
“It takes a woman to tell a woman’s story,” she says.