Alberta Order of Excellence member Aritha van Herk

Aritha van Herk MA

"Our stories are markers of our difference, our originality and our imagination. They’re key to identity. If we don’t know our stories, we don’t know who we are."

Aritha van Herk is an acclaimed author, teacher and mentor who has made significant contributions to the canons of Alberta and Canadian literature. Her work has enriched the lives of readers across Canada and around the world, helped to shape a generation of writers and fostered a deeper understanding of what it means to be an Albertan.

Aritha was born in Wetaskiwin, Alberta on May 26, 1954. She spent her early years in the small town of Edberg, in the heart of the Alberta parkland, where she fed her innate imagination by playing in the lush, evocative landscapes of the Battle River Valley. As the first Canadian-born child of parents who had endured the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands during the Second World War, Aritha grew up with a deep appreciation for the peace and relative bounty of the family farm. Like many immigrants, the van Herks understood that education would be essential to their children’s success and insisted that Aritha and her four siblings make the most of every moment spent in their small country school. Aritha’s passion for the written word emerged very early, kindled by frequent trips to the library and by generous teachers who encouraged her to write stories and recite poetry. Books were her constant companions, whether she was weeding the garden, doing the dishes or playing outside. While Aritha counted stories about other children among her favourites she was puzzled by the dearth of young Canadian protagonists who mirrored her experiences. When she discovered Anne of Green Gables, Aritha found something familiar in the red-haired heroine with a talent for mischief. She told herself, “if someone can write about PEI, I can write about Alberta” and she began to capture her world on paper.

Her love of literature led Aritha to the University of Alberta’s Department of English, where her professors and mentors included respected Canadian writers such as Rudy Wiebe, Douglas Barbour, Marian Engel, Bert Almon and Robert Kroetsch. She drew particular inspiration from the fact that Robert Kroetsch and others focused their work on Alberta’s landscapes, history and people. Aritha spent each school year reading voraciously and honing her skills as a writer. Her summers were occupied with work in the Northwest Territories where she earned the next year’s tuition as a typist, office temp and bush camp cook. In addition to freeing her afternoons for writing, Aritha’s work in the camps introduced her to a young geologist named Robert Sharp. The couple married in 1974. Two years later, Aritha completed her Bachelor of Arts degree with high honours and followed up with a Master of Arts degree in 1978.

That same year Aritha published her first novel, Judith. The work earned the Seal First Book Award and signalled the arrival of a distinctly Albertan voice that resonated with insight, wit and creativity. Aritha followed up with The Tent Peg in 1981 and No Fixed Address: an Amorous Journey in 1986, which garnered the Howard O’Hagan Prize along with a nomination for the Governor General’s Award for Fiction. In 1986 she was named one of the best Canadian fiction writers under 45. Places far from Ellesmere and Restlessness further cemented her reputation as a writer of note.

While her sterling reputation as a fiction author took shape, Aritha’s work in non-fiction and creative non-fiction grew apace, with pieces that explored the people, myths and realities of the Albertan and Canadian experience. Aritha van Herk’s work has been translated into many languages and she has also served as an international cultural and literary ambassador for Alberta and Canada through frequent readings, presentations, performances, interviews, panel discussions and keynote addresses.

In 2001, Aritha published a work that is regarded as a true distillation of the Alberta spirit. The work flowed out of a request from Penguin Canada for Aritha to write a history of Alberta from a novelist’s perspective. She immersed herself in the stories of people, places and events captured in the archives of Calgary’s Glenbow Museum. Time and again, Aritha encountered individuals who contributed their dreams, originality and determination to the building of a hopeful, unique and irrepressible province. Mavericks, An Incorrigible History of Alberta was the award-winning and critically-acclaimed result of Aritha’s thoughtful journey through the past. In 2007, the Glenbow Museum used the book as inspiration for a large, permanent exhibition on the history of Southern Alberta. Whether they choose to read the book or visit the exhibition, people come away from Mavericks with a deeper appreciation for the legacy of those who built a remarkable province and for the ideals that continue to drive its energetic, forward-thinking inhabitants.

Alongside her work as a writer, Aritha developed a parallel teaching and academic career. In 1983, she joined the University of Calgary’s Department of English where she helped to develop the school’s nationally and internationally regarded creative writing program; she played a key role in the development of Canada’s first English PhD program in Creative Writing. Aritha’s reputation as a professor and mentor is one of exacting standards tempered with the compassion, guidance and insight young writers need to develop their craft. Many of the students Aritha has worked with at the U of C have gone on to become productive and celebrated Canadian authors in their own rights and they all acknowledge her guiding hand as an important factor in their success. Her tremendous value to the school and its students has been further cemented with membership in the President’s Circle for Excellence in Research and Creative Activity and the Order of the University of Calgary. In 2010 Aritha became Orator for the U of C.

Aritha van Herk’s work to enrich the lives of her fellow Albertans and Canadians includes her eloquent and ardent contributions as an advocate for the arts. She has served as juror or judge for many literary awards and grants, including the Governor General’s Award and the Canada Council and has shared her passion for the arts through organizations such as the Alberta Foundation for Literary Arts, the Writers Guild of Alberta, the Library Association of Alberta, NeWest Press, the Walrus Foundation, ImagineCalgary, and the Friends of Canadian Broadcasting. Aritha has also contributed as a board member for the Sheldon Chumir Foundation for Ethics in Leadership and is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada.

In describing the passion that drives her and her fellow Canadian artists to create, Aritha says, “The arts reveal our true characters; they are how we come to understand a power greater than daily living. What we discover in the deep well of artistic expression, whether music, a painting or a beautifully written book, means much more than recreation. Creativity can offer comfort at times when nothing else will do. The arts give our lives depth and a resonance; without their inspiration our culture would simply be emptier.”