Johanna Skibsrud

Assistant Professor of English at the University of Arizona

Foundation Year Program, 1998

It was important for me to push my limits…to expand my comfort zone.

When Johanna Skibsrud was just 18, she felt restless. Part of it was being a teen wanting to get on with life and to become a writer. But there was something else. She had finished the Foundation Year Program (FYP) at King’s and it had been, well, as Johanna says, foundational.

“I had huge expectations for what doors I wanted opened,” she says. “FYP and the readings I did and the discussions we had, opened the right door. The program asks you to think in such broad terms—historically, politically, across disciplines. It fueled my interest to explore the world and take in as much as I could.”

And so it began.

Johanna went to England to study creative writing at Lancaster University. Next stop—the Greek Island of Paros and the Aegean School of Fine Arts to study, again, creative writing. There, alone on her nineteenth birthday, she climbed the hill to the Temple of Apollo.

“The foundation year had given me that sweeping sense of history and how Western knowledge is connected. When I stood on the Temple of Apollo that day, I felt part of that.”

Johanna had a pile of university credits in her pocket but no degree. Back in Canada, she received her BA in English Literature at the University of Toronto. Then another door opened.

“I worked leading hiking and backpacking trips for youth with Outward Bound in Maine and Florida.”

It was a job and a way of thinking that came at just the right time, Johanna says. She even considered making a career out of it—as a way of supporting her writing habit.

“I was inspired by Outward Bound’s philosophy and it was important for me to push my limits at that time—to expand my comfort zone. I eventually realized, though, that I wanted my career to more closely align with my passions for literature and writing. That was when I applied to the Master’s program in English and Creative Writing at Concordia.”

For her thesis Johanna wrote the first draft of The Sentimentalist – it was her debut novel and to her gob-smacked delight won the prestigious 2010 Scotiabank Giller Prize. It was an amazing feat, yet another door opened, and Johanna was on her way to fulfilling her dream.

“I always knew I wanted to be a writer,” she says. With a laugh she adds, “My parents never encouraged me to be practical. They encouraged me to dream that dream.”

Johanna went on the get her PhD at the University of Montreal. Along the way, she wrote another novel, Quartet for the End of Time, published two collections of short fiction, the latest Tiger, Tiger and two collections of poetry.

Johanna now teaches in the English Department at the University of Arizona.

“I have had many different experiences and seen many different approaches to learning. I try to share with my students my own trajectory, acknowledging that sometimes it is difficult when you encounter what is new and different. But there is something to be gained by challenging yourself or exposing yourself to a different range of texts that may push you in a new direction. That is something I stress—a range of exposure. That is something I learned from FYP.”

Interestingly, in the reading lists for her courses Johanna includes one of the first books she was assigned to read at King’s—The Epic of Gilgamesh.

She says, “I see how connected that story is to the ongoing history of literature…This is a continuation of the discoveries I made in FYP—that everything has something to offer.”

Posted: August 2018

Photo credit: Dan Davis