A.S.A. Harrison

She was an avant-garde artist who once practised striptease for a book, but she longed to write a novel for a bigger audience
A.S.A. Harrison
John Massey; Illustration by Julia Minamata

Susan Angela Ann Harrison was born on March 7, 1948, in Toronto, to Douglas, a chemical engineer, and Angela, a homemaker and photographer. In suburban North York she grew into a tall, intensely bright, inquisitive young woman with a flare for rebellion. “My father was a logical man,” her brother Brian says. “We had a very conventional family.” Nevertheless, when Harrison showed an interest in drawing and painting, her parents agreed to finance her studies at the Ontario College of Art. Soon she’d joined Toronto’s vibrant avant garde, then dominated by the artists’ collective General Idea, which adopted theatrical dress, pseudonyms and an ironic stance to lend the group’s subversive politics a playful edge. “It was a magnificent pageant,” one Toronto artist recalls.

After two years of art school, Harrison quit, announcing her intention to become a writer. Her pen name, A.S.A. Harrison, was a riff on stuffiness, and masked her gender. With the artist AA Bronson she wrote a porn novel, Lena, under the name A.C. McWhortle; published in 1970, it was quickly banned. She married the video artist Rodney Werden and, armed with a reel-to-reel recorder, began interviewing women for her 1974 book Orgasms, a series of Q&As that dealt frankly with women and sexual climax. Its cover, designed by Bronson, depicts the inner workings of the female sex; the back flap features a snapshot of someone other than Harrison, an inside joke but also part of a serious artistic project to make the ordinary strange. Another photo from the period shows the real Harrison as full-bodied, wearing a tuxedo, great owl glasses and the stern expression of a Dadaist prankster. “She deconstructed prettiness,” says the author Susan Swan, a friend. “She wanted to be larger than life, and she was.” She yearned too for a large audience—to put “new wine in old wine skins” by revamping pop culture forms. Under the guidance of the performance artist and stripteaser Margaret Dragu she experimented with striptease herself, and toured Quebec. In a book written with Dragu, Revelations: essays on striptease and sexuality, she used clipped prose to explore the topic: “Canada has the best striptease in the world,” she began.

It was while researching Revelations in the mid-’80s that Harrison, by now long divorced, grew intrigued by the Toronto visual artist John Massey. When he moved to New York she travelled there too, ostensibly to visit strip clubs. “I wasn’t quite ready to connect,” he says. Over a drink in the Lower West Side, at that time a rough area, he told her so, then offered to walk her to her hotel. “It’s dangerous here,” he said. “I’m a big girl,” she told him. But as she walked alone a man with a gun stopped her and demanded money. Her refusal prompted him to hit her with the weapon and take her purse. When a Christmas tree vendor intervened, the gunman shot him. Hours later a shaken Harrison called Massey, asking him to see her. He did. Thereafter they were together. “She was a tough, intellectually rigorous person who was willing to ask the hardest questions,” he says. “We wrestled each other to the ground, and that’s how we loved one another.”

In Toronto they bought a ramshackle industrial building with space to live and to keep separate studios. Vegetarianism and yoga made her slender, and she and Massey prepared homemade pet food for a menagerie of dogs and cats. For a time she worked as an editor at C Magazine, an art quarterly, and her non-fiction evolved in parallel with her interests—psychology, the occult. On a lark she wrote Zodicat Speaks, a guide to feline astrology. Yet she longed to write fiction and for that big audience. If her avant-garde past once made her suspicious of narrative as stodgy and bourgeois, she now embraced it, writing two mystery novels. In 2004, Samantha Haywood, Swan’s daughter and a neophyte literary agent, took her on as a client. “We believed in each other,” Haywood says. A good thing, too: the next decade saw Harrison’s work repeatedly rejected. Still, she kept at it, disciplined, telling herself to “write better, Susan,” and donning industrial earmuffs to keep out the noise.

A psychological thriller about a relationship in meltdown did better. She’d refined her voice, freeing her genre novel from formula. “Babe,” Massey told her, “this reads like velvet.” The final stages of work on The Silent Wife coincided with her cancer. “She really believed she’d lick it,” says a friend. For a time she did. Penguin in the U.S. and Canada picked up her book; so did major publishers abroad. Movie people called. Sent advance copies, name writers heralded Harrison’s arrival. Yet her cancer had returned. She died on April 14, at 65. The Silent Wife hits stores in June.