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Race and Redemption in the American Heartland

With an Introduction by Françoise Palleau-Papin
Rilla Askew

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“Rilla Askew, a voice on the stage of fiction”
Françoise Palleau-Papin

1Rilla Askew is, to use a catch phrase, an acclaimed novelist. Beside the acknowledgements one may find on the web, an aside to her work says something about the way she writes. Before she turned to fiction, she studied drama in college, first at Northeastern State College in Tahlequah, Oklahoma. She went on to finish her undergraduate degree with a B.F.A. in Theater Performance from the University of Tulsa in 1980. She moved from Oklahoma to New York later that year to pursue an acting career. She studied acting with Herbert Berghoff at HB Studio in New York and later with Curt Dempster at Ensemble Studio Theater. Within a couple of years she also started writing: plays at first, and then fiction. She went on to graduate school at Brooklyn College to study writing and received an M.F.A. in Creative Writing in 1989.

2Askew brought her acting acumen to fiction. Her work displays a mastery of rhythm and an ear for the sounds of language, not just in the dialogue passages, but everywhere in her prose. She renders the speech mannerisms of rural Oklahoma characters with a great taste for the creative possibilities of the fast disappearing idiom of common folks that goes back to Frontier days and the Bible. She does not record as much as she selects and brings out the poetry of folk language, not in any folkloric or nostalgic stance, but to explore the creative linguistic expression of a vision. In the novel The Mercy Seat, for example, a character rebukes herself and shies away from her own poetic phrasing, when she translates her first evocative sentence to a more down-to-earth, abrupt correction: “Might’ve been four o’clock or so, because it was already starting to frown up and get dark. What I mean, evenings was short.” (The Mercy Seat, 281). The rebuke is the character’s, not the author’s, who orchestrates the silences and the unvoiced aspirations of the stunted characters. In that novel, there is an intensity of vision that takes one to the eye of the storm, and Rilla Askew’s style manages to capture the hypnotic quality of the family drama that becomes the drama of an entire community. In the midst of disaster, her sentences expand the moment and resonate the stasis of the characters, providing an intense reading experience, yet not devoid of humor. Fellow writer Patricia Eakins has underlined Askew’s filiation with other American writers of the epic tradition:

“Sometimes terrifying, sometimes lyric, sometimes funny, always engaging, her fiction like Faulkner’s explores the related tragedies of family and history. As in the work of Cormac McCarthy, Askew shows how an unforgiving landscape resonates in human fate.”

3In Harpsong, her 2007 novel set in Oklahoma during the Depression, she inserts poems in prose between chapters, providing a pause in the narrative, an echoing chamber and a commentary on the action akin to a choric poem in a play. The novel changes narrative viewpoints and voices to resonate the mystery of the characters’ motivations, which, to a large extent, remain a secret to themselves and to others. In her 2001 novel Fire in Beulah, Rilla Askew explores the murky and hysterical psyche of a crowd during the race riots that took place in Oklahoma in the 1920s. In her 1992 short stories collection Strange Business, she pictures the hushed lives of small town characters that add up to something akin to what Eudora Welty crafted in her collection The Golden Apples.

4The list of her public awards is impressive. She received a 2009 Academy Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Her essays and short fiction have appeared in a variety of journals, and her story “The Killing Blanket” was selected for Prize Stories 1993: The O. Henry Awards. Askew’s first novel, The Mercy Seat, was nominated for the PEN/Faulkner Award, the Dublin IMPAC Prize, was a Boston Globe Notable Book, and received the Oklahoma Book Award and the Western Heritage Award in 1998. Fire in Beulah, her novel about the Tulsa Race Riot, received the American Book Award and the Myers Book Award from the Gustavus Myers Center for the Study of Bigotry and Human Rights. She was a 2004 fellow at Civiella Ranieri in Umbertide, Italy, and in 2008 her novel Harpsong received the Oklahoma Book Award, the Western Heritage Award, the WILLA Award from Women Writing the West, and the Violet Crown Award from the Writers League of Texas. The WILLA Award could be understood as the emblem of her achievement, as Rilla Askew may be considered an heir to Willa Cather, on her own premises and in her own time. Askew received the 2011 Arrell Gibson Lifetime Achievement Award from the Oklahoma Center for the Book.

5Rilla Askew also devotes time and energy to an endeavor she has been committed to since her husband, actor and director Paul Austin, founded The Liberty Free Theater. In the town of Liberty, in the southern Catskills of New York State, far from the bustle of New York City and further off than any off-off Broadway show there may be, she has adapted some of her short stories for the stage, such as “Breakfast” in 2010. In 2011, she played the part of Eunice in the play “Strange Business,” adapted from her eponymous story, first published in her 1992 collection Strange Business. She also wrote an original play that Paul Austin produced at The Liberty Free Theater in 2009, “By the Time We Got to Woodstock.”

6Rilla Askew currently serves as Artist in Residence in the MFA Creative Program at the University of Central Oklahoma. She divides her time between the Catskills and Oklahoma. Her new novel, Kind of Kin, will be published by Ecco Press in 2013.

“Race and Redemption in the American Heartland”
Rilla Askew

7My fiction is set in my home state of Oklahoma—a meat-cleaver-shaped entity centered in the underbelly of the United States—during periods of powerful social upheaval and change: the settling of the American Frontier in the late 1800’s, the oil boom and race riots of the 1920’s, the Dust Bowl era of the 1930’s. I’ve been called a historical novelist, but I don’t think of my work that way. The history I write about exists in living memory, in the memories of my parents, who came of age during the Great Depression, and in my own memory, growing up, as I did, listening to stories told by my grandparents and great-grandparents. Nor do I consider myself a regional novelist. “America” is my subject. Oklahoma is the landscape where the story unfolds.

8 My great-grandparents migrated here in covered wagons in the late 1800’s when Oklahoma was still Indian Territory. In 1907, at the stroke of a pen, Indian Territory became the 46th state. And so Oklahoma is a young state, barely one hundred years old. Our brief, violent history is a microcosm of much that has taken place on the North American continent over the past five hundred years, but turned inside out, intensified, distilled. It’s a tale of migration and restless movement, the conjunction of America’s three founding races, Black, White, and Indian, a story of faith—not just religious faith, though that is surely part of the narrative—but also faith in the land and its people, and faith in the future, no matter how dark the present may seem.

9People in Oklahoma have a way of standing with their hearts longing backwards and their eyes looking front, a simultaneous nostalgia for what is lost joined with a forward-looking optimism, that seems to me quintessentially American. The elemental sorrow and hope and homesickness of leaving one’s homeland—emigration—and coming to a new land—immigration—are the very substance of the American story, inextricably entwined with the religious faith that is also a part of our substance.

10The first Anglo settlers migrated to the New World to escape religious persecution, to establish societies where they could worship as they chose. Religion is still very much a part of the American character. It suffuses our politics, our culture, our literature. Whether you’re reading William Faulkner or James Baldwin or Cormac McCarthy, you’ll hear the rhythms and syntax of the King James Version of the Christian Bible.

11Early on in our history, these Europeans—these white people—began to move from east to west across the face of the continent, ‘conquering’ the land, putting it under man’s dominion, as their religion taught them was the proper God-ordained order. And so the story not only of emigration and immigration but also of migration—that great westward trek—is part of the story. The enslavement of African people, brought in slave ships to the New World in order to break the land and reap its economic benefits, this, too, is part of our story. Race and religion, immigration and migration, our love for the land and how we use and abuse its resources—these elements dominate America’s story. They dominate Oklahoma’s story. Always as a novelist I am looking to explore, explicate, demythologize America’s Master Narrative, how that narrative has manifested in my own small, turmoil-filled state.

12The name Oklahoma is derived from two Chocta