Ted Waddell | Democrat
RILLA ASKEW, AWARD-WINNING writer from Kauneonga Lake.
Her way with words translates into honor
By Ted Waddell
KAUNEONGA LAKE Rilla Askew, the award-winning author of three novels, a collection of short stories and numerous other works, grew up in Bartlesville, Oklahoma, and her roots in that fertile soil of history go back five generations to the Indian Territory of the Sans Bois Mountains in the southeastern part of the state during the late 1880s.
In October, Askew traveled to Beijing, China to attend the “World Literature Today” and China International Conference in recognition of her “literary and/or scholarly achievements.”
A month later, she racked up more air miles journeying to Texas as the recipient of two prestigious awards for “Harpsong,” a novel set in Depression-era Oklahoma: the WILLA Literary Award for Best Historical Novel from Women Writing the West, and the 2008 Violet Crown Award for Fiction by the Writer’s League of Texas.
Earlier this year, “Harpsong” was awarded the Western Heritage Award (Best Western Novel) from the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum; Book of the Year (Historical Fiction) from Forward Magazine; and the Oklahoma Book Award (Best Fiction) from the Oklahoma Center for the Book.
Her rural roots
Askew grew up in rural Oklahoma, in a place they called Little Dixie, a place she vividly recalls for its disparity between wealthy oil tycoons and farming people living in poverty, descendants of folks who worked in big smelters.
“It wasn’t a lot different from Appalachia,” she recalled.
On the way to school every day, the future award-winning author absorbed scenes of poverty and segregation, as she watched the world pass by outside the school bus window, experiences viewed through dusty glass that went on to influence her writing.
“My mother’s father was a sharecropper in Eastern Oklahoma, during the Great Depression,” Askew recounted.
“She was from a family of twelve, and the only one to finish high school… they were what we called ‘rock-suckin’ poor.’”
Touched by what she witnessed at a young age, Askew penned a story about what it was like to be “one of those poor white girls who dropped out of school and had babies at a young age.”
“It gave me a sense of the world that didn’t seem quite right,” said Askew. “I really didn’t know what, if anything, separated me from them, but I knew I didn’t want to be like them… I didn’t want to end up there, and I didn’t know how I wouldn’t.”
Growing up, she hungered for discussions about the “moment to moment observations of human consciousness,” but it seemed to Askew as if all the folks she knew were interested in talking about were “each other, the weather and snakes.”
Starting a writing life
While in junior high, Askew worked as a reporter for “The Gusher,” and later was a features editor on the high school paper. She still has a story titled “The Responsibilities of the Press,” which compared the “yellow journalism” of the early 20th century to the goals of “objectivity and fair-mindedness.”
As a journalism student in high school, she interviewed “The Godfather of Soul,” James Brown, as a “white kid along with an Afro-American photographer,” and along with getting his autograph, discussed integration with the famous singer.
“What I was trying to explain to Mr. Brown was if we don’t get to know each other, how are we ever going to get over the prejudice we have in this country, and he was saying something back to me I couldn’t hear… he was really speaking from a position of Black Power,” said Askew of the January 28, 1969 interview.
“Black empowerment, from the Afro-American point of view, it’s not enough to sit next to you on the high school bus… we’ve got to have our validation within ourselves and our own culture.
“I thought he was saying we didn’t need to integrate,” added Askew. “I couldn’t hear what he was saying because I was too young and idealistic.”
As a college student in Tahlequah, OK. the capital of the Cherokee Tribe in the heart of the Choctaw Nation, she started acting in an outdoor drama titled “the Trail of Tears,” the story of the Cherokees.
Heads for the big apple
Twelve credit hours shy of getting her degree in theatre, Askew packed up her bags and headed to NYC in 1980, figuring, “I’ll just make my own way.”
“At the age of 29 when most of my contemporaries were ‘settling in,’ I sold ‘Old Blue,’ my early ’60s oil field Chevy pickup for $600 and moved to the city.”
Early on, she started wearing her trademark cowboy boots and western cut jeans and, sometimes, a man’s fedora “as a sense on independence… I didn’t want to be one of those girls in a trailer with three kids.”
The old truck is gone, but the boots and Levis remain.
A week after arriving in the Big Apple, Askew met Paul Austin, the actor and playwright she later married.
Austin has a 40-some year career in the theatre and is the founder/artistic director of the Liberty Free Theatre. The couple divide their time between Kauneonga Lake and Oklahoma.
As a high schooler, the future author read three books that she recalled resonated with a “powerful effect”: William Golding’s 1954 classic “Lord of the Flies,” “A Separate Peace” by John Knowles, 1954, ” and “To Kill a Mockingbird”, written/published by Harper Lee in 1960.
As Austin encouraged her to write, Askew turned her hand to fiction, and went on to study creative writing at Brooklyn College, where she earned an MFA in 1989.
Starts collecting literary prizes
Her collection of short stories, “Strange Business” (1992), received the Oklahoma Book Award in 1993, and one of the stories, “The Killing Blanket,” was selected for Prize Stories 1993: The O. Henry Awards.
Askew’s inaugural novel, “The Mercy Seat” (1997) was nominated for the PEN/Faulkner Award, the Dublin IMPAC Prize, and in 1998 received the Oklahoma Book Award and the Western Heritage Award.
In 2001, she penned “Fire in Beulah,” a novel about the Tulsa Race Riot, a book that took a look at a disturbing part of America’s history of race relations on May 31, 1921, thousands of whites attacked the city’s black community, resulting in a racial scar that is still unhealed. The novel won the American Book Award from the Before Columbus Foundation and the Myers Book Award from the Gustavus Myers Center for the Study of Bigotry and Human Rights.
Her latest book, “Harpsong,” was published by the University of Oklahoma Press in 2007.
Since 2004, Askew has taught fiction writing and creative non-fiction in the honor’s program of the University of Oklahoma in Norman.
Creation: a difficult process
“Being a writer in this country is a heartbreaking endeavor, it’s so hard to get published,” she said. “I encourage my students to think of the world in a deep, complex way.
“It’s the dream of every writer to be published, [but] not a lot of people get to have their greatest ambition realized,” she added.
While attending the literature conference in Beijing, Askew, in her talk titled “Race and Redemption in the American Heartland,” spoke about her work as a “novelist looking to tell the American story as it manifests itself in Oklahoma, the story of immigration and emigration.”
“I used Oklahoma as a microcosm… the Trail of Tears, Okies fleeing the dust bowl, the struggle for freedom of faith, and the story of race… part of the American story from the beginning, from the first contact between Western Europeans and the native peoples and African people being brought over as slaves.”
Facing the future
Sitting in her book-packed kitchen over a steaming cup of coffee, Askew wore an Obama ’08 sweatshirt as she talked about her latest project, writing a screenplay with Paula Sullivan, based on “Fire in Beulah.”
“It’s an unblinking facing of the racial attitudes of the era,” she said. “We want to believe that we are a better America, and the election results prove that we are, but I think we still haven’t finally dealt with our racial past, particularly white Americans, and especially the younger generation.”
Noting that the screenplay has been submitted to a major film company, Askew said of the topic and it’s ramifications, “What we want to believe about ourselves is that we are in a post-racial America… we need to face our racial history, assimilate it, take ownership, so we can move on.”
“One of the things I care passionately about is racism and the problem of race in America,” she added. “Scarlet O’Hara wasn’t exactly a nice gal.”
Who is Rilla Askew the writer?
“After I began to write, I began to read the great Southern authors: Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor and Carson McCullers,” she said.
“They allowed me to recognize the dignity and importance of poor Southern whites, the people I come from, viewing them through the eyes of these three authors, as people with a certain richness to their lives… it was reaffirming to me.”
Asked to define the life of a writer, Askew replied, “It all happens in your head, going from the dream state to imagining and the place of language…the images are fresher and the language is less filtered.”
What is she trying to express as a writer?
“The counterpoint, the tension is what I’m always trying to get at through the exploration of character… with all the great compassion, nobility, love and even self-sacrifice we have as humans. The blending of absolute tragedy, terror and pain of what it is to be human.”
Asked about future plans, Askew said, “I’m fixing to write some one-act plays and some creative non-fiction.”