The City and the Writer: In Tulsa With Rilla Askew
interview in Words Without Borders
A conversation about the Tulsa Race Riot and America's unhealed racial wounds
personal essay in This Land
personal essay in Longreads
essay on place in This Land
The Fire This Time
article about the Tulsa Race Riot and Fire in Beulah
The Tornado That Hit Boggy
personal essay in TriQuarterly
Writing Out Loud: Kind of Kin
2013 TV Interview with Teresa Miller
Writing Out Loud
2012 TV Interview with Teresa Miller
Race and Redemption in the American Heartland
essay in Transatlantica with an introduction by Francoise Palleau-Papin
The Smokescreen of Race in America
personal essay in Oklahoma Humanities Magazine
Passing: The Writer's Skin and the Authentic Self
personal essay in World Literature Today
My maternal and paternal great-great-grandparents migrated from Mississippi and Kentucky into Indian Territory in the late 1800's; they settled in the valleys of the Choctaw Nation two decades before Oklahoma became the forty-sixth state. I was born there, in the Sans Bois mountains, and though I didn't grow up there, it's the place to which I perpetually return, in my life and in my fiction. It's a harsh, beautiful landscape, gorgeous to look at, filled with living things that can hurt you: rattlesnakes and copperheads, stinging scorpions, ticks, chiggers, cottonmouths, snapping turtles, briars and brambles and thorn trees. The harshness of the mountains has shaped the people I come from, given voice and form--a kind of simultaneous ruthlessness and cry for mercy--to my work. Their language is rich in idiom, steeped in Southern cadence and the King James version of the Bible. They're storytellers. From this land and these people my work takes its biblical themes.
I grew up in the little city of Bartlesville at the edge of the tallgrass prairie country in northeastern Oklahoma, where the earth is dominated by sky and wind: a gentler landscape than the mountains we moved from when I was three. An oil company town, Bartlesville had, in the years I lived there, good schools, clean streets, one of the highest per capita incomes in the nation, and a kind of secret race-and-class-determined poverty in certain sections of the city that seemed to me harder than the rural poverty of southeastern Oklahoma. In Bartlesville I received my education in the magic of books, the borders of race, the forces of money, oil, societal opinion. Growing up in a company town accounts for the timbre of social conscience in my work, my interest in exploring the American story of class and race.
In my twenties I lived on the banks of the Illinois River near Tahlequah, the capital of the Cherokee Nation. Tahlequah is in the Cookson Hills of eastern Oklahoma, a woody, vine-clotted land of clear waters and flinty hills, thick with blackgum, dogwood, redbud: beautiful, mysterious, spirit-filled. As a child I'd always been told we were part Cherokee on my father's side, part Choctaw on my mother's (or "Black Dutch" as some preferred to call it)-- bloodlines never traced, so far as I know--but it was my years in Tahlequah that gave me my first deep connection to Indian people, a force and source integrated throughout my fiction.
When I was 29 I moved to New York to pursue an acting career, but I soon turned to writing--plays at first, and then fiction. My husband and I moved from Hell's Kitchen to Brooklyn, and it was there I met Marlene and her family, who soon became my second family. Her children are my godchildren, our lives are inextricably bound, and have been for two decades. Their presence in my life informs, in some way, all of my work.
Most of my fiction is set in Oklahoma, but I don't consider myself a regional writer. America is my subject, Oklahoma the canvas. As a novelist, what I'm interested in is demythologizing, de-romanticizing America's master narrative, the half-truth comfort stories we tell ourselves. Oklahoma's brief, violent history is a microcosm of all that's taken place on the North American continent for the past five hundred years - turned inside out, foreshortened, intensified. From the tragedy of the Trail of Tears to the frenzy of the white land runs, from the hope in the all-black towns that sprang up in Oklahoma when it was still the free "Injun Territory" toward which Huck Finn sets out at the end of his Adventures, to the ultimate devastation of the Tulsa Race Riot in 1921, the drama of the three races has dominated Oklahoma's story--as it has dominated America's story.
In some ways I see myself not as a teller of tales but a re-teller, a balladeer, telling again the story of how we came to be here and what we've wrought. When I began to find my way into a novel about the Tulsa riot, I kept going farther back in our history. I wanted to understand how the racial attitudes that led to such a conflagration could have been carried into the state. I returned to old stories handed down in my family, how two brothers named Askew loaded up their families in wagons and left Kentucky in the middle of the night, headed for Indian Territory. In re-imagining my own family's story, I drew closer not only to painful attitudes about race but to the very sources of violence within us, to questions of guilt and repentance that I continue to wrestle with in my work.
My third novel, Harpsong, is set during the Great Depression, another mythic era in Oklahoma's past. It's a story that also has its seeds in historical event, not among the Okies who took the Mother Road to California, but what happened to the ones in Oklahoma who stayed home. It’s a folk tale about communal hardships and individual suffering, sin and redemption, love and fractured families. Poet Mary Green described it as “a love song to the American voice and the American perspective…about the love that is involved—with all the accompanying stark failings and supreme acts of kindness—in being fully human.”
I'm still mining the same territory, still exploring these same forces of place and race, guilt and sin, and what we owe one another. My new novel, Kind of Kin, bumps forward to the twenty-first century, and there’s a new thread here--a fourth culture shaping not just Oklahoma but all of America, Latino culture. Still, the book tells an old story. In 2007 Oklahoma enacted one of the earliest and toughest anti-illegal immigration laws in the nation. I was troubled by the law, seeing in it a parallel with old ways, our history of legislated bias (the first laws enacted by the Oklahoma legislature after statehood were Jim Crow laws), and it seemed to me that I could see the same distrustful climate, the same scapegoating, that had led to the Tulsa Race Riot in 1921. Why does this happen here, I wondered, in this place that prides itself on having so many Christian citizens and leaders? I wrote this new novel to try to find out.