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
Novels and Stories
Kind of Kin
A richly comic yet heartfelt novel about people who want to do right and still do wrong, and people who do right in spite of themselves, as they try to help, protect, and provide for those they love most when a new state immigration law threatens an ordinary American family and throws a close-knit community into turmoil
Harlan Singer, a gifted harmonica-playing troubadour, shows up in the Thompson familyís yard one morning. He steals their hearts with his music, and their daughter with his charm. Soon he and his fourteen-year-old bride, Sharon, are on the road, two more hobos of the Great Depression, hitchhiking and hopping freights in search of an old man and the settlement of Harlanís long-standing debt.
Fire in Beulah
Set during the tense days of the Oklahoma oil rush, FIRE IN BEULAH centers on the complex relationship between Althea Whiteside, an oil wildcatter's high-strung wife, and Graceful, her enigmatic black maid. Their juxtaposing stories-and those of others close to them-unfold against a volatile backdrop of oil-boom opulence, fear, hatred, and lynchings that climax in the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921, when whites burned the city's prosperous black community known as Greenwood.
The Mercy Seat
"A triumph of scholarship and imagination...a powerful novel in a mermeizing prose out of the Old Testament by way of Faulkner. Askew is a prodigious talent." --Newsday
Each story in STRANGE BUSINESS is a small epiphany, exquisitely wrought. Askew orchestrates her many voices with the assurance of a master composer. But although the authorís technical skill will take your breath away, itís ultimately her warm heart that makes STRANGE BUSINESS a small masterpiece.Ē Diana Postlethwaite, Washington Post Book World
from THE TULSA WORLD
When Rilla Askew finished reading from the opening pages of her novel "Harpsong" at last month's Centennial Voices event, my wife turned to me and said, "OK. I'm hooked."
She wasn't the only one, to be sure. Askew is a writer whose prose almost begs to be read out loud. It's an incantatory mix of down-home directness and high-flying poetry, the sound of plain-spoken people whose voices have been steeped in the language of the King James Bible.
It is a fictional voice that has earned Askew deserved comparisons to William Faulkner and Cormac McCarthy. And it finds maybe its best expression in "Harpsong."
This novel, Askew's third, is a relatively short novel -- less than 250 pages -- but it is dense with incident and idea, and packed full of distinct, distinctive voices.
It's also an answer to Steinbeck's "The Grapes of Wrath," a novel that, for better or worse, has defined Oklahoma in the eyes of many. Steinbeck's book is about people who abandoned all hope and set out in pursuit of an earthly paradise that never was.
"Harpsong," on the other hand, is about the people who stayed -- who held on to some shred of hope, those who struggled to remain decent in spite of overwhelming hardships, and how they coped with those who took advantage of troubles for their own gain.
It is, in other words, a novel about faith -- not simply religious faith, although that is a large part of, but faith in people, in the land, in the need and even comfort that can be found simply in keeping on.
And it is told through a quartet of voices, all trying to tell the story of Harlan Singer, the enigmatic figure at the novel's heart.
The primary voice is that of Sharon, who catches her first sight of Singer one morning in May 1931, as he came walking along the road out of Cookson.
He charms his way into the family with his way of playing the harmonica, and offers to stay and help out while Sharon's father is out making his rounds as a traveling preacher.
It isn't long before Singer has bewitched the 14-year-old Sharon, and they run off to Muskogee to get married. Then the two set off on the roads -- rail, asphalt and dirt -- of Oklahoma in search of a fellow named Profit, to whom Singer owes some great, if unspoken, debt.
This quest takes them on a kind of figure-eight path through Oklahoma, Kansas and Texas, where a run-in with railroad thugs results in Singer being nearly beaten to death.
Food is always scarce, money is something only a few people have and acts of kindness are rare enough that when the couple does receive a bite to eat or a place to stay, Sharon can't quite summon up the words or feelings to express her thanks.
All she can do is follow her husband, and gauge how he is by the almost unearthly music he is able to draw from the 10 reeds in the tin and wood harmonica that is never far from Singer's lips.
It's magical, what Singer can do with a harmonica: play all sorts of tunes, from dances to hymns; imitate almost any sound from tree frog to train whistle; and conjure up emotions that even the people listening to him don't recognize they possess.
That's because Singer is after some sort of truth, a way of making the Bible he's read and had recited to him have meaning in a world that has lost its hope.
"A hopeless man don't ask for forgiveness, on account of a hopeless man don't believe in it," Singer says. "He don't care. About that or anything else. He don't see the point in living. That's a kick in God's teeth, innit?"
The forgiveness that Singer seeks goes back to a dim point in his past -- a moment of cowardice that haunts him. And his efforts to find that forgiveness, to pay those debts, gets him and Sharon into situations that start people talking.
This is another voice in the story, called "folksay," where the facts about Harlan Singer's life get blown into myth -- "depending on how far back in the bo-jacks you go, you'll hear all kind of stories." You'll also hear the stories of those who remained in Oklahoma, either circling the state in hopes of the return of better times, or staying put where they had always been, struggled to survive the Depression.
"Truth is," one "folksay" passage goes, "some left, but most stayed, dumb as lambs to the slaughter maybe, but we were determined to live with the devil we knew."
We hear Harlan's voice only once, near the end, but we are privy to his thoughts in a series of passages labeled "deepsong" -- impressionistic vignettes that take on a deeper, more tragic dimension as "Harpsong" moves to its conclusion.
Askew's novel is officially Volume One of the University of Oklahoma Press' "Oklahoma Stories and Storytellers" series, although it is the third volume to be published. But it certainly deserves pride of place at the head of the list. It is a story that moves with the ease and inevitability of a country stream, and lingers in the mind like a melody.
--James D. Watts Jr.
A young man, his teenaged wife and his harmonica crisscross the Depression-era Southwest in Askew's mournful, compelling, religion-infused third novel.
Sharon Thompson may be only 14, but as soon as mysterious stranger Harlan Singer appears in her small town of Cookson, Okla., she knows they are destined to mate. The self-named Harlan may be part Cherokee, but what's for sure is his genius with the harmonica, or harp-he's a veritable Pied Piper. He so charms Sharon's dirt-poor parents (her Daddy is a traveling preacher) that they give him work. But work doesn't agree with Harlan. After an almighty ruckus, Harlan whisks Sharon away to Muskogee, where they marry; they honeymoon atop a freight car, for Harlan has been riding the rails for years; Sharon, "ignorant as pudding," realizes she doesn't know her husband at all. Still, she shows spirit as they navigate the hobo jungles and run from the bulls, i.e., railroad detectives. Harlan is searching for Profit, his spiritual mentor, a smelly old hobo who once saved his life, but his search is as hopeless as Sharon's for her family, since on their return to Cookson, her home is deserted; bank foreclosures have doomed the town. The past is unrecoverable; that is one of the novel's themes, along with responsibility to our fellow man, also addressed in Askew's Fire in Beulah (2001). Harlan, as retribution, robs the local bank and becomes the stuff of legend, though he later returns the money, for he and Sharon are religious folks, caught in a cycle of sin and the quest for redemption. Askew skillfully weaves their personal dramas (a miscarriage, Harlan's fearsome beating by the bulls) with the communal hardships of the Depression; through it all floats the sound of Harlan's harmonica, mesmerizing his listeners.