Award-winning author Rilla Askew has been writing deeply compelling stories about Oklahoma and the complex issue of race since she began her writing career over 20 years ago.
“The passions that I have had as a writer all my professional life have become part of a much wider consciousness now,” Rilla explains. “Our culture has shifted and is now aligned with something that has been important to me for so long. My interests in Oklahoma’s history and issues of race are so intertwined that I couldn’t separate them if I tried.”
As associate professor of English at the University of Oklahoma, Rilla is a fifth-generation Oklahoman. Her family emigrated into Indian Territory in the late 1800s and settled in the Choctaw Nation. Being an Oklahoman has had a significant impact on Rilla’s stories and helps give voice to her characters.
“All the stories that were handed down to me since childhood are Oklahoma stories,” she explains. “My grandfathers were storytellers, so I grew up listening to their voices, their syntax. It was natural that it became part of who I am and what I do.”
Her stories, rooted in Oklahoma, are unique and specific to the culture of her home state. Yet, they also examine themes that are more universal about human nature and the complex nature of human relationships, especially those that impact the lives of women.
“I am always in awe of how unique and powerful Oklahoma stories are. They truly are a microcosm of the national narrative,” Rilla adds. “It was in the process of writing that I came to understand the complexity and richness of Oklahoma, both today and throughout our history.”
Many of the conflicts and issues explored in Rilla’s books help her readers learn about the past, in order to understand who we are today. She stresses that, for readers to learn through the lens of fiction, it is vital that it be historically accurate.
“When historical fiction is authentically rendered, a reader can understand, in a deeply human way, what happened,” she explains.” You can live inside the lives of the characters and feel the impact of the events.”
For Rilla, the writing process almost always begins with a deep, almost unanswerable question that necessitates in-depth historical research.
“I have to learn how people lived in that time, how they made their meals, how they got around,” she says. “I almost always begin with an event and a character. I dream the characters awake, and then there is always a question or a theme at the heart of the novel that drives the direction of the research.”
For her acclaimed novel Fire in Beulah, Rilla spent more than a decade conducting in-depth research on the Tulsa Race Massacre. Realizing that it was symbolic of events that were happening to African Americans all over the country, she was driven to understand the pivotal events that occurred and to discover exactly why and how they unfolded as they did in Tulsa’s Greenwood District in 1921.
“I first learned about the Tulsa Race Massacre in 1989, and I was just stunned and devastated. I didn’t know yet the full scope of it, and how enormous and destructive it was,” she recollects. “The fact that this significant event had happened, and no one was talking about it, led me into history. I just couldn’t understand how I could grow up only 50 miles from Tulsa and not have been taught about this. It made me feel like there were all kinds of truths that were being kept a secret from me. So many people never knew about the Tulsa Race Massacre, simply because they were never taught about it. ”
Fire in Buelah was published in 2001 and has recently come back into the national spotlight. Rilla says that she is proud that her novel can help contribute to a conversation that has brought awareness to a crucial part of Oklahoma’s history.
“This current awakening and reckoning that our nation is having about racism, police brutality, white supremacy and other things that are endemic to our nation are bringing important issues to our consciousness in a new way, so it makes the book especially relevant right now,” Rilla says. “Readers come to it with different eyes than they did 20 years ago.”
“Now, there is finally attention and awareness of the incredible tenacity and perseverance of the community in Greenwood. The descendants of the survivors and victims in Tulsa have made sure that this becomes a national story,” she continues. “My book is just one lens that people can use to experience these events, right alongside the characters.”
Since publication, Fire in Beulah has received the American Book Award and the Myers Book Award from the Gustavus Myers Center for the Study of Bigotry and Human Rights, and it was selected as the centennial book for Oklahoma’s One Book One State program. Rilla has also been honored with a 2009 Arts and Letters Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters and the Arrell Gibson Lifetime Achievement Award from the Oklahoma Center for the Book in 2011.
Currently, Rilla has shifted her focus away from Oklahoma’s history to focus on a new novel about the Early Modern Reformist and writer Anne Askew, who was burned as a heretic at Smithfield, London, in the 1500s. Rilla’s fascination with her new novel stems not just from her shared surname with the martyred woman, but in her hopes to gain a better understanding about what makes a person feel so fervently about their beliefs that they would willingly face death.
In addition to her own writing, Rilla relishes her opportunity to develop young writers in her work teaching creative writing at the University of Oklahoma.
“I love my students and working in the university environment,” she says. “It is very fulfilling to be able to help guide the next generation of young writers.”
Rilla lives in Norman with her husband, Paul Austin, an accomplished poet, theatre actor and director. The couple have been married for nearly 40 years, and moved back to Oklahoma in 2015 after living, writing and performing in New York.
“We both love living in Norman and enjoy the richness of the university community,” she says. “We love being connected to other social activists and value our friendships with others who are constantly thinking about important ideas and our place in the world. We just couldn’t imagine living anywhere else.”
Askew is the author of four novels, a book of stories and a collection of creative nonfiction, as well as plays, articles and essays. For more information, visit RillaAskew.com.