Askew, Rilla 1951-
ASKEW, Rilla 1951-
PERSONAL: Born 1951, in OK; married Paul Austin (a playwright and actor). Education: University of Tulsa, B.F.A (theater performance), 1980; Brooklyn College, M.F.A. (creative writing), 1989.
ADDRESSES: Home—P.O. Box 324, Kauneonga Lake, NY 12749.
CAREER: Novelist and author of short stories. Teacher of fiction writing at Brooklyn College, Syracuse University, University of Central Oklahoma, and at various literary conferences.
AWARDS, HONORS: Oklahoma Book Award, 1993, for Strange Business; The Mercy Seat was nominated for the PEN-Faulkner Award, the Dublin AMPAC Prize, and the Mountains and Plains Booksellers Award, and received the Oklahoma Book Award and the Western Heritage Award for Best Novel, both 1997.
Strange Business, Viking (New York, NY), 1992.
The Mercy Seat, Viking (New York, NY), 1997.
Fire in Beulah, Viking (New York, NY), 2001.
Short stories published in Prize Stories 1993: O. Henry Awards Anthology (Doubleday, 1993). Contributor to Nimrod, Puerto del Sol, and Carolina Quarterly.
SIDELIGHTS: The descendent of a number of interesting Oklahomans—-coal miners, sharecroppers, boot-leggers, school teachers, Baptist deacons, pioneer women, a county deputy sheriff, Choctaws, and Cherokees—writer Rilla Askew grew up in Bartlesville, Oklahoma surrounded by reminders of American history and images of the Old West. Her ancestors appear in her work often, and although she has lived in California and Arkansas, her three novels attest to Oklahoma as her true home.
Askew's first book, the short story collection Strange Business, focuses on the lives of a shrinking Oklahoma town's residents. Askew explores a broad range of life experiences, from childhood anxieties and teenage epiphanies to adult traumas. Michael Upchurch of Book World called Strange Business "a knockout story collection which, with its lyrical precision, tart humor, and profound compassion for its characters, called to mind the young Eudora Welty." Another Washington Post Book World reviewer also praised the collection, writing: "Although the author's technical skill will take your breath away, it's ultimately her warm heart that makes Strange Business a small masterpiece."
Many critics also praised Askew's first novel, The Mercy Seat, a variation on the Cain and Abel story as told by eleven-year-old Mattie Lodi. Set in late nineteenth-century Oklahoma, the story focuses on two brothers: John (Mattie's father) and Fayette. John, a reputable gunsmith, flees Kentucky with his family and his brother, a man whose dishonesty as a bootlegger and mule thief triggers their exodus. Tragedies abound on the journey westward, however: Mattie's mother and sister die, her brother suffers brain-damage, and her taciturn father starts to feud with Fayette. Mattie tries to diffuse the tension between the brothers, but instead, she inadvertently fuels the fire. A Publishers Weekly reviewer gave The Mercy Seat a starred rating and praised Askew's prose as "mesmerizing, saturated with the rhythms of the prophets and patriarchs (as heard by Faulkner rather than Steinbeck)." Upchurch, however, labeled the work as ambitious but flawed. "It's a novel that contains many moments of perfection—and a few miscalculations. Askew occasionally succumbs to grandiloquent overkill, especially in her chapter openings." Nonetheless, Booklist reviewer Emily Melton highly recommended the book, calling it, "Bleak, dark, and moving, peopled with vivid characters and filled with compelling details and poetically rendered narrative." The Mercy Seat was nominated for three awards and won two others, including the 1997 Oklahoma Book Award.
Askew's next novel is also set in Oklahoma, during the oil rush years of the 1920s. Fire in Beulah explores the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921, one of the bloodiest and least publicized outbreaks of racial violence in U.S. history. Combining historical fact with fiction, Askew tells the story using two protagonists: pampered socialite Althea Whiteside and her young black maid, Graceful. Althea, hiding her impoverished, abusive past from her oil-baron husband, finds herself both fascinated and repulsed by her maid. Both their lives are changed forever, however, when Althea's younger brother, Japheth, unexpectedly appears. John Gregory Brown, in the Chicago Tribune, described Japheth as "a character so convincingly contemptuous and downright evil that his every word seems to spew forth like fire from his mouth." Japheth's sudden appearance, along with a mysterious letter and a double lynching, force Althea and Graceful to acknowledge their responsibility to one another, even as the fire and riot draw near.
In both history and in Askew's novel, a black shoe-shine boy's arrest for allegedly assaulting a white elevator girl provokes the riot. Richard Lloyd Jones, a well-known journalist and publisher of the Tulsa Tribune, sensationalizes the story with a front-page headline that reads "To Lynch Negro Tonight." Incensed by the editorial, whites form a mob outside the courthouse, and local blacks, attempting to avert the lynching, gather there, too. The white mob burns more than 3,000 African-American homes to the ground, razes thirty-six square blocks, and kill as many as 300 people. Tulsa's black community—concentrated in an area called Greenwood, and known for its cultural and financial achievements—is thus destroyed.
Adam Nossiter, critic for the New York Times Book Review, critiqued Askew's writing style in Fire in Beulah. "She is not well served by prose that can be overwrought, and by a tendency to spell out internal states that the reader should merely sense." Doug Jones of Black Issues Book Review, however, heralded the novel: "Askew adeptly shows the hardships and heroicism of her characters' lives. There are no pat machinations here, and Fire in Beulah is unflinchingly brutal." A Publishers Weekly critic also praised the novel as "an arresting examination of race and heritage....Her prose—rich, leisurely, graceful—engages all the senses and encloses the reader in a bell jar of heat, hate, and budding violence."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Directory of American Poets and Fiction Writers, 1999-2000 edition, Poets & Writers, Inc. (New York, NY), 1998.
Belles Lettres, winter 1992, Yvonne Fraticelli, review of Strange Business, p. 59.
Black Issues Book Review, March, 2001, Doug Jones, review of Fire in Beulah, p. 21.
Booklist, July, 1992, Mary Carroll, review of Strange Business, p. 1916; August, 1997, Emily Melton, review of The Mercy Seat, pp. 1874-1875.
Chicago Tribune, February 11, 2001, John Gregory Brown, "Separate and Unequal," p. 1, 5.
Christian Science Monitor, September 15, 1997, Merle Rubin, review of The Mercy Seat, p. 13.
Library Journal, July, 1997, Editha Ann Wilberton, review of The Mercy Seat, p. 122; April 1, 1998, review of The Mercy Seat, p. 152; February 1, 2001, Barbara L. Roberts, review of Fire in Beulah, p. 124; April 15, 2001, Nancy Pearl, "The Moral of the Story," p. 164.
New York Times Book Review, August 9, 1992, Mark Childress, review of Strange Business, p. 6; October 12, 1997, James Polk, review of The Mercy Seat, p. 21; November 11, 2001, Adam Nossiter, "Something Tulsa Forgot: In 1921, White People in Tulsa Made War on Black People," p. 33.
Publishers Weekly, May 11, 1992, review of Strange Business, pp. 52-53; June 23, 1997, review of The Mercy Seat, p. 69; November 13, 2000, review of Fire in Beulah, p. 83.
Washington Post Book World, January 3, 1993, review of Strange Business, p. 6; August 17, 1997, Michael Upchurch, "Lighting out for Indian Territory," p. 5.
Yale Review, January, 1999, Diana Postlethwaite, review of The Mercy Seat, pp. 144-146.
Oklahoma State Department of Education Web site, http://www.title3.sde.state.ok.us/ (March 16, 2002).
PreviewPort,http://www.previewport.com/ (May 28, 2002), profile of Rilla Askew.
University of Tulsa Web site,http://www.utulsa.edu/ (March 12, 2002), profile of Rilla Askew.*