Renowned author and alumna Rilla Askew donates archive to TU

Renowned author and alumna Rilla Askew donates archive to TU

two women standing beside each other in a room
Dean Karen Petersen and Rilla Askew

The University of Tulsa’s Department of Special Collections and Archives draws students, scholars, journalists and the culturally curious from around the world to explore its literary, historical, photographic, artistic and material treasures. Among its gems are manuscripts and published works by such major writers as Muriel Spark, Christopher Isherwood, James Joyce and Sir V.S. Naipaul. Recently, this trove was substantially enriched when internationally renowned author and TU alumna Rilla Askew (BA ’80) gifted her literary archive to the university.

“Rilla Askew’s generous donation is a remarkable and deeply appreciated addition to our university’s intellectual and cultural life,” commented Karen Petersen, dean of Kendall College of Arts and Sciences. “Over the past few decades, Rilla has combined her creative dynamism with her passion for history and social justice to develop a body of work that is at once inspiring, path-breaking and always immersive. On behalf of everyone at TU, I extend sincere thanks for entrusting this astonishing archive to our community.”

Creativity and excellence

A member of the Oklahoma Writers Hall of Fame, Askew was born in Poteau, a small town nestled amongst the Sans Bois Mountains in the southeastern part of the state. Raised in Bartlesville, Askew lived in Tahlequah for a number of years before moving to Tulsa and completing a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in theatre at TU in 1980. Later that same year, Askew moved to New York City to pursue an acting career. Rather than seeking the limelight of performance, however, Askew went on to earn a Master of Fine Arts in creative writing at Brooklyn College in 1987.

two white file boxes on a metal shelf (left box has Fire in Beulah written on the side; right box has Early Writing and Unfinished Second Novel written on the side)
A small portion of the Rilla Askew Archive at McFarlin Library

Since then, Askew has published four novels, a collection of short stories and another of creative nonfiction pieces, as well as essays, plays and articles. The gamut of topics Askew has covered is broad and varied. Over the years, for example, she has applied her fictional alchemy to spinning tales involving white settlements in Indian Territory (The Mercy Seat), the Tulsa Race Massacre (Fire in Beulah) and hardscrabble life in Oklahoma during the Dust Bowl (Harpsong). While it is impossible tidily to encapsulate her oeuvre, Askew points out that “woven throughout my work are strong threads of social justice, racial and class-based inequity, women’s suffering and endurance, and the persistence of memory.”

Since beginning her writing career, Askew has received numerous honors and awards. These include the Oklahoma Book Award, Western Heritage Award, the WILLA Award from Women Writing the West, an 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. Her work has also been nominated for the PEN/Faulkner Award and the Dublin IMPAC Prize, among others.

Tulsa treasures

Askew lived in New York for over three decades, but in 2015 she came home to Oklahoma. She now resides in Norman, where she is an associate professor of English teaching creative writing at the University of Oklahoma.

Handwritten letter in red ink with the printed words Viking Penguin at the top
One of the many letters in the Rilla Askew Archive

Askew’s decision to gift her archive to her alma mater arose out of several overlapping considerations. TU has long been a welcoming intellectual and cultural community for me,” Askew commented. “In addition, the McFarlin literary archives are internationally renowned, and the librarians do such a wonderful job of preserving and making available materials for students, scholars and the public. And, of course, there’s Tulsa itself. In many ways, this city helped shape me. Some of my most important early years as an artist and a writer were spent here, and I still feel very connected to this city and its people.”

Among the many fascinating items in the Askew Archive are ideas jotted down by the author, drafts representing various stages of her published works, background reading on subjects that informed her narratives, sample dust jackets and reviews. One set of documents, however, holds a special place in their donor’s heart. “When I was researching, planning and writing my first novel, The Mercy Seat, and afterward, I was in regular correspondence with my agent, editors and readers. Rereading their letters — most of them handwritten – after so many years touched me deeply and brought back wonderful memories. I am so glad they now have a permanent home at TU, and I hope that others will find them interesting too.”

Visitors who want to delve into the Askew Archive, which currently awaits professional cataloging, will find 10 hefty filing boxes stuffed full with such fascinating glimpses of the author’s craft and life. And because Askew continues to be as vibrant and productive as ever (her fifth novel, Prize for the Fire, will transport readers to 16th-century England when it debuts this October), the quantity of materials available to consult at McFarlin will grow over the years as Askew adds to her donation.

young man photographed from behind while seated at a table reading letters
Reading correspondence in the Askew Archive

The dedicated staff of Special Collections and Archives at The University of Tulsa looks forward to welcoming you. Come explore with us!