Rill Askew (BA ’80) renders truth through fiction. From the Tulsa Race Riot to the Great Depression, the TU alumna and author peels back the layers of painful historical events. Although it may sting, the unearthed truth is the power behind healing. “We have to own those truths in order to move forward and mature as a people spiritually, emotionally and economically,” Askew said.
While at TU, Askew studied for a life on stage and worked at Theater Tulsa. The 1970s were a time to celebrate the Tulsa sound which was a mixture of country, rock ‘n’ roll and blues. “We’d go out into the clubs, and everyone would swear that Leon Russell would show up… every once in a while, he did,” she laughed.
Askew moved to New York City to pursue acting, but armed with a pen, she was more drawn to creating her own content. Her writing didn’t encompass the lights of the big city. Instead, her prose returned her home to southeastern Oklahoma. “My family migrated into the Choctaw nation in the late 1800s,” she said, “The rhythm and the syntax of the voices I hear are more like my grandparents’ voices.”
Her novel Fire in Beulah reimagines the tense and horrific days during 1921 Tulsa Race Riot. Considered a staple in many Oklahoma classrooms, her words stay true to the historical records, but her fictional characters allow the reader to fathom the assault from various perspectives. Askew’s novel uses “the language of racism that was endemic in the broader culture that we don’t use anymore,” she explained. Great literature often disquiets.
In her first novel, The Mercy Seat, Askew describes her most difficult scene to write. Set in the late 1800s among the Arkansas Mountains, a 10-year-old white girl is obsessed with a black nurse maid, who is nursing her baby sister. The pejorative remarks hurled from a child’s lips leave the reader wincing. “I was getting to the fundamental understanding of white dominance and white supremacy, and we don’t even understand that we exercise it,” she said. “It becomes a part of us if we grow up inside the white culture.”
In her latest book, Most American: Notes from a Wounded Place, Askew veers from fiction to a collection of nonfiction essays, which is a mix between history and social commentary. “I always feel that I am bearing witness to the history that I am living now,” she said. This includes Tulsa’s current racial and political temperament as the city is still living out its history through the laws of disenfranchisement and a climate of violence.
“It’s going to take a lot of uncovering, honest conversation and not being afraid to speak directly the truth of the past,” Askew said. “I see the seeds of that here.”
Although Askew cannot “write fiction fast enough to grapple with history as it unfolds around us,” she said. With pen to paper, Rilla Askew is certainly going to try.