Amarillo Reads author Rilla Askew on racial tensions and why Oklahoma is the 'microcosm of America'
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By Chip Chandler — Digital Content Producer
Oklahoma-born author Rilla Askew thought — or, rather, hoped — her 2013 novel Kind of Kin would be dated by the time it was published.
She began writing the book in 2007, after her home state passed what was then one of the most stringent anti-illegal immigration laws in the country, tackling the issue from a variety of viewpoints: An older farmer willing to harbor illegal Mexicans, his confused but thoughtful 10-year-old grandson and his struggling-to-keep-it-together daughter, a desperate immigrant, an egotistical sheriff and a self-serving legislator.
"I was really upset," Askew said in a phone interview today. "Where did this come from? Who thought this was a problem that we needed to create this law?"
She immediately connected the law with past blemishes on her home state's history — the fact that the very first law passed after Oklahoma became a state was a Jim Crow law, and that one of the country's most deadly race riots occurred in Tulsa in 1921, not far from where she would grow up during the 1960s civil rights era.
"I was raised Southern Baptist, was raised with all the lip service we give — 'Jesus loves the little children, red and yellow, black and white'," said Askew, who now divides her time between Norman, Okla., and upstate New York. "And now we're here again, in worse ways than ever.
"I was thinking that the book was so topical that — by the time it came out, because it takes so long for me to write a book — that ... it would be a nonissue by the time it came out," she said.
In general, Askew prefers not to talk directly about politics, preferring instead to let her stories speak for themselves and to "avoid shutting down any audience from what I think is a human story."
But she continues to write about fraught themes of racial tensions, including her American Book Award-winning 2002 novel Fire in Beulah, set against the backdrop of the Tulsa riots, and Kind of Kin, the spring selection for Amarillo Public Library's Amarillo Reads program.
Askew will speak at 7 p.m. May 8 in the Globe-News Center for the Performing Arts, 500 S. Buchanan St., the culmination of the program's events for the spring. The event is free.
"It's just a great book," said Stacy Clopton Yates, the library's public relations coordinator. "It deals with so many terrific issues, and it has so many things that make a book good (like) great characters. You read it and encounter characters and think, I know somebody like that.
"She touches on so many issues that are important people — kids who fight, having a sick family member, illegal immigration, lawmaking, religion," Yates continued. "It just has so many layers to it."
The book is being discussed in two of the library's book clubs, including a meeting of the Downtown Lunchtime Book Club at 12:15 p.m. Thursday at the downtown library, 413 S.E. Fourth Ave.
And it also inspired another pair of upcoming presentations. Miguel A. Levario, associate professor of U.S. history and borderland studies at Texas Tech University, will speak at 11 a.m. Saturday at the library's southwest branch, 6801 S.W. 45th Ave., about "The Economics of Immigration." And Amarillo Independent School District counselors will address childhood conflict, bullying and other topics at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday at the library's north branch, 1500 N.E. 24th Ave.
"We've had very good feedback (on Kind of Kin)," Yates said. "Everyone who participated (in a Tuesday book club meeting) had good things to say about it, appreciated all the research that went into it and ... (said) what a good read it is."
Askew grew up in Bartlesville, Okla., then moved to New York City in 1980, planning on becoming an actress.
"I very quickly started writing plays because I wasn't getting any acting jobs," she said. "I had a naïve notion that you could write your own play — and there are people who do that, a one-woman show or something — but very shortly after, I started writing fiction, and as I look back, I was always more of a fiction writer."
After studying writing in an MFA program at Brooklyn College, Askew found the subject matter that most spoke to her — her home state and all of its contradictions, but particularly its history of racial tension.
"When I was growing up in Oklahoma in the civil rights era, it was so much more in the news, and I had an unconscious awareness that there was a great discrepancy between who we say we are and who we really are," she said. "I believed very much in integration and civil rights and all of those things, but within me there were the prejudices of the dominant white culture that I was raised with. ... You own both of those things.
"It took a while before I recognized I carried that paradox, which is a mild way of putting it, with me," she continued. "If you're from the dominant culture, it takes a while to recognize that we carry that with us."
She was enlightened by teaching a broadly diverse population in Brooklyn and by becoming extremely close to a Jamaican family, including being named the godmother of one of the family's boys.
"This was happening on a personal level even as I began to write and to write my way back home," she said. "I didn't know much about Oklahoma history. ... Because I grew up in the dominant culture, it takes a long time to become aware, at least in the mid-'80s through the '90s.
"I didn't know any of Oklahoma's story except the broad outlines of the Trail of Tears and the land run. I didn't even know my family's story," she said. "I began to search out Oklahoma's past and see what a unique story it was."
Generally, she writes from the perspective of the life that she has lived and from those whose lives she feels close to.
"I only feel that I have, how would you say?, permission to write about things I know deeply because of my personal life, having helped raise a black godson, being so close to my Jamaican family in Brooklyn, witnessing Travis being profiled," she said. "They're in me as much as the white culture. Hispanic culture, not as much. My niece was married to a Hispanic man who was deported as a result of the Oklahoma law.
"(But) I can't write that from the inside. I had to write from the white point of view of a family being torn apart," she continued. "You can't research your way into those things. You have to feel your way into those things."
In a biographical essay on her website, Askew said she saw echoes of the Jim Crow laws that contributed to the Tulsa riots in the 2007 anti-illegal immigration laws the state passed, writing, "Why does this happen here, I wondered, in this place that prides itself on having so many Christian citizens and leaders? I wrote this new novel to try to find out."
Asked Wednesday if she thought she had answered that, she paused.
"I have not asked myself this question again," she said. "I think it goes back to something I had also been writing about how Oklahoma is a microcosm. The things that happen here are an intensification and a distillation of what's happening around the country.
"It's probably because the nature of our history, it's probably mysterious in ways I don't understand, and partly because it's my view and because I look at America's narrative and put those things in context," she said, talking about how Oklahoma went from a fiercely Democratic state to an even more intensely Republican one over the course of a century.
"All of those things have created a climate that allowed the larger fears of the dominant culture to be made manifest," she said. "Oklahoma is a bellwether."
Askew said she's "thrilled" that Kind of Kin was chosen for the Amarillo Reads program and that it's "probably being read by people who would not necessarily pick it up.
"A lot of times we don't want to question things, we want to turn our eyes away and think it doesn't concern us," she said. "It will be interesting to come and see what people (in Amarillo) have to say."