Rilla Askew, a native Oklahoman and two-time recipient of the Oklahoma Book Award, is the author of three novels and a collection of stories. Her short fiction has appeared in a variety of literary magazines and her story "The Killing Blanket" was selected for Prize Stories 1993: The O. Henry Awards. Askew's first novel The Mercy Seat was nominated for the PEN/Faulkner Award and received the Oklahoma Book Award and the Western Heritage Award. A finalist for the Drue Heinz Literature Prize, her collection of stories Strange Business received the Oklahoma Book Award in 1993. Her novel Fire in Beulah, which deals in part with the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921, received the Myers Book Award and the American Book Award in 2002. She is married to actor Paul Austin and divides her time between Oklahoma and upstate New York.
Attended Bartlesville Public Schools and graduated 1969, Bartlesville College High, Bartlesville, OK; Bachelor of Fine Arts -- Theatre Performance, 1980, University of Tulsa, Tulsa, OK; Master of Fine Arts -- Creative Writing, 1989, Brooklyn College, Brooklyn, NY.
Oklahoma Book Awards 1993 for Strange Business, 1998 for The Mercy Seat http://www.odl.state.ok.us/ocb/obaward.htm; Western Heritage Award, 1998 for The Mercy Seat; American Book Award, 2002 for Fire in Beulah; Myers Book Award, 2002 for Fire in Beulah; Prize Stories, 1993: O. Henry Awards for "The Killing Blanket" ; PEN/Faulkner Nominee, 1998 for The Mercy Seat; Drue Heinz Finalist, 1991 for Strange Business(Ways Without Words). Fellowship at Civitella Ranieri Center, Umbertide, Italy, 2004.
Born in Poteau and grew up in Bartlesville. She has resided in Shawnee, Tahlequah, and Tulsa.
BOOKS Strange Business. New York: Viking, 1992.
The Mercy Seat. New York: Viking, 1997.
Fire in Beulah. New York: Viking, 2001.
harpsong. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 2008.
Prize Stories 1993: The O. Henry Awards. New York: Doubleday Press, 1993.
Aniyunwiya: An Anthology of Contemporary Cherokee Prose. Greenfield Center, N.Y.: Greenfield Review Press, 1995.
3 Minutes or Less: Life Lessons from America's Greatest Writers. New York: Bloombury, 2000.
"The Gift." Nimrod, 1989.
"The Hawk in the Dream." Sonora Review, 1989.
"Irrevocable Acts." Carolina Quarterly, 1989.
"Breakfast." Iris: A Journal About Women, 1991.
"The Killing Blanket." North Dakota Quarterly, 1991.
"Ways Without Words." Cottonwood Magazine, 1991.
"Walked Through in Darkness". The GW Review, 1992.
"In the Town of Ramona." Puerto del Sol, 1993.
"Tahlequah." Nimrod 37, no. 1 (1993):62-68.
"Millennium." Fish Drum, 1999.
"April 12, 1945." American Letters & Commentary, 2001.
My maternal and paternal great-great-grandparents migrated from Mississippi and Kentucky into Indian Territory in the late 1800s; they settled in the valleys of the Choctaw Nation two decades before Oklahoma became the forty-sixth state. I was born there, in the Sans Bois Mountains, and though I didn't grow up there, it's the place to which I perpetually return, in my life and in my fiction. It's a harsh, beautiful landscape, gorgeous to look at, filled with living things that can hurt you: rattlesnakes and copperheads, poison centipedes, stinging scorpions, ticks, chiggers, cottonmouths, snapping turtles, briars and brambles and thorn trees. The harshness of the mountains has shaped the people I come from, given voice and form - a kind of simultaneous ruthlessness and cry for mercy - to my work. Their language is rich in idiom, steeped in Southern cadence and the King James Version of the Bible. They're all storytellers. From this land and these people my work takes its biblical themes.I grew up in the little city of Bartlesville at the edge of the tallgrass prairie country in northeastern Oklahoma, where the earth is dominated by sky and wind: a gentler landscape than the mountains we moved from when I was three. An oil company town, Bartlesville had, in the years I lived there, good schools, clean streets, one of the highest per capita incomes in the nation - and a kind of secret race-and-class-determined poverty in certain sections of the city that seemed to me far more hopeless than the rural poverty of southeastern Oklahoma. In Bartlesville I received my education in the magic of books, the inviolate borders of race, the unassailable power of money, oil, societal opinion. Growing up in a company town accounts for the timbre of social conscience in my work, my interest in exploring the American story of class and race. In my twenties I lived on the banks of the Illinois River near Tahlequah, the capital of the Cherokee Nation. Tahlequah is in the Cookson Hills of eastern Oklahoma, a woody, vine-clotted, tick-ridden land of clear waters and flinty hills, thick with blackgum, dogwood, redbud - beautiful, mysterious, spirit-filled. As a child I'd always been told we were part Cherokee on my father's side, part Choctaw on my mother's (or "Black Dutch" as some preferred to call it) - bloodlines never traced, so far as I know - but it was my years in Tahlequah that gave me my first deep connection to Native people, a force and source integrated throughout my fiction. Though my work is set in Oklahoma, I'm not a regional writer. America is my subject, Oklahoma the canvas. As a novelist, what I'm interested in is demythologizing, deromanticizing America's master narrative, the halftruth comfort stories we tell ourselves. Oklahoma's brief, violent history is a microcosm of all that's taken place on the North American continent for the past five hundred years - turned inside out, foreshortened, intensified. From the tragedy of the Trail of Tears to the frenzy of the white land runs, from the hope in the all-black towns that sprang up in Oklahoma when it was still the free "Injun Territory" toward which Jim and Huck Finn lit out to the ultimate devastation of the Tulsa race riot in 1921, the drama of the three races has dominated Oklahoma's story - as it has dominated America's story. In some ways I see myself not as a teller of tales but a re-teller, a balladeer, telling again the story of how we came to be here and what we've wrought. When I began to find my way into a novel about the Tulsa riot, I kept going farther back in our history. I wanted to understand how the racial attitudes that led to such a conflagration could have been carried into the state. I returned to old stories handed down in my family, how two brothers named Askew loaded up their families in wagons and left Kentucky in the middle of the night, headed for Indian Territory. In re-imagining my own family's story, I drew closer not only to painful attitudes about race but to the very sources of violence within us, to questions of guilt and repentance, which I continue to wrestle with in my work. Just now I'm at work on a novel set during the Great Depression, another mythic era in Oklahoma's past. It's a story that also has its seeds in actual historical event, but not among the famous Dust Bowl refugees who took the Mother Road to California. It's about what happened among the Okies who stayed home.
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