(STILLWATER, OKLA. / March 18, 2016) – The Stillwater Public Library’s reading series “Two Books, One Community: Great Gatsby & Fire in Beulah” reaches an apex March 28 when the library hosts “An Evening with Author Rilla Askew.” The “Fire in Beulah” author will discuss the 1921 Tulsa Race Riot and the research she completed on the topic when writing her book.
Askew’s book tells the intertwining stories of Oklahoma women in the early 1920s: Althea, the wife of an oil wildcatter; Graceful, her black housemaid; and Iola, a Creek freedwoman. Their stories culminate in a depiction of the worst race riot in American history- the fiery destruction of Tulsa’s Greenwood district, an incident that for years was erased from Oklahoma history.
For Askew, the novel addresses topics that remain an issue for modern Oklahomans.
“Oklahoma has a rich and complex racial history that many still don't know about,” said Askew. “From the Trail of Tears to the all-black towns to the rush of white settlement in the land runs, the coming together of black, white, and indigenous peoples in the old Indian Territory created a racial cauldron that boiled over in ways large and small in the early part of the twentieth century, including the 1921 Tulsa Race Riot. A hundred years later we are still living out that legacy, whether we know it or not.”
Askew’s visit represents a shift in the library’s programming for its “Roaring Twenties” reading series.
“We began with several Gatsby-esque programs that depicted the carefree excess of the 1920s,” said Lynda Reynolds, library director. “The speakeasies, jazz bands, ballroom dancing and films showed that side of the 20s. With Rilla’s program, we begin turning to a harsher, more tumultuous look at what lay underneath the glitz and glamor of the era.”
According to Askew, libraries are perfect places to address these more difficult issues.
“Libraries are the civic heart of our communities,” said Askew. “I find this to be true all over Oklahoma, from small towns to our largest cities. In libraries we come together for conversation, information and free expression of ideas.
“We engage in dialogue across race, class, and culture, across faith, age, political orientation, gender: here we are all Americans, all Oklahomans. These conversations and interactions help cement us as one community.”
Askew is a native Oklahoman who grew up in Bartlesville. Her great-great-grandparents migrated from Mississippi and Kentucky into Indian Territory in the late 1800's.
In her twenties, Askew moved to New York to begin a career in acting, but soon gave it up to write. She has written four novels and a book of stories, most taking place in her home state.
“Most of my fiction is set in Oklahoma, but I don't consider myself a regional writer,” said Askew. “America is my subject, Oklahoma the canvas. As a novelist, what I'm interested in is demythologizing, de-romanticizing America's master narrative, the half-truth 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.”
Her first novel, “The Mercy Seat” was nominated for the PEN/Faulkner Award, the Dublin IMPAC Prize, and received the Oklahoma Book Award and the Western Heritage Award in 1998.
“Fire in Beulah” received the American Book Award and the Myers Book Award from the Gustavus Myers Center for the Study of Bigotry and Human Rights in 2002 and was selected for Oklahoma’s One Book One State reading program in 2007.
Her novel “Harpsong” received seven literary awards including the Oklahoma Book Award, the WILLA Award from Women Writing the West, the Violet Crown Award from the Writers League of Texas and the Western Heritage Award from the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum.
Askew received the 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. She currently teaches creative writing at the University of Oklahoma.
The author hopes that her visit to Stillwater helps the community understand why it is important to know the truth of Oklahoma’s past, especially painful truths, such as that of the Tulsa Race Riot.
“The problems of race and culture are not a binary between black and white, these same issues affect us all, they affect Indian people, they affect Hispanic people, they affect Asian people, this goes across the board,” said Askew. “The first thing that we have to do is educate ourselves. This is true for all of us, but it is most important for those of us in the dominant culture: we are responsible for the truth of our history.”
“An Evening with Author Rilla Askew” begins at 7 p.m. and will be held in the library’s auditorium. The author will be available to sign copies of her books following the presentation.
For more information about “Two Books, One Community: The Great Gatsby and Fire in Beulah,” visit http://library.stillwater.org/TheBeesKnees.php.
This project is sponsored by Stillwater Public Library, Sheerar Museum, Mt. Zion Baptist Church and OSU Library. It is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts. Other funding partners include the Stillwater Public Library Trust, Friends of the Stillwater Public Library and Friends of OSU Library.
Additional partners include Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Inc, African American Student Association, OSU's Chapter of the NAACP, Stillwater Public Schools, Wondertorium Museum, Osher Lifelong Learning Institute, City of Stillwater Community Center, OK Quality Printers, Downtown Stillwater, Town & Gown, OSU Department of Theatre, Oklahoma Historical Society, Formal Fantasy, Next Generation Advertising, Meridian Technology's Cosmetology Salon, and The Deco Haus.
The Stillwater Public Library is located at 1107 South Duck.