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The City and the Writer: In Tulsa with Rilla Askew

By Nathalie Handal

Special Series / Oklahoma 2014

If each city is like a game of chess, the day when I have learned the rules, I shall finally possess my empire, even if I shall never succeed in knowing all the cities it contains.

Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities

Can you describe the mood of Tulsa as you feel/see it?

In a word: regeneration. Conceived on Muscogee/Creek Indian land, born half-wild in the throes of an early twentieth-century oil boom, Tulsa has cycled through multiple booms and busts. A devastating oil downturn in the 1980s caused her to retract, grow poor and worried, before she began once again to expand and diversify. What’s generating here now is art and music: three lively arts districts, one named after a prominent early Tulsa businessman and Ku Klux Klansman, Tate Brady; a public green where Tulsans gather in warm months for food and music, named after a leftist working-class hero and native son, Woody Guthrie; blues and jazz, the revitalized Tulsa Sound, Cain’s Ballroom; an astonishingly vibrant literary scene. Tulsa has a sense of herself as different from her Southwestern US cousins: a cultured city of wealth, education, the arts, nestled on the bosom of the prairie, and she is all of that. She is also a place filled with paradox, and she bears the scars of a dark history.

What is your most heartbreaking memory in this city?

It’s not a personal memory but a collective one—a memory that was suppressed for generations. On the morning of June 1, 1921, thousands of white rioters swept into Tulsa’s wealthy black district and burned it to the ground. Some three hundred people, most of them black, were murdered, and over a thousand homes and businesses were destroyed. It was one of the worst incidents of racial violence in American history, and yet it was effectively forgotten in the nation, and in Oklahoma, for decades. No one spoke of it. It was not in the history books. Only in the late 1990s did the city begin to own and grapple with her dark past. There is now a Tulsa Race Riot Memorial in the Greenwood District where the riot took place; books and documentaries are available; a state commission report was issued in 2001 recommending reparations to survivors and their descendants. As of today, though, no reparations have been paid. There have been official and unofficial efforts toward reconciliation—but the heartbreak remains.

What is the most extraordinary detail, one that goes unnoticed by most, of the city?

I don’t know if this detail goes unnoticed, but one that stands out for me is the majesty of Tulsa’s trees. The city is surrounded by rolling prairie dotted with scrawny blackjack and post oak, short scrabby little trees, but Tulsa’s older neighborhoods, built along the sandy curves of the Arkansas River, are shaded by giant elms and maples and great majestic oaks, like the giant burr oak that was the original Council Oak for the Muscogee/Creek people who first settled here: their boughs heavy-laden, age-gnarled, ice storm-scarred.

What writer(s) from here should we read?

There are many, and I wish I could name them all, but briefly: Internationally renowned poet and jazz artist Joy Harjo grew up in Tulsa and has returned here to live; her memoir Crazy Brave and her poems and songs tell of a heartbreak and journey and spiritual sensibility beyond my ability to describe. Poet Ron Padgett also grew up in Tulsa; his memoir Oklahoma Tough: My Father King of the Tulsa Bootleggers tells a rollicking story of the town’s wild early days. Nonfiction writer Hannibal Johnson’s books about the Greenwood District destroyed in the race riot, the aftermath and regeneration, including Black Wall Street, are requisite reading for anyone who wants to understand the place. One of Tulsa’s most beloved and high profile writers is Michael Wallis, whose many works, such as Way Down Yonder in the Indian Nation and Mankiller: A Chief and Her People, chronicle Oklahoma and the West better than anyone I know. An emerging writer to watch is Benjamin Lytal, whose first novel A Map of Tulsa was published in 2013 to terrific notices in the New York Times and elsewhere.

Is there a place here you return to often?

The area south of downtown called Maple Ridge where I lived when I first moved to Tulsa in the 1970s. A genteel, tree-shrouded area of oil-built mansions and Craftsman-style older homes, this is where the rising class lived in the city’s early days, one of her first neighborhoods, and like the city herself, a place that has cycled through good and bad times. I’ve set characters’ homes here, launched books here, walked her streets for hours, attended my sister’s wedding at Harwelden Mansion, and incidentally picked up my first ever publication there—a story in Nimrod International Journal of Poetry and Prose, whose offices were, in 1989, located there.

Is there an iconic literary place we should know?

I would have to say the Greenwood District north of downtown, where the Tulsa Race Riot took place. Probably more has been written about that event than any other in Tulsa’s history, and so more works, both fiction and nonfiction, have been set there. Known as Black Wall Street for its wealth and entrepreneurial spirit, the area was a prosperous, highly segregated district before the 1921 riot. Against terrible odds and much opposition from the white city fathers, the black community rebuilt from the ashes, and Greenwood became known as a hotbed for blues and jazz—it’s where Count Basie first heard big-band jazz—and thrived economically and culturally until the urban renewal movement of the 1970s. Today the Greenwood Cultural Center exhibits photographs from before, during, and after the riot, showing the devastation and renewal, and the powerful history of the place.

Are there hidden cities within this city that have intrigued or seduced you?

When I go with my sister to pick up her granddaughter at her East Tulsa elementary school and see the parents waiting outside for their children I’m astonished at the diversity: Mexican, Guatemalan, Nicaraguan, East Indian, American Indian, Anglo, African American, Middle Eastern . . . I could be at a grade school in Brooklyn, one of the most diverse places on the planet, where I lived for years. The face Tulsa presents to the world is still predominantly white, but there are hidden cities laced through her neighborhoods, which, like all of America, gather parts of the whole world in close juxtaposition.

I’m also—well, I don’t know if seduced is the right word, but certainly acutely aware of—the “hidden” city of North Tulsa. This is the traditionally black district stretching from Greenwood many miles north, an area of historical importance that is certainly not hidden to the residents who live there but is largely ignored, or even worked against, by the city of Tulsa itself. When I was a girl growing up in a small town north of Tulsa, racial segregation was still powerfully enforced, both socially and legislatively. We drove through North Tulsa on our way to events downtown, and I looked at the streets then with a kind of simultaneous fascination and fear. Later, reading James Baldwin, where he speaks of African American life in those segregated decades as a “suffering, dancing country” that white Americans look to with secret longing, I understood his meaning on a soul level very well.

Where does passion live here?

Oh, definitely downtown. Like a lot of American cities, Tulsa nearly lost her downtown life to exurbia in the latter decades of the twentieth century. In recent years downtown Tulsa has seen a resurgence that’s astonishing in its vitality and beauty. The Blue Dome, Brady, and Pearl arts districts ring the downtown area like a necklace: galleries, restaurants, smaller nightclubs and larger traditional venues such as the Tulsa Performing Arts Center, Cain’s Ballroom, and the Bok Center feature innovative art, theatre, and a rich brew of homegrown musicians and nationally recognized performers. The crown jewel is Guthrie Green, just across the street from the Woody Guthrie Center, where everything from a First Friday Arts Crawl to Zumba in the Park to a farmers’ market to jazz and folk and food festivals take place.

Passion also lives in the written word here. The Oklahoma Center for Poets and Writers brings such renowned writers as Edward Albee, Khaled Hosseini, Margaret Atwood, Amy Tan, and Rita Dove to Tulsa for readings and public conversation. Booksmart Tulsa offers topnotch literary events at oil mansions and art galleries for writers like Chuck Palahniuk, T.C. Boyle, and David Sedaris, making Tulsa a leading book tour destination. The Tulsa Library Trust bestows the annual Peggy V. Helmerich Distinguished Author Award to internationally acclaimed authors like Kazuo Ishiguro, Ian McEwan, Wendell Berry, and Joyce Carol Oates. These events all take place downtown and are so well-attended that there’s standing room only by the time all the enthusiastic Tulsa readers squeeze in the door. This is in addition to many, many local poetry readings and open mics and the incomparable This Land Press, a unique multimedia journalism endeavor headquartered in Tulsa which boasts both a print and online magazine, radio, television, and video production, and way cool public events. Passion for all things literary lives strong in Tulsa.

What is the title of one of your works about Tulsa and what inspired it exactly?

My novel Fire in Beulah is about the Tulsa Race Riot. What inspired it is not only the horrific nature of the violence but the decades-long silence surrounding it afterwards. I grew up not far from Tulsa and never in all my young years heard a whisper about this past. The novel examines the juxtaposition, conflict, and interdependence of blacks, whites, and Indians, and the great 1920s oil boom. A mixed-blood woman, Iola Tiger, who is part Muscogee/Creek Indian and part black, serves as chorus and conscience; she tells how the madness of oil fever came near to destroying not only the people caught up in its recklessness but also the land itself. Iola is the descendent of the slaves of Indians who came to Oklahoma on the Trail of Tears and also of the Indians themselves—a blending that is quintessentially Oklahoman.

Inspired by Levi, “Outside Tulsa does an outside exist?”

Well, that’s the thing. Outside Tulsa—surrounding it, encircling it, defining it, whether Tulsa feels a part of it or not—Oklahoma exists. Like Tulsa, the former Indian Territory is a place of paradox and self-contradiction: harsh and beautiful, generous and violent, a landscape of mountains and plains, exquisite skies and killer winds, and lovely, deceptive, quicksand rivers. A state so young that we’re hardly a generation removed from our forbearers—pioneers and enslaved people and American Indians, oil barons and entrepreneurs, immigrants and educators, farmers and cowboys and bootleggers and outlaws . . . Our story is a microcosm of the larger American story, intensified and foreshortened, unfolding in a matter of days and weeks and months, rather than decades, beginning with America’s most massive, government-administrated program of ethnic cleansing, the Trail of Tears. In the 1830s, Cherokees, Choctaws, Chickasaws, Creeks, and Seminoles were force marched from their homelands in the American South here to Indian Territory. There was much suffering, starvation, and freezing cold on the journey, and many thousands died along the way. The Cherokees alone lost more than a quarter of their people. That’s a powerfully sorrowful way to begin the story of a place.


Rilla Askew is the author of four novels and a book of stories. She’s a PEN/Faulkner finalist, recipient of the American Book Award, Western Heritage Award, Oklahoma Book Award, and a 2009 Arts and Letters Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Her essays and short fiction have appeared in Tin House, World Literature Today, Nimrod, Transatlantica, and Prize Stories: The O. Henry Awards. Her latest novel is Kind of Kin, published by Ecco Press.

Published Sep 15, 2014   Copyright 2014 Nathalie Handal

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