- Coming Home
University of Oklahoma Press
184 Pages; Print, $19.95
In the sense that all politics is local, all writing is regional. The argument ensues over which writing transcends the regional, like that of Faulkner or Wharton, or remains regional even if first-rate, like that of Sarah Orne Jewett or Bret Harte. Names from the past, true, but it takes time for these classifications to sort themselves out.
Rilla Askew, a novelist from Oklahoma, has a name and a voice that sound regional, and some critics have compared her to Faulkner. While that might be a stretch, her sixth book and first collection of essays, Most American, shows her conscious of her dilemma as a white woman writing of a multicultural society for both her home state and the whole country. In "Passing: The Writer's Skin and the Authentic Self," the third essay in Most American, Askew writes that she gradually awoke to the ironic truth that she is both the recipient of white privilege, "living inside the prism of whiteness," and the bearer of a consciousness shaped by the Indians with whom she grew up as part-Choctaw and part-Cherokee (according to family mythology) and the freed blacks who settled and prospered in Oklahoma only to suffer the brutal repression of racism culminating in the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921, the residue of which is still manifest today. Askew made this race "riot" (actually, "a race war [that] turned into a pogrom") the backdrop for her third novel, Fire in Beulah (2001).
Consequently for this native of Oklahoma, the four writers who mean most are Joy Harjo, a fellow Oklahoman of Indian extraction; Ralph Ellison, who also hails from Oklahoma and witnessed as a boy the aftermath of Tulsa 1921; James Baldwin, whose early essays helped Askew seek to comprehend the black experience in America; and Wendell Berry, the white Kentuckian whose deeply moral book The Hidden Wound (1970) gave Askew her subtitle, Notes from a Wounded Place, and her theme: "race is America's perpetual hidden wound."
Thus in one essay Askew spends time with Indian writers from Oklahoma and in another with black friends in Brooklyn; she becomes godmother to the daughter of her black Brooklyn friend Marlene. Whether among people of color or her white family members, she is always perceiving herself as different from or like the company she keeps. Eventually, she and her husband settle among whites in a Catskills cabin, only to return, for good, to Oklahoma after thirty-five years up north. This homecoming, in 2015, lets Askew measure how much her home state, its capital devastated by the nativist terror bombing of 1995, has grown up, but finds that "while the lines of separation between black and white and Indian have grown thinner, [End Page 19] they're still here. . . . The dominant [white] culture still dominates."
The truth of this assessment might be borne out in this NY Times headline of 17 May 2017: "White Tulsa Officer Is Acquitted in Fatal Shooting of Black Driver." But in regard to its greater valuation of white than black lives, Oklahoma proves no different from most other states. And in so many other characteristics that Askew in her opening essay, "Most American," claims for Oklahoma—that it's "distinctly American," a "microcosm" of the whole country, a place where citizens feel "the real world was 'out there,'" "an enigma"—she ignores that such views are shared by people in many other states. This is also true of her assertion that Oklahoma has some "mystery" supported by a sense of "self-contradiction," and she builds her book's argument on the idea that the trope "dichotomy" uniquely characterizes the state. Compare the contrasting views that skyscrapers in New York symbolize its ambition to reach for the stars and that they represent the overreach of materialism. Such contrasts are commonplace in every state, and Askew's efforts to make them uniquely Oklahoman sometimes make her sound like a Sooner Rotarian. Thus I'd recommend leaving the first chapter to the end of...