How Rilla Askew Bends Genres and Tornadoes

Rilla Askew Picture - ChelseaThere are some authors who are committed to only one genre, meaning that they live and breathe that genre and any other type of literature is beautiful to read but too scary to write. I assure you that Rilla Askew is not one of them. Raised in northeastern Oklahoma, Rilla draws on the rural setting she was surrounded by in her childhood, as well as her birthplace, the San Bois Mountains; even though she didn’t spend much time there. The essay that blossomed my love for her work, The Tornado that Hit Boggy, is cemented in not only her roots, but also the people and town that collectively raised her. The essay describes the tornado that hit Boggy, Oklahoma and her family. Rilla wasn’t born at that time but the stories she’d been told by family members were engraved in her brain, like the devastated path the tornado left behind as it danced up the mountain to get to their small town. She tells of her aunt who survived but was left with scars and emotional trauma that was evident in her reaction to a dark sky (“Oooooh, I’m scared of storms”) no matter if a storm was forecasted or not. Yet, even Rilla knew that her recount of the tragedy was only possible because of people like her Aunt Sissy and Eula, exemplified in a line from the essay featured in the TriQuarterly, “From her I learned that it’s sensory details that paint the picture, and also that one needn’t be present to bear witness—it’s enough to have heard the story told vividly from the living witness’s mouth.”

Rilla Askew’s mastery doesn’t stop at personal essays. Her proficiency also transcends into the world of fiction, which can be seen in her plethora of recognitions like the American Book Award and The O. Henry Awards. One of her books, Harpsong, is an example of how she can take real events and integrate fictional characters that seem so real to the reader. The atypical love story follows two homeless people in love. Harlan, a harmonica player and Sharon, his fourteen-year-old wife, force their way across the Great Plains in the Great Depression-era. The novel is nothing short of unexpected, but exactly what you’d want and expect from a writer as complex and impressive as Rilla Askew. I’ve always had trouble writing stories that take place in Florida, where I was born and raised, but she makes it appear to be effortless yet interesting.

It’s been said that there is an element of fiction hidden in all truth and an element of truth in all fiction. This is no different than scraping the build-up of grime that sticks to a dirty pan. It takes getting beneath each layer to get to the bottom, to get to the truth, or maybe to get to just another story. I never really understood what that meant until I came into contact with Rilla Askew and her personal essays and works of fiction. I’m so excited to meet her at Douglas Anderson’s Writer’s Festival this year. In the aforementioned essay she says, “I’ve tried writing it in fiction, but the story won’t bend for me. The details are too fixed, the story at once too confined and too large… Writing fiction, I can intuit how many details are just enough. I can change them. But when the story is true, I can’t seem to find which of the complications to leave out.” I’ve learned that some truths are ours to turn into stories for others, but some truths need to just be told and shared as the truth.

-Chelsea Ashley, Junior Website Editor