A respected novelist muses on the tortured nature of her relationship to the state where she was born and raised.
Askew (Creative Writing/Univ. of Oklahoma; Kind of Kin, 2013, etc.) often thought of Oklahoma as “a black hole…a literal and figurative no-man’s land” that she escaped by going to New York and teaching. But as she grew older, the author found that her greatest wish was to go home. In this collection of nine essays, Askew considers her life in relation to the question of what it means to be Oklahoman and American. For most, to be an Oklahoman means to come from a vaguely anonymous place located “somewhere in the middle of the country.” Yet for Askew, Oklahoma is more like “the underbelly, the very gut of the nation” that Americans would prefer to forget. It has been the site of many historic tragedies, including the 1838 Cherokee Trail of Tears, the 1921 Tulsa race riots, and the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, which happened not long after Askew began feeling the pull to return. Realizing that her background kept racism and other dark secrets at bay, the author speaks frankly about growing up with “all the privileges and presumptions of whiteness.” At the same time, she discusses the ways in which her adult experiences, both in New York and Oklahoma, forced her to face what her upbringing had left unspoken. In “Passing,” for example, Askew addresses the question of a “nebulous heritage” that may have erased her Cherokee ancestry, while in “A Wounded Place,” she discusses how she learned about being black and male after becoming the godmother of a black boy. Honest and searching, Askew’s book deftly interweaves a personal narrative about belonging with a larger cultural one. The author also offers hope that “the worst sins” of who we are as Americans can be balanced by “the best of what’s worst and best in us.”
An eloquently thoughtful memoir in essays.