Rilla Askew was laying the groundwork for the follow-up to her acclaimed novel “Harpsong” when House Bill 1804, Oklahoma's anti-illegal immigration law, took effect on Nov. 1, 2007. She soon discovered that, whether she wanted it or not, her mind had turned a page. A new and different story needed to be told.
“And then I woke up one morning with a voice talking in my head,” said Askew, who will sign copies and read from her new novel, “Kind of Kin,” at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday at Full Circle Bookstore.
That voice belonged to 10-year-old Dustin, one of the lead characters in “Kind of Kin,” a novel about one southeast Oklahoma family's intensely personal relationship with a piece of sweeping legislation. But “Kind of Kin” is not about HB 1804. Askew said she did not want to saddle the story with the specifics of real politics and its players, and ultimately, “Kind of Kin” is about fictional people experiencing the fallout from a hot-button law.
“I didn't set out, from my own perspective, to write a novel about it — I had no intention of writing a novel about the law,” Askew said. “I was concerned on a personal level, always paying a great deal attention to who we are as Oklahomans and what we do as Oklahomans. And, consequently, what our laws are: how we present ourselves to the nation and to ourselves.”
In the book, Robert John Brown is arrested for harboring migrant workers shortly after passage of fictional HB 1830, and state Rep. Monica Moorehouse is pushing a new bill that would allow for the confiscation of property owned by people like Bob Brown who are arrested under provisions of that freshly enacted law. The churchgoing grandfather is hardly the picture of criminality, and his incarceration becomes a case study in modern civil disobedience with an eye toward Christian good will and charity.
The situation is further complicated by the disappearance of young Dustin after his grandfather's incarceration; the plight of Dustin's half-sister, Misty Dawn, who is married to an illegal worker who was caught up in the sweep of Bob Brown's property; and the many spiraling problems of Sweet Kirkendall, Bob's daughter, who is trying to hold the family together as the new law impacts them on multiple fronts.
“I think the challenge for any novelist who has passions about particular issues is to write a novel that is not a polemic and does not become issue-driven and have a short shelf life because of it,” Askew said. “The reason we write novels and tell stories is character. It is about character and story, and that's really all the reader cares about. I do think it is a challenge — always — to not let the theme dominate the book and destroy the novel.
“In this case, the characters had such dimension to me that once I tuned into them, it didn't present too much of a problem,” she said.
Focus on Oklahoma, detail
Askew, who splits her time between Oklahoma and New York and recently completed a semester as an artist-in-residence at the University of Central Oklahoma, frequently incorporates Oklahoma's history into her fiction. Her 2001 novel “Fire in Beulah” was set during the Tulsa race riots, and “Harpsong” depicted the plight of people who stayed behind when thousands moved westward during the Dust Bowl era.
For “Kind of Kin,” Askew set most of the novel in the area around Wilburton, specifically in the fictional small town of Cedar. Some action is based on real events that touched her own family, and the residents of Cedar — the Brown family, the church parishioners and the people of different ethnicities and backgrounds at the center of the novel — are based generally on people Askew said she has known throughout her life.
“I know people whose lives are like that,” she said. “The story is set in a fictional small town in southeast Oklahoma, but visually it's the small town that my parents live in — you know, in my mind. Wilburton is real, and how people visit prisoners there standing around a fence is real.”
Askew, a three-time recipient of the Oklahoma Book Award who received a 2009 award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters and has been nominated for the PEN/Faulkner Award, said she researched extensively at the state Capitol, working with people such as former Rep. Randy Terrill, R-Moore, who introduced HB 1804. “Kind of Kin” includes accurate depictions of real Oklahoma locations, media and businesses. The author said that such details will mean something to Oklahomans and will help create a rich depiction of the state for readers unfamiliar with the culture and place names.
“I think when something is authentic, the reader perceives that authenticity, even if they know nothing about it,” Askew said.
“What matters to me as a writer is I'm always writing to Oklahoma. Our purpose is to write with as much authenticity as possible. The specific is the universal. The more specific it is and the more authentic it is, people who are not familiar with our place and culture will believe it,” she said.