Oklahoma novelist Rilla Askew to debut new novel 'Kind of Kin' at Harwelden
BY JAMES D. WATTS JR. World Scene Writer
Sunday, January 06, 2013
1/06/13 at 3:55 AM
When the voices start talking, Rilla Askew can only follow along where they lead.
Askew's newest novel, "Kind of Kin" (Ecco, $25.99), began when she woke up one morning with the sound of the novel's first line echoing in her mind.
"I really didn't have a plan to write this book," Askew said. "It just sort of happened. One day in February 2008, I heard this boy's voice saying, 'Your grandpa is a felon. A felon and a Christian.' "
That voice - belonging to a 10-year-old boy named Dustin - soon was joined by a half-dozen or so other voices, ranging from an opportunistic state legislator to a Mexican man searching for his missing daughter, that tell the story of "Kind of Kin."
The crime of which Dustin's grandfather, an Oklahoma farmer named Robert Brown, has been accused is providing shelter to a group of illegal immigrants - something that a recent Oklahoma law has deemed a felony.
Robert Brown's religious convictions and his sense of justice fuel his actions, but those actions create a myriad of repercussions. His daughter is having trouble enough keeping her family and her sanity together in the glare of media attention. Dustin runs away, meeting up with Luis, who by sheerest luck managed to escape the raid that rounded up his fellow Mexicans along with Robert Brown.
Even Rep. Moorehouse, who moved to Oklahoma only to advance her efforts to national politics, is realizing that her "Oklahoma Tax Payers Protection Act" may destroy much more than it might ever have protected.
"Kind of Kin" is the first novel Askew has written with a contemporary setting - the action of the novel covers three and a half weeks in early 2008 - yet it continues the same theme that underlies her previous award-winning novels, "The Mercy Seat," "Fire in Beulah" and "Harpsong."
"Everything I write comes out of my deep concern with Oklahoma and who we are as Oklahomans," said Askew, whose family settled in what is now Oklahoma in the late 1800s. "And it's hard for us to remember now, in light of the laws that were later passed in Arizona and Alabama, but House Bill 1804 (which in its original form was very similar to the law in "Kind of Kin") got a lot of national attention and was seen by some as extreme.
"For me," Askew said, "it just seemed like an anomaly. I'm sure the intention of the law was to halt drugs and sex trafficking. But the reality is, our whole immigration system is so broken that it ended up targeting average working people. A woman driving her non-documented husband to the job he's held for years could be arrested for transporting an illegal immigrant."
Askew stressed that none of the public figures in her novel - Rep. Moorehouse, the publicity-seeking country sheriff and the like - are based on real people.
"I deliberately made sure that Monica Moorehouse was a carpetbagger," she said, laughing. "I didn't want anyone to think this was personal. I wanted to focus on the controversy and the consequences of a law such as this."
How the consequences of such a law might affect all families - whether legal citizens or undocumented immigrants, Latino or Anglo - formed the backbone of Askew's novel.
That, and the voices. Originally Askew thought that the entire novel would be told in the first person by Dustin, so that the tangle of personal and political relationships would be seen to that character's mix of innocence and surprising wisdom.
"But I didn't expect Dustin's aunt, Sweet, to become such a dominant character," Askew said. "Again, it wasn't something I really planned; it was more like an act of surrender. I always have this feeling that a book is already out there in the ether - you just have to tune in to it. Of course, that still means I had to do a lot of work writing and revising and revising again. But the characters really told me how to tell this story."
One very important aspect of the story is the religious faith of the characters and the importance of that faith in their daily lives.
"There are a lot of knee-jerk reactions that people have when they hear the word 'Christian'," Askew said. "And that was one thing I wanted to explore in this novel, because my experience with people of faith in Oklahoma is that they are some of the best and most decent people I've ever met.
"When it comes to the concept of 'love thy neighbor as thyself,' these people do just that," she said. "Regardless of politics, these people work to do right by their fellow men. They may not wear their heart on their sleeves - they're more like Sweet, who talks to God all the time in her own way."
Oklahoma novelist Rilla Askew will debut her new novel, "Kind of Kin," with an event at 7 p.m. Tuesday at Harwelden, 2210 S. Main St.
The evening, sponsored by BookSmart Tulsa, will feature Askew reading from her book, as well as a panel discussion on some of the themes of the story, by Oklahoma State Rep. Jeannie McDaniel; Sara Martinez, coordinator of the Hispanic Resource Center at Martin Regional Library; and the Rev. April Coates, pastor of the First United Methodist Church in Wilburton.
Original Print Headline: Beyond borders
James D. Watts Jr. 918-581-8478