Chinua Achebe says that the English language, when altered, can be used to bear the burden of his African experience. I extrapolate from that and try to put it into painting.
Njideka Akunyili Crosby
New York Live Arts presents
Rilla Askew’s novel, The Mercy Seat, takes place in the late 19th century and follows the Lodi family on a hellish flight from their home in Kentucky to resettlement in what was then Indian Territory, land ceded to the Choctaw by the federal government, and which later became Oklahoma. Askew grew up in a small town in the mountains of Oklahoma and her family’s stories, passed down over the generations, and the area’s history are the genesis for a startling novel of pioneer life. The Mercy Seat is woven with such detail and adept conjuring that the fiction, its dangerous past and volatile characters, become tangible. Askew opens with the voice of a young Southern girl, Mattie. What happens to Mattie, the other voices which join hers, her family, and the early Oklahomans is part of our history. And what Askew makes clear, in this drama of resettlement and identity, is that the forces that drive Mattie forward, toward what seems an inexorable and violent fate, are still part of our present. We talked over the phone in mid-summer, Rilla looking out over the Oklahoma hills and me at a New York loft building across the street from my studio.
Betsy Sussler Reading through your autobiographical notes I noticed that you were an actress before you were a writer. How do you think acting affected your writing?
Rilla Askew I’ve wondered about that, and I’m not sure that I fully understand it. Except for the fact that I think I was always a writer, and for a time I found an outlet in theater because I needed community so much. I didn’t have the discipline to be alone. And I didn’t have language yet, I didn’t have life experience, but I had that need to create and to embody characters. If my primary need had been to physically embody the character, I’d still be acting. But my primary need was to understand the character from the inside. That’s the real correlation, because what you do when you’re understanding a character from the inside as an actor has a strong similarity to what one does in creating the character from the inside in writing. That may be why my characters are very internal. Frequently, we know what’s going on inside them more profoundly than we know what’s going on outside them.
BS The chapters in The Mercy Seat are scenic. I was so in each scene that there was no past, no future; its presence was profound. You started the book in the first person, from the young girl Mattie’s point of view. Was her voice something that you came to right away, and then in the course of writing the novel, found that you needed other voices, other internalizations to complete it?
RA That’s almost exactly what happened. The book began with how my family came into Indian Territory, before the story moved into the feud between the brothers. What I was trying to get at was what it felt like to be leaving in the middle of a life, to flee in the middle of the night, to leave all of your possessions, your community behind. To leave a whole life behind knowing that you would never return, and how strong that was for the mother. Mattie’s voice came very easily to me, her voice is still inside me. She’s just real, real powerful.
BS To Mattie, who is still a child, it’s partly an adventure. To her mother it’s a tragedy. Her mother dies on the journey. I don’t want to use the word “stunted” in referring to Mattie, but somehow it seems appropriate. Here’s a child who is so astute and feels responsible for her family’s well-being, and takes on that responsibility. The crises that ensue from the journey, and the family’s dislocation, seem to have stunted her in some way. Perhaps because of her age, she really doesn’t have the knowledge to take care. And yet she cannot move from that position…
RA That’s certainly part of it. She speaks about being trapped within the Lodi family, locked into it and unable to escape from it. But there’s also the parallel spiritual journey, there’s something that she refuses. And in her refusal, I think, is where the real loss takes place.
BS Why the other voices?
RA Mattie could have told the whole book. She could have continued telling the story, but she wouldn’t have been able to get the distance needed to understand the overall scope of it. The book had to have other voices, and I had to be able to move into the third person. That omniscient narrator had to tell what Mattie could not understand.
BS Yes, because in the end she is just a child. You grew up in Oklahoma, how many generations of your family are from there?
BS So you grew up with the stories embedded in The Mercy Seat.
RA My great-grandmother dying in Arkansas on the journey to Oklahoma is the story I grew up with. The violence, the feud between the brothers is not part of my family story. It’s not what I grew up with in a direct sense, but in an oblique sense,in that the little town in Oklahoma that my family comes from has a profound legacy of violence, murders and shoot-outs. And it’s the legacy of Indian Territory, which is such a violent legacy in any case.
BS The feud between the two brothers and their relationship seemed to motivate the move West. It informed the story’s plot line, and yet, it’s not the raison d’etre for the story. Everyone says they’re looking for the Maltese Falcon in The Maltese Falcon, but it’s just an armature for the search. That searching is the real story. Your family did leave Kentucky under mysterious circumstances. Those stories were handed down and re-interpreted as a part of your life and your family’s history, but similar stories are also part of Oklahoma’s history. There was a fusion between the two in The Mercy Seat that seemed to be historically accurate.
RA That’s entirely true. Most of the white people who came to this particular section of Oklahoma migrated from the Deep South—it’s called “Little Dixie” it’s so Southern. Part of my family came from Kentucky, but the majority of my family came from Mississippi. So there is a certain legacy in terms of language and attitudes—some of them simply came because of the land opportunity, but a common story was that people came because they had to leave.
BS The Indians too, the Choctaw, were originally from Mississippi and were forced by the U.S. government to resettle in Oklahoma, what was then known as Indian Territory. What particularly fascinated me was how you handle racism in this book. The scene where the black woman is trying to help save Mattie’s baby sister by nursing her, but Mattie’s so inbred with racism that she can’t see that, all she can see is her own fear. And so she sets a bear trap and seriously wounds the woman. Why did you decide to handle racism in such an overt fashion? It’s so politically incorrect these days to do so—ridiculous since it’s so necessary to see what we’ve done, what we’ve created.
RA That was a conscious choice—a forced choice on my part, in the sense that it’s very difficult to write. It’s a very sickening sensation to deal with. That was one of the hardest scenes. And it’s hard to read now, when I go back, it’s so uncomfortable. Doubly so because I know there are readers who are not able to separate the narrator from the author. I read it to a writing group that I was part of in upstate New York, and they kept saying, “But Mattie’s going to change, isn’t she? I mean, something good is going to come out of this…?” They were taken with Mattie and couldn’t bear what she did. But that was very much intentional. To go back and answer your question, I started out to write a novel about race. In fact, I wanted to write about a race riot that happened in Tulsa, Oklahoma in 1921, the Tulsa Race Riot. It was not, in fact, a riot. It was a pogrom, a race war.
BS The whites came into the black section of Tulsa and massacred…
RA Right, massacred the inhabitants and burned it to the ground. And the incident was completely hidden. For nearly fifty years, it was a secret. I grew up here, and I never heard of it. Until I read a biography of Richard Wright’s that mentioned a race riot in Tulsa in 1921. And I said, “What!!?” That was in the late 1980s—about that same time people from all over, including the people in Tulsa, began to pay attention. Since then there has been a burst of information, a real need to go back and look at that terrible wound on the part of both the African-American and the white population of Oklahoma. That’s the other story, but it’s the one I set out to write. I began with a white woman with racial attitudes in 1921, but I came to an impasse because I wanted to know where those racial attitudes came from, and where the attitudes that I was raised with came from. So I began to go back to see how these things were carried into Indian Territory, and when that happened, Mattie’s story and the Lodi family’s story took over. The book changed, everything changed. And with the understanding that our problems between races in this country—it’s been looked at so much—we know those old wounds. But the force of the violence is not only against an other, it is against brother as well. Look at Oklahoma City, at the bombing, that was us, our own turning against our own. The next book will probably go even further into an exploration of race; race is a big part of my subject matter. It matters to me a great deal, as an individual and as a writer. But I had to find something else first, before I could move into my attempts to explore it.
BS This brings us back to Mattie being stunted, her inability to mature emotionally or spiritually. Coming into Oklahoma, Mattie and her siblings contract scarlet fever, and her Aunt Jessie finds an “other” woman, this time an Indian woman, Thula, who in fact heals them. And who could save Mattie even further, that is spiritually, if she were able to accept that gift. And yet she can’t. In part, because of her racism, she turns away from Thula. But Mattie does have that experience in the forest, which Thula recognizes as being from the spirit world. What happens to Mattie in the forest?
RA She is being called. It’s a very established thing among native people that you’ll receive your song, that you will go out into the forest or the prairie, and the song will be given to you. There’s a particular anecdote in a book by Joseph Campbell. A woman in her sixties felt that she’d never lived the life that she was supposed to live, and she was incredibly depressed and suffering from a great spiritual ennui. Going back, she remembered a time when she was about thirteen and had heard a song when she was out in the forest. But she had no ritual or heritage to understand its meaning. And this is what happens to Mattie, that scene in the field of cedars is her moment of being called to receive the gift that she had been given in the first place, this union of psyches, if you will, for the sake of mercy, as she says at the very end. She was given these gifts, and out of her own will and whatever that incredible hurt was, she refused them.
BS Her whole past prevented her from making that jump. Your description of the journey from Kentucky to Oklahoma makes me understand how truly grueling the pioneer experience was. The whole life force was spent in maintaining life on the most primal level.
RA If she had not had this gift, she would have just been like her Aunt Jessie.
BS Jessie is the closest character in your novel to how we envision the pioneer.
RA Someone was saying that Jessie was their secret hero, because she’s the only one who has a chance of redemption, because she owns her part in it. But Jessie and Mattie, both with that impulse to hold the family together—those are the kind of women I come from. My great-grandmother—for whom I was named—my grandmother and her three sisters, my father, all of them, completely revered this woman. But I’ve heard stories told about her from people outside the family, and they say she was just a spitfire, a little wizened terror. So that’s part of where that portrait of Matt comes from, and it is part of what you’re speaking of, that difficulty, and what that grueling life did to the women.
BS That isolation is reflected in the structure of the novel. Different voices come in around the culmination of the feud, all from distinct points of view, all from within each person’s isolation. Which is quite extraordinary, because the reader begins to feel tied up. Like it’s impossible to change the thrust of what’s happening.
RA Yes, there is an inexorable relentlessness to the feel of the work, and to the writing of it as well, almost as if it had to be this way. And yet my belief is that Mattie did have a choice.
BS And yet, she was so fearless…
RA That’s part of what makes it painful.
BS That this has been lost to her. Yes, she could have taken such a different path if she had been open to Thula’s wisdom. The wisdom of the native peoples. Could you fill me in a bit on the history of the Oklahoma Territory?
RA In the 1830s, Congress passed laws to remove what they called the Five Civilized Tribes from their native homelands in the South. Those tribes were the Choctaw, Cherokee, Chickasaw, Seminole and Creek Nations. The U.S. government moved them throughout the 1830s. That’s the Trail of Tears that we always hear about, primarily in conjunction with the Cherokee, because they lost a quarter of their population on the march.
BS Was that the smallpox?
RA They moved them in the middle of the winter, they didn’t feed them—yes, it was disease, cholera, and cold and exposure, and lack of food. Genocide. The term Trail of Tears is associated with the Cherokee, but actually it was the Choctaw who first gave it that name: The Trail Where They Cried.
BS And this land, Oklahoma, was ceded to the Indians as their territory?
RA They moved them to this land nobody wanted, and it was called Indian Territory. And it was supposed to be theirs as long as the grass should grow and as long as the waters run. Well, that only lasted about 60 years.
BS Then they opened it up to…
RA To white settlement. First they divided it into two territories: the eastern part of which is the hills and the mountains, more of what we call “green country,” remained Indian Territory: they opened up the western plains with the land runs beginning in 1889. They shot a gun off and all of these people in their wagons went racing down to claim the land. That happened in Oklahoma Territory. But the division of the two territories only lasted about ten years, and then it all became Oklahoma Territory and it became the state of Oklahoma in 1907.
BS Under whose jurisdiction? At first it was under the Indians’ jurisdiction when it was Indian Territory, and then that switched over to white?
RA Yeah, “somehow” that happened. From the time of the Removals, Indian Territory was administrated by the federal government. But they were sovereign nations, and the land belonged to the tribes, particularly the Five Civilized Tribes, and then the federal government began to move Indians from all over the continent down to this Indian Territory. And they took pieces out of the Cherokee’s land, the Creek’s land, everybody’s land, to give to the other tribes who were moving in: the Iowa, the Sauk and Fox, the Potowatami. And then the final coup de grace, they divided the land into individual allotments. The Indians’ land had always been held in common, and whoever wanted to work the land—you worked whatever you could, there was no sense of ownership. There never was among native people, that was one of the reasons that they were used and abused so badly. The land was divided up for individual ownership among Indian people in the eastern part of what used to be Indian Territory, and then shortly after that, it was completely gone, out of their hands.
BS Once it transferred to individual ownership among the Indians, then it could easily be transferred to individual ownership by white people.
RA Exactly. And people would come in and say, “The Indian is incapable of handling his own business. I’ll handle his finances for him.” And then they would just take everything. It was horrible.
BS There was also a big thrust to Christianize the Indians, going back to your novel.
RA It’s subliminal within the novel. The Choctaw people were very heavily Christianized. To this day most of the Choctaw people I know are Baptist. As they embraced Christianity, many Choctaw preachers told the Choctaw people that they had to let go of the old ways. And they lost all of their songs, their traditional dances, in only about 30 years time.
BS But this is your character Thula’s dilemma, she doesn’t want to let go of the old songs, she wants to somehow amalgamate the two. Thula’s realization concerning the Holy Trinity is that it is missing one element. There are actually four creators, four directions. What is the fourth one that’s lost in Christianity?
RA Indian people that I’m particularly close to here talk of the spirit manifest in all things. And the sacred number among Indian people, the number of wholeness or completion is Four. The Fourth Part would include ancient entities who followed the Choctaw people here.
BS Who roam the earth?
RA Exactly. And that that is not necessarily Satan, or the devil, or…
BS Good or evil. It just is.
RA It just is. And in fact, it’s still true here. The knowledge of that spiritual realm still exists, but unfortunately it’s been distorted in some cases by the long history of oppression. There’s jealousy within the tribes, and some witchcraft, some negative use among them of these gifts.
BS Indian spirits haunt your entire book. In its beginning you talk about blood memory. It exists in the feud between the two brothers, in Thula’s struggle to save Mattie’s soul, in the way you use the cadences of the Bible. Do you read the Bible by the way?
RA I grew up with the Bible. I returned to looking at the Old Testament a lot when I was working on this, but I was steeped in it as a child. I was raised as a Southern Baptist, and I can still rattle off the names of the books of the Bible in order.
BS It’s a great piece of literature.
RA It’s incredible. I was raised with hellfire and damnation, but I was also raised with the richness of all those Biblical stories. Part of what informed the book has to do with the blood sacrifice. It stems from the nature and the power of blood. The blood had to be sprinkled on the Mercy Seat, the altar in the holy of holies, in the Ark of the Covenant. I was raised with that sense of Jesus’ blood. I went to a singing recently, which is something that they have around here, a gathering of different churches over these hills, multi-denominational, where they just sing all night. Over and over again the songs are, There’s power in the blood. Are you washed in the blood…
BS Sacrifice occurs throughout your book: Mattie’s mother dying of a broken heart, the strenuousness of the journey, the death of her infant sister, who Mattie believes was taken as the price for their brother’s life: the way her family lived to survive, the fact that her father would never again use his talents but worked as a laborer in somebody else’s smithy. I don’t believe that I have an understanding of ritual sacrifice. I’ve lost it.
RA It is so integral to almost all faiths and almost all people. The primacy of the individual has taken from us the ability to sacrifice for the sake of the whole, which is a native world view. That the people are what matters and not the individual. On the other level, the spiritual level, do I understand what it is? I have a faith and it’s not a traditional religious one, but a faith in the creative force which demands certain things, and I think sacrifice is part of it. And if we don’t come to it willingly, we will be forced to it. When we speak of the things that are so hard in our country now, the direct sense that many people fear where we’re heading… I mean, if the economy’s good, some people think everything is just peachy keen. But my sister, who teaches high school, one of her prize students just killed himself this week. For no reason that is available to anyone, nor could anyone see it coming. Those things are happening all over the country. So I think the sacrifice will be forced on us if we don’t find a new method of bringing it back into our lives. We don’t have ritual anymore. That’s the terrible thing that we took from native people, it’s also what we’ve lost among ourselves.
BS That’s essentially what happens to Mattie. She can’t find it because we’ve lost it, and there’s no one around her who can give it to her, who she can accept it from.
RA The same thing happens with Thula. She has the ritual of the Lord’s Supper, as we call communion in the Baptist Church, but the Choctaws have lost their native ritual, and so she’s not really able to help Mattie.
BS Because she doesn’t know how to find the song herself.
RA She has that moment where she hears the song behind the stable. She has that moment of union. There’s a sense that if Matt did choose to go with her, even as late as behind the stable after the killing, that together they would have found something.
BS I thought so too, that they needed each other to find it. Is the Mercy Seat in the Bible—the blood sacrifice that’s needed to be saved?
RA There was the burnt-offering and the sin-offering, and the blood-offering. The sacrificial blood offering was used for what they called the sin offering, the sins of the people were symbolized by the blood, and it was sprinkled on the Mercy Seat. So blood was offered for the sake of atonement. You couldn’t eat it, you couldn’t partake of it. And in Christian terms, Jesus was the last blood sacrifice. The old law was fulfilled in him, and no longer was the sacrifice of animals necessary.
BS Do you believe that? I mean, given all of the sacrifices since?
RA Well, I don’t have an answer for it, but that’s one of the things I’m exploring. Because obviously it was not the last sacrifice. I mean, we haven’t accepted it, the shedding of blood goes on and on.
BS About the brothers in your book, John and Fayette Lodi. They’re feuding and yet they’re inextricably attached to each other. They both had to flee Kentucky, but they didn’t have to flee together. They could have gone to separate places. Even though Fayette’s a thief and a blackguard, John cannot leave his side, and he drags his family along on this suicidal journey. What is the connection between the brothers?
RA That’s the truth as I understand it. It’s my own case with my own family. We don’t have that kind of violence between us, but the bond is that profound. The linkage between me and my sister, my parents, my father and his brother, it’s that deep. You know the old saying, blood is thicker than water. That’s what my dad wanted to title this book. You can never divorce your family.
BS You sent each chapter as you were writing this to your sister for her to read.
RA I could not have written the book if she didn’t receive it. That’s how big a part of her waiting to find out what happened next in the story was. But she didn’t give feedback, I made that clear. It wouldn’t have worked if she’d given me any response. We couldn’t talk about the book, it was a pact between us. So there was this mysterious secret, every day I would mail this to her.
BS But would she say, “I received it?”
RA Yeah, or she might say, “Very interesting.” One time she said, “Boy, I’m ready to get on with this story now…” Matt was walking around in circles. I said, “Well I am too, Ruth, I really am.”
BS You didn’t know what was going to happen in the end, or did you?
RA No, I didn’t.
BS It seemed that you were creating such a complete world in each scene that it was absolutely shocking once you left that scene to get to the next point.
RA Yes, that’s very much what happened. The book told itself to me, you know, many writers experience that, that’s not an uncommon thing.
BS No, I think it is the norm. You truly are listening to voices, and you truly do conjure things that are more real than what you find in research.
RA We’re the conduit in many ways for a story that wants to be told. Of course Cain and Abel’s an ancient, ancient story, but I didn’t know that’s what I was writing. I didn’t set out to do that. I only recognized it once it had been done. So the stories themselves are ancient but the manifestation of those characters… What do they say, there are five stories, how many stories are there supposedly?
BS I forget. There’s a limited number.
RA And I suspect that’s true.
BS And a limited number of endings. You live, you die. You love, you don’t. (laughter)
RA The characters, the land, the particular setting and era are what make it…
BS Distinct. But of course, The Mercy Seat is Cain and Abel told from the woman’s point of view.
RA Plus it has Abel killing Cain.
BS Yes, and then Cain’s son killing Abel.
RA The blood feud, and it’s been going on… In my opinion that’s a mythic story, the Biblical stories are origination stories, but the power is the truth of always. We’re still living it out.
BS You said that other people had thought your character, Jessie, who is married to Fayette, the Cain figure, was the great hope. Why, because she struggled with her conscience?
RA Yeah. She did not want to be generous, or take the children into her home, because her nature was smaller than that. Nevertheless she did take the children, much as she hated it. She’s praying, God, take them from me, I don’t want to be responsible for them. So, in that sense she’s definitely a fraud or an anti-hero, but the fact is that she does it anyway, against her will, out of a sense of responsibility and out of a sense of what’s the right thing to do. And the fact that at the very end, when she comes and finds her husband dead, and knows that she has been a part of that, that they’ve all been a part of it, she is the one who owns it. In an internal way she recognizes her part in it. I don’t think she changes, it’s not dramatic, she doesn’t go through a spiritual transformation.
BS But she doesn’t ask for her brother-in-law’s death in return for her husband’s death, because she knows they all participated. We never finished up the fact that you didn’t know how The Mercy Seat would end.
RA Book Three, plainchant, came out of an experience. I didn’t know what would happen when they crossed into I.T.
BS The book had been the journey, and once they arrived into Indian Territory…
RA A journey’s not a book, it has to go on from there. And I was extremely disturbed. I was in a place of fear and anxiety. I was up in New York at that time and I was coming back home for a visit with my family, and for several days I was so stirred up I would wake up in the middle of the night unable to find any kind of peace, and I didn’t know what it was about. And then there was a killing in Red Oak, a shoot-out on the street between two cousins. Now there had been that long legacy of violence in this little town, but I was there as witness to the voices telling and retelling that story of this shoot out over and over again. And that’s where the need for plainchant came from, the character of the town, or town as character, became absolutely a part of the book. So that even though there’s this sense of isolation and this primacy of family, there’s also the need for the town to acknowledge their story.
BS It’s the chorus chanting. You know, I have a firm belief that the land has its own stories and that if you listen really hard, you will hear them. People who are tied to more psychological things say you only impose that on the land. But the land holds stories in the same way that blood holds them.
RA Boy, you’re right on that one. There’s something that’s so powerful about a place where families have grown up generation after generation. You were speaking about gossip being so ancient, it’s generations old. And the stories about who these families are have been handed down. That killing between those cousins—their family is legendary, and their stories have become part of the history of the town.
BS Almost inescapable.
RA That’s right. Those cousins just lived out their legacy.
BS Boy, fate, huh? A novelist’s dream come true.
RA Well you know, there’s a lot more mystery than we’ll ever fully understand connected to the act of writing.
BS Yeah, it’s an act of faith.
RA It is. There you go. I’ve said that before. Writing is an act of faith, or writing is a spiritual act.
Betsy Sussler is a writer and Editor-in-Chief of BOMB. She has just completed editing, with Suzan Sherman and Rone Shavers, three volumes of the best of BOMB’s interviews: Speak Art!, Speak Fiction and Poetry!, and Speak Theater and Film!, to be published by Gordon and Breach, the first of which will be available this fall.
Chinua Achebe says that the English language, when altered, can be used to bear the burden of his African experience. I extrapolate from that and try to put it into painting.
Njideka Akunyili Crosby