By Tommy Orange
The prologue of Tommy Orange’s novel, THERE THERE, is a dizzying, kaleidoscopic vision of how Native Americans are represented in mainstream American culture.
From the Indian Head test pattern that was broadcast on TV until the late 1970s, which looks like an Indian viewed through the sights of a riflescope, to the first Thanksgiving feast in 1621 through repeated massacres, co-options, cultural appropriations and misrepresentations, Orange makes the vivid point that Native Americans — not just white ones — are influenced by these images.
As he puts it, “We’ve been defined by everyone else and continue to be slandered despite easy-to-look-up-on-the-internet facts about the realities of our histories and current state as a people . . . We have all the logos and mascots. The copy of a copy of the image of an Indian in a textbook.”
Orange’s focus is on Native Americans living in the city. Ironically, while it was supposed to assimilate and absorb them, it provided an opportunity to come together and reclaim cultures that were disappearing.
“We didn’t get lost amid the sprawl of tall buildings, the stream of anonymous masses, the ceaseless din of traffic. We found one another, started up Indian Centers, brought out our families and powwows, our dances, our songs, our beadwork . . . We know the sound of the freeway better than we do rivers, the howl of distant trains better than wolf howls, we know the smell of gas and freshly wet concrete and burned rubber better than we do the smell of cedar or sage or even fry bread — which isn’t traditional, like reservations aren’t traditional, but nothing is original, everything comes from something that came before, which was once nothing.”
Orange tells his complex and nuanced story through a dozen characters, each the focus of a different chapter. In some cases, the characters know each other, like the half-sisters Opal Viola Victoria Bear Shield and Jacquie Red Feather; in others, they are complete strangers like Tony Loneman, 21, who was born with fetal alcohol syndrome. Some are searching for each other like Edwin Black, who has never met his Native American father Harvey.
The one thing that they have in common is the upcoming Big Oakland Powwow. Their stories intersect and tangle in the final chapter of the book.
One character, Dene Oxendene, who is at the powwow using his dead uncle’s movie camera to create oral histories, introduces the quote that forms the title of this book. He’s sitting in a reception area waiting for his interview with a committee giving grants. He hopes to win one to fund his oral history project.
A young white man, also applying for a grant, starts a conversation in which he describes Oxendene’s birthplace (Oakland) as cheap and having “no there there,” according to poet Gertrude Stein. Oxendene knows better, although he keeps his feelings tamped down. He’s read the quote in context in Stein’s EVERYBODY’S AUTOBIOGRAPHY.
Stein grew up in Oakland, but when she returned years later there had been so much development “that the there of of her childhood, the there there, was gone, there was no there there anymore.” For Oxendene that mirrors what happened to native people in America: “it’s been developed over, buried ancestral land, glass and concrete and wire and steel, unreturnable covered memory. There is no there there.”
There is no happy ending to this book, but neither is it dark and hopeless. Living with great losses and tragedies — some self-inflicted — the characters in this book are doing their best. Some are following predictable, unexamined destinies. Others are facing opportunities and choices to allow them to build a new there there.
Orange is a talented writer addressing complex issues without losing touch with his varied characters or putting up barriers to his readers.
THERE THERE was published 2018 and selected as one of The New York Times Book Review’s 10 Best Books of the year.
About the Author: Tommy Orange (1982 – )
An enrolled member of the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes of Oklahoma, Tommy Orange was born and raised in the Dimond district of Oakland, CA.
He was a national level roller hockey player in his teens and early 20s. After earning a bachelor’s degree in audio engineering, he started working at Gray Wolf Books. There, he learned to love reading and in turn started writing.
He holds a masters in fine arts degree from the Institute of American Indian Arts
THERE, THERE was a finalist for the 2019 Pulitzer Prize and received the 2019 American Book Award. Orange received the PEN/Hemingway Award dedicated to first time authors of full-length fiction books.
His inspiration for this book came while working in a digital storytelling booth at the Native American Health Center at Fruitvale and International, and at a nonprofit called Story Center in Berkeley. He realized that the stories of urban Native Americans needed to be heard especially by other urban Native Americans so they would be able “to see their own stories reflected in a bigger way.”
Orange has said that in many ways this book for for and about his dad, whom he described in an episode of The Archive Project at the 2019 Sun Valley Writers’ Conference as someone “very secure in their Indianness and doesn’t necessarily teach it to their kids.”
He lives in Angels Camp, CA, with his wife Kateri and son Felix.