The title of Tommy Orange’s stunning 2018 debut novel, “There There,” is a fragment of writer Gertrude Stein’s chronically misunderstood quote about her adopted hometown, Oakland.
Stein’s “There is no there there,” was a lament on the changing and disappearing landscape of her childhood community, not a commentary on the cultural desolation of the city.
Orange’s novel explores the disappearing landscape of Native American identity. His 12 characters have deep native heritage but live in the city where reading the highway is more practical than reading the flow of a river.
The word “pretendian” comes up in the novel. Also, Orange says “urban Indian” is a term used clumsily and far too often in a lot of grant writing.
Orange was a keynote speaker at the 15th annual San Miguel Writer’s Conference & Literary Festival in the somewhat constrained “an interview with” format. Even so, it was a most-dynamic conversation.
While Orange may have felt the need to explore his own heritage within the backdrop of one of the country’s most ethnically diverse cities, the success of his book is rapidly elevating him to the role of spokesman for Native America.
Like it or not, he is being turned to often for his insights and observations.
Even “the Native world has been surprisingly warm to my book,” he acknowledged. “Wanting novels to do the work of activism is tricky.” Orange knows Oakland and loves his community and is most comfortable writing about it.
But spokesman for Native America? That spotlight is clearly one he enters tentatively.
“Being in front of a lot of people is terrible,” he says with a shy smile. but he would hate it if he “were restricted to talking only about my craft.”
And for sure this night, he wasn’t.
Orange is a registered Cheyenne and Arapaho. His father was from Oklahoma and his caucasian mother was not.
“I love Oakland,” says Orange. Oakland doesn’t get written about much because the New York-based publishing world is narcissistic, “which is why you have 10 million books about New York City.”
“The block I grew up on had seven other kids my age. All were bi-racial, from lower-middle-class families.”
While Orange’s characters struggled with identity, he does not personally share that problem. “My father clearly looks native. It was always clear what we are. I am native and feel that to be true. There was no confusion.”
Clarity, yes, but not without conflict. Orange’s mother came from Evangelical Christian stock, his father of the Native church. “My parents fought constantly,” he says.
Orange started “There There” within weeks of finding out that he was going to be a father. “I started taking everything seriously,” he said. Up to that point, he was doing a lot of personal writing, mostly “experimental and unreadable.”
What’s next for Orange? “I’m following up in the most sell-out way possible, “ he says with a grin. “A sequel”
The rights have already been sold.
The writer Luis Alberto Urrea sometimes worries openly about being perceived as “the border guy” because he writes often and so well about Mexican-U.S. border culture and conflict. I wonder if Tommy Orange will someday be referred to as “the Native American guy.”
For now, he is philosophical. “I was born into a political situation,” says Orange. “I accept that is a part of my life.”
You can easily sense that Orange has much to address through his craft, without ever leaving the realm of Native America.
“We have a lot to learn from Native America,” he observes. There is the Western attitude that land is meant to hold dominion over, versus the Native view of people as caretakers.
Native Americans live in a world of “microaggressions” which Orange can recite in a rapid cascade that leaves him “somewhere between hopeful and feeling doomed.”
The appropriation of Native imagery for sports mascots is an example. The government oversight of blood-lines and certification of degrees of Indian blood. The bum-tag of alcoholism as a propensity somehow tied to genes or a “stupid enzyme theory.”
Observes Orange, alcohol is a cheap and readily available commodity to all people facing pain in life, all people under stress and low income.
The painful history runs deep, beyond microaggressions and into raw, horrific violence. The use of rubber bullets, dogs and ice water cannons against natives fighting for their environment at Standing Rock. The Sand Creek Massacre of 1864, in which the U.S. Army murdered as many as 500 Cheyenne and Arapaho, two-thirds being women and children
The frustration, pain, and anger in Orange is palpable. “A lot of people are in a rush to get to the healing state,” he says. “But they still haven’t reached the acknowledging state.”
“How does that get done?” somebody asks.
“I don’t know,” he says. “It is not up to Native Americans who have been marginalized and oppressed.”
And, “Indian is a word we get to use and anyone who is not, shouldn’t.”
The comments win applause and it makes you wish that Orange had been given an unfettered platform on which to address his own thoughts, rather than constrained by the interview format with nice-guy Canadian Hal Wake at the helm.
Tommy Orange unleashed. Now that is a sequel worth waiting for.