Native in the city
During one of several research forays for his brilliant first novel depicting contemporary experiences of urban Native Americans, Tommy Orange discovered Gertrude Stein’s famously misunderstood quote about Oakland, California: “There is no there there.”
Why was that important?
“She was talking about how the place where she had grown up—Oakland—had changed so much that it was no longer recognizable,” says Orange during a call to his home in Angels Camp, California, not far from Yosemite Valley. Orange, a member of the Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes, was born and raised in Oakland. “I didn’t immediately know this was going to be the title. But there was so much resonance for Native people—what this country is now compared to what it was for our ancestors. The parallels just jumped out at me.”
Set in Oakland, There There follows the intersecting lives of 12 contemporary Native Americans as they prepare for the Big Oakland Powwow. Some, like young Orvil Red Feather, want to connect with Native traditions. He discovers Indian dance regalia hidden away in the closet of his aunt, Opal Viola Victoria Bear Shield, a mail carrier who as a child was part of the Native occupation of Alcatraz Island, but who now “wants nothing to do with anything Indian.” Orvil has taught himself to dance by watching videos on YouTube.
Octavio Gomez, an alienated young Native American, sees the powwow as an opportunity to rob businesses to pay off drug debts. He is close with his uncle Sixto, who at one point tells him, “We got bad blood in us. . . . Some of these wounds get passed down.”
And then there is Dene Oxendene, the character who is perhaps closest in experience to Orange himself. A graffiti artist of mixed heritage, Dene tremulously applies for—and receives—a grant to collect the oral histories of Oakland’s Native people. “I actually got a cultural arts grant from the city of Oakland to do a storytelling project that never existed but for the fictional version in this novel,” Orange admits, laughing.
Orange, who is now 36 and a recent graduate of the Institute of American Indian Arts’ MFA program, did not grow up reading fiction or wanting to be a writer. He played indoor roller hockey until the sport died out, and he has a degree in sound engineering. “There weren’t many job prospects,” he says. “People with stars in their eyes who wanted to end up in big studios had to be willing to fetch coffee and clean toilets, so we were told.”
So Orange got a job at a used bookstore. “At the time, I was reading to find meaning,” he says. “I was raised religiously, Christian evangelical. My dad was into the Native American Church, which is the peyote church. Both of my parents were intensely into God. But none of that was for me. I was reading to figure out what it all did mean to me. I found fiction first through Borges and Kafka. I was actually eating a doughnut on a break, reading A Confederacy of Dunces, when I realized what a novel could do. In that singular moment, I became obsessed. Once I knew what a novel could do, I wanted to do it.”
Orange first imagined There There around the time he and his wife, a psychotherapist whom he met when they were both working at Oakland’s Native American Health Center, conceived their now-7-year-old son.
“I was driving down to LA with my wife, and it just popped into my head all at once,” Orange says. “I knew I wanted to write a polyphonic novel and have all the characters converge at a shooting at an Oakland powwow. Growing up in Oakland, [I saw] that there were no Native-people-living-in-the-city-type novels. They were all reservation-based. That made me feel isolated. If I was reading about Native experience, it had nothing to do with my experience. So my idea was to have a mix of the contemporary with the traditional, an urban feel, with echoes of violence and the continuation of violence in Native communities.”
“I wanted to find a way to portray the way Natives experience history.”
One of the animating questions for all the novel’s characters is what being Native American means today. Orvil, for example, alienated from his heritage, anxiously Googles, “What does it mean to be a real Indian?”
“For a long time,” Orange says, “a real Indian meant someone who does not exist anymore. We’re going through a period right now as a people, wondering—because there are 575 recognized tribes, each with its own language and way of thinking—are we doing harm against Indian identity by talking about us as one people? But at the same time, we’re probably more alike than we are different.”
Which is why the idea of powwows is so symbolic for Orange. He didn’t grow up going to powwows. But later in life, he was on the Oakland powwow committee. “The reason it works so well for Native people living in the city is that it is intertribal. All these tribes come together to do one thing together. It’s a marketplace, but it’s also where we see each other as Native people. It’s an intensely visible, communal space, with people coming together, dancing and singing the old ways.”
Orange says it was very important for There There, a novel with many characters and voices, to be a readable book. “It’s an elusive thing,” he says. “Native people, I think, have a skeptical view of history, the way it’s taught and the way it’s understood by the average American. There’s a certain burden to inform correctly. I wanted to find a way to portray the way Natives experience history. And I wanted to find a way to do it in a compelling and, again, readable way.”
In There There, Orange has succeeded in doing just that. It’s a compelling read, a stunning tour de force and a display of Orange’s impressive virtuosity.
This article was originally published in the June 2018 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.
Author photo by Elena Seibert.