Urban Indians feel at home walking in the shadow of a downtown building. We came to know the downtown Oakland skyline better than we did any sacred mountain range, the redwoods in the Oakland hills better than any other deep wild forest. We know the sound of the freeways better than we do rivers, the howl of the distant trains better than wolf howls, we know the smell of gas and freshly wet concreted and burned rubber better than to the smell of cedar of 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. Everything is new and doomed.There, There: Prologue
Tommy Orange read the prologue from his 2018 debut novel There, There in a deep, languid voice that brought out the lyrical quality of his book. The author and an enrolled member of the Cheyenne and Arapaho nations was the star of the Zoom webinar hosted by my school’s American Indian Studies Center last Thursday. I had the privilege to attend and listen to Orange discuss his novel and his goals as a writer. (One of the silver linings of going to school amidst COVID-19 is that my school can bring more quality speakers and host more events since there are no flight and accommodation costs).
The Urban Native
There, There is a work of fiction set in present day Oakland, centered on Native Americans from Oakland or “Urban Native Americans.” Many of us may have a hard time picturing an urban Native in our heads. We might hate to admit this, but when we think of this demographic, we are still returning to our boxed in stereotype of a Native American—a Native American chief wearing a feathered headdress and beaded apparel, likely sitting on top of a horse. We don’t know what to do with the urban part.
I am not going to try to define what an urban Native is. You should read There, There‘s prologue and the interlude. These sections could even be read separately from the book’s main storyline. Orange mentioned in his Zoom talk that he intentionally wanted the reader to have control. The prologue and interlude are not meant to educate—the reader could even skip these sections if he or she desired. In fact, Orange mentioned that “for Native writers, there’s a kind of burden to catch the general reader up with what really happened, because history has got it so wrong and still continues to. It feels like you want to get everybody on the same page as where your voice is coming from, and your experience; but at the same time, you’re not writing for the general reader.” And thus, he wanted to “write something that Native people already know about in an interesting and compelling way, so that no matter if you already know the raw information, you still want to read what’s there and how it’s being put.”
There is no there, there
I will admit that There, There is the first fiction novel I read written by a Native American writer. This is a book where Native Americans are the main characters. They are not cast as supporting characters or minor characters that only appear in a few chapters. The narrative is neither a retrospective memoir nor a non-fiction history lesson about Native American history and culture. Orange, by placing his Native American characters front and center stage, enables the readers to grapple with the characters on themes of deconstructing relationships to the land as well as pondering what home and belonging means.
We ride buses, trains, and cars across, over, and under concrete plains. Being Indian has never been about returning to the land. The land is everywhere or nowhere.
I cannot talk about relationships to the land without explaining about “there, there.” Orange indicated that the title of the novel was both inspired by Gertrude Stein’s Everybody’s Autobiography and Radiohead. Notably, in Everybody’s Autobiography, Stein wrote that “there is no there there” when she returned to her childhood home in Oakland to find that all the familiarities of her childhood, rural Oakland was gone.
Orange wanted to evoke a similar feeling. Because for Native people, there is also no there, there. The cities and towns represent “buried ancestral land, glass and concrete and wire and steel, unreturnable covered memory.” Yet, for Natives, the people have always had a relationship to the land. Thus, even when the land has changed from forests and rivers to city landscapes, Natives continue to strive to find connections to the land.
Blood is tricky.
Orange mentioned in his talk that blood is tricky. And nothing sums up this quandary better than his own writing.
We are Alaskan Native Indians, Native Hawaiians, and European expatriate Indians, Indians from eight different tribes with quarter-blood quantum requirements and so not federally recognized Indian kinds of Indians. We are enrolled members of tribes and disenrolled members, ineligible members and tribal council members. We are full-blood, half-breed, quadroon, eighths, sixteenths, thirty-seconds. Undoable math. Insignificant remainders.
Indeed, all the characters struggle with their identity. Orange uses twelve multi-generational Native American characters to chug the narrative engine along. The characters, young and old, male and female, are all carrying the reader to the ultimate destination as the story culminates in a powwow where all twelve characters come together. Despite the fragmented storytelling, Orange is able to weave in Native American history and culture, both past and present, while all the while propelling the story forward. Each character tells his or her personal history through Orange’s rich, poetic-like prose. There are themes of identity and memory to violence and recovery, all relayed to the reader with a tinge of tenderness, beauty, and despair. Undeniably, all characters struggle for a sense of home and belonging.
You’re from a people who took and took and took and took. And from a people taken. You’re both and neither. In the bath, you’d stare at your brown arms against your white legs in the water and wonder what they were doing together on the same body, in the same bathtub.
The Writer’s Commitment
One of Orange’s primary goals was he wanted to expand the idea of Natives in contemporary America. And one of the best ways (in his opinion) to do so is through the use of novels. He explained that novels are particularly good at building worlds and characters that are “real.” And in building the realness, the author can build empathy in the reader for these nuanced and complex realities. Characters are not simplified, or worse, erased.
Yet Orange noted that despite having these goals, what he strived for the most is what he calls his “commitment to the reader.” For one, he wants to write out his own perspectives but not necessarily write from other tribal perspectives. This way, the story is raw, honest, and authentic. Moreover, revisions are important because sometimes, it is good to let a piece of work sit so that when you read it with a fresh pair of eyes, you can truly have “re-vision.” (I thought this was incredibly clever). Finally, because Orange respects a reader’s time, he closed the Zoom talk by explaining that it is really the author’s job to take time to make his or her book readable and engaging. As he himself puts it:
We live in a distracted, brutally fast world now, and there are so very many other things to do than read. I hope this book will create the space for you to read.Tommy Orange