There’s a spray of bullets in the prologue to Tommy Orange’s There There. Orange launches into his novel with something almost sermon-like, a non-fiction accounting of the history of Native people in the United States. It pounces from one historical detail to another, from the Indian Head TV test pattern that filled American TV screens for decades that signaled that programming was over and it was time to call it a night, to massacres willfully misremembered and the revisionist Hollywood imagery that has come to take its place in our collective memory.
In Orange’s telling, this history is frenetic and intense — as if lit by neon light. It’s the tonal opposite of how Native history is typically depicted in this country, as something stately and distant and sepia-toned. Orange’s narrator, which is really a chorus of narrators, describes killings from bygone centuries. But their review comes with a warning on which the book delivers: “Stray bullets and consequences are landing on our unsuspecting bodies even now.”
There There unfurls from this place, following its multitude of Native characters through their disconnected-on-the-surface lives until they all eventually converge at the Big Oakland Powwow.
The novel is Orange’s debut, and since its publication last year, it’s been on everybody’s list, including The New York Times (they ranked it as one of the ten best of the year), the National Book Awards (Orange made the longlist), and President Obama (who included it on his annual roundup of cultural favorite things).
It’s all been the source of what you could call Orange’s extended disbelief. As he told ThinkProgress by phone, he has spent six months being perpetually surprised by the wild success of his first novel. It’s sort of like the inverse of how a person can continue to be shocked by the horrors wrought by the Trump administration, he said. It’s a lot to process in just six months. But Orange made a go of it, speaking with ThinkProgress about writing There There (this involved discussing the plot in full, so, do what that information what you will) and his thoughts on Native representation in fiction and the news.
What do you make of the public response to your book? What reactions have you heard that are surprising to you?
Everything’s surprising. But I guess there’s been some great moments with people from within the Native community; the urban, Oakland community. I was most worried about people who I’m writing stories about, our community, not connecting to it or having problems with it. And for the Native response as a whole, I really wanted to make sure I was doing it right. I guess I am happily surprised that there’s been no people that have turned on me, or gone out in public to talk about how I’m not doing it right. Representation is a huge issue in Native communities, and I guess there was an amount of pressure I felt to do it right, if I was going to do it at all. That was a happy surprise. And there’s been some weird celebrity things that have been very surprising.
Really? Which celebrities?
My editor told me that Ethan Hawke loved it. I got an email from Darren Aronofsky telling me he loved it. And the blurbs ended up getting were really important to me, because I really respect them as writers. Margaret Atwood doesn’t usually blurb books.
And I guess Obama would go in the celebrity category! [President Obama put There, There on his list of his favorite books of 2018.] I was an at awards show, where I won an award for best first novel, and Oprah was the keynote speaker. She went onstage right after me, and that was pretty crazy.
It’s hard to process because it’s all within six months. I’ve sort of followed it as a parallel to Trump where horrible things keep happening, and you can’t believe it, you can’t believe it, you’re still shocked. It’s been the opposite but parallel positive experience with this book: good things happening, and I still can’t believe it.
You’ve said you spent about six years writing this book and I’m guessing you didn’t anticipate the, umm, intense political situation and cultural climate into which your book wound up being published. How do you think this context is affecting the way readers connect to what you wrote?
I think for Native people, it always has felt like that. There wasn’t a nice, great period and then Trump came along. It was less shocking, I think, to people who have a different relationship to the U.S. government. For sure, I was writing with my community in mind, [hoping] that people in my peer group might read it. Thinking, I thought, reasonably about what to expect, because nobody in their right mind would think that anything like this would’ve happened to their books, Native or not.
There are a lot of straight-up facts about this country that people just try to sort of ignore completely or actually teach the opposite. There’s a lot of indoctrination that happens in our school systems to make our country seem noble and holy.
When did you first come across the Gertrude Stein quote that your title references? [“…what was the use of my having come from Oakland it was not natural to have come from there yes write about it if I like or anything if I like but not there, there is no there there.”] Have you been carrying it around for a long time?
I found it while I was researching for the novel. I was trying to find other Oakland novels and other Oakland novelists, and there’s not much out there. So Gertrude Stein, I mined her work for references to Oakland, but she’s normally just talking about language itself in a circuitous, un-understandable way. So I think it was early on, researching Oakland and its history and who has talked about it in what kind of way.
Did it feel momentous when you found it? Did you know right away that it was title-worthy?
I actually did know it was going to be in the title somehow. But I didn’t know I was going to pull “there there.” I knew there was something about the layers in which Gertrude Stein’s meaning and the Native experience — that it had this amazing parallel. It was a resonant thing. I started calling the folder that I kept all my — because it was a very messy, large folder with a lot of folders in it — I started calling it, “there is no there there,” because I was that sure. I finally figured out in 2014 that it would just be There There.
I want to get into the start of the book, this prologue which is a narrator voice really saying, “Let’s all get up to speed and on the same page about Native history.” And tonally it sets up the book but it’s also this standalone thing that isn’t quite like everything that follows. Can you talk about why you wanted to open that way?
Like the having-many-characters thing, the prologue was always a craft decision before it had any reasons behind it. I like what prologues can do in novels, how they can be experimental, and they don’t have to follow the form of the rest of the novel. I knew I wanted to have a prologue.
Sometimes it’s assumed that all Native people know all Native history. And it’s way too much for anybody to know, unless that’s your thing. But there’s so many different tribes and languages and worldviews. So I wanted to write something that contextualized how people ended up as urban Indians. I wasn’t assuming all Native people would know that. I had to do a lot of research, and I worked in the urban Native communities in Oakland, so I heard a lot of these stories in the context of my job.
So I love the function prologues serve and that they can be weird. I never meant for it to be an essay — it’s been called that almost exclusively since it came out. I wrote it in the royal we. It does have an authorial singular voice; I see that now. But I was writing it as sort of a Greek chorus sort of introduction. The “we’ was supposed to be all the characters.
When I first read it, it reminded me a little of when Michelle Obama, at the DNC in 2016, said, “I wake up every morning in a house built by slaves, and I watch my daughters, two beautiful, intelligent, black young women, playing with their dogs on the White House lawn.” I remember the public reaction to that — that there were people who were really shocked and scandalized by it. And it sounds radical but really she was just stating a basic historical fact.
There’s a quote that I heard at some point in the past couple years, and I’m going to butcher it now, but it’s about how the truth only sounds audacious when you’re enmeshed in lies. And that comes to mind! There are a lot of straight-up facts about this country that people just try to sort of ignore completely or actually teach the opposite. There’s a lot of indoctrination that happens in our school systems to make our country seem noble and holy.
I was doing a lecture at Yale. I had this great night with Native students, and on my way to the elevator, I heard this stray comment. “It was 500 years ago.” And I know what it means.
You mentioned earlier that no one could know, or be expected to know, the full history of Native people in America, and that you had to do a lot of research, even just to write the prologue. I was struck by how many characters in your book also feel the need to do like “homework” — looking things up online, watching YouTube videos, interviewing other people — to feel at home in their own identities. There’s this mix of, “this is innate and it’s who I am.” but also this fear and insecurity, “there is a learning curve and I’ll never catch up.” Why was it important to you to have so many of these characters have that experience? Was that something you’d felt in your own life?
I think specifically in the Native community — I’m sure other cultures can identify, because colonization produces similar responses among people — but particularly with Native people, there was this idea [of who Native people are]. David Treuer wrote this book, The Beating Heart of Wounded Knee, a sweeping history of Native people in the Americas, and it’s very accessible. It’s not super-academic; it’s personal. And he writes about how there’s a frozen idea of the sort of noble savage and us being bygone, and there’s even an image of us with our head bent down on a horse. And the horse and Indians so often get put together, as if the way to be Indian is to have a horse and be able to ride one. But horses were introduced by Europeans. Before they came, there were no horses in the Americas. And horses changed how a lot of tribal people lived their lives and what their lives would’ve looked like before was much more sedentary and agricultural. The horse made it more about hunting and buffalo.
A lot of these static ideas about what it means to be Native, the ideas of who is the “most Native,” you learn that’s not what they would’ve looked like if you go even 100 years back. It’s a way to get rid of us. And I don’t how much is design or how much is convenience, in regards to how much that gets dismissed and erased from our consciousness. But it’s damaging. We don’t have as much representation [as we should] because of disease and slaughter, so it’s hard for us to get the story right. It’s simplified in schools, or it’s made to look pretty, or it’s just watered-down to the point of, “who cares?”
I was doing a lecture at Yale. I had this great night with Native students, and on my way to the elevator, I heard this stray comment. “It was 500 years ago.” And I know what it means. That’s the attitude a lot of people have, because there’s this idea that it’s something that happened a long time ago. And there’s so many examples of things that’s still happening! Including our own depiction of ourselves. Trump has been on the record many times saying really dumb things about Native people. And his favorite president is Andrew Jackson, the worst president for Native people. So it’s not in the past. Trump is a representation of it not being in the past.
How are you feeling about the recent stories around Native people and issues that have been in the news these past few weeks? As you say, Trump says racist things about Natives often. And then there was the Covington kid…
The Dakota Access Pipeline and this Covington thing are two of the biggest news stories for Native people in the past decade. I think it’s really great to see us in such a big way. And it’s in the context of this administration and people really wanting to not be anywhere near on that side of things, so they’re leaning a bit harder toward marginalized people — which is great. That can look like support. That can look like real donations to communities that need it.
But I don’t know how to feel about this Covington thing. The attention is good and if it makes people take action in any way, even just by reading books that will change their views regarding Native people, that’s really wonderful. The Covington thing seems to be blown out of proportion, almost because of the right’s reaction to the left’s reaction. It’s a smug, probably from some rich family, white kid, slightly amused, in the face of a Native guy playing a drum. I was more alarmed by the extremists that were rallying up that crowd, [the Black Israelites], and creating the conditions for it to be so crazy a scene, and the vile things they’re saying about Native people specifically. They were calling white people “crackers,” but the vile things they were saying toward Native people were much worse than the white kid staring at the guy drumming. I’ve encountered plenty of smug white people that are amused by Native people.
When you see old people praying and being shot with rubber bullets, being hosed with pepper spray, attacked by dogs — there’s something that hits the core of yourself and your relationship to being Native that unifies more than it divides.
I’ve read you talk about how you didn’t come to Native literature — or reading much in general — until later in your life. That you were avoiding writers like Sherman Alexie specifically because it was “very rez” and, as someone living in a urban place, it made you feel “isolated… like it was the only way to Indian write.” What was it like to come to that writing as an adult? How did you decide where to start? Do you think differently about those books now?
I came to reading late and no one was telling me what to read, because I came to it on my own working at a used bookstore. I was sort of ruthless with what I decided I would read. I had to sort of fall in love with a book in order to want to read it. For certain Native canon, there’s reservation stuff and it’s just not the life I knew. As a 20-something half-white half-Native young man with a chip on his shoulder, figuring out identity and what it means, it did not do anything for me, except maybe isolate.
But then I worked in the Native community for a decade and came to understand there were other people just like me, in my community, who grew up in Oakland. I worked with them and [specifically with] Native youth. By the time I read the Native canon, it was like approaching when I went to the Institute of American Indian Arts [in 2014]. I was in a different space and very much appreciated everything in the canon. There’s a lot of great books. I fully appreciate it now. At the time, I was reading a lot of weird stuff and international stuff in translation, following my instincts, and being ruthless with what I read.
One part of your book that stood out to me and that I understand is sort of from your life is when Dene goes to get this storytelling grant. He presents his idea before a panel of judges, and the judge who is the most Native-seeming is the one who is the hardest on Dene. He’s the most critical of what Dene is trying to do.
I was in front of a panel of judges for a storytelling grant for the city of Oakland. But there was no Native guy. I just thought, a lot of times, there’s internalized oppression that plays a part, and there’s people out-Indianing each other, a blood battle with who is enough and who is not. I wanted that to be represented with this judge. Through personal experience, there definitely is in-fighting that is super-damaging to people. But there’s also a lot of impostors who exploit Native identity, who make Native art and benefit from it. So I understand why there’s infighting and I can’t wholeheartedly just judge it as a black and white thing, because there are good reasons to be suspicious. So it’s super-complicated.
Do you think differently about that issue now that you have some distance from writing the book and from that time in your life?
I think being part of a Native writing community — I’m on faculty at IAIA — and there have been a lot of interesting conversations with students and faculty being in the same room, representing a lot of range of the proximities to what being Native means. It’s enriched my understanding. I think there’s a generation of Native artists and writers that’s more supportive of each other, more about lifting each other up. It feels like there’s less infighting. Things feel different.
I think after the Occupation of Alcatraz and the civil rights movement, a lot of people used the momentum from that in a positive way. And something similar might have happened after Standing Rock. When you see old people praying and being shot with rubber bullets, being hosed with pepper spray, attacked by dogs — there’s something that hits the core of yourself and your relationship to being Native that unifies more than it divides.
I think one thing that’s still problematic that happens with books written by non-white men is you get all these questions about your life and not a lot of questions about craft.
I’ve seen a bunch of stories group you with other Native writers working today as part of a “Native renaissance.” How do you feel about that categorization? Is it a positive thing that you’re part of a community and there’s a critical mass of Native writers getting more attention? Does it feel limiting to you because it’s not like white men ever get labeled as a subgroup?
I think we’re doing a lot to turn that on its head. The publishing industry is doing a lot to promote diversity. I don’t feel an aversion to being among other Native writers because of the moment that we’re in. I just hope it’s not a moment that drifts back to where white men have benefited most from that systemic problem. So I feel hopeful rather than dubious about being categorized, because of what’s going on right now. I think it was a lot more damaging and marginalizing in the past to have to be under this weird genre.
It does seem now like people are talking about it in a more positive way. Less as a section of the bookstore or a genre unto itself, more like this is a team or a community.
I’ve been to bookstores even within the past couple years where Native fiction is in a section called Native American whatever, and that’s problematic. Because if it’s a novel or if it’s fiction, it should be there with everybody else. Because some people will just ignore that section and never pick up your book. But it at least appears as if we’re moving away from that, in a sort of forever way, I hope. I think Trump has really galvanized people. People are making real, systematic changes in a way that feels more permanent. But who knows? I guess I’m a cynic, but I’m hopeful also.
I think one thing that’s still problematic that happens with books written by non-white men is you get all these questions about your life and not a lot of questions about craft. White men books in the past have been considered sort of holy and “let’s talk about style and how good the writing is,” and I think with non-white men — meaning women and people of color — it tends to get more autobiographical. Not at all saying this interview was that. It’s just speaking of hope – I don’t feel hopeful about that part, because I haven’t seen that change. It feels a little bit like we’re still performing for a very white publishing industry and press, and the press questions makes it feel like we’re performing our Indian-ness and it’s about finding out how authentic they’re getting that sort of show or display or other-ness.
I do have another writing question for you, actually! I’m interested in how you went about building the sense of anticipation and dread — because you know really early that something is going to go horribly sideways at this powwow, and it seems like something awful could happen to any of these characters. How did you work out the pace and decide when to dole out information about this collision of people and violence?
I think it helped that the very seed of the novel, in the beginning, was “a cataclysmic ending at the powwow.” So the way I pieced it together was always leaning toward that cataclysm. Because of the nature of each of the stories as I developed them were sort of pointed at that bad something you know is coming. So I don’t know that i was consciously trying to do that. I think just by nature of deciding to have a tragic, cataclysmic end, all of the voices were tinged with that.
Did you play around with just how tragic you wanted it to be? Are there other versions where more people make it out of your book alive?
I really avoided writing the ending until the end of writing the book, because I just wasn’t sure. I wanted it to feel organic. So I didn’t know exactly. I knew I wanted a character that would be like me that would die. Because if I was going to kill characters, I would kill myself.
That is so dark.
I wanted to do right by the reader! And readers don’t exactly like when main characters die at the end of books.
I don’t know. Sometimes I think keeping the main character alive just because they’re the main character feels false. Like cheating.
Yeah. And my view of life is that it’s tragic. So I always knew that that’s what I wanted to represent. Especially, Native history has been tragic. And doing it any other way to me wouldn’t have felt true. So even though I have this tragic view, like you said, I have hope, too. I think both things can exist. And I wanted both things to come across in the novel.