Spotlight on Big-Buzzing Debut Novelist Tommy Orange | LibraryReads Author

Set in Oakland, as its title suggests, Tommy Orange’s There There uses coruscating, whip-fast language to delineate the Oakland ­Native community and the ­Native experience generally.

Set in Oakland, as its title suggests, Tommy Orange’s There There uses coruscating, whip-fast language to delineate the Oakland ­Native community and the ­Native experience generally. Throughout, Orange emphasizes the importance of storytelling, so it’s fitting that the book is structured as a series of expertly linked vignettes moving toward the Big Oakland Powwow. In a phone interview with LJ, Orange explained what storytelling means to him.

Not a big reader or writer when growing up, Orange became acquainted with the wonders of the story while working at Oakland’s Native American Health Center as well as StoryCenter in Berkeley. “I saw the power of telling personal stories and how transformative it is for both Natives and non-Natives,” he explains. From Opal Viola Victoria Bear Shield and her sister, Jacquie Red Feather, to Jacquie’s grandson Orvill, raised by Opal and desperate to dance at the powwow, to fetal alcohol syndrome–affected Tony, to drug dealers and powwow committee members and Dene Oxendene, hoping to film interviews with local Natives, the narrative is richly variegated for a reason.

“There’s a monolithic nature to how we think of Native people, a way that’s historical and one-dimensional, and it needs an update,” Orange insists. Though the powwow unites different tribes and people into a “really beautiful” whole, as he describes it, that individuation remains crucial to appreciating a people who have been rendered mostly invisible in American society. In particular, Orange argues passionately for the recognition of Natives as a largely urban group, contrary to mythic expectations.

“For at least ten years, 70 percent of ­Natives have lived in cities,” he clarifies, “and if we aren’t getting a real, modern, factual account of this experience, it’s another way of disappearing.” Urbanization began with a 1950s effort by the U.S. government to push Natives toward the cities—“kill the Indian to save the man,” explains Orange, who adds that while there remains “infighting between urban and rez, ultimately we are all in it together, and I wanted to put that part of it on the page.”

Asked if non-Natives are surprised to learn that he is city-born and -raised, ­Orange responds with understandable ­bitterness, “I’ve had the experience of people being surprised to hear that Native people still exist.” Another shocker: people often think that Natives get lots of money from the government and from casinos. “I don’t want to sound like the angry Indian,” he says, “but the level of misconception is overwhelming, and the only way I can exercise my own rage is through literature.”

Orange claims that he never felt pressure from himself or others to be the voice of his people, but now he feels “a retrospective responsibility to help other writers; it will take a lot of us to go from the monolithic to polyphonic.” Indeed, it must take a lot for these writers even to offer their stories, which as Orange shows can be “dark and ugly and brutal, and you don’t want to put a bow on it.” In the book, Opal doesn’t want Orvill to identify with his heritage; as Orange says of his own father, “There was a reticence related to pain. When you’re in survival mode, culture is a privilege.”

Yet as Orange declares, “One of the purposes of art is to transform darkness into light, ugliness into beauty. My experience on Earth has not always been great, but sometimes it has been beautiful, and there are places of hope and transcendence and joy.” As his narrative converges toward the powwow—always his endpoint, grand yet wrought with the violence that cannot be separated from Native history—Orange limns that joy and sorrow. He’s written a beautiful book.—Barbara Hoffert

Photo © Elena Siebert

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