Photo credit: Elena Seibert
I’ve spent much of my adult life searching for a Native voice that echoes my own experience as an urban Indian. It was not until I read There There
that I finally found a captivating voice who writes about Native life with both precision and power. The novel’s characters capture beautifully the history and truth of being Native in all its nuances, from Dene Oxendene, a documentary filmmaker who honors his uncle’s life by capturing the stories of Oakland Natives, to Jacquie Red Feather, a recently sober substance abuse counselor reckoning with her past and returning to her family. Tommy Orange’s stunning debut weaves a polyphonic narrative of Native experience, with each character grappling with the hope and heartbreak that comes from hundreds of years of trauma. These voices reach a crescendo at the Big Oakland Powwow in a finale that is both apt and horrifying — much like the untold history of Native Americans. Orange writes surely and resolutely of the Native experience, and he commands the reader’s acknowledgment of our history. Powell's is proud to present There There
as our pick for Indiespensable Volume 74
I was so drawn to There There
. It felt very personal to me, because I'm Blackfeet (Amskapi Pikuni) and Chocktaw and grew up in both the Bay Area and Sacramento. Aside from my father and my family on the reservation, I didn't have a lot of exposure to other Natives.
Oh wow. Honestly, aside from people from the Oakland community, I don't meet that many Native people who were born and raised in the city, so that's cool to hear. If I hadn't worked at the Indian center in Oakland for eight years, I would have just had my dad and my family in Oklahoma as well.
I really loved the prologue. It kind of hit me like a rallying cry and felt relevant to my family history, but I can see that it would affect everyone differently. What was your intention in starting the novel this way?
I feel like, 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.
What I wanted to do was 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.
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I was discussing with my colleague the Indian head test pattern from broadcast television that you write about in the prologue, and which they really latched on to. It was information that I already knew, but it was delivered in a way that felt very personal. To my coworker, on the other hand, it was an informational but very striking image.
But it's true. When I read some other works by Native authors, it does feel like, I know this experience.
So it was really refreshing to read something that harnesses that history.
That's wonderful to hear, because that really was my full intent, to have both things happen — to be able to speak to the Native reader in a personal way, and to the general audience in a way that fills in some, if not holes, then ways of thinking that actively work against Native people and history.
I found myself identifying with certain details of most of the characters, and I imagine that there are some autobiographical traits in all your characters. Is there one in particular that you most identify with?
No, I don't think so. I think they're all me in very personal ways, and also totally not me. I could give you a list of details that I pulled straight from my life for every character, but there isn't one particular character that I feel most resembles me.
If you twisted my arm, I guess [I’d say] Dene Oxendene, but only because I got a storytelling project grant and went before a panel. I got that grant two years in a row for a storytelling project that never came to fruition, except for in the novel. They paid me $10,000 to do it, so I thanked them in the Acknowledgments for giving me money that I only did something fictional with.
Speaking of Dene, one of the panel judges for his grant application is a more traditional-presenting Indian, and he also seems to be the most critical of Dene's project. I was wondering if you think that the Native community can be just as guilty as non-Natives of judging "Indian-ness"?
Definitely. My mom is white, so I'm half, and that puts me in a very particular position, caught between... I don't want to say two worlds, because I hate that. It's become such a trope.
I've said this before somewhere else: You kind of are both and neither, because you're not enough, not white enough on the white side and not Native enough on the Native side.
I've gotten a lot of critical glances, remarks, and judgments from Native people who kind of present with that full-blood presentation, and it hurts more when you get it from there than from an innocuous white person asking how Native you are, which has its own problems.
It hurts more when another Native is basically trying to tell you that you don't exist as a part of what they are.
I like what a collective voice can do to create a singular vision.
I completely identify with that. My mom is also white, but it's interesting having to prove yourself to a community that you half-identify with. This is just who you are.
On a related note, in the novel, Blue and Edwin discuss a short story that Edwin has written, and it's an allegory for the erasure of Natives by whites. After Blue points out the obvious reference, Edwin becomes defensive about whites and his own mother being white.
I think sometimes people who are both white and Native can get a little overzealous in their language about white people, and want to completely deny the white side.
Blue is almost defending white people, in a sense, telling Edwin, You don't have to deny or make evil all that whiteness is, just because there is that aspect to it.
He’s kind of expressing the nuance of his experience. Edwin was raised by a white mother and doesn't really have a Native background, so he's trying a little bit too hard to claim the Native side because he lacks it. Do you know what I mean?
There are all these different variations within our community of people striving harder toward that full-blood mentality versus people who use more nuanced language, and people who are super insecure. We have a lot of variation, identity-wise, but I know the Native and white experience and try to speak to that with my characters.
You chose to feature so many different voices in the urban Indian experience, and I'm wondering if you could talk a little bit more about that.
I’d known for a while that I wanted to write a polyphonic novel. I think one of the first books that made me want to do it was Colum McCann's Let the Great World Spin
, specifically because of the way he braids everyone's stories together and earns the right for it to be a novel, arc-wise. I really appreciated what that felt like as a reader, so before I knew what novel I wanted to write, I knew I wanted to write one like that.
On top of wanting to do it from a writer’s standpoint, it was also very personal in the sense that we — Native people — don't see our representation basically anywhere, unless it's negative or stereotyped. But then urban Indians have kind of a double invisibility going on. To really represent [the full spectrum of] that community, it felt like the right and smart way to do it.
I really enjoyed it. Each character is given their own story to tell that explores many urban Indian experiences, but they all contribute to the overarching story.
I watched your craft talk at Institute of American Indian Arts, and you mentioned working with Native youth. I was wondering if that's what inspired many of the younger characters.
The Native youth that I worked with… it was a different kind of inspiration. A year after I started writing the book, we were part of this Native suicide prevention grant. We did a lot of cool things. One of the things is we took the kids to Alcatraz. We had elders who were there to tell their stories.
Then, at the end of that year, we went to Cal Berkeley and they toured the campus. We ended it with an author reading, and I was asked to do something even though I was definitely not an author at that point. It was just known that I write. I read something from that first year of writing, some of which is still in the actual novel — some made it through.
The youth response — and these youth were not easy to impress, or they didn't react easily — to that reading really made me want to move forward with writing the novel.
I wasn’t thinking specifically of the youth when I wrote any of the characters; they all felt like they came from somewhere else. But I was definitely inspired in the sense that the youth believed in something that I did, and I wanted to write something that would connect with them.
That's when you first started working on the novel?
I thought of the idea at the end of 2010. I had just found out that I was having a son. I didn't start writing it until basically about a year after that, in 2012. I handed my final manuscript to my agent at the end of 2016 and sold it in 2017, and then went through the editing process for the rest of 2017. It's been about five or six years.
Urban Indians have kind of a double invisibility going on.
At what point in that process were you going to the MFA program at the Institute of American Indian Arts?
I started there in 2014, so I was already a couple of years into writing the novel, and I finished there in 2016.
How did attending IAIA help you with the novel?
I think because I’m self-taught and so late in coming to writing, I had some pretty basic gaps in my technique and craft. I didn't have certain vocabulary. I was writing out of instinct. I honed and developed a lot more basic technique in the program. The community in the program was very influential in making me feel like I was a part of something and maybe more inspired and able to believe in what I was doing.
I imagine having that camaraderie and support from your own community would be very important.
A lot of popular Native art and writing for the non-Native gaze conveys a return to the land, and in many ways this feels lost or inauthentic to a lot of urban Indians. In your prologue, you write, "Being Indian has never been about returning to the land. The land is everywhere or nowhere." How do you see your characters reclaiming what it means to be Native?
I think it's about trying to move to a place of accepting or feeling like you belong exactly where you are, and that happens to be Oakland. They're trying to be Native as they are, and not as something removed from them.
It's something that I've been working with for a while, growing up in the city, being able to see cities as more than just artificial. Trying to see the city as our environment and part of what we are, and feeling like we can belong with what that is, and not like there's something wrong with it. Like, this is a natural sort of going-back-to-the-rez narrative, but that's not where we came from either. I am just trying to have my characters struggle with what belonging means, what home means, and what being an Indian means all at once, and that [struggle’s taking place in] Oakland.
Do you think that struggle varies generationally? I know from my father, who grew up both in San José and on the Blackfeet reservation, that he always wanted to get back to the reservation. That's where his family was and that's where he felt a connection; but for me, my family is there, and I love to visit them, but it doesn't feel like home. I guess it’s about creating your own identity and your own home where you are.
It’s definitely generational, but I think even within our generation there are different camps of what to do. My sister, for example, lives in Oklahoma and is part of the Cheyenne language program. My dad's fluent, but he didn't grow up teaching us Cheyenne because it was more of a time of assimilation, and for various other reasons. But she felt like that's what she wanted to do, and she's going this other way with it. She talks about that as home, and tells me, When you gonna come home?
I'm always kind of like, Oakland's home to me
. It'll always be that; even if I love it [in Oklahoma], and love people there, that's not my home.
Obviously, storytelling is central to Native people and how we define ourselves. One of my favorite parts is in the interlude where you write: "The wound that was made when white people came and took all that they took has never healed. An unattended wound gets infected. Becomes a new kind of wound like the history of what actually happened became a new kind of history. All these stories that we haven’t been telling all this time, that we haven't been listening to, are just part of what we need to heal."
Do you think that storytelling has been lost among some Natives?
It’s more that we haven't been hearing all of the different kinds of Native stories, the histories that run counter to the way that the American narrative has been told.
We can't heal from something unless we acknowledge it and accept it for what it is, and if we can't do that together, it feels like the American consciousness is actually denying our basic narrative about what happened. It's really hard to move on and heal together. If we want to not only heal as a Native community, but as Americans too… it's hard to feel like you even want to be an American if your whole narrative is being spoken against or denied or not listened to.
I feel like, for Native writers, there's a kind of burden to catch the general reader up with what really happened.
When the character Tony Loneman decides to wear his regalia in public on the way to the Oakland Powwow, you write, "People don't want any more than a little story they can bring back home with them, how they saw a real Native boy on a train, that they still exist."
Because I’m white-passing, people only approach me when I’m wearing my moccasins or beaded jewelry. Do you think that Natives feel largely unnoticed by the non-Native gaze unless they present themselves as traditional?
Definitely, and the whole idea of what a Native should look like is so outdated, and on purpose. We have one way that we're supposed to look, and it's very historical and dressed up. It's not contemporary, and there's no allowance for shades from brown to white.
I'll make a point to wear clothing that has Native symbols on it, not only to support Native artists, but also because I like there to be a visible component, because I can be white-passing too. I think it's interesting, this whole jewelry and presenting thing. I'd never worn jewelry before, but then my sister, who makes jewelry, got me this really beautiful necklace. It automatically interfaces with my Native identity, because people will comment about the necklace. It has a Native look to it. There's something interesting about it. I'm not wearing it because I want to have a conversation with strangers about my identity, but it does come up because of it.
Right. It's part of your identity, and you don't want to put it on for show and have a conversation about it, yet inevitably it’s a conversation starter.
You talked a little bit about what had inspired the polyphonic voices of the novel. I was wondering what other books and authors have influenced your writing.
Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives
was a big one for me. One of the early iterations of There There
was directly related to The Savage Detectives
, in that whole interview section of the book. I just love how many voices Bolaño expresses, and the way the voices are gathered around to tell a bigger narrative.
A Brief History of Seven Killings
was not so much a direct influence, because I read it late into writing the novel, but it was definitely an affirmation that some people were doing this kind of work — it can be done. I had Marlon James as a workshop teacher at Tin House in 2015, and he was kind enough to write a blurb for There There
. That was pretty amazing.
A Visit From the Goon Squad
was kind of the same. It’s really contemporary and polyphonic, and comes from different angles. I like what a collective voice can do to create a singular vision.
Those books are the ones that come to mind immediately when thinking about what influenced There There
. Louise Erdrich has written with different voices. She's an amazing author, and I respect her work deeply. Love Medicine
comes to mind, which I also read a little bit later. I read a lot of the Native canon later on in my reading life, because there are a lot of rez-based stories, and that kind of made me feel more isolated. But after I got over my insecurities, I came to love the Native canon.
Thinking about it, I would have to say A Confederacy of Dunces
influenced me, just because it was the first book that made me want to write a novel. I have to add that book to this list.
It's funny that you say that, because I was talking to my coworker about that the other day, and I feel like — I haven't read it — there are two camps of people. You either really love that book, or you really dislike that book.
Yes. My theory about that is that people who are more like Ignatius, but don't want to be, tend to hate it, and once you read it, you'll know what I mean by "like Ignatius."
“Ignatian” is a word that my wife and I have come to use a lot. I think there's something Ignatian about all humans.
Kate: There There
is a monumental debut that I'm sure has brought a lot of changes into your life. Are you working on anything new at the moment, or are you pausing on writing and working on other projects?
I have been busy with writing little different types of essays and things that people have asked for, but I am working on two new books.
I sold There There
last February. When I gave my agent my final version of the book, a giant hole opened up inside of me, and I felt like I was going to die, because I'd been working on a big project for so long. I hadn’t realized how occupied it kept some restless part of me, so I immediately jumped into a new book as soon as I finished this one, and since then, another one has come.
I don't want to talk about them too much, because it's early and I'm kind of superstitious about losing energy on stuff. But I am working on two new books.
I imagine that when you've been working on something for so long, it kind of feels like a child that you're setting out into the world.
Totally. My book is pretty much the same age as my son, so it's been interesting to have them go hand in hand. But at the same time, it doesn't feel as much like mine anymore. That actually happens with children too. You realize they're their own people.
I spoke with Tommy Orange on April 24, 2018.
÷ ÷ ÷
is a recent graduate from the MFA program at the Institute of American Indian Arts. He is a 2014 MacDowell Fellow, and a 2016 Writing by Writers Fellow. He is an enrolled member of the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes of Oklahoma. He was born and raised in Oakland, California, and currently lives in Angels Camp, California. There There
is his first book.