There There by Tommy Orange
In America we always seem to be in search of the authentic. Whether it’s Jay Z or Cardi B, we like our artists to keep it real. So it’s not surprising that there is a lot of buzz about a novel written by a Native American set in Oakland. It’s a world most of us do not know much about. Here is Tommy Orange talking in the New Yorker—which also published an excerpt of There There as a short story, “The State,” which appears late in the novel as a chapter—about why he wrote There There:
I knew I wanted to write a multi-generational, multi-voiced novel about Native people living in Oakland. My wanting to write it largely had to do with there not already being a novel about Native people who live in cities, and very few novels set in Oakland.
The title of the novel comes from a famous Gertrude Stein quote about there being no there there—no identifiable place. In other words, Orange is saying there is this community that we don’t know about of Native Americans, and they have a sense of place and identity. There is a there there.
Although this is his debut novel, Orange is ambitious. As he goes on to say in his New Yorker interview:
Native people suffer from poor representation as it is, but having little representation in literature, as well as no (literary) version of our (urban Native) experience, was what made me want to write into that space, that void, and try to honor and express fully all that it entails to be Native and be from Oakland.
There are, of course, many excellent Native American writers including: Louise Erdich, Michael Dorris, James Welch, Sherman Alexie, the poet Joy Harjo. Still, Orange brings a new and welcome voice to the table.
There’s a lot to like about There There, especially as a first project. Orange’s voice, for the most part, rings true, and he’s not afraid to write from the point of view of men and women of all ages and backgrounds. One character has Down syndrome, and Orange brings nuance to our understanding of the condition. He also writes in a refreshing way about Native Americans searching for their identity, all while being quite at home with metaphor and up on music and technology. One character makes use of a drone. Another character prints guns on his own 3D printer.
Orange is a student of Native American history, and he begins the book with nonfiction excerpts of horrors that Native Americans were subject to by Europeans. As Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote in a recent essay in the Atlantic, “American unity has always been the unity of conquistadors and colonizers—unity premised on Indian killings, land grabs, noble internments, and the gallant General Lee.” Orange would probably endorse that claim.
Overall, the novel is written from the point of view of 12 (plus) characters. On one hand, that effort gives the book a sense that Orange has attempted to create a microcosm of urban Native America. On the other hand, it can creates some problems for the reader and for There There as a novel. It’s difficult to keep track of who’s who; one of William Faulkner’s family trees might help, but then you’d have to go back and check out the chart. With so many voices, the characterization can be thin; as a result, when something bad happens to one of them, the reader may not be too empathetic.
It’s pretty clear where the novel is heading by the halfway point—we know it’s going to turn out badly. It seems we’re witnessing an internecine struggle, as the novel seems to suggest that a lot of problems in the Native American community are self-inflicted. As happens in the movie Crash, a number of coincidences bring the characters into close contact with each other.
In another small drawback, Orange goes a bit too far with having characters use 3D-printed plastic guns, which according to tests conducted by federal agents are hardly reliable firearms at this point. Nonetheless, despite some flaws, There There is a compelling read about a victimized American minority group that deserves better treatment. With that, Orange joins the list of writers—Native American or otherwise—worth reading and listening to.
Orange will read from There There and sign copies at Harvard Book Store on Thursday, June 7.