There There: A novel, by Tommy Orange
Brilliant, innovative, lyric. Tommy Orange’s stunning fiction debut is all those things, but trying to describe this eclectic, very personal novel doesn’t do it justice. Called “groundbreaking, extraordinary” by The New York Times, and garnering praise from People Magazine to Entertainment Weekly, and awarded prizes like The Center for Fiction’s First Novel Prize, Orange’s novel-in-stories is unlike any book you’ve read.
Twelve characters make up this portrait of the Native American community in Oakland, California, and their stories recur and intertwine and move together toward the novel’s devastating conclusion, conveyed through Orange’s sharp ear for voice. The author’s talent here ranges from the most intimate emotional and intellectual states—rage, pain, bewilderment, regret, doubt—and through voice, conveys in devastating detail, the history of urban Native Americans—the pain, separation, violence, and loss. Early in the book, the novel’s omniscient narrator relates the five-hundred-year history of “assimilation, absorption, erasure”:
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We are the memories we don’t remember, which live in us, which we feel, which make us sing and dance and pray the way we do, feelings from memories that flare and bloom unexpectedly in our lives like blood through a blanket from a wound made by a bullet fired by a man shooting us in the back for our hair, for our heads, for a bounty, or just to get rid of us.
Orange, who was born and raised in Oakland, is an enrolled member of the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes of Oklahoma, and on the faculty of the Institute of American Indian Arts MFA program. He currently lives in Angels Camp, in Calaveras County, California. There There was a finalist for the 2019 Pulitzer Prize.
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There are many beautiful motifs running throughout—on names, the changes that have undergone the anchor populations of the city of Oakland, and storytelling both personal and collective. The novel’s title takes on beautifully faceted references: in a song by Radiohead, in the assurance spoken by a grandmother, and in the mythic quote by Gertrude Stein, whose observation of Oakland has been routinely misunderstood as a negative. Here, it is especially poignant and faithfully recounted. In one of the chapters that follow a young aspiring documentarian, Dene Oxendene, we learn its intended meaning.
Waiting for a grant interview at City of Oakland offices, Dene meets another grant applicant, Rob, a newcomer to the city. Rob mistakenly states that no one is actually from Oakland, though Dene, and his family in fact are. Rob cites the Stein quote out of context, You know what Gertrude Stein said about Oakland, prompting Dene’s reflection:
Dene wants to tell him he’d looked up the quote in its original context, in her Everybody’s Autobiography, and found that she was talking about how the place where she’d grown up in Oakland had changed so much, that so much development had happened there, that the there of her childhood, was gone, there was no there there anymore.
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He goes on:
The quote is important to Dene. This there there. He hadn’t read Gertrude Stein beyond the quote. But for Native people in this country, all over the Americas, it’s been developed over, buried ancestral land, glass and concrete and wire and steel, unreturnable covered memory. There is no there there.
Read this gorgeous book for its affecting story of pain and loss, and for its lyric beauty. It’s an unforgettable book and Tommy Orange has gifted us with an important, essential contribution to American fiction.
Lauren Alwan’s fiction and essays have appeared in The Southern Review, ZYZZYVA, Nimrod International, and other publications. Read her new column at Catapult, “Invisible History,” a chronicle of family stories of heritage and belonging and the complexities of her bicultural experience. Learn more at www.laurenalwan.com