This Land Is There Land

Tommy Orange’s There There is SCU’s Winter 2018 Book of the Quarter—a novel at once a furious rebuke and a soothing affirmation of the modern Native American experience.

This Land Is There Land

The frenetic, lyrical prose in the prologue of Tommy Orange’s debut novel, There There, sets a walloping tone of anger and righteousness about the Native American experience that doesn’t let up for the entire book. But to use the phrase experience in the singular is to misstate what the novel captures: lives whose stories braid together across time and distance.

For starters, writing in wry, furious snapshots of 500 years of Native history in just 10 pages—from genocide to offensive Hollywood depictions of Native figureheads—Orange leads up to the introduction of his narrators, whom he calls Urban Indians, in his native Oakland.

“Everything is new and doomed. We ride buses, trains, and cars across, over, and under concrete plains. Being Indian has never been about returning to the land. The land is everywhere and nowhere.”

They know grimy downtown streets better than “any sacred mountain range;” the freeway better than rivers; the smell of burnt rubber better than fry bread. Which isn’t actually a Native tradition anyhow, Orange notes; just as reservations aren’t traditional—mere fragments of the real homeland, which once had no arbitrary boundary lines.

These Urban Indians are the narrators, each chapter named for a different character. At first, the characters seem to be telling standalone short stories: Here is Opal Viola Victoria Bear Shield, who recalls living with her mother and sister on Alcatraz during the Native American occupation in 1969; and here is Orvil Red Feather, a pre-teen who’s learned most everything he knows about his heritage from YouTube, including how to dance.

Gradually, their stories begin converging, leading them all to a big powwow at the Oakland Coliseum. As readers, we intuit that things will not go well when a few of the characters concoct plans to rob the powwow of its dancing competition prize money with 3-D printed guns. The pacing is like a thriller in spots, making us dread what awaits at the powwow but anxious to get there.

Orange’s title comes from Gertrude Stein’s famous proclamation of Oakland: “There is no there there.” But as one of the narrators explains, Stein wasn’t complaining of a lack of defining character or sense of place, but rather how the Oakland of her childhood had changed drastically over years of development. It’s the same for Native people:

“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.”

This, then, is Orange’s attempt to define the “there” that’s here, now, through a variety of modern Native voices and experiences that often don’t make it to page.

Upon second reading, the phrase also serves as a soothing affirmation—a parent comforting a stricken child with “There there.” In the first chapter, a man born with fetal alcohol syndrome and resulting learning disabilities talks about being raised by his Cheyenne grandmother. He recounts how, despite his protests, he appreciates her insistence that they read “her Indian stuff that I don’t always get”:

“I like it, though, because when I do get it, I get it way down at that place where it hurts but feels better because you feel it, something you couldn’t feel before reading it, that makes you feel less alone, and like it’s not going to hurt as much anymore.”

Author Tommy Orange. Photo Credit Elena Seibert

Orange Talks on Campus

Oakland-born Tommy Orange, 36, is an enrolled member of the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes of Oklahoma. Upon publishing his debut novel in summer 2018, Orange told The New York Times of his choice to portray a segment of America few are familiar with. “There’s been a lot of reservation literature written,” he said. “I wanted to have my characters struggle in the way that I struggled, and the way that I see other native people struggle, with identity and with authenticity.”

There There was named to The New York Times’ 10 Best Books of 2018 and was named to the 2018 longlist for the National Book Awards in Fiction. It was selected as Santa Clara University’s Winter 2019 Book of the Quarter. Mr. Orange visited campus on Thursday, March 7, for a talk and book signing at the de Saisset Museum. The event was co-sponsored by the de Saisset, the University Library, and the SCU Office for Diversity and Inclusion.

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