There There is the literary debut of Tommy Orange. It marks the inauguration of a dazzling new voice on the scene of contemporary literature. Orange, an enrolled member of the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes of Oklahoma and a graduate of the MFA program at Institute of American Indian Arts, took a page from Flannery O’Connor in writing about that which he knows. A resident of California himself, Orange has authored a socio-political historical document as much as a literary one, one that charts, through multiple generations, the rise and fall of twelve different characters as they prepare to travel to the Big Oakland Powwow.
It opens with an essay as a prologue in which he sums it up by saying “We know the sound of the freeway better than we do rivers, the howl of distant trains better than wolf howls, we know the smell of gas and freshly wet concrete and burned rubber better than we do the smell of cedar or sage or even fry bread.” He then introduces characters that share more than a Native background; they share a feeling of being forgotten about, of being left behind, of having to struggle for work, shelter, medicine, and most of all it seems, approval. That’s, ultimately what Orange does best. He shines a bright, unflinching light of the everyday plight of his people. The complexity and duality of the urban Native experience, that schism, is at the heart of the novel as well.
Short bursts of authorial rage and energy coarse through the pages of this book. What Orange manages to do, somehow, is to look backwards and document an individual’s past, a whole people’s, past while also maintaining his gaze on the current as well as future. He uses the first, second, and third person points of view at different times during the story to dizzying effects. And the multiple viewpoints, the twelve characters that tell their stories and mesh into a cohesive narrative while also maintaining their autonomy, read like a modern day William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying.
There There is also meta-fictional in its references, namely the derivation of its very title. The reference is to Gertrude Stein’s own description of the city of Oakland in her book from 1937, Everybody’s Autobiography. Orange describes Stein’s view that “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, the there there was gone, there was no there there anymore.” Orange continues, writing, “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.”
Alcoholism, abuse, illness are all pervasive in the stories here but so is the unbreakable bonds forged through families and the unrelenting desire for more, to better themselves. This documentation of the down and out, the fragilities of modern life as a forgotten people, could, for lesser writer’s, turn into the banal and cliché, but Orange is writing from the heart. He injects this narrative with so much personality and soul that it reads like a written history told by the coolest teacher you’d be lucky to ever have the privilege of studying from.
Full of Prophecy’s and ancient sayings, There There never gets static and even though its focus is singular, the result is otherworldly. Kaleidoscopic in nature, There There presents a writer whose maturity is embossed on every page as he casts out a large subject and reels in a detailed and nuanced report of his people. Orange has carved out his place amongst the giants in the game. This book will change the way you read history and will soon be required reading for the next generation.