A few years ago, Tommy Orange set out to write a novel that represented the experience of the urban American Indian in the San Francisco Bay Area with the intention of reaching an intimate readership.
The 36-year-old debut novelist is surprised at the runaway success of “There There,” to say the least.
“You’d have to be a sociopath to not be surprised,” Orange said by phone from his home in Angels Camp, Calif.
“It’s a mixed bag, actually,” Orange said. “I wrote for a small audience, thinking people who are Native, especially Native from the city, are really going to get it and be interested. There’s a certain sense of overexposure that is painful. When so many people have an opinion on your work, it feels vulnerable.”
“There There” has received glowing praise and placed Orange on the must-read list since the novel’s June release. In it, he brings to life a chorus of characters all drawn to one event: A powwow at the Oakland Coliseum. Orange grips the reader with his musical prose as he builds suspense with each character’s story, all while educating on a painful and complex history.
Orange, an enrolled member of the Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes of Oklahoma, talked about his book in advance of his appearance at the Central Library as part of the Wisconsin Book Festival.
Q: Why did you choose to have a dozen voices tell one story?
A: I’ve sometimes said I come from a voiceless community. We haven’t heard too many stories of Native people in cities. It’s true that it’s a powerful way to express, to give a dynamic range to a monolithically perceived culture. The truth is I went in to writing a novel knowing that I like novels that have a lot of dynamic voices in them, a choir of voices with a singular vision with stories that braid together. I think it’s a really enjoyable experience for the reader to figure out what the connections are as the arc of the novel moves on. Before I thought of anything political or giving voice to the people that I come from, from a craft level it was a more interesting artistic choice for me. The initial impulse was an artistic one and not a political one.
Q: A lot of characters share some of the same experiences as you. Is one of them more like you than another?
A: Anyone who knows me well and knows my intimate life details could find plenty of me in probably each one. I tend to use real details from my life. Some of the smaller, more quirky things that the characters have, a lot of them come from me. There are certain ones that are definitely a little more literally me, like Dene Oxendene, the filmmaker, who goes before a panel for a storytelling grant in downtown Oakland. I did that. And the Thomas Frank character; my full name is Thomas Frank Orange. I was very plainly taking direct details from my life.
Q: Can you explain the title?
A: I found it when I was researching for the storytelling grant that I applied for. I was looking up quotes about Oakland. It’s a Gertrude Stein quote about Oakland, talking about how she spent her childhood in part of Oakland and left for a while and came back as an adult. In her book “Everybody’s Autobiography,” she’s asked what it’s like to be back in Oakland and she said, “There’s no there there.” She’s referencing the fact that the land that she grew up on was developed over and was unrecognizable. But it’s been used to say that Oakland has no character or no distinction, which is a very convenient way to feel about a place you’re trying to gentrify. I find that it’s been misused.
The metaphor for me was also for Native people living in cities not really having an identity. There’s no there there. Not really feeling like we can belong to a reservation or piece of land. It was about exploring the there there in Oakland, the urban Indian experience.
Q: One of your characters Googles “What does it mean to be a real Indian?” Did the process of writing this book help you understand your heritage?
A: I had to fully come into my own identity and vision of what I wanted to write before I could write what I wrote. So, not really. Whatever characters are struggling through identity is probably something that I already experienced and that was why I was able to write about it. But as far as understanding my own identity and heritage, by the time I started writing it I was aware and comfortable in my identity. I spent 10 years working in the urban Indian community in Oakland.
Q: Did you go to powwows growing up?
A: Not really. I went to one when I was five and I barely remember anything. My dad took me to one when I was 18 after my parents had divorced. He came into town and decided to take us to a Berkeley powwow in a high school gym. It was the first time I ever saw powwow dancing.
Q: Why did you choose to make one the central event in your book?
A: When I was working at the Indian center in Oakland, I was on a powwow committee and we put on a powwow, not at the scale that I have it in the book. Powwows are intertribal, very much what the urban Indian community is in Oakland and other major cities around the country. The idea is that a lot of different people got relocated or decided to relocate and ended up in the city and started up Indian centers where they could be around other Native people. Seventy percent of Native people live in cities now, and when you see each other out there you’re just wearing whatever anyone else wears, whatever style of outfit. But at a powwow everyone dances in regalia and sounds and looks very Indian, and I thought there’s something really interesting about Indians dressing up to look more like Indians.
Q: Do you take your son to powwows?
A: He’s been to a few. My wife and I have worked with a lot of different Native organizations. When we got back from the book tour, we were invited to the Oakland Coliseum for Native American Heritage Night. I’ve helped them do ones in San Francisco for Giants games. The day after we got back from this book tour, we were at the Oakland Coliseum in box seats watching powwow dancers on the field. It was pretty surreal.
Q: That’s basically what you wrote about in your book. That had to be amazing.
A: It was.