There, There – Shout out for Tommy Orange

"Thanksgiving is a tradition. It's also a lie."

Watch out for Tommy Orange (Cheyenne, Arapaho). He's one of a group of Indigenous American authors who are making their voices heard - and taking the book world by storm while they're at it. 

His debut novel, There,There adds to a rising shout-out of Urban Native American stories. 

Orange was due to appear at WORD Christchurch this year (now rescheduled to 10-13 November) so keep your eyes peeled for the revised programme when it comes out - fingers crossed he'll still be on it.

There There

"Urban Indians were born in the city. We've been moving for a long time, but the land moves with you, like a memory. An Urban Indian belongs to the city, and cities belong to the earth. Being an Indian has never been about returning to the land. The land is everywhere or nowhere."

Proving that although 'there is no there, there' (Gertrude Stein - meaning things in Oakland just aren't the same), Orange's book represents urban Native American people in Oakland, San Francisco, as still there: not preserved in history, but very much alive in the present.

There There is richly peopled with a large cast of characters who are connected - and not just by the impending robbery at an Oakland powwow.

Twelve characters tell their stories in this book. It's written much like character Dene Oxendene has imagined his interviews to be: as if each character has been asked to speak to a camera, with the producer taking a step back.

"Getting us to cities was supposed to be the final, necessary step in our assimilation, absorption, erasure, the completion of a five-hundred-year-old genocidal campaign. But the city made us new, and we made it ours. We did not move to the cities to die."

Each character's story reveals the disparity of modern life: people in effect living with generational post traumatic syndrome - deceived, decimated, renamed and separated from their land and way of life to live with unemployment and despair - which has led to substance and physical abuse, and suicide.

While confronting the violence behind American tradition and asking questions about modern identity; what it means to be a 'real' Indian, Orange also celebrates the tradition and communion of Native American Nations' survival.   

The impending powwow galvanises the characters into action and brings them together. Some are connected by blood and have lost contact: young people, mothers, fathers, sisters. Many have found redemption, belonging and purpose through working for betterment of their own communities, expressing tradition, preserving stories. Others are linked by the terrible crime they are about to commit: stealing the Dance prize money.

Although this is a modern story, the history of a people systematically hunted down is still close to the surface. The shooting at the powwow brings this experience into a modern arena:

"Something about it will make sense. The bullets have been coming from miles. Years...The tragedy of it all will be unspeakable, the fact that we've been fighting for decades to be recognized as a present-tense people, modern and relevant, alive, only to die in the grass wearing feathers."

Tommy has quickly become well respected in the literary world. If you look at award rounds in the last year, you'll find he's been judging many of them.

There,There was a finalist for the 2019 Pullitzer Prize, and won the 2019 Hemingway Award for debut novel from PEN America, the National Book Critics Circle John Leonard Prize (2019), the Center for Fiction First Novel Prize (2018), and the American Book Award (2019). Phew!

With its engaging modern characters, historical perspective and at times gifted language, There, There left me on the edge of an epiphany.

I really felt that it left many questions unanswered: who survives the attack? Do Red Feathers and Blacks connect? The answer to this is look out for a sequel in 2022. I will.

More Native American fiction

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