Tommy Orange’s Debut, ‘There There’, Signals an Exciting New Era for Native American Fiction

There There positions Orange as the luminary who will reignite the Native American literary movement.

There There
Tommy Orange
Jun 2018

Tommy Orange‘s There There is an intensively penetrating debut novel. Informed by generations of genocide and subjugation, Orange sets the novel in present-day Oakland. A multigenerational saga centered around 12 interconnected characters, Orange uses their stories to contextualize the urban Indian. Orange details their lives down to the quotidian then flawlessly threads in the legacies of violence and the historical struggle against subjugation. For Orange and his characters, predecessor familial roots are the means of constructing cultural and individual identity. Throughout, he emphasizes the value of ancestral connection and cultural traditions. The latter, as readers will find out, is more difficult to uncover than the ubiquitous and dominant history of violence. Ultimately, the characters’ determination to reconnect to their annihilated traditions is the novel’s momentum.

Orange is not writing for a distracted reader. The novel is engrossing and relies on complicated interconnected narratives built from small details, some subtle while others explicit. There There is based entirely on character exposition, as the novel’s climax only occurs within the last 30 pages. Rereading chapters and contemplating character motivations is essential in deciphering their core identity, especially when they all converge at the Big Oakland Pow Wow. However, in the last few pages it is evident that the readers’ character awareness is superficial.

Orange unequivocally proves there is no way to understand an individual after minimal interaction. Here he is critical of the tendency by outsiders to proclaim an understanding of Native American identity as a whole. Rather this only reaffirms essentialism and superficiality. There There ends with no closure or finite resolution. An apt allegory for the history of Native Americans up to the present and the inability for society to make concessions or begin to seek forgiveness from the legacy of genocide.

Orange is not the first author to depict the Urban Indian. For Orange’s characters, as for authors before him, the connections to reservations and ancestral lands are sinuous, or more likely extinct. All 12 characters are more familiar with “the sound of the freeway better than [the] rivers, the howl of distant trains better than wolf howls” (11). As depicted by Orvil Red Feather’s narrative, their histories now collide with modernity.

Orvil finds native dress hidden in his grandmother’s closet. In secret, he dons the attire but his cultural knowledge is so limited he doesn’t even know if it’s on correctly. Orvil learns to dance for the Pow Wow from YouTube. His brothers desire bikes to ride to the Pow Wow and iPods to listen to the drums of traditional Native American music. For Orvil and his brothers, they learn everything about their culture from online sources “from watching hours and hours of documentaries on YouTube, by reading all that there was to read on sites like Wikipedia,” (121). Orange masterfully complicates the influence of contemporary society on one’s kinship. The boys’ disconnection and draw to learn their heritage reflects all the characters stories but is made most visible by Dene Oxedene.

Dene, a burgeoning filmmaker, is determined to capture Native American narratives before they dissipate. His need to honor Native American voices is an earnest attempt at capturing a fleeting cultural memory while valuing the tradition of storytelling. As he laments, “Because all we got now are reservation stories and shitty versions from outdated history textbooks” (167). When he applies for grant money to support his project, the committee’s critiques are myopic, apathetic, and condescending; a clear symbol of society’s tendency to trivialize and discredit the cultural contributions from people of color. Dene’s story represents dominant culture’s inability to grasp the importance of Native Americans’ tradition and cultural legacy.

The title for the novel is derived from Gertrude Stein’s phrase “there is no there there”. She made the pronouncement after visiting the location of her childhood home, demolished to make space for a new office park. Stein underscores the contested relationship between modernity and history. Dene applies her quote to “Native people in this country, all over the Americas, it’s been developed over, buried ancestral land… unreturnable covered memory” (39). However, there’s a hint of optimism buried beneath the obliteration. Orvil and Dene are proactive about reclaiming their cultural histories. Indeed, modernity changes their understanding of tradition, however, both characters are galvanized by reconnection.

Orange’s use of popular culture is ubiquitous yet subtle and undoubtedly intellectualized. Radiohead is referenced several times, specifically their single, “There There“. An apt subtext, the song and novel both unpack the trepidation associated with accepting reality while balancing faith. The lyrics “Just ’cause you feel it / Doesn’t mean it’s there” reflects the characters’ search for identity and community while contending with societal alienation. The song easily applies to Dene and Orvil but also to Jacquie Red Feather, who abandoned her children, and Thomas Frank, a functioning alcoholic. Finally, Opal Viola Victoria Bear Shield listens to Smokey Robinson’s “The Track of My Tears” because “it asks you to carry sadness and heartbreak but dance while doing so” (162). Opal indelibly establishes the need to persevere despite the challenges caused by edifying malaise.

There There signals an exciting new era for Native American fiction. Orange lends a critical voice that at once denudes the reality of cultural genocide while evoking a glimmer of encouragement. There There positions Orange as the luminary who will reignite the Native American literary movement.

RATING 9 / 10