There There is a relentlessly paced multigenerational story about violence and recovery, memory and identity, and the beauty and despair woven into the history of a nation and its people. It tells the story of twelve characters, each of whom have pri...
There There is the first novel by Cheyenne and Arapaho author Tommy Orange. Published in 2018, it opens with an essay by Orange as a prologue, and then proceeds to follow a large cast of Native Americans living in the area of Oakland, California, as they struggle with a wide array of challenges ranging from depression and alcoholism, to unemployment, fetal alcohol syndrome, and the challenges of living with an ethnic identity of being "ambiguously nonwhite." All coalesce at a community pow wow and its attempted robbery.
The book explores the themes of Native peoples living in urban spaces (Urban Indians), and issues of ambivalence and complexity related to Natives' struggles with identity and authenticity. There There was favorably received, and was a finalist for the 2019 Pulitzer Prize.The book was also awarded a Gold Medal for First Fiction by the California Book Awards.
Tommy Orange (born 1982) is a novelist and a writer from Oakland, California, United States. His first book There There was one of the finalists for the 2019 Pulitzer Prize.
Orange was also the recipient of 2019 American Book Awards. Orange is an enrolled member of the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes of Oklahoma. He attended Institute of American Indian Arts and earned the Masters in Fine Arts. He was born and raised in Oakland, California and currently resides in Murphys, California, where he lives with his wife and son.
The title of Tommy Orange’s bold debut novel is a reference to Gertrude Stein’s line about the city of her childhood, Oakland, California: “there is no there there”, she wrote. Oakland happens also to be Orange’s home town and provides the setting for the book, which has attracted many admiring reviews in the US.
The novel centres on the interconnected lives of a group of Native Americans – or Indians, as they call themselves, determined to reclaim a term more often used disparagingly. Orange, himself a member of the Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes of Oklahoma, deals not just with several centuries of oppression of the Native American community (which a brief, dryly witty prologue deals with in a devastatingly matter-of-fact way), but how rites and tradition can seem comically anachronistic in a world of “glass, metal, rubber, and wires, the speed, the hurtling masses” in which “the city took us in”. The book steers clear of the antique romance of the open plains; for that, as Orange wryly notes: “we have… Kevin Costner saving us, John Wayne slaying us [and] an Italian guy named Iron Eyes Cody playing our parts in movies”.
Instead, we encounter contemporary Indian life in all its messy and relatable complexity. The first character we meet, Tony Loneman, is the darkest, a 21-year-old drifter affected by foetal alcohol syndrome. It is his determination to rob the Big Oakland Powwow that gives the book its central narrative, and builds to a violent and unsettling ending that reflects the way in which the exchange of bullets has remained part of American life. Yet many of the other strands are lighter and more optimistic, encapsulating the breadth of human experience. We are introduced to the obese Edwin Black, living out his grand dreams in the seclusion of his mother’s house, but brought low by banal reality; Black is both literally and metaphorically constipated. The would-be documentarian Dene Oxendene is awarded a grant to film first-hand accounts of the Native American experience. Orvil Red Feather, who is attending the powwow, dresses up in “too-small-for-him stolen regalia” and worries that he looks ridiculous. And in the novel’s most touching storyline, estranged sisters Jacquie and Opal attempt to make amends for past misdeeds, even as the consequences of those wrongdoings return to surprise them. Orange has construed Gertrude Stein’s comment to mean that the city she knew as a child had vanished; as Oxendene muses, “so much development had happened [in Oakland] that the there of her childhood, the there there, was gone, there was no there there any more…it’s what happened to Native people”. Oakland, and the ill-fated powwow it hosts, comes to represent the Indian experience. An ersatz attempt at recapturing a bygone era, complete with dancers and MCs, is thrown into relief by a hail of bullets tearing it to shreds.
If There There is at times an angry and demanding book (keeping track of the characters’ relation to one another is a challenge in itself), it is also a humane one. Harvey, the bumptious MC of the powwow, and Jacquie bring to the novel a strong element of compassion. The two of them reconnect after a fateful encounter decades before during the Occupation of Alcatraz,1969-71, when a group of Native Americans tried to reclaim the disused prison island, which had originally been tribal territory. The relationship between them, fractious, gruff and eventually giving way to hard-won mutual understanding, is affecting and surprising, and comes to represent Orange’s philosophy that, even amid confusion and violence, there is the possibility for decency to assert itself.
It is this optimism, rather than the nihilism of Tony Loneman, that lingers after finishing the book. Fragile and flawed though this hope might be, it remains moving and powerful, just like the rest of Orange’s impressive achievement.
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