Author: Tommy Orange
Type: Fiction, novel
I read it: October 2018
If there’s a snapshot of what it’s like to be Indian (or Native American, or… see below) in a big city today, Tommy Orange’s There There has to be it. The title is a nod to a Radiohead song (“just ’cause you feel it doesn’t mean it’s there”), while also calling to mind the patronizing phrase “there there,” and perhaps also pointing to the various geographies that Indians have historically lost, both there and there, and probably also hinting at many other interpretations. What a slyly effective title.
The book encompasses the points of view of multiple characters, young and old, male and female, mostly in and around the Oakland area. Their various paths build up to a pow-wow in a sports stadium, and the reader knows early on that something devastating will happen there (there!). During the climb to that dreadful peak, Tommy Orange leads us through the complicated, depressing, funny, hopeful, and catastrophic realities of his characters. Some of the writing is essay-like, and Orange creates for himself a cipher in one character, Dene Oxendene, whose goal is to create a video documentary of the lives of various Indians he interviews. This feels much like the novel itself, and one wonders whether Orange could have chosen to simply write a non-fiction book instead.
Threaded through every single page is the search for what it means to be Indian. An exasperated grandmother, Opal Viola Victoria Bear Shield, explains to a family member that “Anything you hear from me about your heritage does not make you more or less Indian. You’re Indian because you’re Indian because you’re Indian.” An attempt at categorization is made in one long paragraph that begins:
We are Indians and Native Americans, American Indians and Native American Indians, North American Indians, Natives, NDNs and Ind’ins, Status Indians and Non-Status Indians, First Nations Indians and Indians so Indian we either think about the fact of it every single day or we never think about it at all.
The list of possible phrases goes on and on, and then ends with the inevitable subject of bloodlines: “We are full-blood, half-breed, quadroon, eighths, sixteenths, thirty-seconds. Undoable math. Insignificant remainders.”
One potential downside is the number of characters and POVs, which can give a cobbled together feeling. For example, a chapter written in the second person “you” is gripping, but the tactic seems arbitrary instead of essential. The confusion around the number of characters is enhanced by having a few timelines slip out of the present, so you have to keep track of both the who and the when. But Orange does an admirable job of taking on a lot of subjects, and even though there are pages where it feels like he is talking directly to the reader instead of filtering ideas through the characters, the story is written in a white heat, and feels authentic and whole. This is a book that’s bound to end up on dozens of year-end lists, and thankfully it was worth the hype.
Fun fact: I wrote this review on
Columbus Day Indigenous Peoples’ Day. Fun fact!