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Author Tommy Orange's radical approach: Set Native stories in cities, not on reservations

Tommy Orange

Tommy Orange Image courtesy the author

What does it mean to be an urban Indian?

That’s the question author Tommy Orange examines in his much-buzzed-about debut novel, There There. Through the voices of multiple Native characters from diverse circumstances, he captures the essence of a West Coast, city-dwelling Native population in approachably poetic prose.

In the novel, which has been praised by authors like Louise Erdrich and Marlon James, readers meet Tony Loneman, a weed-dealing teen with fetal alcohol syndrome; Dene Oxendene, a young man carrying on his late uncle’s project to film stories of Native people in Oakland; Edwin Black, a Master’s in Comparative Literature grad obsessed with the internet; Opal Viola Victoria Bear Shield, a girl shuttled off to Alcatraz by her mother during the occupation in 1970; and Jacquie Red Feather, an addiction counselor grieving one daughter lost to adoption and another to drugs.

These are just some of the characters who populate the novel, all of whom are tied in some way to each other and to Oakland, California.

Many of Orange’s characters question whether they’re “Indian enough,” a response to society’s monolithic image of what Native people are “supposed” to be like. “I think a lot of Native people struggle with what it means for them to be Native. I struggled in my own particular way,” he says.

Orange was born to a Native father and a white mother in Oakland. He lived on a street with six other families that had kids his age; they were all biracial, though he was the only Native one. His father was fluent in Cheyenne but didn’t pass on the language, though he did tell Orange stories and took Orange to visit Oklahoma, where he grew up. A lackluster student, Orange became a musician, and obtained a degree in sound engineering only to find there weren’t many job prospects.

Around age 23, he began searching for meaning. His father, a Native American Church leader, and his mother, a Christian Evangelical, were “both pretty serious about religion and God,” he says. He didn’t connect with their concepts of faith, so he sought out philosophy and religious texts to form his own.

When a job opened up at a bookstore near his then-residence in Oakland, he applied. He says the woman who hired him “gave me the job because she needed to move two warehouses into one and I could lift a lot of books.” It was there that he stumbled into fiction, completely fell in love, and forgot about any kind of future in sound engineering.

When he began writing There There, Orange knew he wanted to focus on urban Indians, a population underrepresented in literature, which appears to prefer Native narratives set on reservations.

“It doesn’t make any sense to me because we’ve been living in cities for a long time,” Orange says. “It’s not like it’s completely absent, but it doesn’t feel as prominent.”

He doesn’t have a theory about why that is but supposes it’s due to publishers thinking that such stories aren’t marketable. He points out that it’s hard enough to get published as a Native writer, much less one who writes about Native people in unconventional ways, even as what he calls the “trend of diversity” gains momentum in the publishing world.

Writing There There was a “lonely” experience for the author because he didn’t feel like he had any models or examples to follow. On the other hand, “because I hadn’t seen anybody do it, there was an openness to experiment,” he says.

Orange always knew he wanted a large cast of characters for the novel. “I really liked what a chorus of voices could do for a singular vision of a novel,” he says. “We have a dynamic range of tribes and histories that create dynamic people.”

His characters have a penchant for examining their faces in mirrors and other reflective surfaces, a device that serves as a “kind of a meditation on how we see ourselves, how we reflect on who we are,” he says. “It’s also related to screens being such a dominant thing in our lives. Native people, we don’t really see ourselves depicted on screens very much, or if we do, it’s a historical image, and it’s often not a very positive one.”

Orange’s characters are not saints; they carry tortured pasts and make ill-advised decisions. Some drink or do drugs, some are thieves or thugs, others inflict physical and sexual violence on women, and many of the characters’ fathers are absent.

“As has been pointed out to me, there are stereotypes in the book,” Orange admits. “I wasn’t trying to write stereotypes. There are just certain things that are true about our community that I wanted to try and find a way to write about them in a new and interesting way.” Orange’s approach to his characters is both candid and tender. Most of them seem to be striving to be and do better, to understand their place in Oakland and their role in Native culture.

For Orange, it wasn’t until adulthood, when he worked in the urban Indian community of Oakland, that he felt like he was part of a “specific kind of Native community.” Now an enrolled member of the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes of Oklahoma, he is the father of a multicultural child, too. His son’s mother is half-Chinese and half-white.

“It’s tricky to talk about [ethnicity] in any kind of dominant way,” he says. “He’s only seven, so there’s not that many conversations that make sense to have yet, so I’m just going to do my best as we go.”

As for the book, he says his hope is “that people expand their idea of what Native people are and can be.”

IF YOU GO:

Tommy Orange, There There
7 p.m. Wednesday, June 27
Lake of the Isles Lutheran Church
2020 W. Lake of the Isles Pkwy., Minneapolis