Early in Tommy Orange’s impressive debut novel There There, young aspiring filmmaker Dene Oxendene gives an oral presentation to a panel of judges considering his pet project for a grant. Laying out his vision for a documentary about the lives and culture of the modern-day Urban Indian (the term used for Native Americans living in major American cities like the novel’s Oakland, California setting), Dene tells the judges: “I want to bring something new to the vision of the Native experience as it’s seen on the screen. We haven’t seen the Urban Indian story.”

Dene’s movie pitch is a thin veil for Orange’s own goals in writing There There. It is surely no coincidence that Dene introduces himself to the panel as “an enrolled member of the Cheyenne and Arpaho tribes of Oklahoma,” a phrase repeated word-for-word in the author bio on the book’s dust jacket. Orange and Dene both realise the pitfalls of telling any part of the Native American story. As Dene puts it: “What we’ve seen is full of the kinds of stereotypes that are the reason no one is interested in the Native story in general, it’s too sad, so sad it can’t even be entertaining.”

Orange must love a challenge: if he wants his work to overcome this inherent sadness, to rise above the level of a dirge, he starts by digging himself into a mighty deep hole. The novel’s prologue starts as a litany of atrocities that the Native people have endured at the hands of Europeans who came to settle the vast tract of land that they would yank away for themselves to make the United States of America. Orange shows us betrayals, massacres, beheadings, often spelled out in gory detail. Here’s a relatively innocuous taste: “In 1637, anywhere from four to seven hundred Pequot gathered for their annual Green Corn Dance. Colonists surrounded their village, set it on fire, and shot any Pequot who tried to escape.”

As a history buff, I’ve more than once googled claims like these before. In my experience, they are rarely exaggerated. The cast of characters that populates Orange’s fiction lives under this very real cloud, the ghost of gunsmoke that hung over battlefields carpeted with the bodies of their ancestors. It takes guts to dive headlong into this abyss of genocide, to plunge his readers in with him, to make them swim in the brutality. The guilt it will evoke in some, the horror it will trigger in all, are enough to make many drop the book on reflex. But Orange clearly understands that he has little choice if he’s aiming for an honest portrayal of the Native community. He must realise that a character’s heritage matters as much as her personal backstory. Just as a Daughter of the American Revolution, the grandson of Italian immigrants and the descendant of African slaves will each carry cultural baggage with them, so too will the Native living on a reservation or in an inner city. The difference for the Native, Orange argues, is that the Native has had her baggage robbed. “All the way from the top of Canada, the top of Alaska, down to the bottom of South America, Indians were removed, then reduced to a feathered image.” Orange can’t afford to assume we all have our facts straight, when for so long we’ve had those facts fed to us with a heaping tablespoon of sugar, or else withheld from us entirely.

Characters vary in age, gender, size, shape and personality, and Orange alters his voice, freely switching tenses as well as tweaking grammar and syntax in a Faulknerian feat of literary ventriloquism, to fully inhabit each one.”

With the sad truth laid bare, his mission declared, Orange slides into his fiction. But how do you tell the tragic story of a people and keep your readers wanting more? For much of the early chapters, Orange seems to be feeling his way. Each chapter begins the story of a different character. Characters vary in age, gender, size, shape and personality, and Orange alters his voice, freely switching tenses as well as tweaking grammar and syntax in a Faulknerian feat of literary ventriloquism, to fully inhabit each one. First we meet Tony Loneman, a man whose fetal alcohol syndrome (which he calls ‘the Drome’) takes up as much of his self-identity as his Native heritage, and whose shady associations infuse the book with an early sense of foreboding. Dene and the story of his filmmaking aspirations come next, followed by Opal Viola Victoria Bear Shield, whose childhood included joining her mother as an uncomprehending accomplice in the ill-fated ‘occupation’ of Alcatraz by Native activists that spanned November 1969 to June 1971.

Each of the voices is Native in some way, and although they often seem completely disparate, their stories all link up to a single event: the Big Oakland Powwow, a planned gathering at the Oakland Coliseum to celebrate Native culture. Each character has some motivation for being there. There’s the teenage boy who’s only recently connected to his roots and wants to join the traditional dancers performing that day with moves he learned on YouTube. There’s the young writer looking to meet the father he tracked down online (the father happens to be the powwow MC). Dene Oxendene plans to film interviews with attendees who want to share stories, while Tony Loneman plans to show up, armed, for more sinister purposes.

As the pages fly by, the dozen or so story currents begin to converge toward the powwow’s gravitational pull. Orange writes: “We all came to the Big Oakland Powwow for different reasons. The messy, dangling strands of our lives got pulled into a braid – tied to the back of everything we’d been doing all along to get us here. We’ve been coming from miles. And we’ve been coming for years, generations, lifetimes, layered in prayer and handwoven regalia, beaded and sewn together, feathered, braided, blessed and cursed.”

Something very bad will happen at the powwow, and more than one of the characters Orange weaves in from the beginning will end up with blood on their hands. But a funny thing happens as Orange places us in the heads of these people whom many would call villains: in learning about their pasts, about their upbringing, about the loved ones by whom they try to do right, we gain empathy. And it’s through this same empathy that Orange allows his characters a measure of redemption. We see this kind of redemption halfway into the book through Jacquie Red Feather, who was raped as a teenager, who became pregnant as a result, and who gave her baby up for adoption. Because, as she puts it, “we’re both fuckups and the Indian world is small”, she happens to meet her rapist at an AA meeting. The man she meets is not a monster, but a flawed human being who recognises his demons and now tries to keep them at bay. And though she can’t bring herself to forgive, Jacquie falls into accommodating this revelation, and moving on somehow.

Yes, bad things happen at the powwow, but Orange’s deft narration rescues the story from becoming a tragedy. The same could be said about his treatment of an entire people’s history. Speaking to the grant judges, Dene Oxendene vents further about public perceptions of the Native experience: “Because of the way it’s been portrayed, it looks pathetic, and we perpetuate that, but no, fuck that, excuse my language, but it makes me mad, because the whole picture is not pathetic, and the individual people and stories that you come across are not pathetic or weak or in need of pity, and there is real passion there, and rage, and that’s part of what I’m bringing to the project, because I feel that way too.” One wonders if at some point in his career Orange faced a similar panel, and used the same words himself.

There is genuine rage between the lines of this book. It is entirely justified, but on its own it would do no good. It’s by diving deep into the hearts of his characters that Orange finds a way, if not to forgive the past, then at least to accommodate it. In so doing, Orange demonstrates a means for them to keep moving forward – something, he suggests, that the people they represent have been doing all along.

 

Tommy Orange was born and raised in Oakland, California. He is an enrolled member of the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes of Oklahoma and currently lives in Angels Camp, California. A recent graduate from the MFA programme at the Institute of American Indian Arts, he is a 2014 MacDowell Fellow and a 2016 Writing by Writers Fellow. There There, his first novel, is published in hardback, eBook and audio download by Harvill Secker.
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Author portrait © Elena Seibert

Brett Marie, also known as Mat Treiber, grew up in Montreal with an American father and a British mother and currently lives in Herefordshire. His short stories and other writing have appeared in publications including The New Plains Review, The Impressment Gang, PopMatters and Bookanista, where he is a contributing editor. He recently completed his first novel The Upsetter Blog.
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