Our favorite pick for January 2019
Though it isn’t quite as catchy, perhaps the phrase would be better written: history is only temporarily written by the victors. In his novel There There, Native American author Tommy Orange reclaims Indian history not by revisiting old battle grounds, but through modernizing the Indian narrative and setting it in present day Oakland, where the fragmented mores of tribal culture struggle to survive amongst the cracked and chaotic streets.
Orange presents an intergenerational plethora of characters, often related to one another though it is unbeknownst to them, and their stories overlap based on their most ethereal and complex traits; ethnicity and heritage. Each century of conflict that has defined modern Native Americans is represented, from major massacres to civil rights protests to reservation life to relocation, and it makes for a compelling and informative narrative that goes beyond individual characters and speaks to the Native story as a whole in a way that stands apart in recent fiction.
To accomplish this kaleidoscope of perspective cohesively, Orange organizes the overarching plotline around The Big Oakland Powwow, which draws characters into the event through their magnetic yearning for a greater story beyond their daily lives which are often filled with crime and poverty. The characters grapple with their place in Native American traditions that have died or carried on into modernity differently as a result of the federal enforcement of an assimilation that wiped out their traditional ways of being.
Orange’s characters are obsessed with their sense of place and feel stuck in time, floundering to make sense of lives that don’t match up with what they wanted them to become or believed them to be. The title of the novel comes from a Gertrude Stein quote in which she describes Oakland as having no “there there”. Orange incorporates this sense of no-place into his characters’ existential quandaries and it shadows their lives, all of them wondering where their sense of Indianness has gone and what has taken its place as they intermarry, move away from their original tribes and customs, have their land and personhoods taken by force.
Characters are obsessed with their sense of place and feel stuck in time
Our national legacy of violence looms large in many of the storylines as characters and their descendants begin to self-destruct as a result of their original displacement and degradation by the United States government. Orange includes historical information as he goes, pointing out discriminatory laws that were in effect well into the 1960s, and the impotent rage of the oppressed that, over time, becomes a metastasized shame that infects the whole of contemporary Native American existence in the forms of abuse, alcoholism, and broken families.
For as many characters as Orange includes who are searching for their Indian identity in the ashes of past relationships and pop culture, there are an equal number who strive to pass down the wisdom and customs of their original tribes to the next generation. They struggle to do this in an urban landscape that they have both adapted to and become lost in, and often their best efforts fall on deaf ears. Orange writes: “We are the memories we don’t remember. We know the sound of the freeway better than we do rivers.”
Ultimately Orange suggests that Native Americans’ sharing of their common heritage with one another and reinvigorating their traditions and beliefs will heal some of the rifts in modern Indian life that have left tribal members adrift. However, he doesn’t imply that this will be easy or without trial. Though pride in identity might begin to save a culture, Orange knows that this effort will accomplish nothing without the concrete, physical bond of Indians coming together to recover from their centuries-old griefs.
Without the support of a larger community, without dedicated space to fully express essential culture, minorities wither. In There There Orange acknowledges the challenges that Native Americans have had to face without admitting defeat or surrendering to stigma; the ancient culture that he mourns and lauds by turns will and can survive if its inheritors can cast off their roles as neither victims nor victors. A gripping story of adaption and longing, There There doesn’t let you look away until its characters have had their say, and their voices will stay with you long after the final page is turned.
Kelsey Capps is a writer and Reader in Residence at The Wild Detectives. Her short stories and reviews have been mentioned in a variety of publications including Hobo Pancakes, Literary Hub, and The Guardian, and she is finishing her second novel. You can follow her work and current reads on Instagram at @readwritethecraft.