When Tommy Orange was looking for a name for his first novel, a masterful narrative intertwining the stories of 12 people living in Oakland all negotiating their Native American identity, he turned to words drawn from Radiohead’s 2003 album, “Hail to the Thief.” The title “There, There” is also a reference to a quote from fellow Oakland native Gertrude Stein, whose devastating quip that the city has “no there there” — however misinterpreted — has endured in Bay Area legend for the better part of a century.
“Just because you feel it / Doesn’t mean it’s there.”
Orange (Cheyenne, Arapaho) grew up in Oakland feeling a profound dearth of narratives stemming from urban Native experiences. He said he saw an ensemble piece as a way to represent the many ways of being Native in a modern city. But he also saw it as a way to show the multi-layered experience many Native people have with their own identity — feeling measured by outsiders’ ideas about Native people, sometimes to the point of questioning the authenticity of their own lives. “I saw people go through this trajectory of proximity and experience,” Orange said, “figuring out identity and how to hold it.”
Five years later, the book’s characters have won over thousands of readers, including Portland-based poet Trevino Brings Plenty (Lakota), who co-hosted the interview. “I worked with a lot of Native folks in nonprofits, doing social work,” Brings Plenty said. “Everyone’s functioning on a spectrum of how close they are to their Native identity, being just a vague story of their family, 10 generations ago, or they’re fully immersed in their culture, knowing language, spiritual practice. That spectrum’s pretty wide.”
Brings Plenty noted the way “There, There” touched on the varying flavors of dissonance Native people experience: comparisons to a perceived idea of Native experience, pressures to assimilate into a colonial worldview, how tribal identities operate far from Indigenous land, and the economic compulsion driving the move into an urban life.
“There, There” was published in June 2018. Brings Plenty’s work can be found in several collections, including the recent anthology “New Poets from Native Nations”.
Since we first brought you this show, Multnomah County Library has chosen “There, There” as the 2020 selection for Everybody Reads, the community-wide book club that encourages discussion on some of today’s most compelling new fiction. Tommy Orange will be back in Oregon in March for a Literary Arts lecture as part of the project.