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 Orange’s 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.”
Orange told OPB, in a conversation recorded at Portland Book Festival, that it was a reading with a group of Native youth in Oakland that spurred him to get the book off the ground.
His wife was a project director for a suicide prevention program that organized a trip to Alcatraz Island — famously occupied by Native activists in 1969-1970.
“We had elders tell stories about their experience there, and did an author reading,” Orange said. “I’ve maybe never been more scared to read in front of anybody. They were very hard to impress.”
Nevertheless, Orange read them parts of the prologue and interlude — and the kids very much reacted. They had questions.
“That was a big moment for me to know I should keep going,” he said.
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.
“As I read through the book I really recognized myself as an urban Native with each character,” he said.
One of the novel’s characters, who carries the name Opal Viola Victoria Bearshield, responds to her great-nephew’s questions about identity, saying, “Anything I could tell you, about your heritage, does not make you more or less in the end.” Orange said this passage was informed by his father, who spoke no English and encountered only Native people until the age of five. But Orange added, for some Native people, knowledge of one’s Native history — particularly in his father’s case — is complicated.
“Part of why he raised us with my mom in Oakland was because that side of him, that place in him meant pain and loss,” Orange said. “He was trying, maybe, to protect us from some of that.”
“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”.