There There by Tommy Orange chronicles the lives of Native Americans in his hometown of Oakland, California. The result is a portrait of a community often erased from depictions of urban life.
After many years of discussing books together San Quentin News senior editor Juan Haines and Berkeley graduate, Democracy Now producer and SQN volunteer, Libby Rainey jointly reviewed There There.
San Quentin News aims to tell stories about humanity and redemption that challenge assumptions about who imprisoned people are. In discussing books not only about mass incarceration, but also about America, love and loss, history and family, we get a better understanding of ourselves.
Libby: There There takes its name from a misinterpretation of a famous Gertrude Stein quote. In 1937, Stein wrote of her hometown Oakland, California “there’s no there there.” Her words have been cemented into cultural history as a literary diss of Oakland. But in There There, Dene Oxendene, a Native American also raised in Oak- land knows Stein is referring to the far-reaching changes that Oakland has underwent over the years, however:
For Native people in this country, all over the Americas, it’s been developed over, buried ancestral land, glass and concrete and wire and steel, un-returnable covered memory. There is no there there.
Just as Dene rejects the man’s incorrect understanding of the quote, Orange challenges racist portrayals of Native American people.
In its opening Orange writes, “We’ve been defined by everyone else and continue to be slandered despite easy-to-look-up-on-the-internet facts about the realities of our histories and current state as people.”
Orange – a member of the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes of Oklahoma– offers a rebuke of these stories with a collage of stories about Native people across generations, classes, experiences and gender.
The novel rejects narratives of death and defeat, in- stead focuses on resistance and resilience. Orange writes, “Getting us to the cities was supposed to be the final necessary step in our assimilation, absorption, erasure, the completion of a five-hundred- year-old genocidal campaign. But the city made us new, and we made it ours.”
Juan: There There weaves Native American traditions into present-day urban life with strong over- tones of suffering, broken promises, genocide and assimilation — there’s also cultural pride as well as cultural shame.
Orange created 12 distinct characters to illustrate the conflict, tension, drama, turmoil and anguish. The story’s authenticity comes from a narrative steeped in Native American culture.
An example, when Dene Oxendene finds out that his uncle is dying and asks: “How much time—”
“We don’t have time, Nephew, time has us. It holds us in its mouth like an owl holds a field mouse. We shiver. We Struggle for release, and then it pecks out our eyes and intestines for sustenance and we die the death of field mice.”
Tony Loneman, a major character, sees himself as someone with strong intuition and street smarts… “I’m smart where it counts,” But acknowledges that is not how other people see him — they see a generic Native boy.
Native American genocide haunts this passage, but Tony’s presence on the train represents survival. It raises a question often asked in the novel: what does it mean to be Native Americans in urban America?
Libby: This question of self-image recurs in There There. The characters often catch sight of their reflections – such as Tony Lone-man in a TV screen or Dene Oxendene in the scuffed window of a BART train car.
Through their reflections, the characters confront their own images and the way they relate to their present environment. Orange writes, Native Americans, “…ride buses, trains, and cars across, over, and under concrete plains. Being Indian has never been about re- turning to the land. The land is everywhere or nowhere.”
Juan: As the story continues, Opal Viola Victoria Bear Shield tells Orvil about Native American heritage:
“…Don’t ever let anyone tell you what being Indian means. Too many of us died to get just a little bit of us here, right now, right in this kitchen. You, me. Every part of our people that made it precious. You’re Indian because you’re Indian be- cause you’re Indian…”
Each character experiences his or her identity differently. A character named
Blue’s perspective was created after being estranged from Native American culture:
“I knew I wasn’t white. But not all the way. Because while my hair is dark and my skin is brown, when I look in the mirror, I see myself from the inside out. And inside I feel as white as the long while pill-shaped throw pillow my mom always made me keep on my bed even thought I never used it.”
Libby: The novel builds to a powwow at the Oakland Coliseum – an event that brings all the storylines and characters of the novel finally into common space and time—a crescendo.
Juan: Just before the pow-wow begins, Orange delivers Orvil Red Feather’s perspective as to who he wants to be:
“Orvil looks around the room, and he sees all these men dressed up like him. They all needed to dress up to look Indian too. There’s something like the shaking of feathers he felt somewhere between his heart and his stomach.”
But, the quote that captures the spirit of the book for me:
“When you see the bubbles on the side of your grand- mother’s face you’ll know that you don’t have to struggle to find the hero, the hero has found you — ‘they’re, there’ in the kitchen of your home.”
There There is about the banality of daily life and moments that change everything and it demands to be read once, twice and then again.