Author Tommy Orange’s book talk with Tacoma Mayor Victoria Woodards — who selected his new novel There There for Tacoma Reads 2019 — was, unsurprisingly, sold out. It’s difficult to read the New York Times bestselling novel — told from the intergenerational perspectives of 12 urban Native Americans attempting to define their cultural identity — without being moved. It’s difficult to read There There without wanting to meet the man behind the lyrical and heartbreaking book, whose sudden success on the literary scene seems to have come out of nowhere.
Those of us who had the privilege to hear Orange recently interviewed by Woodards at Tacoma’s Rialto Theater walked away knowing more about the writer and his journey to his first novel.
“I came to writing pretty late: I didn’t write as a kid. But by the time I did come to it in my early 20s, I was completely convinced that it was what I wanted to do,” said Orange, who spoke about years of submitting stories to publications and the experience of repeatedly being told ‘no.’ “Over the years, I wrote silently, not telling anyone I was doing it. And then I found out I was going to be a father and a couple weeks later got the idea for the novel. There was something about the seriousness of becoming a father that made me want to take on a project that was something more than what I was already writing.”
Orange, who said he worked on the book for about six years, is an enrolled member of Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes of Oklahoma and grew up in Oakland, where most of the novel is set. The importance of There There was driven home by statements made by members of the Puyallup Tribe, who welcomed Orange to the stage with traditional songs and opening remarks.
“This book is of special interest around here,” said David Bean, elected member of the Puyallup Tribal Council. “The Puyallup Tribe is one of the most urban reservations in the country. This book gives a voice to urban Indians; it answers questions that we ask: Who are we? What are we? Urban Natives have to learn to walk in two worlds. This book tells the story of the urban Native who wants to hold onto their culture while living in the hustle and bustle of the big city.”
There are many important avenues through which non-native people should educate themselves about discrimination against and genocide of Native Americans, many of which are nonfiction accounts that unpack and shed light on historical truths. Orange, however, reminded us that it is possible for fiction to be among those impactful tools.
“I like what fiction can do because . . . you are asked to step into the shoes of a character and get a sense of what this person is feeling,” Orange said. “And if you can take those facts and ideas and have that character experience those, you can elicit a reaction that doesn’t happen in nonfiction. You can trick people into thinking it’s entertainment,” he laughed, “and then you trap them with the ideas and facts after that.”
Orange said that his hope for his novel and for novels like his by Indigenous writers is that they can keep Native issues at the forefront of the cultural imagination.
“I hope there is a sustained interest in and sustained publication of Native voices,” Orange said. “In the past, the Civil Rights movement was followed by a Native American renaissance, and that died out. In the 90s, Dances with Wolves happened . . . and there was more attention in the publishing world toward Native authors. And it died out again. Then there was Standing Rock, and that brought attention back to Native authors. So, there’s this renaissance again, but what we’re hoping for is that there is a sustained interest, and that we don’t need to have something horrific happen in order for there to be a renaissance.”
Orange announced at the end of the interview that he is in the process of writing a sequel to There There. But, of course, we by no means should wait until the release of that book to keep educating ourselves about and showing support to Native communities. To continue the momentum generated by the book and the discussion, Tacoma Public Library for the first time has extended the scope of Tacoma Reads to include special events organized and led by Native writers, artists, and activists, which will take place across the city through November.
“I believe this (is) a pretty innovative concept for Tacoma Reads, as in the past, it’s only been the community read and author visit,” said Mariesa Bus, public information officer at Tacoma Public Library. “Our idea is to explore the themes of the book through curated experiences for all ages — and I firmly believe that with Tommy Orange’s There There as our guide, this interpretation should be up to members of the Indigenous community. We are fortunate to be working with these amazing, multi-media, multi-generational artists.”
These events include a short film series curated by Tracy Rector called Doing the Work! at The Grand Cinema on Oct. 7, a mosaic of Native female storytellers sharing Coast Salish and Urban Native perspectives on Oct. 27, and a family day to celebrate Indigenous artists on Nov. 10. Find a full list of events and check back for updates here.
Last Friday’s event also included gifts given by the City of Tacoma — a glass piece made by Hilltop Artists — and the Puyallup Tribe — a blanket, a cedar woven headband, a basket, and a carving of a bear — to Tommy Orange to thank him for visiting Tacoma and for the groundbreaking literary contribution that is There There.