Tommy Orange Tells Tribal Tales in His Debut Novel

As a Native American who grew up in Oakland, he has the chops to spin stories about Native struggles in an urban setting.


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Tommy Orange’s literary debut shines a light on urban Native American life in Oakland.

Photo by Elena Seibert

Tommy Orange’s first novel, a taut, passionate tale of urban Native American life called There There, started a bidding war in the publishing world won by Knopf, which released an impressive 65,000 copies of the book in June. Born and raised in Oakland, Orange has been lauded by authors Louise Erdrich and Margaret Atwood, among others, for writing one of the first novels that addresses the plight of urban Native Americans. There There follows the struggles of Native Americans to find their place in the world as incidents from Native history continually trip them up. Twelve characters of various ages, all at least partly Native American, tell their stories throughout the chapters, then come together at an explosive, life-changing “Big Oakland Powwow” set at the Coliseum — and imagined by Orange with heartrending empathy and powerful language.

The book title reflects Gertrude Stein’s quote, “There’s no there there.” “Stein was talking about how she spent her childhood in Oakland and left and came back, and there was no there there for her — it was developed over and had changed so much,” said Orange. “For Native people, you can see the metaphor, but it’s also talking about Oakland.” His multigenerational characters range from 10-year-old Orvil Red Feather, who has learned Native dances off You Tube, to Opal Viola Victoria Bear Shield, his aunt, who has tried to shield her three nephews from their heritage. Orange felt drawn to the multivoice approach: “Coming from a community that felt voiceless in the larger scheme of things, as far as movies and literature, as far as representation goes, it felt like the right decision to have a whole bunch of voices come out, as opposed to one or two,” Orange said.

Orange shows all sides of his characters, good and bad. “I am from the school of making your characters complex and resemble humans, and that’s what I love about fiction; it helps you to build empathy for characters who are complex and doing not-so-great things, but also have stories that make you understand where those decisions come from. It’s more interesting for me to represent somebody in a whole way, even though we do appear to have actual villains in our world now.”

An early chapter of There There takes place in 1969 at an event known as the Occupation of Alcatraz, when a group of 79 Native Americans took over the island for 14 months.

“When I was working at the Native American Health Center in Oakland, we took some youth over [to Alcatraz] and brought in some women who had been on the island at that time, and they told their stories. I always felt like it would be part of my book. There’s something so perfect about the idea of Native people occupying a prison island.

“It was an intertribal movement, too. That’s a big part of why I used an Oakland powwow, because it’s intertribal and contemporary and traditional at the same time. It fits the urban Indian experience.”

Orange, who lives with his family in Angels Camp, is an enrolled member of the Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes of Oklahoma. He teaches at the Institute of American Indian Arts, where he received his MFA. He’s hard at work on his next project set in the same world — after the powwow — which hopefully will shed more light on the urban Native experience in Oakland’s own backyard.

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