Tommy Orange, "There There"
Review of There There, by Tommy Orange
Book of the Month, June 2020
Written by Las Comadres Book Club member, Serena V.
There are several reasons why There There was a great book for Las Comadres last month. First, our group decided to be more intentional about the stories we read. We saw a dire need to include stories by Native writers, given that some of us have Indigenous heritage. Second, our own Washington NFL Football team just announced that they will do a “thorough review” of the team name amid growing pressure from corporate sponsors, and undoubtedly decades of demands from Native communities across the country. Tommy Orange’s There There gives us a timely perspective on these larger discussions of identity and (mis)representation.
The story revolves around twelve characters, and culminates in a large event, the Big Oakland Pow Wow. These characters grapple with gentrification, alcoholism, domestic abuse, sexual assault, poverty, abandonment, addiction, limited opportunities and erasure, to name a few. All share a connection to Oakland, California, an area known for increasing gentrification, also a space that generations of Natives have called home. Orange's depiction of Urban Indians expands beyond the older, traditional narrative of reservations, warriors and massacres.
Orange did a great deal in this book. He spent time building compelling characters. I found myself wanting to get to know each character more deeply, and curious about what would happen at the Big Oakland Pow Wow. I found myself concerned for Jacquie Red Feather and Opal Victoria, both as young adults that had to grow up too fast, and as older women trying to get through life. He educated us that being Native is multidimensional and complicated. We learned about Alcatraz, adopted Natives, ambiguous tribal status, meaning and origins of last names, blood, and rolling heads. Orange graciously provided context with nuance. For instance, the stereotype of the “drunk Indian” dissolves when you get to know the lonely, biracial janitor with eczema, the woman who was raped and abandoned at a young age, the drug dealer who lost his father to gun violence, and mother and brother in a car accident. The reader no longer sees alcohol as a mere disease, but digs deeper to understand the people who hurt, long for safety, and need support that isn't there.
Reflection and identity are recurring themes throughout the book. Several characters see their image reflected in mirrors and car windows, while others look for themselves and a connection to others by learning to dance or searching for a long-lost parent. Orange writes about the struggle people face when they have limited knowledge of who they are, and when they don’t see themselves reflected in the world around them. It’s no surprise that this book about identity and survival comes to a head at a pow wow, the space where Indians can freely exhibit their Indian-ness, connecting with their heritage and other Indians, in ritual and spirit.
Analyzing this book comforted me and proved difficult at the same time. My own father, dark-skinned with unidentified indigenous lineage tracing back to current-day south Texas, struggled with alcoholism most of his life. I watched him use alcohol, and other substances, to numb his pain. He passed away last month, and I’m left thinking about the chapter Orange could have written about him, his pain, his past, his addiction(s) and how his life was cut short.