“The quote is important to Dene. This there there. He hadn’t read Gertrude Stein beyond the quote. But for Native people in this country, all over Americas, it’s been developed over, buried ancestral land, glass and concrete and wire and steel, unreturnable covered memory. There is no there there.”
In the beginning it was the title, There There, that caught my eye.And then I opened the book and began to read about a culture of people who are dealing every day with their own “unreturnable covered memory.” A Cherokee and Arapaho 30-something writer, Tommy Orange has turned out an impressive novel, his very first. Tough, edgy, the work exhibits a masterful maturity in bringing depth to its characters. The novel tells a hard truth about living life as a Native American.
The “there there” is what Gertrude Stein referenced when writing about the Oakland, Calif., she returned to as an adult. The childhood memories of her days in Oakland were gone and buried over. We see from Orange’s perspective, himself an Oakland native, this same “buried over” plight from all of his characters. The chapters are singular in their focus of one character at a time, rotated throughout the book, bringing them in and out again. It is a collective amalgamation of a very real time filled with what feels like very real people dealing with their own demons. The lives are buried over lives; yet still they claw up and out every day,for just one more chance to live and be recognized.
The opening salvo of the book is an essay Orange whispers into the readers’ ears, as if preparing them for what is to come: a real world as seen through a multi-layered lens of Native Americans trying to stay connected to their past, while seemingly covered over by present-day racist attitudes amidst bigger-than-life morass of societal problems and perceived norms of the day. From the Indian Head TV test pattern to historical massacres and stereotypes on movie screens, these jarring vignettes set the tone and are reminders to never forget, to always remember.
Set in Oakland, Calif.,the novel is filled with characters soaked in alcohol, drugs, poverty, and violence. Yet there is the common drive to keep going, keep remembering and to keep living at any cost. It is, in a way, a prayer or a mantra of a people to never forget where one comes from, even though the struggle to remember is real. “We know the sound of the freeway better than we do rivers, the howl of distant trains better than wolf howls, we know the smell of gas and freshly wet concrete and burned rubber better than we do the smell of cedar or sage or even fry bread.”
In stories dealing with 12 characters, many of them related, Orange tightly weaves a story that stimulates and demands the reader to look deeper into the essence of a Native American culture that cannot be lost; it must stay, it is here forever. What binds this indigenous fabric together is a family bond of culture too distant for the common person to understand. But with Orange’s novel, we get one chance to look deep into a people who are resilient, compassionate, and a part of who we all are.
These characters are simultaneously Native American while going about each day trying to learn how to be Native American. Deni Oxendine tries to understand by interviewing others, letting them tell their story. Edwin Black takes Native American studies in college, while Thomas Frank immerses himself in dance and song. There is Orvil Red Feather who takes to the Internet watching hours of powwow footage in a frantic attempt to learn who he is, while his grandmother reminds, “You’re Indian because you’re Indian, because you’re Indian.”
The culmination of these separate lives and many others all come together as they each make their way to the Big Oakland Powwow.There, these urban Indians hope to make sense of their identity. While there, some will participate, some will watch, some will steal and some will be saved.
In the end, this novel left me wanting more. Usually,finishing a novel and having that feeling would not be considered a good quality of a book. In this case, it is an exceptional quality, as I now find myself wanting to — needing to — dive in and learn more about indigenous cultures, especially Native Americans. They are the “they” who came, saw and lived here, first. And I believe Orange intended just that when he wrote this perfectly raw, real and beautiful novel. This was an exceptional read, and in addition to my needing to learn more about a people, I am certain I will keep watch for his next book.
Alfred A. Knopf, 2018, Hardcover, $25.95