Tommy Orange on writing about urban Native life, identity, and his hometown
Tommy Orange will join Sterlin Harjo for a Booksmart Tulsa discussion at Living Arts on May 9.
Tommy Orange’s debut novel, There There, won both the 2018 PEN/Hemingway Award and the John Leonard Prize—and was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. An enrolled member of the Arapaho and Cheyenne Tribes of Oklahoma, Orange was born and raised in Oakland, California, which serves as the setting for There There. The novel, a series of vignettes featuring a large cast of characters who come together at an Oakland powwow, has received much praise for its depictions of Native people in urban settings—experiences rarely portrayed in literature and media even today. Orange will join Sterlin Harjo on May 9 for a Booksmart Tulsa discussion at Living Arts. I spoke with him before the much-anticipated event.
Cassidy McCants: Hey, Tommy. Thanks for speaking with me.
Tommy Orange: Hey, hi.
McCants: So, to start. You’re from Oakland and got your MFA from the Institute of American Indian Arts. Did you start working on There There when you were in the program?
Orange: No, I was about halfway through the novel when I joined the program. It had all been pretty well envisioned, but there was still a lot of work to do.
I was kind of anti-MFA because I figured people had been becoming writers for more years just by writing than by going through MFA programs. I was trying to develop my own voice and authority and thought an MFA would really tamper with that, but then I found this specific program with Native faculty, and I just knew it would be a different experience. I’d be part of a Native writing community; I just knew it was not your typical MFA. Also, one of the best things about MFAs, and the reason I think a lot of writers gravitate toward them, is they’re access points to the publishing world. You develop relationships with people who have to have published books. And if [...] they respect your writing they’ll often give you opportunities. So I was sort of aware of that, too, that it might make publishing a book more possible. And it was low-
I couldn’t exactly relocate my whole family—I have a son and a wife—and so it had to do with the fact that it was affordable and low-residency. Also, if I was being realistic I would have thought the MFA would allow me to have a teaching job and not a career as a writer. That wasn’t really what I thought would happen. I thought, this is what I love to do, and I could see loving teaching. I was already teaching in a different capacity, so I knew that was something I could make into a career—being a writing teacher.
McCants: The prologue of There There opens with meditations on what you call “Indian Heads,” the way American culture approaches and reacts to this symbol—in a jar, on a spike—and goes on to discuss how many Native people have chosen and embraced urban city life, something rarely depicted in stories by and about Native people. And the interlude functions similarly. Did this novel come out of these ruminations, or did it arise from a consideration of the place, Oakland?
Orange: Well, I worked in the urban Native community in Oakland for many years, and I grew up in Oakland, so it was very much coming from wanting to represent the place I come from—wanting to write a novel, wanting to include personal experience, and wanting to represent something that’s not often represented.
As far as the structure, or form, goes, I just really like how prologues function in novels, and I’d never written it as an essay, as a lot of people are calling it. It just kind of broke form—it uses the “royal we” point of view and was meant to, before starting an urban Indian story, contextualize what even is an urban Indian. I’d heard it used pretty casually in the nonprofit world and it was often a part of a clumsy acronym written for a grant. That’s where it came from.
McCants: The title comes from Gertrude Stein’s Everybody’s Autobiography. Your character Dene speaks on the importance of this quote—how Stein wrote that she “found that she was talking about how the place where she’d grown up in Oakland had changed so much, that so much development had happened there, that the there of her childhood, the there there, was gone, there was no there there anymore.” Could you talk a little about how the title introduces the themes of the novel?
Orange: Yeah, so, when I was doing research, trying to see what other writers have written about Oakland, what kind of Oakland writers are out there, I came across this Gertrude Stein quote. I’d known of her, but I hadn’t really been a Gertrude Stein reader. But that particular line had so much resonance for me when it comes to Native experience and, like with the characters in this novel, identity struggles. If you’re from a city but what’s supposed to define you is the land or nature, what does it mean to be Native now? She was referencing Oakland, and the whole book is about the ‘there there’ of Oakland.
So there were some different ways to it I really enjoyed, including the Radiohead song, which was serendipitous. I was Googling “there there” to see if it was already a book, because I just really liked the title. I saw the Radiohead song, which I’d known as “Track 09” because I’d pirated Hail to the Thief, the album it appears on. I didn’t even know the song was called “There There.” So the themes of the song—you know, “just because you feel it doesn’t mean it’s there” and “accidents waiting to happen,” were a total coincidence—it felt like a very lucky thing, because I love Radiohead.
McCants: That’s wonderful. Well, clearly people have responded well to the book. Did you get the sense this was a novel people were craving—did you foresee this success with your debut?
Orange: No. I was thinking, best case scenario, I sell it to a university press. And then my director from my school said I could get a teaching job if I published a book. So my dreams were very reasonable, not wild ones that would have included anything close to what’s happened.
McCants: Which of these characters was easiest for you to write about? The most difficult?
Orange: Well, Thomas Frank came out really fast and really complete, in 10 days, I think. And then Opal, when she’s a little girl in Alcatraz, took a really long time. But then her older chapter I wrote in a month, so it was really all over the map. Some characters took years to develop, and others came out really fast.
McCants: For you, what is really at the heart of this story, these stories? What is the most important thread or takeaway?
Orange: I think there are two different things I wanted to pull off. One was to write a novel that’s pretty bleak but hopeful at the same time, because […] life is that way. I also wanted to make more complex and expand depictions of Native people, and how people think of contemporary life for Native people, by making real-life-feeling characters and having them do contemporary things like everyone else does, instead of how we’re so often depicted in media. If we’re there at all, it’s usually a stupid depiction.
McCants: Do you think people are appreciating the novel for the things you wanted it to accomplish?
Orange: Yeah, for sure. When I found out Oakland Native people embraced it, and also the wider Native population, that was really important to me, because that’s who I feel like I was writing it for. So that would have been success for me no matter how well the book did. But obviously getting to write for a living is really nice. The publicity stuff is not very fun because, naturally, that’s not what I like to do, but I’m getting used to it—I’ve accepted it, because it’s what you have to do to have a successful book.
McCants: And what are you working on now?
Orange: Right now I’m focusing on short stories. I started two different novel projects that I’ve put on the proverbial desk or shelf. Just short stories right now.
McCants: Somehow There There feels like one big short story to me, or maybe like a collection, with all the different storylines. It’s something about the bleak and the hopeful coming together, maybe.
Orange: I really love the form. I’m still developing it.
McCants: Well, thanks for talking with me, Tommy. Looking forward to having you here.
Orange: Thank you.