It took Tommy Orange more than six years to write his highly acclaimed debut novel, There There, published in 2018. Now the award-winning book has been selected for the One Book, One Philadelphia program — a long way, by any measure, from Orange’s initial modest expectations.
Speaking by phone from upstate New York, Orange said he had no sense of how the best-selling novel would be received when it was first published. He hoped only that it would find its readers among the Native Americans of Oakland, Calif., the city where he grew up, and that his fellow Native American writers would perhaps come across it and recognize the world he created, an urban world populated by Native city dwellers.
Orange, who is 37 years old and an enrolled member of the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes of Oklahoma, has also set his book — vividly and viscerally — in Oakland.
The story follows the intertwined lives and fates of 12 very distinct Native American characters. A young man suffering from fetal alcohol syndrome, an internet recluse, and an addicted addiction counselor are among other more or less lost souls. It builds to a climax at an enormous powwow at the Oakland Coliseum.
The youth selections for One Book this year are If I Ever Get Out of Here by Eric Gansworth and When We Were Alone by David A. Robertson and illustrated by Julie Flett.
Orange will be in Philadelphia in January for a public discussion at the Free Library’s Central Branch. He gave The Inquirer some background on what it means to be both Native American and urban, and talked about how gentrification has played out in his hometown. This is an edited and condensed transcript of the conversation.
How does the urban experience of Native Americans differ from the urban experience of other Americans — African Americans, for instance?
I think every way we’ve been depicted — from being the noble savage to being dumb and drunk — is always in relation to a rural reservation situation or a majestic or mystic natural setting. We haven’t been seen in the city, and I think it’s a particular problem for native people who are trying to figure out what it means to be Native living now. It’s compounded by the fact that there is no tribal affiliation necessarily with the cities — it’s actually an inter-tribal community.
What do you mean?
Native people came to the city on relocation in the ’50s and ’60s and started up families and met other Native people from around the country, inevitably from different tribes. And the children and the children of those children are anywhere from two to six different tribes.
So you don’t have a land-base that’s affiliated with tribal membership or citizenship. And you don’t necessarily have a singular language.
All of which is tied up within what it means to be Native. So, being in the city, you have to reckon with all these aspects of feeling removed from what it’s meant to be Native. And in the book, it’s wrestling with how to still feel it despite all these complexities and challenges.
So what’s the difference between the culture of the city, of Oakland, and the culture of the reservation?
In some ways, it’s the same as anybody living in a rural situation and then living in the city. In some ways it’s not specific to being Native and living in the city.
The ways that I wanted to emphasize had to do with identity and the meaning of being Native. If I’m in Oklahoma, I can go to where my tribal offices are and I can renew my tribal citizenship card. There’ll be language classes and there’ll be community gatherings, all specific to my tribe.
That also happens in cities all over the country, but they’re more inter-tribal. There are still community centers, but they’re just not tribally specific. That’s one big difference. Living in cities kind of dissolves individual tribes.
Everyone still knows what tribes there are. It’s not, like, completely dissolved. When you’re in a rural situation, you’re seeing mostly your tribe. In cities, the diversity seems more intense and more intensifying.
The title of the novel, There There, comes from a famous Gertrude Stein quote. She said of Oakland, “There’s no there there.” How does Gertrude Stein relate to poor Natives trying to make a life in the 21st century city?
She grew up on a farm in Oakland, and when she came back as an adult, it was completely unrecognizable — it had been developed over.
And so when I read that I immediately understood a resonance with Native experience, people trying to relate to their environment and they’re having to interface with Native identity, which is generally not about the city. It’s everyone trying to figure out what’s there for them in Oakland as Native people now.
It’s also been used as a slander against Oakland — as if Oakland has no character or no soul. It’s a very convenient view to have of a place that you’re gentrifying. And I feel it’s been used at times in that spirit.