The Brown Baggers met on Thursday, November 21 to discuss Tommy Orange’s debut novel, There, There.
Orange, a member of the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes, explores the plight of the “Urban Indian” through a cast of twelve characters living in and around Oakland, California, where Orange himself was born and raised. The cast is a diverse group of Natives and mixed race people, including a young man born with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome and a woman who spent part of her childhood living on Alcatraz Island during the 1969-1970 occupation. As the novel progresses, the threads that connect the characters begin to reveal themselves and ultimately lead to tragedy at a large powwow.
For many of the Brown Baggers, the prologue and interlude were the most affecting parts of the novel. Some described having a visceral reaction, like a punch in the gut, as Orange describes the violence and genocide that generations of Native Americans have faced. The prologue provided context for the novel and Orange continues that thread in the interlude as he tackles privilege and how history has been sanitized by those who have benefited the most from slavery and genocide.
As for the story itself, some had a difficult time distinguishing characters from one another and felt the ending’s climax to be a bit improbable. Most described the book as “difficult” for more than just the unorthodox structure. Orange doesn’t hold back as his characters face tragedy after tragedy. They struggle with depression, alcoholism, drugs, and domestic violence, but most of all, they struggle with what it means to be Native American. After all, how does one create an identity and sense of authenticity when one’s culture and image has been defined by others for hundreds of years? This question of identity brought to mind another novel the group recently read about immigrants. Fatima Farheen Mirza’s A Place for Us demonstrates how culture and geography defined a community of Indian-Muslim Americans. However, unlike the characters in A Place for Us, native people do not have a homeland to return to, but rather “buried ancestral land, glass and concrete and wire and steel, unreturnable covered memory. There is no there there.”
There, There challenges what non-native people think they know about the native people experience and establishes Orange as a new and exciting Native American voice in the literary world.
The Brown Baggers will meet on December 19 to select titles for the coming year. Join us at noon and bring a few titles to recommend.