Books on Tap met virtually to discuss There There by Tommy Orange. Using the perspective of twelve characters, Orange explores modern urban Indian life as they all converge at the Big Oakland Powwow. Together, their stories explore identity, generational trauma, expectations and survival. Specific life experiences are used to create a story that resonates universally. The title calls back to Radiohead’s song of the same title and Gertrude Stein’s quotation “there is no there there” in likely reference to Oakland, where she was raised.
Orange confronts stereotypes of Indians and both dismantles them and examines their underlying basis. Orange uses his characters to prove that Indians don’t just belong to the past and that their stories extend past the history books. However, since he wrote the book for a Native audience, he refers to historical events that may be vivid for his intended reader but were unfamiliar to some of our readers. He uses the example of the old television test pattern of an Indian man in a headdress to compare how the same image can be read differently. He likens it to a man targeted in a gun scope, constantly under threat. Some of our readers could barely remember the image from their youth and hadn’t given it any thought, reinforcing the idea that Indians are at best seen as historical stereotypes (a chief in a headdress) or are invisible, something to put on tv when everything else has been presented for the day. Locally, those threads converge in the Monacan tribe, just recently recognized federally, 400 years after whites came to Jamestown. Orange does more delicate work with the stereotype of the drunk Indian. The characters are in the throes of addiction, in hard-won recovery, and harmed by addicts. We discussed how the author uses their stories to examine how generational trauma in the form of genocide and subjugation would make a population vulnerable to all addiction not only to alcohol but to cocaine and opioids. We compared the uneven application of drug laws to whites and people of color in terms of cocaine and crack, opioids and alcohol.
Non-Indian readers were expecting to learn of tribal traditions. Orange points out that continuing tradition is tricky. The young people in the novel frequently use the internet to explore their Indianness. Some don’t know their tribes because they aren’t in contact with their Indian parent. Others were adopted by white families. Still others are raised with and by Indians, but those caregivers chose to downplay their identity to shield their children from the racism that they themselves suffered while growing up.
Story fills this void. We talked about the many ways that stories are used for survival. Dene is collecting stories from Oakland-area Indians, paying them to tell any story they want but almost always hearing painful stories. Jackie returns to AA meetings but is bored of the stories repeated there. Orvil, Tony and Edgar quietly search the internet to learn about traditions that, had they been able to absorb them in a dominant culture that supported and celebrated them, would have insulated them from the identity cries they are in the midst of. As a book club member pointed out, we have an Own Voices author demonstrating the importance of stories told by and for a community.
Everyone who attended found the novel moving and eye opening. We parted ways over the ending. Some found it frustrating, depressing and too violent while a few found hope in the ambiguity. The characters converge at the powwow, some reluctantly. A robbery turns violent and the chaos is rendered realistically and arrestingly through multiple asynchronous viewpoints. The scene is reminiscent of massacres mentioned earlier in the book and it isn’t at all clear who is still alive at the end. However, Orange is working on a sequel which many of us are eager to read.
Books on Tap will meet again on June 4th via Zoom. For information, please contact Krista Farrell (kfarrell at jmrl dot org).
- Clock Dance by Anne Tyler (June 4)
- Vote here to choose titles for this summer’s virtual meetings.