.Bay Area Author Tommy Orange on the Mythmaking of History

Tommy Orange has a lot of theories about why his novel There There became a hit when it was released in 2018.

The most obvious explanation would be that this wildly structured book—which freely mixes a crime plot about a plan to rob an Oakland powwow of dance-competition money using 3D-printed guns, in-depth character studies and even fully nonfiction interludes about Native American traditions and the brutal history of violence against Native people in the United States—is both deeply affecting and thrilling in the way it barrels through an endless supply of ideas.

That would account for the fact that it was a New York Times bestseller, and a 2019 Pulitzer Prize finalist. That same year, it won the 2019 Hemingway Foundation/PEN Award, as well as a National Book Award, and was shortlisted for the Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction.

But Orange, a member of the Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes who grew up in Oakland, suspects it actually has something to do with the cultural moment the book was released in.

“I have all kinds of theories about why the book became so popular,” Orange tells me, “and it’s related to Trump, and the Dakota Access Pipeline and Standing Rock, and the timing of it all. I mean, I worked really hard on it, but I think it’s always kind of luck and timing and hard work, all happening at once.”

secure document shredding

I suspect there is yet another factor at work, as well, especially here in the Bay Area, where There There was number one on the San Francisco Chronicle’s bestseller list. Not only is it possibly the best novel about the Bay Area in the last five years, but it’s very much a book about place, and how our sense of the place we live in can be lost—and whether it can ever be regained. The title refers to Gertrude Stein’s famous quote about Oakland—“There’s no there there”—and the book itself rips the understood meaning of that quote apart to reveal Stein’s longing for the Oakland of her youth.

All over Northern California—not just Oakland, but also Santa Cruz, Silicon Valley, San Francisco—there is an increasing fear of losing one’s sense of place, no longer recognizing the cities and towns we fell in love with, becoming a stranger in our own land. In There There, Orange filters that fear through the lens of the Native people who first experienced it in this country.

This year, the Humanities Institute at UCSC has selected There There for its Deep Read program, which in the words of its organizers “invites the campus and community to think deeply about literature, art and the most pressing issues of the day” through a sort of community-wide book club that kicked off last year with guest author Margaret Atwood. This quarter, Porter College at UCSC is offering the class “Tommy Orange, There There, and the New Native Renaissance” in conjunction with the Deep Read. In advance of Orange participating in a live virtual event for the Deep Read on March 3, he spoke with me about the book, coming to grips with our own history and more.

The thing that overwhelmed me about ‘There There’ is it’s so packed with ideas, while still being a great story. Was that a hard balance to strike?

TOMMY ORANGE: Well, I definitely fell in love with the novel of ideas before I fell in love with the readable, fun novel. I really like that the novel can be a vehicle for ideas, and it can happen in a “Trojan horse” kind of way. That’s not to say that I think the best books or the best novels should be crammed with ideas, but it’s what drew me in at first. So when I was working on There There, it was definitely something I was trying to do. But I was also trying to strike the balance of having it be readable. Books that are full of ideas and not very readable, that kind of ruins the point of them being a vehicle. It’s like a very slow-moving vehicle with bad scenery—you don’t really want to get into it. You’ve got to have cool things going on. So a marriage of those two things, readability and the novel of ideas, is definitely something that I set out to try to do. I never felt like I got word that I did it, so I appreciate you saying so.

What were some novels of ideas that inspired you?

There were a lot of New York Review of Books novels that I ended up reading, and the one that just jumped into my head probably sounds like the most boring one I could think of, but I loved it. It’s representative of the kind of book I’m talking about, because as opposed to following authors I’ve really followed publications and read a lot of random singular books, and not so much followed any tradition. I didn’t go to school for [literature], I was totally self-taught up until my MFA, so my reading path has been really strange. I’m thinking of The World As I Found It, it’s a novelized biography of [philosopher Ludwig] Wittgenstein’s life by Bruce Duffy. It’s an excellent novel. I was way into philosophy before I was into literature. I was raised Evangelical Christian, and my dad was Peyote Religion. It was a really intense religious household. So by the time I was in my early 20s, I was going, “OK, I don’t believe in any of their stuff,” and I had a pretty intensely etched out area for God that I needed to fill somehow. So I went at books first for psychology, philosophy and religion, and sort of stumbled into fiction. And then I was like, “Oh, this is the thing I was looking for.”

It’s rare that a novel is praised for its nonfiction sections, but the extended prologue of ‘There There’ is so meticulously researched, and so disturbing and passionate in its descriptions of the history of violence against Indigenous peoples in the U.S., that those ideas—many of which are new to many readers, you have to imagine—have justifiably gotten as much attention as the story itself.

I’m very much deep in my next novel, and finding that I do get heavily involved in research. One sentence can really send me down a research hole, where I come back with very little, but it’ll end up influencing the sentence in such a way that more information will get packed into it.

That makes sense since a lot of times you seem to drop a detail about a character or plot point or even just a background detail that may not stand out at first, but takes on a new significance as more is revealed.

Yeah, I think I was maybe doing it more instinctually in the first book, and I’m sort of analyzing it a little more as it’s going on for the second book. Because in the first one, you’re like, “I don’t know what I’m doing.” And even though I still don’t feel like I know what I’m doing in the second one, I’m at least analyzing that I’m thinking I don’t know what I’m doing—sort of watching the process.

Another thing about your research is it seems like it must have been emotionally taxing, to say the least. It is certainly difficult to read the graphic details of the violence perpetrated against Native Americans.

Actually, I had been hearing the story of the Sand Creek Massacre since I was a kid. This was a story that my dad heard from his grandmother, great-grandmother, aunties who raised him. It was a family story that was passed down and told this very particular way—this is something that is in our family, something that is behind his Indian name. I heard this story more than any other story from his childhood, or about Cheyenne people. It made a pretty deep impact. I knew it was going to be a part of the prologue because it was a personal piece. I guess the research that I’m still doing, and finding out horrific things—because that’s what history ends up being if you really start digging in, it’s the tearing away of all these veils of idealism and patriotism and all this indoctrination we don’t realize we’re getting about greatness and history being clean—it really ends up being more vindicating. Like, “Oh yeah, I felt a heaviness all this time for a reason. It felt this awful because it was this awful.” Because I definitely felt the heaviness of history, and what it did to us, what it did to Cheyenne people. Before I intellectually knew it, I felt it. When you find out all this stuff that you already felt, it frees something in you that you felt—maybe you were personalizing it, or you felt like something was wrong with you. I think that’s why I like exploring history and like to use it in fiction. The novel I’m working on has a really big historical chunk in it. I’m really drawing a line in this next book that goes from Sand Creek into the 1940s, and it made my grandparents more real to me, having to delve into the era and figure out what life was like.

Your description of what history is at its core makes me think about how ironic it is that we learn most of our history when we’re very young, and the excuse for sanitizing it becomes, “Well, we don’t want to upset the children.” That may be the case, but it also allows a whitewashed version of the truth to be passed along without the issues that have left many communities hurting for generations ever really being faced at a societal level.

Yeah, James Baldwin talked about this a lot, in terms of this nation coming to terms with its past for its own sake—not to help Black people out or to help Native people out, but because to reckon with the American soul, you need to be looking at everything that happened. Going to Germany was a trip; I went for part of the book tour, and the way that they faced World War II and the Holocaust is a little more head on. It’s like, “Yes, we did this, we’re going to have public memorials, we’re going to talk about it, it’s going to be a dialogue.” We went the other direction [in the U.S.] and we put up statues of Confederate people, and left them up, and named things after these awful white men, and kept the names going. I think it’s detrimental to us as a country, and it’s really been institutionalized in the way that we don’t even talk about it like it’s an institutionalized lie.

And not talking about it for so long makes the reckoning all the more bitter and divisive when it comes, as we’ve seen in the more recent fights over taking down statues of Confederates, slave owners and other American icons whose history is in some way tarnished.

We’re really at a place in this country now where we have yet another opportunity to look at it, if we choose to. And I still don’t know if we will.

One of those things that builds up meaning over the course of ‘There There’ is the title itself. Knowing it was set in Oakland, I had a feeling even before I read it that it must be a reference to the famous Gertrude Stein quote about the city: ‘There’s no there there.’ But when one of the characters does deconstruct that quote, it really brings a different understanding of it: It’s not a put down of Oakland, but an indictment of the powers and interests that stole its “thereness.” Being from Oakland, had you wanted to set the record straight on that quote for a long time?

I wish I could say I’m like a Gertrude Stein reader or whatever, but she’s really hard to read. I’m sure most people can admit that if it’s not their profession to study her for a living. I mean, she has great music, and sonically it’s pretty incredible what she’s doing with these circular sentences and repetition—I think it’s really cool. But as far as the readability part, very hard. I came across her because I wanted to write a book about Oakland, and I wanted to see what other people did. And there’s really not that much, which was a big impetus to try to do it. It drove me harder into wanting to make it an Oakland book, and the urban Native space had not really been filled out very much either. So just looking at Jack London and Gertrude Stein quotes on the internet is really how I found Gertrude Stein. It was only later that I found the book where that quote appeared, and read some of that. But it was an immediate hit when I read that quote—I immediately read it through the Native lens, and then found out about her childhood and the unrecognizable quality of what she called home before.

You also bring in another meaning for ‘There There’: the Radiohead song of the same name. It’s really weird, but when I listen to that song now, it seems like it’s about your book. Like the lyric, ‘Just ’cause you feel it, doesn’t mean it’s there.’ It matches up bizarrely well.

I’m a huge Radiohead fan, but I didn’t force that in. I was googling ‘There There’ once I decided I wanted it as the title, and that’s when I saw the Radiohead song. And when I clicked it I was like, “Oh, I know this song. This is ‘Track 09.’ ‘Track 09’ is how I had it because I pirated Hail to the Thief, and that’s how it had been uploaded. So I never knew it was called “There There.” Then when I read the lyrics I was like, “Oh, this is the themes of the book.” So I knew I had to get it in, because it so fit. It was serendipity.

For musical references, though, the character Tony Loneman finding an iPod on BART that’s full of nothing but MF Doom songs is the best. For days after I read that, every once in a while I’d think about who that iPod could have possibly belonged to. Like who would only have one artist in their entire music library, and how obsessed with that one musician you’d have to be to do that? And then it’s MF Doom, which makes it even better.

This is a situation where my love for MF Doom made me want to get him in the book. Like I said, I love Radiohead, but I would never try to force them in. But MF Doom is in my top three favorite rappers, and I just thought, “I want to nod at Doom in this work I’m putting all this time into, because I love him so much.” I have a metal mask behind me that I ordered around Halloween, and it came right before the word came out that he died.

What do you see as the value of participating in something like the UCSC Deep Read, where you know a lot of college students will get exposure to your work, and community members have the chance to talk about it from an academic perspective?

Not to sound like I’m used to it, because that would be obnoxious, but the book has been picked up by maybe a couple dozen colleges in the same sense, where it’s campuswide. And certain high schools even did. I got to tour around to some of them before Covid, and seeing it move into curriculum at high schools and colleges was really powerful, to see people valuing it in a way that they thought could change minds. I love art, and I believe in art, but I don’t ever think that what I’m doing is going to become part of a conversation, or end up being part of someone’s formation or guiding some aspect of their lives. So it was incredible to see it enter that pop realm. Getting into the schools was a really cool piece for me, because it’s a novel, and sometimes they’re treated like, “Well, it’s just a novel.” But this feels like taking it more seriously, and like you said, there are ideas in it. And that’s what college is for, to be thinking about things in a layered, nuanced way where fiction can enter the conversation.

‘The Deep Read: A Conversation with Tommy Orange’ will be presented by the UCSC Humanities Institute on Wednesday, March 3, at 6:30pm. The live virtual event will feature Orange in conversation with UCSC Creative Writing Professor Micah Parks. Free; go to thi.ucsc.edu/deepread for more information and to RSVP to receive the Zoom link.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

Good Times E-edition Good Times E-edition
goodtimes flip-through editions