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Tommy Orange's 'There There' Has A Wide Cast Of Native American Characters


A much-talked-about novel sheds light on people who haven't been discussed very much at all. The novel is "There There" by Tommy Orange, and it's set in Oakland, Calif. It explores the lives of Native Americans who live not on the reservation but in a city. It drew lots of attention the other day at Book Expo, the big annual conference of the publishing industry. Here's NPR's Lynn Neary.

LYNN NEARY, BYLINE: Tommy Orange grew up in Oakland. His mother is white, his father a member of the Cheyenne Tribe. He wasn't much of a reader as a kid, but after graduating from college with a degree in sound engineering, he couldn't find work. So he got a job at a bookstore, where he developed a passion for reading.

TOMMY ORANGE: You know, I was in my 20s and also searching for meaning. I wasn't a reader, so fiction was a super novel thing for me, and the novel itself was. And I just fell in love with it.

NEARY: The leap to writing seemed like a natural progression to Orange, and with the publication of his first novel, he took another leap from the solitary world of reading and writing to center stage at Book Expo.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: They're going to introduce Tommy. He'll go up to the podium, read for a minute, take a couple questions and then go back down there.

NEARY: Orange, who's not at all used to being the center of attention, was making the rounds with his publicist from a main-stage reading to signing his novel for independent booksellers from around the country.

JOSHUA: Good morning. It's so nice to meet you.

ORANGE: You, too.

JOSHUA: My name is Joshua (ph).

NEARY: Making an impression on booksellers is crucial to a young writer. And based on the feedback orange was getting at this event, "There There" has very much caught the attention of the bookselling community. Hannah Oliver Depp is with WORD bookstores in Brooklyn and Jersey City.

HANNAH OLIVER DEPP: It is what we're calling our WORD Reads, which means the entire WORD bookstore staff is recommending this book.

NEARY: The whole staff?

DEPP: The entire staff.

NEARY: Everybody's read it?

DEPP: Yeah. So the majority of our staff have read it or are actively reading it right now, and it is what people are talking about. We pick a book a season to focus on, and this is has very easily been voted as the one they want to promote.

NEARY: "There There" is a work of fiction, but it begins with a nonfiction essay. It shatters the myth of the stoic native that's been portrayed over the years by the iconic image of the Indian head, which was once ubiquitous on nickels and on late-night TV. Orange replaces that benign image with brutal examples from history of violence against Indians.

ORANGE: For native writers, there's a kind of burden to set the record straight because it's been told wrong so long. So I was trying to find a way to do it in an interesting way, and I started finding all these connections around the Indian head and all these different ways that the Indian head has played out through history.

NEARY: Orange has drawn a lot of attention for being in the vanguard of a new generation of Native American writers. And in focusing his work on urban Indians, he's taken on a subject that has gotten scant attention in literature.

ORANGE: Native people look like a lot of different things, and we are in cities. I mean, 70 percent of native people live in cities now. And we just need a new story to build from, and I just wanted to try to do that.

NEARY: Orange says his father had a traditional native upbringing in Oklahoma, but he didn't have a lot of time to introduce his children to Native American culture. Orange says that's a common experience for kids like him who grow up in a big city.

ORANGE: Growing up on the reservation, you have a land base, and you have a community of people. And I think it's easier to come to a solid identity in a situation like that than just being in the sprawl of buildings and all different kinds of people. You might need to seek it out more actively if you're growing up in the city.

NEARY: Orange introduces a wide cast of characters in "There There," all Native American but with varying degrees of connection to the culture. One, a young boy named Orvil Red Feather, becomes curious about his heritage and begins seeking information on the Internet and watching videos on YouTube and TV.



NEARY: In this excerpt from the novel, Orvil discovers the art of Native American dancers.

ORANGE: (Reading) They're on the screen in full regalia. The dancer moved like gravity meant something different for him. It was like breakdancing in a way, Orvil thought, but both new, even cool, an ancient scene. There were so much he'd missed, hadn't been given, hadn't been told. In that moment in front of the TV, he knew he was part of something, something you can dance to.


NEARY: Orvil hears that a powwow's coming to town and decides he wants to be part of it. The powwow becomes the centerpiece of the story with all the characters eventually heading toward it. Orange says he always planned to structure the book around a powwow.

ORANGE: It feels contemporary and traditional. It's intertribal. It's a marketplace where you sell art. You have dancing and singing and a big drum. And there's a loudness and a visibility. And so I think people who go to powwows, native or non-native, can really feel the spirit of native people - or one aspect of it, anyway. And it just fits really well within - what the urban native community can be.

NEARY: Each character in the book is drawn to the powwow for different reasons. A struggling alcoholic finds some peace in drumming. A young woman has escaped an abusive marriage. Some would-be thieves plan a robbery that goes terribly wrong. Each has a backstory, and the ties that bind the characters gradually become clear. Orange says he wanted to create a large cast of characters to offset the stereotypes of native people.

ORANGE: There's a dehumanization that's happened with native people because of all these misperceptions about what we are. And it's convenient to think of us as gone or drunks or dumb. It's convenient to not have to think about a brutal history and people surviving and still being, you know, alive and well today, thriving in various different forms of life, good and bad. I wanted to represent a range of human experience as a way to humanize native people.

NEARY: Back at his signing, booksellers were lining up to chat with Orange.

ABBY FENNEWALD: It's so nice to meet you.

ORANGE: Nice to meet you.

FENNEWALD: I love the book.

NEARY: Abby Fennewald of BookPeople in Austin, Texas, says "There There" is a surprising book.

FENNEWALD: It brings together all these various characters that I just felt so involved with. Then the ending is just this crazy, powerful moment. And then I was just left in shock at the end.

NEARY: As the signing goes on, Orange seems to grow more comfortable in the role of popular author. It's not his natural habitat, but he knows these days an author has to make an effort to sell his books. And he knows if his book does well, it will help other Native American writers get deals in the future.

ORANGE: There's tons of authors that are just emerging at the same time as me. And I think it's a really exciting time. And I just want to help keep the momentum going and help usher in more voices.

NEARY: When the publicity blitz is over, Orange says, he looks forward to getting back to writing and teaching, mentoring would-be authors who hope to be in his position one day. Lynn Neary, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Lynn Neary is an NPR arts correspondent covering books and publishing.