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Tommy Orange

The author of There There talks about bucking stereotypes and the Gertrude Stein quote that gave his book its name

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It's a New York Times bestseller, the winner of the 2018 National Book Critics Circle Award's John Leonard Prize and it was shortlisted for the 2019 Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction. There There, the debut novel from Tommy Orange, also won praise from luminaries like Margaret Atwood and Marlon James, and it's this year's Treasure Valley Reads title.

It's lauded for good reason: The novel, which takes the form of a short story cycle set in Oakland, California, ahead of the Big Oakland Powwow, is powerful, angry, sad, funny and sensitive, packed with vivid characters and a gripping sense of place, all of which dislodge the image of the "real, authentic Native American" stuck in a headdress that's the permanently grimacing subject of black-and-white photos. Boise Weekly caught up with Orange ahead of his Saturday, March 23, visit to Boise, where he will talk at The Egyptian Theatre, courtesy of Treasure Valley Reads and Storyfort.

The title of your book comes from a Gertrude Stein quote about Oakland: "There is no there there." How did you find that quote, and how has that "there there"-ness resonated with you and your work?

Gertrude Stein and Jack London are the most well-known [Oakland] authors and they're both pretty old. [The quote] speaks to this rich tapestry and the history of its present state. [It] has been misused as saying that Oakland is lacking character, but [Stein] was really talking about how her home where she grew up was no longer recognizable. The theme of the book is characters trying to understand their own identity as Native people. How that makes sense living in Oakland: Much of what used to be Native land has been transformed into what we see today. There are so many parallels and resonances that I felt when I read that quote that I knew it was going to be part of the title.

There There is full of references to contemporary arts, from Radiohead and MF Doom to Louise Erdrich. Are you doing that deliberately?

I feel strongly that novels should be speaking to the people of the people's time. I don't care what people will think about it in 50 years—I'll be dead. I'm interested in speaking to people now.

How do you source your fictional characters?

I did digital storytelling work for many years in a Native community and other marginalized communities around the country with a nonprofit out of Berkeley, [California], and I came to respect and revere people's stories, and so I never would have felt right about turning somebody's actual story into a character. I generously pulled from my own life and from my family, and just from experience. I knew I wanted a dynamic range because it's been so stunted by this monolithic image of Native people.

How are you fighting against that monolithic image of the Native American?

Any Native person is automatically up against this idea of what it means to be a "real, authentic Native person." You're facing this ridiculous stereotype of somebody in a headdress. Even now, movies that are coming out are historical and steeped in this idea that to be a "real" Native American means to be in history or in a headdress.

What are your scruples about storytelling?

I think there are ways to write compelling and interesting stories when it comes to fiction in ways that don't exploit other people's details. I have a feeling that fiction can pull off anything, but it's been done in ways where the lens hasn't been ours, and we haven't had narrative control. Historically, it's just not been done well.

What does it take to do that well? Is that a story only a Native person can tell?

I'd say in 2019, if a white person's trying to write a Native story, I would say, "don't." If a white writer's trying to write from a black experience, I'd say "don't" also. I just wonder why people can't find something in their own experience. It feels by nature a bit exploitative or [like] a failure of imagination.

Who do you see as your audience?

In regards to who I thought might be reading my book, the director of my school of my MFA program told me if I wrote a book, I could get a teaching job, so my only goal was to publish a book anywhere in order to get a teaching job. I imagined my peers, other teachers at my school, and maybe other Native people in the academic world.

What are you reading, and what, if anything, are you writing now?

I just finished Heavy [by Kiese Laymon], which was really, really good. I've been reading a bunch of memoirs lately. I just re-read Ada Limon's The Carrying. I just picked up Mouthful of Birds, a short story collection by Samanta Schweblin. I've started up two different novels since finishing There There. They're both about 100 pages. I'm working on a short story collection. I've also started a memoir. I'm not fully committed to any of them.

Did the success of There There surprise you?

Yes, definitely. You'd have to be a sociopath to not be surprised by this kind of thing. I mean, the success is outrageous for any book. For any novel to do what my book has done is absurd, almost. To think while you're writing it that that's going to happen is insane.

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