Tommy Orange, a member of the Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes of Oklahoma, hopes his debut novel, There There (Knopf, June), will alter readers’ perceptions of contemporary Native American life. “People equate the native experience with this idea of living off the land, but 70% of native people live in cities now. We need an update in the way we think about native people and the native experience. Literature can change the way we think collectively. This is one way that I hope will help serve as an update.”
A major motivation for Orange to write a novel was that he saw a gap in literature about what rang true to his own experience of growing up in Oakland, Calif. “It had to do with telling a story that I couldn’t find about the urban Indian experience and about the Oakland experience,” he says. “I was searching for it—we try to find ourselves reflected in literature. One of the functions of literature is to help us not feel lonely.”
The road to publication started with a reading the author did several months after graduating from an MFA program at the Institute for American Indian Arts, in Santa Fe, N.Mex. Writer Claire Vaye Watkins was there and asked if she could send his manuscript to her agent, Nicole Aragi. Orange waited for a few months and heard nothing. But then Donald Trump was elected president. “Nicole Aragi was up until four in the morning with anxiety over the whole election, and she said my manuscript brought her hope,” says Orange. “She called me and offered to represent me the following day.” Shortly thereafter, he met with 10 interested publishers, and Knopf won the bidding war this past February.
There There focuses on 12 Native Americans who have various personal reasons to attend the Big Oakland Powwow, where native culture and traditions, including drumming and dancing, are celebrated. Jacquie Red Feather is newly sober and trying to make it back to the family she left behind in shame. Dene Oxendene is pulling his life back together after his uncle’s death and has come to work at the powwow to honor his uncle’s memory. Through Jacqui and Dene and the other 10 characters, Orange grapples with a complex and painful history.
Orange hopes readers will connect with his book: “I want readers to fall into the world that is the novel and love the experience there. It’s not all easy or enjoyable, but I love the experience of becoming enraptured with a novel and with the world that is built within it—going through the experience from beginning to end and just being enthralled by it. If there are things along the way that I think people should probably know about, that’s a bonus, but I really want it to be enjoyed as a book and as a reading experience.”