I’m delighted to be today’s stop on the media tour for the Rathbones Folio Prize shortlist. Of all the diverse books on the shortlist, There There was the one that shouted out to me to read. I’m very happy to be its champion, for it’s different, timely, fascinating and an all round super read.
Orange, who grew up in Oakland, California is a member of the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes, describing himself as an “urban Indian”. There There, his first novel, explores the identity dilemmas of a dozen Native Americans, as they gather in Oakland for the community pow wow.
The title comes from a quote by Gertrude Stein in her book Everybody’s Autobiography, “There is no there there.” Oft misquoted, she was ruefully reflecting on her childhood home having been torn down and the land rebuilt upon. This sentiment echoes around Orange’s novel, but is expounded upon fairly early in the book by Dene, a young filmmaker who wants to record the stories of Native people in Oakland area, as he talks to a chap that misuses it:
Dene wants to tell him it’s what happened to Native people, he wants to explain that they’re not the same, that Dene is Native, born and raised in Oakland, from Oakland.
The quote is important to Dene. This there there. He hadn’t read Gertrude Stein beyond the quote. But for Native people in this country, all over the Americas, it’s been developed over, buried ancestral land, glass and concrete and wire and steel, unreturnable covered memory. There is no there there.
There There is also a Radiohead song which Dene listens to as well, (BTW the song has a great Gothic/Grimm-inspired video – see here).
However, I’m jumping ahead a bit. Instead of a conventional prologue, Orange prefaces his story with an essay on the iconography of the Indian Head, and in a series of vignettes, he relates some key events in Native American history, terrible massacres, contrasting strongly with how they live now. It sets the narrative to come in powerful context.
He then hands the story over to his twelve narrators, who take their turns to move the story onwards – the book goes round most of them several times- some of the chapters are in the first person, others third, one in the second.
We start with Tony Loneman, a would-be drug dealer, who was born with fetal alcohol syndrome. Tony now works for drug dealer Octavio, who plans to rob the pow wow, and shows off his new 3D printed gun to get past the metal detectors. Tony will have to plant some bullets for them to retrieve. So right from the start, we have an inkling of a potential tragedy waiting to happen.
When Opal was eleven, her mother took her and her half-sister to Alcatraz in 1970 to join in the protest by Native Americans at ugly laws aimed at getting them from the reservation into the cities and assimilated into mainstream American life. Life would get harder once they left the island, her mother died, half-sister Jacquie got pregnant.
None of Orange’s narrators has an easy life, not even mentally blocked and physically constipated writer Edwin, or former prisoner Bill – now a janitor at the arena where the pow wow will take place. Alcoholism, drugs, guns, gangs, teenage pregnancy, mental health issues, death and grief – these are just some of life’s trials that many of them have faced over the years, still facing. Teenager, Orvil Red Feather, Jacquie’s grandson, has everything to look forward to though, and he plans to join in the dance at the pow wow. As we know, some of the others have nefarious ends in mind.
As we cycle through Orange’s polyphonic novel, the voices gradually begin to fit together more closely as it builds towards the climax. We feel some of the struggles they have with their Native identity, so often subsumed in everyday urban life, something that the pow wow will being back to life, reaffirming heritage, as Orange explains to us in an interlude midway through the novel.
As first novels go, There There is innovative, thought-provoking and definitely educative too. The compelling characters and converging Native stories made it an excellent read too and it’s been a pleasure to be the book’s champion.
The winner of the 2019 Rathbones Folio Prize will be announced at a ceremony on May 20.
Source: Review copy from Vintage – thank you.
Tommy Orange, There There, (Harvill Secker, 2018) Vintage paperback, 292 pages.