Saturday, October 16, 2021

Reading group: There There by Tommy Orange

Doug suggested this powerful multi-viewpoint novel that follows several characters struggling with their confused and sometimes uncertain Native American identity, all about to converge on a powwow in Oakland, California. The title, There There  is a quote taken from a statement by Gertrude Stein, who, returning to Oakland, her childhood home, found it so changed, so different from the 'there' of her memory,  that 'there is no there there.' All of the characters, some of whom are connected in ways they don't even know about, share the weight of an obliterated past, which is propelling them towards the centripetal point, the powwow that symbolises the lost 'there' of Native American homelands and identity.  All are what a Prologue describes as 'urban Indians':

Getting us to cities was supposed to be the final, necessary step in our  assimilation, absorption, erasure, the completion of a five-hundred-year-old genocidal campaign. But the city made us new, and we made it ours [...] We were not urban Indians then. This was part of the Indian Relocation Act [...] Make them look and act like us. Become us. And so disappear. But it wasn't just like that. Some of us came by choice, to start over.  [...] Plenty of us are urban now. [...] They used to call us sidewalk Indians. Called us citified, superficial, inauthentic, cultureless refugees. [...] But what we are is what our ancestors did. How they survived. We are  the memories we don't remember, which live in us, which we feel [...] feelings from memories that flare and bloom unexpectedly in our lives like blood through a blanket from a wound made by a bullet fired by a man shooting us in the back for our hair, for our heads, for a bounty, or just to get rid of us...

...Urban Indians were the generation born in the city [...] We came to know the downtown Oakland skyline better than any sacred mountain range ... the sound of the freeway better than we do rivers [...] the smell of gas and freshly wet concrete and burned rubber better than we do the smell of cedar or sage or even fry bread - which isn't traditional, like reservations aren't traditional

As the dynamic and witty prose flits from one character's consciousness to another, the painful past of each character is revealed - poverty, broken marriages, alcoholism - and each personal history is shown in turn to be the bruised consequence of white suppression and that collective lost memory. In one of the book's very many brilliant flashes, twenty-one-year-old Tony Loneman, who suffers the effects of foetal alcohol syndrome - 'There's too much space between each of the parts of my face' - thinks as he contemplates his appearance: 'it's the way history lands on a face'.

Doug wasn't able to attend the meeting, so John introduced the book instead.  He said that beforehand he had expected the book to be more difficult than he found it, as he'd read that it included 'essays'. However, when it came to it he found that this consisted simply of the contextualising Prologue and a short 'Interlude' halfway through, both presenting the history of the 'conquest' of Native Americans from the Native American point of view - and so vividly, poetically and punchily written, blending so seamlessly into the narrative, having indeed a narrative shape and character of their own, that 'essay' is an inappropriate term.

Everyone agreed, and everyone thought the book brilliantly written. One problem everyone shared, however, was that we found it hard to remember who some of the characters were (there are twelve of them); we kept getting them mixed up, especially the young men. It was hard therefore to work out the part each was  playing as they moved toward the climax. We thought that this was because unlike some reviewers we found the voices of the characters not to be distinct enough from each other and from that overall narrative voice (which we loved).

Someone commented that one brilliance of the book is the way that while undercutting stereotypes of Native Americans, it doesn't shy away from their reality, but shows how Native American lives, and even psyches, their expectations of themselves, have been forced into stereotypes by white oppression.

The book has a devastating ending. It is also leaves us up in the air as to the fates of most of the characters. We were all clear that this was aesthetically inevitable, symbolic of the cultural devastation and confusion that has been visited on Native Americans, but after being emotionally engaged with the characters and invested in their fates, we found it hard to take. We could however see that this - the effect on us as readers - was itself an aspect of the political project of the novel, and its stunning political dynamism.

Our archive discussions can be found here and a list of the books we have discussed, with links to the discussions, here 

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