There There by Tommy Orange

Title: There There

Author: Tommy Orange
My verdict: 5 stars
Highly recommended!
In a nutshell: 
12 Urban Indians. 1 big event. 1 robbery gone wrong.
Set in Oakland, California, the story revolves around the 12 individuals and how they and their families have been treated by America throughout the years; how it affects and have affected them. These 12 characters are to meet at an upcoming big event – the Big Oakland Powwow. That one event, meant to bring Indians of all walks of life together, ironically shattered their lives and those around them.
Was it a good read?
Yes. I’d describe it in 3 words: Real, raw, powerful. 

The story starts off with a prologue, (which is one of my favorite parts, the interlude is the other) telling us about the Indian Head that was used as a test pattern on TV in the 1970s to all American TVs everywhere after all the shows ran out. There are some parts which are very graphic. So, be prepared.

Then the prologue continues with the Indian head in the jar; the Indian head on a spike; and the rolling heads that Mel Gibson made up in a world meant to resemble the real Indian world in the 1500s in Mexico.

According to Mr. Orange, Indians have long been misrepresented by the society, “We’ve been defined by everyone else and continue to be slandered despite easy-to-look-on-the-internet facts about the realities of our histories and current state as people.”  

And as children, the Indians grew up with stories about massacres, how they were mutilated, tore unborn babies out of bellies, and broke soft baby heads against trees; then took their body parts as trophies, while the crowd celebrated, cheered and laughed. 

To leave these memories behind and start over, they got to the cities, who took them in, made them new while they made it theirs. And they, the ones born in the city, are called the Urban Indians.
The characters:

The novel then introduces us to 12 Urban Indians, who are in someway or other, related and connected to each other in a huge web. To name some of them – sisters Opal Viola Victoria Bear Shield (great aunt to Jacquie’s grandsons) and Jacquie Red Feather (a substance abuse counselor struggling to stay sober); Edwin Black, a half Native (his skin is what he calls brown-ish) overweight graduate who’s in search of his father who’s going to be the emcee at the powwow; Tony Loneman, a victim of fetal alcohol syndrome that he nicknamed “The Drome” and who’s part of the team who planned to rob the powwow;  Dene Oxendene, who aims to continue his uncle’s dream of making a documentary on the stories and lives of the Indians, to help the community understand themselves better; Blue, who stayed with her husband, despite being abused; and Orvil Red Feather (Jacquie’s grandson) who was to perform at the powwow.

My thoughts:
There There is more character-driven than plot I’d say. Mr. Orange writes a real close-up of these characters. What drove the reading, for me, were the stories of these complex, rich characters and those around them, who try to understand what being truly Indian means, how history and society has shaped them as individuals.
The message in this book that resonates strongly with me, personally, is the search for belonging – identity, home, roots. How much of my ‘roots’ and ‘history’ have I, knowing and unknowingly, taken with me and have shaped me for who I am?

Thomas Frank, whose mom is white and dad is one thousand percent Indian, pondered on this: You’re from people who took and took and took and took. And from a people taken. You were both and neither. When you took baths, you’d stare at your brown arms against your white legs in the water and wonder what they were doing together on the same body, in the same bathtub.” and yet, he feels every bit of Indian in him when he hears the beat of the drum and dance.

As for Blue, whose adoptive parents are white, has no clue of her roots. All she knows of herself is that she isn’t white. “…while my hair is dark and my skin is brown, when I look in the mirror I see myself from the inside out. And inside I feel as white as the long white pill-shaped pillow my mom always made me keep on my bed even though I never used it.” She kept on “feeling white while being treated like any other brown person wherever I went.”

And Orvil, who’s cared for by his Indian great aunt, learns almost everything about being Indian virtually – “from watching hours and hours of powwow footage, documentaries on YouTube by reading all that there was to read on sites like Wikipedia, POwWows.com, and Indian Country Today.”

My ethnicity is Chinese. Both my parents are too. But I’m neither raised nor born in China. China isn’t my home. But back home (where I was born and raised), people of our ethnicity, have been asked to ‘go back to our ‘home country’, to where we ‘belong’. I can only speak decent Mandarin and one of the dialects, Cantonese. I don’t celebrate all the Chinese celebrations. I’m not fair-skinned as a Chinese ‘should be’; I have been mistaken for a Vietnamese and an Indonesian before. People have said to me before, “You’re Chinese? You don’t look Chinese”, and “You don’t speak like a Chinese, and I’m expected to be good at Math. The one ‘typical’ Chinese trait (if I may call it so) that I have is probably my Chinese-sounding name. So does this mean I’m not an ‘authentic’ Chinese? If so, then what am I? Where do I belong?
This, as I’ve mentioned above, is a powerful story, for a couple of reasons. First, the writing. The ability to write for 12 different individuals, from different point of views, and yet keep the momentum going without creating any confusion, keeping them real, that itself, is powerful. Tommy Orange is definitely one talented genius.

Second, this story serves as a voice to an almost voiceless community – the Native Americans. Third, it speaks to people, like me, who are not born in their ‘home country’ and have been constantly stereotyped by others. Fourth, quoting from the book, “When you hear stories from people like you, you feel less alone. When you feel less alone, and like you have a community of people behind you, alongside you, I believe you can live a better life.”  Last but not least, this is what I’m hoping, that it will help stop people from generalizing and stereotyping, and one that I learned from a recent book I read, “THUG”, – The Hate U Give Little Infants F***Ks Everything. 

Everyone should and must read this book.

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