First American Art Magazine No. 21, Winter 2018/19 - Page 85

BOOK REVIEWS There There Tommy Orange Alfred A. Knopf/Penguin Random House, 2018 L ONGLISTED for this year’s National Book Award for Fiction, Cheyenne and Arapaho author Tommy Orange’s There There is nominated alongside other fine contenders, including Where the Dead Sit Talking (Soho Press, 2018) by Cherokee Nation author Brandon Hobson. It’s exciting that two Native novelists have been selected for the National Book Award longlist in the same year, and this development casts a hopeful light that suggests increased inclusion and visibility in the future for Indigenous writers and literature. There There represents the margin- alized and unsung voices of urban Indians—70 percent of whom live in urban environments and 30 percent on reservations. Yet Native people remain invisible within society at large. There There provides an antidote to that. The novel’s setting is Oakland, California, where Orange grew up. The title sounds like words of comfort but is actually borrowed from Gertrude Stein’s reference to Oakland, California, her childhood city: “There is no there there.” The novel is populated by an interconnected and diverse selection of urban Native characters whose lives are assuredly contemporary and intricately drawn. Orange captures the complexity and verity necessary for fully dimensional and realized characters. As a Native reader, which Orange asserts is the audience he writes for, I found it gratifying and validating to recognize so many different Native characters pertinent to my own life and experiences. For non-Native readers, There There certainly has much to offer, beginning with a devastating prologue that details the brutal and violent origin story of our country, the story that all too often is erased and glossed over in lieu of fantasies and romantic tropes: When they first came for us with their bullets, we didn’t stop moving even though the bullets moved twice as fast as the sound of our screams, and even when their heat and speed broke our skin, shattered our bones, skulls, pierced our hearts, we kept on, even when we saw the bullets send our bodies flailing through the air like flags, like the many flags and buildings that went up in place of everything we knew this land to be before. For any Native person born and raised in cities or environments such as suburbia, like I was, There There provides the definitive counterbalance to any persistent or lingering sense of internalized oppression. We know we exist, we realize our humanity, but to the rest of the world the narrative is quite different, one comprised of images and constructions created without our consent and held hostage in the colonial imagination. Any new book published by an Indigenous writer is an act of resistance, a battle cry, and the further its reach the louder the cry. Novels like There There create another bridge, another threshold—a scaffold that serves to support and lift up Indigenous people. In the prologue, Orange describes Urbanity: “Urban Indians were the generation born in the city. We’ve been moving for a long time, but the land moves with you like memory. An Urban Indian belongs to the city, and cities belong to the earth.” While There There brilliantly represents an exciting progression of new and incoming Indigenous novels and literature, a new generation of writers, and what is being referred to as the new Native literary “renaissance,” I’m not quite ready to embrace it as the one and only quintessential urban Indian novel, not with so many other predecessors bearing similar claims. In 1995, Grand Avenue (Hyperion, 1994) by Graton Pomo and Miwok writer Greg Sarris was heralded as being “an exciting new part of the latest Native American Literary Renaissance.” Grand Avenue, a novel told in ten interconnected stories, explores the lives of a Native American family living in Santa Rosa, California. Grand Avenue was adapted into an HBO miniseries in 1996. Like Orange’s There There, Sarris’ novel offers a portrait of contemporary Indigenous people who make their homes in an urban setting. Ojibwe author David Treuer’s novels, The Hiawatha (Picador, 1999) and The Translation of Dr. Apelles: A Love Story (Vintage Books, 2006), feature Native characters living in cities—Minneapolis and what Treuer imagined as a “fantastic city,” New York City. Sacred Wilderness (Michigan State University Press, 2014) by Susan Power situates characters in St. Paul, Minnesota, and several novels by Louise Erdrich, including Shadow Tag (Harper, 2010), are set in Minneapolis. Nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in 1985, Janet Campbell Hale’s novel, The Jailing of Cecelia Capture (University of New Mexico Press, 1985), is largely set in San Francisco. The location for Erika Wurth’s novel Crazy Horse’s Girlfriend (Curbside Splendor, 2014) is Denver, and just-released novel Sacred Smokes by Theodore C. Van Alst (University of New Mexico Press, 2018) takes place in Chicago. Urban settings have been a mainstay of Indigenous literature, prominent as the skyscrapers themselves. The urban Indian novel has been hiding in plain view for quite some time and is deserving of study. Thanks to stunning novels like There There, we know where to look. We know the sound of the freeway better than we do rivers, the howl of distant trains better than wolf howls; we know 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. Being Indian has never been about returning to the land. The land is everywhere or nowhere. —Tiffany Midge WINTER 2018/19 | 83