Sunday, December 30, 2018

"There There" by Tommy Orange

“You know what Gertrude Stein said about Oakland?” Rob says. Dene shakes his head no but actually knows, actually googled quotes about Oakland when researching for his project. He knows exactly what the guy is about to say.  
“There is no there there,” he says in a kind of whisper, with this goofy openmouthed smile Dene wants to punch. Dene wants to tell him he’d looked up the quote in its original context, in her Everybody’s Autobiography, and found that she was talking about how the place where she’d grown up in Oakland had changed so much, that so much development had happened there, that the there of her childhood, the there there, was gone, there was no there there anymore. 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. Rob probably didn’t look any further into the quote because he’d gotten what he wanted from it. He probably used the quote at dinner parties and made other people like him feel good about taking over neighborhoods they wouldn’t have had the guts to drive through ten years ago.  
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, pp. 56-57). 
The paragraph above explains the title of There There by Tommy Orange, a novel about American Indians who live in Oakland, California. The paragraph also offers a hint of the complexity of the book.

There There has many characters, all of them narrating their stories. They search for an identity that doesn't even have a single name, though they mostly use "Native." One wrote:
"We are Indians and Native Americans, American Indians and Native American Indians, North American Indians, Natives, NDNs and Ind’ins, Status Indians and Non-Status Indians, First Nations Indians and Indians so Indian we either think about the fact of it every single day or we never think about it at all. We are Urban Indians and Indigenous Indians, Rez Indians and Indians from Mexico and Central and South America. We are Alaskan Native Indians, Native Hawaiians, and European expatriate Indians, Indians from eight different tribes with quarter-blood quantum requirements and so not federally recognized Indian kinds of Indians." (p. 185).
A key idea in the book is that Natives live in many places, mainly not reservations:
"We came to know the downtown Oakland skyline better than we did any sacred mountain range, the redwoods in the Oakland hills better than any other deep wild forest. 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— which isn’t traditional, like reservations aren’t traditional, but nothing is original, everything comes from something that came before, which was once nothing. Everything is new and doomed. We ride buses, trains, and cars across, over, and under concrete plains. Being Indian has never been about returning to the land. The land is everywhere or nowhere. (p. 24). 
Food, clothing, dances, songs, family connections -- every part of their identity is questioned and problematic. 
"They only knew about Indian tacos because their grandma made them for their birthdays. It was one of the few Indian things she did. And she was always sure to remind them that it’s not traditional, and that it comes from lacking resources and wanting comfort food." (p. 181).
And they also have parents, siblings, homes or no homes, smart phones, computers, drones, games, favorite literary works, jobs or no jobs, money or no money, ambitions, and more. Besides the passages about identity, the book has a suspenseful plot and lots of complications. It's not a boring work of navel-gazing, it's about convincingly presented individuals with all sorts of challenges in their lives. I found it very readable and likable. 

1 comment:

Jeanie said...

I've said that quote a lot. About politicians (one comes to mind), places (more than once about my town), ideas. Thanks for a review of an interesting sounding book.

And happy new year! We'll make our meet-up happen soon!