There is no ‘There, There’: Author Tommy Orange and his Exploration of Urban Native Identity

'There There' by Tommy Orange
The Color Purple 2023

“There, There” is a novel published by Tommy Orange in 2018. Being Orange’s first published novel, he received high praise for the riveting storytelling and themes related to urban native identity.

Orange identifies as part of the Cheyenne and Arapaho nations and currently resides in Oakland, Cali., U.S.A. where the novel is based.

Sharing a name with a Radiohead song “There, There,” the novel follows multiple characters identifying as native as they prepare for a pow-wow in Oakland. I had the opportunity to read this book in a contemporary literature class, and the storytelling devices Orange uses are masterful when it comes to the overarching theme of the novel. Orange wishes to portray a modern native story and fight against stereotypes.

He got the idea for There There out of frustration with the literary canon of Native Americans being restricted to reservations. He wanted to see stories of ‘urban Indians’ like himself represented.

Erik Zawodniak at University of Connecticut

Back to the Radiohead song, it is coined by a character in the novel discussing the loss of native identity in urban settings. However, Orange did not name the novel after the song despite the lyrics relating to themes. Instead, he turned to a Gertrude Stein quote, “There is no there, there.”

The “there” can be interpreted in several manners. Orange was born to a white mother and native father; to Orange, the “there” (his identity) not being there comes from not being introduced to his father’s traditional life.

Orange says his father had a traditional Native upbringing in Oklahoma, but he didn’t have a lot of time to introduce his children to Native American culture — and that’s a common experience for kids like him, who grow up in a big city.

Lynn Neary at NPR

Native identity

The characters in his novel in some manner struggle with their native identity. Some may in fact mirror Orange’s personal experiences. One character lives with his white mother while being distant from his native father.

Tommy Orange
Tommy Orange (Photo by Larry D. Moore, CC BY-SA 4.0)

Orange portrays more of the distant native identity with not being close to native family members. The same message is true for other characters in the novel.

It’s more of a question of “how do I identify” or “who do I identify with” for several characters. Orange takes this question and applies it to native identity in general, specifically urban native identity.

Urban native identity is a topic that Orange believes is not explored enough within literature and society. Even then, the portrayal of native identity is continuously exploited in the United States with stereotypical mascots branding sports teams and school mascots. Orange brings this up within his novel, but chooses to celebrate urban native identity rather than spend time on stereotypes.

The story does have some tragedy to it towards the ending, but I will avoid spoiling it. However, Orange portrays urban native identity in a manner that uplifts rather than plays into the stereotypes while reclaiming them.

One interesting note though: Orange does use the word “Indian” in place of “native” in the novel. I’m unsure if he’s reclaiming the word himself or using the word to represent the theme of identity or its loss.

Growing up on a reservation, you have a land base, and you have a community of people.

Tommy Orange
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