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‘Writing out of a loneliness,’ novelist explores the range of native experiences

Tommy Orange's acclaimed debut novel "There There" explores through a dozen characters what it means to be Native American in an urban setting. Jeffrey Brown reports.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Now look at a novel that has received much attention in recent months written by Native American author Tommy Orange.

    It sheds light on a group of people long stereotype and often ignored.

    And again to Jeffrey Brown, who traveled to Oakland California, for the latest from our "NewsHour" Bookshelf.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Diamond Park in Oakland, California, Tommy Orange spent hours here as a kid and now visits with his wife and son.

    He grew up down the street, the child of a white mother and Native American father.

  • Tommy Orange:

    Sometimes, you feel like you belong right in the skin that you have, and sometimes you feel like an alien, and all the different spaces between.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Orange's acclaimed debut, "There There," is a novel of voices, a dozen characters exploring what it means to be Native American in an urban setting, not on a reservation.

  • Tommy Orange:

    I wanted to have the range of experiences for these Native characters, so different ages in different contexts, and different struggles and backgrounds, various different proximities to their Native identity.

    Some struggle with it and some don't. So I wanted to have a range of what it means to be Native right now.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    For 36-year-old Orange, an enrolled member of the Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes, his Native identity came mostly through visits to his father's childhood home in Oklahoma.

    Back in Oakland, identity was more fluid, even concerning what an Indian is supposed to look like.

  • Tommy Orange:

    If I'm in the Fruitvale, like we are now, people will speak Spanish to me first.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Yes, in this part of town.

  • Tommy Orange:

    Yes. In high school, I was called racial slurs.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Racial slurs for Indian…

  • Tommy Orange:

    It was actually Chinese racial slurs in high school.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Oh, really?

  • Tommy Orange:

    Yes.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    You were taken as Asian?

  • Tommy Orange:

    Yes.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Wow.

  • Tommy Orange:

    So it's — I have been thought to be a lot of different things because I have ambiguity.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    If slurs are thrown at you about being Chinese, what's your reaction to that?

  • Tommy Orange:

    Well, I got pretty angry. But it was also confusing. It's like, you can't even be made fun of right.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    After graduating from college, Orange worked in a variety of jobs, including here at Oakland's Native American Health Center. Returning with us recently, he was now a local celebrity. He became a reader late, he told me, and wasn't satisfied with the monolithic image of Natives he found.

  • Tommy Orange:

    When people think the only way to be Native or the only way to look Native is based on a historical, head-dressed feathered image, you have already disappeared — you're already gone before you can even start.

    There's something powerful about seeing yourself on the page or on the screen. And we don't have very much a good, positive version of that. Native people have — we have a lot of stereotypes that we battle against or negative ideas that we're dumb or we're drunk or — so, I was sort of writing out of a loneliness.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    What came out is being widely praised as an important new voice in American literature.

  • Tommy Orange:

    "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 frybread. 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."

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    One of the characters in "There There," 14-year-old Orvil Red Feather, explores his Indian heritage by looking online and watching videos on YouTube, a contemporary way to learn what it means to be Native, and something Orange himself turned to for research.

  • Tommy Orange:

    In an urban setting, if you're not tapped into the community and you're not going to powwows, and, you know, for some of us, our parents weren't forthright about the history or our culture or our tribe, sometimes because of pain.

    So there's still that curiosity. And what better place is there than the Internet if you're curious?

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    A powwow, in fact, becomes the destination that finally connects Orange's characters. He patterned it on real ones, large intertribal gatherings, like this in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

  • Tommy Orange:

    It's intertribal. It's contemporary and traditional.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    But he set his fictional powwow at the Oakland Coliseum, where he'd attended ball games in his youth.

  • Tommy Orange:

    You have a bunch of people coming together to dance and to sing and to drum. And there's an aliveness to being Native that you can feel there.

    I have my characters reflecting on like how to be Indian. How do you do it now? What does that mean? What does that mean if you live in the city?

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Orange studied and now teaches at the influential Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, and he's just one among a new generation of writers and poets telling a new Native story.

    The goal now, he says, for himself and other writers, to sustain the momentum they're building and to keep telling stories.

  • Tommy Orange:

    Well, one of the functions of literature that I admire is when you can read like an intimate detail that a writer writes about, and you have this feeling, like, oh, my God, I didn't know anybody else thought like that or did that.

    I want to be able to keep doing it and support my family and help other Native writers at the program that I teach in to get their work out in the world.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jeffrey Brown in Oakland, California.

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