Tommy Orange’s debut novel “There There” tells the story of twelve different characters that all struggle in some form or another with their lineage, heritage, and knowing who they are. Almost all of the main characters are Indigenous, and the question of what being an Indigenous person means to them all is frequently questioned throughout the novel. While there are background stories given for most characters, they are all moving toward the Big Oakland Powwow for their own reasons.
At times I found myself tempted to make a cheat sheet for myself to remember who each of the characters were, and how they were connected to each other (whether they were aware of the connection or not). With so many characters to follow, there will be some that everyone can connect with. The self described “Urban Indians” of the story ask themselves many questions throughout their own personal journeys. Some are going to the powwow for connection to their culture; others are going for all the wrong reasons. Everyone has a story to tell, and “There There” reminds us that one can never really know what someone has gone through or how they should “handle” those things from their past.
The title “There There” is inspired by a quote by Gertrude Stein in which she thinks back to her hometown (and the setting of our story) Oakland, California. In remarking that “there is no there there”, it was Stein’s way of saying that what was once there – the town and cultures that she knew and grew up with – are no longer there years later. Orange takes this concept and runs with it throughout the novel, as some of the chapters of the book are prefaced with the history of Indigenous people, and how their culture and history have been taken from them. Because of this, there is no there there in terms of their heritage and culture. Some of the characters in the book all have their own way of keeping their Indigenous identity alive, while others are questioning what it means to be Indigenous.
One of the main characters of the novel is Dene Oxendene, who is creating a “movie” of sorts from his uncle’s plans. As Dean describes it, “what I want to do, is to document Indian stories in Oakland. I want to put a camera in front of them, video, audio, I’ll transcribe it while they talk if they want, let them write, every kind of story I can collect, let them tell their stories with no one else there, with no direction or manipulation or agenda. I want them to be able to say what they want. Let the content direct the vision. There are so many stories here” (Orange #). This theme of storytelling is prevalent throughout the novel, with some of the main characters meeting with Dene and telling him one of their stories. Through this avenue, Orange reminds us that stories are what connects us and remind us that we are never alone.
“There There” is thought provoking and honest, giving the reader plenty to think about while they take this journey through Oakland. The ending of this novel was very unexpected and will leave readers on the edge of their seats. After this debut, I can’t wait to see what Tommy Orange does next. If you’re looking for something with story, heart and impact, pick up Tommy Orange’s debut novel “There There” today!