Wednesday, February 27, 2019

Review: There There

There There
From There There, by Tommy Orange:
Open quote 

But what we are is what our ancestors did. How they survived. We are the memories we don’t remember, which live in us, which we feel, which make us sing and dance and pray the way we do, feelings from memories that flare and bloom unexpectedly in our lives like blood through a blanket from a wound made by a bullet fired by a man shooting us in the back for our hair, for our heads, for a bounty, or just to get rid of us."

There There is a short novel of many characters, each with a story of what it means to be a Native American in an urban setting, in this case Oakland, California.

Grade: B+

There There has a wide cast of characters. The characters are young and old, some of them grow from young to old during the decades the novel spans. They are related in various ways to each other: friends, brother-brother, mother-daughter, grandmother-grandson, or parents estranged from each other and their child. Relationships are complex and not always fleshed out or resolved. There are too many characters and too short a time to give their stories the time they deserve.

The overall impression of what it's like to be Native American in urban American is what is strongest in this novel. Many of the characters have lost touch with their ancestry. They might have a Native mother and white father. They don't know if they are Arapaho or Cheyenne or what. One character "is not recognizably Native. He is ambiguously nonwhite. Over the years he'd been assumed Mexican plenty, been asked if he was Chinese, Korean, Japanese, Salvadoran once, but mostly the question came like this: What are you?" Their parents often didn't emphasize the answer, sometimes leaving it to the child coming of age to decide for himself whether he wanted to embrace his past or shut it away forever. For too many, neither strategy works, leaving them outsiders in two worlds.

Their various stories all gradually converge on a powwow in Oakland. Some are organizing it. Some plan to dance or drum at it. Some plan to rob it. The climax is confusing. It's difficult to keep the mayhem straight. But the novel's ending is consistent with the theme of a people and their culture as victims of a history of "assimilation, absorption, erasure, the completion of a five-hundred-year-old genocidal campaign."

As for the novel's title, it's from a quote about Oakland by Gertrude Stein. It has the same meaning here, applicable not just to Gertrude Stein's Oakland but to Native Americans' America in general. "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."

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