It is all but easy to summarise Tommy Orange’s novel. There is Dene Oxendene, a young film maker who applies for a grant to realise a dream he and his deceased uncle had: give Native Americans a voice, make them tell their stories to ensure that they are not lost. There are Opal and her sister Jacquie, first as teenagers, later as grand-parents, struggling in a world which is not made for them. Edwin who is looking for his father and thinks he just found him on the Internet whereas his colleague Blue still doesn’t know who her biological parents are. Orvil and his two younger brothers who prepare secretly for a dance. And a group of young boys who prepare a ferocious and malicious attack on the place where most of the characters will gather: the powwow.
Tommy Orange introduces his novel with a prologue which outlines the Indian history. It starts with the first encounter with the coloniser and continues as a series of loss and suppression and ends in a group of people who have lost not only their land, but also their culture, identity and pride. The author himself is of Cheyenne and Arapaho decent, so he knows what he is writing about and he thus gives the Natives an authentic voice. Yes, it is an inconvenient truth he tells, but a truth worth reading and thinking about.
The title already is quite confusing, but Orange makes one of his characters give an explanation quoting Gertrude Stein who
(…) 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 (…) The quote is important to Dene. This there there. (…) 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.
The Natives have lost much more than their land. And up to today they have been treated differently. A lot of things that happen to the characters in the novel – getting pregnant at a very young age, being addicted to alcohol etc. – also happen to people from other ethnic backgrounds, however, they then are considered the odd uncle or the eccentric aunt and the like. Looking at the Native community, those things are regarded as the normal case, it is not something that anybody would wonder about. They always live at the fringe of society, even if they complete school and get a degree, they will have to perform much better than a white competitor to get a job.
The most striking aspect of the novel for me was the trouble that all the characters experience. On the one hand, they are forced to hide their culture and traditions because they do not belong to the mainstream culture, on the other hand, this leads to a certain loss which is felt but difficult to express. They sense that they are missing something, that they need explanations which nobody will give them. Their identity is never really complete which consequently ends in serious disturbances.
Tommy Orange is a remarkable writer who gives his fellow Natives an important voice that absolutely should be heard. Certainly, he doesn’t shrink from accusing what the colonisers and the white ruling classes have done to the indigenous population, however, he provides insight in what this actually meant and thus opens ways for a hopefully better future. This will not be an easy way, but one that has to be walked together.