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Wednesday, August 08, 2018

There There (2018) by Tommy Orange

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Tommy Orange, author of There There an auspicious debut set in the urban native community of Oakland, CA.


Book Review
There There (2018)
by Tommy Orange
Published June 2018 by Penguin Randomhouse


   When I was attending law school in San Francisco (Hastings College of Law AKA UC Hastings) I clerked at California Indian Legal Services in Oakland, California.   CILS as it's known has a proud tradition of litigating on behalf of California native tribes and individuals, though a flood of gaming money has dramatically changed the landscape for native legal services in the past decades.  My job was typically intake, fielding calls from different people all over the state- mostly northern california, with a galaxy of problems, many involving their own Indian tribal government.

  During the two summers I clerked there, I made trips into the hinterland of California to visit different Native homelands.  California is a hugely diverse location for native peoples, and northern California especially so.  However, I also learned about a different population, of what were called "Urban Indians"- these were legit tribally enrolled peoples who had migrated to Oakland and formed their own pan-tribal community.  They had a community center just east of downtown that I recall visiting on multiple occasions.   This urban native community in Oakland California is also where Tommy Orange calls home.  One of the characteristics of the urban native community in Oakland is that it isn't necessarily composed of Native Californians, rather the population broadly reflects the relative size of tribes in the USA as a whole.

   Tommy Orange is an exciting new literary voice, and There There is an exciting book with a very distinct voice- of the urban native community of Oakland CA BUT ALSO an accomplished prose stylists- cool, but not alienating, creative but comprehensible.  The plot of There There, which deploys about a half dozen narrators, focuses loosely on a plot to rob a Pow-Wow being held at the Oakland Coliseum.  The characters are tied by family and proximity, and Orange moves them backwards and forwards in time, using the flashbacks to establish a longer narrative of the urban native community, inevitably spending time on the occupation of Alcatraz and moving forward from there.

  Orange hints at two of the deepest complexities that surround the urban native communities: The use of so-called "blood quantum" to determine tribal membership and the outsize role that remaining "on the reservation" plays in reevaluations of priorly determined tribal membership.  In other words, you can leave the reservation, but don't expect to maintain your tribal membership forever into the future.   At least one of the characters muses on the irony of the blood quantum standard, and the exclusionary impact it might have on native people who have parents from different tribes and may not be enrollable in any.

  The world picture that Orange paints is grim, though not without hope.  Urban natives have the fortune or misfortune to be able to exist almost invisibly among the larger urban underclass and the contrast between that and the often claustrophobic existence of life on tribal land has a liberating effect.  And of course, urban natives, like the author himself, have access to resources that are sadly absent in rural places where tribal homelands tend to be located.  Surely, There There is an auspicious literary debut, and perhaps a contender for a National Book Award nomination?  Is a Pulitzer our of the question?

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