Special to Indian Country Today
The much-anticipated sequel to author Tommy Orange’s acclaimed first novel, “There There,” will take readers to places they may not have gone before.
The 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic, the rise of Indian boarding schools and the mind of Richard Henry Pratt, who coined the phrase, “Kill the Indian, save the man,” will chart the links between history and the characters from his first novel.
“The same brutal stuff is there,” Orange told Indian Country Today in a recent interview. “I'm trying to make that world feel alive in a fictional way.”
The still-untitled new novel, set for likely release in late 2022, will reunite with the characters from “There There” following the aftermath of the first novel’s powwow finale.
Orange, a citizen of the Cheyenne and Arapaho Nations of Oklahoma, understands that history brings meaning to modern life.
The visceral prologue to “There There” recounts the Sand Creek Massacre in Colorado and other horrors of colonization, yet looks ahead to the lives of urban Natives flourishing beyond the agenda of elimination.
“We didn’t get lost amid the sprawl of tall buildings, the stream of anonymous masses, the ceaseless din of traffic,” he writes. “We found one another, started up Indian Centers, brought out our families and powwows, our dances, our songs, our beadwork.”
The new novel is inspired by Orange’s research about America’s earliest boarding schools and Pratt, the Army general and superintendent who opened the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. It was the first government-run Indian boarding school and became a prototype for more than 450 boarding schools that eventually opened in the U.S.
Pratt started with a Native prison school in St. Augustine, Florida, at what was then Fort Marion, where he began experimenting with assimilationist education. It’s an ugly history that has resurfaced in recent months with the discovery of hundreds of bodies of mostly children at Indian boarding schools in Canada. Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, citizen of New Mexico's Laguna Pueblo, has ordered a Federal Indian Boarding School Truth Initiative to review historic records of schools in the U.S.
“This particular history around Fort Marion and the origins of the boarding schools is a Southern Cheyenne story,” Orange said. “Half of the prisoners there were Southern Cheyenne. So, finding that out, it really made me want to dig in, and the more that I dug in, the more that it started taking over the novel.
“And not only that, but the way that it grew through time, starting around 1875, it started bumping into 1918, 1919, and then you had the Spanish Flu. And living in the pandemic of now made me want to write into that space, because it's too hard to write about the pandemic in the pandemic.”
‘Original and complex’
Orange, 39, spoke to Indian Country Today via Zoom from his home in central California, not long after receiving the biannual Festival of Words Writers Award for Native writers from the Tulsa City-County Library for “There There.”
The award was among a string of accolades Orange has received since the novel debuted in 2018, including the Pen/Hemingway Award, the Center for Fiction’s First Novel Prize, the American Book Award and The New York Times Book Review’s “10 Best Books of the Year.” It was also a finalist for the 2019 Pulitzer Prize in Fiction.
The novel describes the search by urban Natives for a sense of belonging, told through the stories of 12 Indigenous people in various stages of life as they converge at a powwow in Oakland, California.
The title is drawn from a comment by author Gertrude Stein, who said that the Oakland where she grew up had changed so much that “there was no there there anymore.”
The book drew immediate acclaim.
“Nothing in Orange’s world is simple, least of all his characters and his sense of the relationship between history and the present. Instead, a great deal is subtle and uncertain in this original and complex novel,” The New York Times wrote in its review.
Orange took a winding path to being an acclaimed author. He grew up in Oakland to a Cheyenne/Arapaho father and white mother. In school he was an athlete, playing roller hockey on a national level. He then turned to music, getting a bachelor’s degree in recording engineering from a community college.
He developed a love for books and reading while working at a used bookstore. The real impetus for his novel, however, came with the birth of his son, Felix, in 2010.
“That really did a number on me, in terms of changing what I saw as my trajectory as a human and what did I care about, and how seriously was I going to take it,” he said. “It all kind of got kicked up a notch.”
He began the novel in 2012. In 2014, he joined the master of fine arts program at the Institute of American Indian Arts, earning his masters of fine arts degree in 2016. He said he found new challenges and rewards at the unique institute, which continues to make a name for its distinguished Native alumni and faculty, and its culturally distinct leadership within the arts.
“Most of all my experience at the MFA was about finding community,” he said, “meeting other Native writers and feeling like I’m part of a community of Native people who are trying to do this thing called, in my case, fiction.”
There, he says, the focus shifted from a more detached perspective to a community where people often challenged what he thought, and where he, in turn, could challenge what they thought. He learned from mentors, other students, weeklong residencies, professors in other genres delivering craft talks, and readings.
It was a challenge, though, “to both find the professors that I liked what they had to say about writing, and to suss out whose authority voice I didn’t really trust,” he said.
The connections Orange made through IAIA led him to an agent who helped bring the book to print with Alfred A. Knopf publishing.
His wife, Kateri, and son, Felix, now 10, stood by his side as he received the Tulsa award via Zoom from his home, and they helped wrap him in a ceremonial blanket that was presented to him.
A link to history
His sequel to “There There” will pick up the lives of the original characters in the aftermath of the powwow but will also deal heavily with the early history of Indian boarding schools.
It will begin differently than his first novel.
“It definitely doesn’t have a non-fiction tone,” he said. “For instance, I'm speaking from the character of Pratt.”
Orange said one of the characters he follows from the boarding schools will turn out to be related to Opal Viola, a character from “There There.” The book will then carry readers into the lives of the modern-day characters.
The historic part of the book will be much more extensive than the brief prologue for “There There,” in which the author details the slaughter by Cavalry soldiers of more than 200 Cheyenne and Arapaho, more than half of whom were women and children.
In the new book, Orange said, he may have reached a more complex understanding of Pratt than the notorious legacy of boarding schools he has come to represent.
“His thinking was definitely problematic, and I definitely go after him in the book to some extent,” Orange said. “But he was fighting for Native people in a way the U.S. government was not … in thinking about boarding schools and him wanting equality, ultimately.
“He said, 'I would burn these walls down tonight,’ about the boarding schools, if he knew he could get Natives into public schools, which Native people couldn’t, right?” Orange said.
Some scholars question the fairness, in fact, of holding Pratt responsible for a legacy he frequently pushed back against by opposing many damaging Bureau of Indian Affairs policies.
But the high number of child deaths at Carlisle – deaths that Pratt tried to hide from scrutiny – remains a damning legacy. The problems escalated in 1918, when the Spanish Flu began sweeping the world, Orange said.
Orange has explored the COVID-19 pandemic in two short stories, “Reopening,” and “The Team,” which was part of The New York Times’ Decamaron Project anthology. He implies there may be a brief glimpse of COVID-19 in his new novel, but said that it’s not possible to see that event clearly yet.
“Sometimes you need a certain amount of perspective on something as big as this pandemic,” he said.
Orange said the challenge of confronting harmful fictions about history has persisted for nearly a century.
One organization, an association of American actors, tried to correct the portrayal of Indigenous people in film as far back as 1926, “so that we weren’t villains, so we weren’t all depicted the same way, as if we were all from the same tribe and we were all in teepees, for example.”
He continued, “There were organizations telling people who weren’t Native not to act our parts. So, the misinformation about us and the misrepresentation of us doesn’t seem to go away, and that’s really sad.”
Orange compared Natives’ constant battle over narrative to battles shared by other marginalized people of this country.
“I think it's because we have a ruling class of white people who don't want their narrative disrupted,” he said, “and to look at history in a sober way, in a real way, in a factual way, to disrupt that narrative that you earned all that you have.”
When “There There” took the literary world by storm two years ago, it proved a total surprise to Orange.
“The actual doing of the events and the public attention and everything was really hard, and I didn’t like it,” he said. “I certainly am afraid of this whole sophomore effort, and how people will be thinking about receiving the next book. I’m certainly not going to read the reviews this time around.”
Fortunately, he said, this has not interfered with his craft, his rigor in coming at the page the same way and holding himself to the same standards.
“There’re a lot of things to be grateful for,” he said, “for the success the book had and how it allowed me to have a career, as what I do is to write, and the public speaking stuff that I do, that’s what I get to do for a living. And that’s worth it, whatever complaints that I’ve had about what it’s all meant.”
But different audiences view the book differently, he said. One issue that frequently arose during pre-COVID book tour events revealed gaps in awareness between Native and non-Native audiences. He recalled questions from some white audience members that, at first, might have shut him down or elicited an angry response.
“When somebody asks something offensive like, ‘Why did you write something so sad?’ somebody can’t see why that would be offensive, because I’m writing about lives that resemble mine and a lot of other peoples,’” he said.
“And a lot of Native reactions are actually not like that at all. This is what our lives consist of, so to dismiss it as sad is really missing a lot of points that are happening in the book.”
Although he accepts that there are Natives out there who probably hate him for the success, who may feel he isn’t Native enough for them, he said he writes about his own struggles with identity into his work.
“It’s a very messy subject when it comes to who belongs, and who can say they belong, and who can tell our stories and who cannot,” he said. “I have no uncertainty, zero uncertainty, when it comes to whether or not I feel I can write from the perspective that I have.”
Overall, however, the Native response to the novel has been very warm, Orange said.
“People love to see themselves and people they know in the book, and that’s been wonderful to experience,” he said.
Questions about identity persist in Indigenous communities, however, particularly among urban Natives who may feel disconnected from their heritage.
“Every possible way that it might look for me to say I’m Native seems wrong,” says Edwin Black, another major character in “There There.”
What suggestions does Orange have for Natives who fear getting certain rituals and beliefs wrong before they get them right?
“I think you have to try everything you can approach, because we’ve been systematically picked apart,” he said. “It was beaten out of us. It was systematically taken from us. We were taught not to do it. And then the legacies of all that. We are the children of that, and I think it’s a little bit more rare for there to be somebody with a strong family line that carried on the exact same traditions that their people did. There’s a lot of legacies of loss that we are trying to regain.”
Recognizing those conflicts can help move past them, he said.
“Having a forgiving and compassionate view toward yourself and to others, I think, is the way forward,” he said. “And it will come with clumsiness, and it will come with mistakes. And I think that saying you were wrong when you did something that you maybe shouldn’t have is also part of the approach.”
Relatively new traditions, like powwows and the Native American Church, can sometimes take on a kind of authority presence, defining what it means to be a real Native American, when in fact both of these iconic practices come from adaptations, he said.
They contain many pan-Indian elements, and while they are beautiful and amazing in their own right, Orange believes it’s a misstep to refer to them as authenticators for what being Native means, in how we perceive ourselves internally.
“They tried to undo us, and undo our lineages, so that we could not continue on as a people,” he said. “I think, more often than not, the people who are going for it, intimidated by the whole gamut of it, have a good reason to go for it, and have the blood or the lineage or the connection to community enough to go for it. I think the people taking up space who are faking it, they are there, but I think that's the smaller percentage.”
He continued, “There's a bigger percentage of people who are scared, and whose legacy they're carrying on, (who) carry a lot of shame. I think that is the higher percentage of Native people who have lost the connection.”
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