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Spotlight on Tommy Orange

Spotlight on Tommy Orange

While a good book stands on its own, many novels gain depth from understanding the author and their reasons for writing. Tommy Orange’s There, There is the latter. Knowing this, he included a prologue in the book. “I’ve always loved what prologues can do, the way they can contextualize,”[I] he explains. Read on to learn more about Tommy Orange and There, There.

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There There Tommy Orange

(cover image from Penguin Random House Canada)

Tommy Orange’s Upbringing

Now thirty-six years old, Tommy Orange grew up in Oakland, California, to very different parents who met on a commune in New Mexico. His father was fluent in Cheyenne (but never spoke it at home) and was a Native American Church ceremony leader. His white mother began as “a wandering hippie and spiritual seeker,”[ii] and eventually found what she was looking for in the evangelical Christian church. Unfortunately, this led to a lot of arguments and eventually divorce.

Orange’s childhood had him living between conflicting worlds, unsure where he belonged. He says “I grew up on a street with eight other biracial kids. It was very Oakland. We were all ‘halves,’ yet because of how I look I had to deal with a lot of racism in high school. Around white people, I don’t look white enough. Mexicans assume I’m Mexican and speak Spanish to me.”[iii] Simply put, he was the odd one out, wherever he seemed to go.

Tommy Orange, The Author

This struggle of belonging, of being (or assumed to be) many different people, clearly influenced the multiple narrative voices in There, There.  On the book’s structure, he says that “there’s a monolithic version of what a Native is supposed to be. Writing a polyphonic, multigenerational novel is resisting this one idea of what being Native is supposed to look like.”[iv]

In the novel, he strives for a realism that showcases not only what being Indigenous looks like in 2018, but what it looks like in the same urban setting he grew up in. “I wanted to write characters that felt true and real… I wanted the characters to be working-class, because so often the characters in novels that I’ve read are white and upper-middle-class with white, upper-middle-class problems.”[v]

Indeed, you won’t find the historically romanticized warrior in this novel; that is not truth. That is not Orange’s goal. "Native people look like a lot of different things, and we are in cities now — I mean, 70 percent of Native people live in cities now. And we just need a new story to build from, and I always wanted to try to do that."[vi]

Tommy Orange

(photo from Penguin Random House Canada)

The Future for Tommy Orange

As a graduate of the Institute of American Indian Arts, Orange now teaches Creative Writing there alongside Terese Marie Mailhot, who also graduated from the IAIA. “I want to help build momentum and get more native voices out there. It’s a really powerful thing to be part of a native writing community,”[vii] he says.

Helping young Indigenous authors find their voices and share their stories is his chosen career, but raising his seven-year old son is clearly his life’s work. He wants to “make sure (his) son knows that he’s Native too.”[viii] For this reason, they often travel from California to Oklahoma to visit Orange’s father, to slowly learn the Cheyenne language.   

Tommy Orange is very much living in the present. This means visiting the past to learn where he comes from, and preparing his son and students for the future. “It's convenient to not have to think about a brutal history and a people surviving and still being alive and well today, thriving in various different forms of life, good and bad. I wanted to represent a range of human experience as a way to humanize Native people."[ix]

Ultimately, Orange wants people to see what is right in front of us; There, There accomplishes just that.  


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[i]Entertainment Weekly 

[ii]NY Times

[iii]SF Gate 

[iv]The Guardian 

[v]The Guardian

[vi]National Public Radio 

[vii]NY Times

[viii]The Guardian

[ix]WUWM 89.7 

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