Posted by: Lisa Hill | June 2, 2019

There, There, by Tommy Orange


With Indigenous Literature Week coming up next month at ANZ LitLovers, this is a good time to look at Indigenous literature from other places around the world.  (ILW has always welcomed contributions featuring reviews of any First Nations’ books, but my focus has mainly been Australian and New Zealand Indigenous literature.)

There, There is by Tommy Orange, an enrolled member of the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes of Oklahoma… and straightaway the use of the term ‘enrolled member’ raises interesting issues about identity.  The unnamed narrator  addresses these in ‘Interlude’:

We are Indians and Native Americans, American Indians and Native American Indians, North American Indians, Natives, NDNs and Ind’ins, Status Indians and Non-Status Indians, First Nations Indians and Indians so Indian we either think about the fact of it every single day, or we never think about it at all. We are Urban Indians and Indigenous Indians, Rez Indians and Indians from Mexico and Central and South America. We are Alaskan Native Indians, Native Hawaiians, and European expatriate Indians, Indians from eight different tribes with quarter blood quantum requirements and so not federally recognised Indian kinds of Indians.  We are enrolled members of tribes and disenrolled members, ineligible members and tribal council members.  We are full-blood, half-breed, quadroon, eighth, sixteenth, thirty-seconds.  Undoable math. Insignificant remainders. (p.136)

This melancholy observation raises the question of who decides whether you are in or out, and why.  It seems to be just like Aboriginality in Australia which can be contested by bureaucratic eligibility rules, by shock jocks and the tabloid press, and by Indigenous communities themselves.  But in Orange’s novel, some of the characters are struggling with identity on another front as well.  Because of family dysfunction, some members of the younger generation don’t know who their parents are and it’s not just that this means that they can’t know which tribe they belong to, they also feel a sense of rootlessness.  Orvil, Loother and Lony have no memory of their estranged mother except for the idiosyncratic way she named them, not because she couldn’t spell but because she wanted them to be different.  Naming is important in this novel because—as in Australia—so many were re-named to suit the colonisers’ purposes, and often with banal or offensive connotations.

These three boys have had no contact with their birth mother because they were brought up by their great-aunt, but in the age of Facebook it seems inevitable that they will find each other, and indeed this meeting becomes predictable as the plot stalks towards a grand dénouement at the powwow in Oakland.  But Edwin’s discovery of his father shows that it’s easier to track down a parent using his mother’s Facebook profile than it is to actually own up to having used her account to an astonished virtual father.

There, There raises issues similar to those that recur in Indigenous Australian and New Zealand writing.  Confusions about identity and authenticity; dislocated and dysfunctional families; endemic violence against women; substance abuse; widespread unemployment offset by a burgeoning Indigenous ‘industry’ where those struggling to help each other often have unresolved issues themselves.  (A barely functioning alcoholic, for example, is an addiction counsellor who counts her own success rate in days, not weeks or months).

The problem of authenticity is an important one, but is it valued?  Edwin listens to playlists from First Nations DJs who offer the most modern, or most postmodern, form of Indigenous music [he’s] heard that is both traditional and new-sounding. 

The problem with Indigenous art in general is that it’s stuck in the past.  The catch, or the double bind, about the whole thing is this: If it isn’t pulling from tradition, how is it Indigenous? And if it is stuck in tradition, in the past, how can it be relevant to other Indigenous people living now, how can it be modern? So to get close to but keep enough distance from tradition, in order to be recognisably Native and modern-sounding, is a small kind of miracle these three First Nation producers made happen on a particularly accessible self-titled album, which they, in the spirit of the age of the mixtape, gave away for free online. (p. 77)

So this small kind of miracle isn’t worth paying for… and the creatives behind it can’t make a living from it.

The narrative tension comes from Tony Loneman’s plan, revealed in the first chapter, to steal the prize money at the powwow. Indians come from all over to compete as the best drummer or dancer &c, and the prize money is paid in the form of gift cards, brought to the venue in a safe.  The author stresses the contemporaneity of events through details like these gift cards, but also references the use of smart phones, Facebook, drones, and 3D printing.  The characters’ skill and ingenuity in using these technologies show that they have potential which is underutilised, misapplied or wasted in fruitless endeavours.  The exception to this is Dene Oxendene, who gets a grant to record stories from people attending the powwow.  He has no real plan other than that he wants to use his dead father’s camera as a kind of homage, but his natural inclination for listening, and his subjects’ desire to tell their stories when most people deny them a hearing, seems to have the desired effect.

There, There made quite a splash for a first novel.  It was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize (2019),  the National Book Award for Fiction (2018),  the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for First Fiction (2018), the Andrew Carnegie Medal Nominee for Fiction (2019), the Goodreads Choice Award Nominee for Fiction and for Debut Author (2018), and the Aspen Words Literary Prize (2019).  It also won the National Book Critics Circle John Leonard Prize (2018), the 2019 PEN/Hemingway Award (2019), The Centre for Fiction First Novel Prize (2018), and the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award for Fiction (2019).  It became a bestseller, yet Marlon James blurbs it as a ‘thunderclap’, which suggests to me that (despite an impressive Wikipedia list of writers from peoples indigenous to the Americas) the issues of identity, authenticity, dispossession and disadvantage raised in this novel hadn’t previously had much attention in the US.

BTW the curious title is apparently an allusion to a comment by Gertrude Stein on discovering that her family home in Oakland had been into a carpark: ‘There is no there there,” she apparently said, a sentiment any of us can relate to when we go back somewhere we’ve lived, only to find it unrecognisable. But for the characters in this novel, this sentiment urges them to accept that the past is gone and that they must make new memories out of adaptations to the new reality.

Author: Tommy Orange
Title: There, There
Publisher: Harvill Secker UK, an imprint of Vintage (Penguin Random House). 2018, 295 pages
ISBN: 9781787300361
Source: Kingston Library

Available from Fishpond: There There



  1. Enjoyed your review. Identity has so many different facets that it makes for a very difficult subject–one can be… in fact one is more than one thing, and each person as a combination of those things that make up his identity perhaps makes those individual facets difficult to define or understand.


    • Yes, I agree: I don’t think any of us should be ascribing attitudes or opinions based on what we perceive another’s identity to be.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Well, one of the issues in the US, I think, is that black Americans comprise the largest racial minority, and so their issues tend to be the most visible. Native Americans represent only 1 or 2% I think. I’m not sure the many people outside the US recognise the difference between these two groups in terms of history/origins etc. And, of course Native American history is complex, because of the large number of tribes and their particular situations.

    BTW I’d never heard that Gertrude Stein story, but my parents were horrified when a few years ago they visited Mount Isa where we’d lived a few years, and found that our house was gone and in its place was the McDonalds car park!!

    All of which is to say that this book sounds well worth reading.


    • Yes, I think you’re entirely right: most readers outside the US would be familiar with Black American literature and the issues that arise from slavery, but would most probably have grown up as I did, with those B&W cowboys and Indians movies and TV shows that presented a very distorted history indeed. But I get the impression from this book that even within the US, Indigenous Indians are struggling for air time and column space, much as it was here until comparatively recently.
      I think you’d love this book.


      • Oh yes, I should have made it clear to that our experience in the USA was that Native American affairs thded to be overshadowed. I suspect it still is from my visits, but that it ‘s better than it was.

        BTW I saw an episode of Kit Carson at a presentation recently. So interesting to see with adult eyes. The Classic Native American history is Dee Brown’s Bury my heart at Wounded Knee, 1970. He was white, but like CD Rowley here, looked at the negative impact of settlers on indigenous people. He wrote it unapologetically from their perspective. The book was a bestseller.


        • I hadn’t heard of that one. The only other author I know is Louise Edrich, and I don’t quite get on with her style of writing.


          • Yes, I’ve read a little of hers too, but not for a long time. And nonfiction writer William Least Heat-Moon. I’d love to read more recent writing.


  3. This was one of my favorite books last year. It introduced me to the urban Indian population, broadening my limited understanding of the very diverse indigenous population in my country. For me the best was getting to know all those characters and being in the hands of a masterful plotter.

    Thank you for writing about this. I am moved to seek out indigenous writers here beyond Louise Erdrich.


    • Yes, I think it’s that broadening of perception, in line with my first quotation, that makes this book so valuable. It’s the same here, the stereotypical images we see on TV are of outback Aborigines in communities, hardly ever on urban Aborigines.
      And the whole identity thing is toxic here: as we read in Growing Up Aboriginal in Australia light-skinned Aborigines are forever having their Aboriginality questioned, but still experiencing the discrimination that goes with being Indigenous.


  4. That comment from Marlon James strikes me as a little odd. There have been some notable prize-winning indigenous writers who came before Tommy Orange (like M. Scott Momaday, Leslie Marmon Silko, Linda Hogan, Sherman Alexie and, yes, as mentioned, but she has been so prominent, Louise Erdrich) from south of what is currently the border between the U.S. and Canada. But I think There, There caught a wave in the zeitgeist, with a real keen edge to recognizing underrepresented voices in the States and Canada these days. I love the kaleidoscope of voices in this novel and I thought the pacing was nicely handled: I hope the attention his work has been receiving inspires readers to look at some of the other indigenous writers in the world. Over the past couple of years I’ve read my way through Erdrich’s books, with the exception of her dystopia (and I’ve yet to finish her children’s series): I quite admire her overall.


    • LOL Maybe it’s a case of people thinking that some innovation or another is new to their generation, when actually it’s been done before…
      Whatever the case, I also hope that we get more of this kind of writing:)

      Liked by 1 person

      • Yes, I think that’s it. Also, it’s a nice gesture to acknowledge the up and coming writers who could use the royalties I’m sure. Perhaps James feels as though the classic indigenous writers I’ve listed have had their day and it’s time to make room for fresh and thunderclappy voices.


        • Yes, that’s true, emerging writers deserve our support :)


  5. YES!!! I loved this book when I first read it last year. I highly recommend it for the Indigenous Literature Week. I’ve read all of the Native writers mentioned above in the posts. I don’t know if I have a favorite but Sherman Alexie and Louise Erdrich are way up there and Tommy Orange has joined them for sure.

    No one mentioned Leslie Marmon Silko who is an older writer but worth it in here own different way. She writes about the Native American experience of the War in Vietnam.

    Nativie Americans have many serious problems which yes, are overshadowed by those of other minorities, but they also have assimilated to a greater degree than most other minorities. See “Indians in Unexpected Places” by Philip Deloria (son of Vine Deloria Jr – noted author and activist).

    Anyway, kudos on the review, Lisa – I particularly like the way you said this:
    “… this meeting becomes predictable as the plot stalks towards a grand dénouement at the powwow in Oakland.” – “stalks” is the perfect descriptor.



    • Thanks, Becky:)
      I’ll add your review (and the other authors too when I find them on your blog) too when I add this book to my Indigenous Reading List.


  6. […] If you would like to participate,  your choice of indigenous literature isn’t restricted to a focus on Aboriginal, Torres Strait Islander and Maori literature.   Participants are welcome to join in reading indigenous literature from anywhere in the world, from Canada to Guyana, from Native American to Basque to Pashtun or Ixcatec. (For a list of indigenous people of the world, see this list at Wikipedia.) As to how we define indigenous, that’s up to indigenous people themselves.  If they identify as indigenous, well, that’s good enough for me, (and if you want to see how foolish it is to label people, see the first quotation here.) […]


  7. […] There, There, see Lisa’s review at ANZ LitLovers […]


  8. I think the ‘First Nations’ banner has made us more aware of the original/displaced inhabitants of many countries – not just North America, but the Amazon for instance, Scandanavia, here of course, India and so on. One thing I’ve noticed about the US is how recent that displacement has been.Older characters in The Grapes of Wrath talk about their fathers’ involvement in ‘Indian Wars’ and the great movement west beyond the Mississippi was as late as the 1850s and 60s. (Good thing I read some Historical Fiction!)


  9. […] There, There by Tommy Orange, see my review […]


  10. […] While I would like Australians to participate by reading Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander literature, participants are welcome to join in reading indigenous literature from anywhere in the world, from Canada to Guyana, from Native American to Basque to Pashtun or Ixcatec. (For a list of indigenous people of the world, see this list at Wikipedia.) As to how we define indigenous, that’s up to indigenous people themselves.  If they identify as indigenous, well, that’s good enough for me, (and if you want to see how foolish it is to label people, see the first quotation here.) […]


  11. […] There There by Tommy Orange (Native American). Published by Harvill Secker, Alfred A. Knopf and McClelland & Stewart Inc, see my review. […]


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