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Novelist Tommy Orange on the writing process of Native Truth
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How do we hold space for our ideas? How do we transcribe our ideas into latches for our communities to grab on to? “There There,” a novel by Tommy Orange, offers up these questions through the lens of a Bay Area Native. 

“There There” asks the reader to rely on their own interpretation of hope, to engage in an episodic body of work that is open-ended. It’s a  book that leaves the reader with more questions than answers.

“It wasn’t a hopeful time when I was finishing the book,” said Orange. “I was watching everything unfold at Standing Rock—watching elders pray for clean water and being shot by rubber bullets and pepper spray. Trump just got elected. It wasn’t a hopeful time.”

Commemorating National American Indian Heritage Month,“There There” was selected as the SFPL’s 15th annual One City One Book—a citywide literary event that aims to encourage community members to read the same book at the same time—and on Nov. 20, SFPL and the Friends of the San Francisco Public Library hosted a reception for Orange.

The weight the reader brings to a book is always present to Orange. In a high school in Wisconsin, a young Native youth asked Orange: “In the Thomas Frank chapter, was that sadness your sadness?”

“He was telling me that was his sadness and he wanted me to know that,” said Orange.

It is a struggle of Native truth. To remain honest to the best of the artist’s ability is part of the reason why “There There” stings the heart. It’s a book ready to listen to pain.

“My view of life is that it’s tragic,” said Orange. “I like works where the engagement is up to you and I wanted to give enough so there would be a reason to be hopeful.” 

Towards the end of the novel, native elder Opal counts swinging doors, she projects into the swings and counts a total of eight. “It’s a reason to have hope. I like what it does. To question the reader’s own faith. Whether you think the ending is good or not, to leave it open to the reader’s engagement, this a more interesting to me as a decision,” said Orange.

Ideas of home are never lost in his work. The more gone from home Orange is, the more he understands home.

“I didn’t grow up going to libraries than any other reason than to read enough to get tickets to an A’s game,” said Orange. “Libraries to me were a reminder that I wasn’t smart and that I wasn’t good enough to be smart. A reminder that people like me weren’t in books.”

Still, Orange was dedicated to creating a body of work that was not only hopeful but honest during a time in history where it was painful to exist. To essentially create a rope intertwined with hope, so strong it would hold the narrative and the idea throughout the entire book.

“A lot of the decisions I made for the book have to do with craft,” said Orange. “I like reading books with a lot of voices—that’s why I did that. I like books with prologues because the audience has the option of skipping it if they want. I like books that leave the ending to the reader’s faith.”

Orange approaches his writing process with questions on how his truth is being told. “That’s part of what I bring to revision and writing, does this feel true? In writing or literary realism, I am trying to depict life as it is, and truth comes into that equation. In revision, I ask, ‘is this something someone would think? Is this something someone would do? Is this staying to true to what life is like?’”

 “There are so many people in the Native world who’ve gone unacknowledged for doing more amazing work in community, than me,” said Orange. “I try to keep true to what reality as I’ve experienced it. I’m native. I grew up in a native community for enough years to ask: Does this feel true to my experience and what I’ve witnessed? How can I revise my pages into the best shape to qualify as feeling true to the reader? If someone from my community—my people were to read it, would they feel it’s true? This is what I bring to revision.”

 Fortunately, Orange has received warm feedback from community members who have felt seen, heard, and like he’s doing it right, said Orange.

 As an artist, Orange wants to step aside and leave room for others within the Native community to have the stage for their own truth. “I feel like my book has gotten wild success, but if that means people considering more Native work, more than what they might have before my book than I’d be happy to contribute in that way because there is so much good work, amazing powerful work, that needs to be paid attention to.” 

Story by: Rebeca Abidial Flores

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