By now, you may be making your way through the propulsive second half of Tommy Orange’s novel, There There, the California Book Club selection for November. Like many other significant works of recent literature, including Brandon Hobson’s novel The Removed and Layli Long Soldier’s Whereas: Poems, Orange’s novel sheds light on the present-day griefs of Native people by alluding to past traditions. Under the surface of the language in this literature is the undertow of time, carrying all the other past moments and the present.
As the uncle of filmmaker Dene Oxendene says in There There,
“We don’t have time, Nephew, time has us. It holds us in its mouth like an owl holds a field mouse. We shiver. We struggle for release, and then it pecks out our eyes and intestines for sustenance and we die the death of field mice.”
A similar sense of the past shaping an abiding present-day grief for Native people is found in the coordinator for the Big Oakland Powwow, Blue, a Native woman adopted by white people in Moraga. She tells us, “People where I grew up don’t know Natives still exist. That’s how much those Oakland hills separate us from Oakland. Those hills bend time.”
Yet you might realize that the novel’s cred as one of the best contemporary Oakland novels is built on its variegated allusions. High, low, and everything between. Epigraphs from the novel quote writers from other times and places: playwright Bertolt Brecht; novelist Javier Marías; poet Charles Baudelaire; and novelist, playwright, and poet Jean Genet. They set a tone, as does a reference to Radiohead’s depressive anthem “There There,” the lyrics of which repeat, “We are accidents waiting, waiting to happen. We are accidents waiting, waiting to happen.”
But space is made, too, for less formal artists, the mark-makers of the streets—those who tag. The novel asserts the contemporaneity of its Urban Indians. In the novel’s pages, technologies like email, YouTube, drones, and guns printed on 3-D printers shape the characters’ lives, much as they shape our own experiences. For instance, the character Octavio Gomez compares the windmills out past Castro Valley with “a coin from Mario Brothers,” a simile in line with his absorption in video games.
Even when Octavio’s grandmother gets him to grab some badger fur in connection with making a traditional medicine box, it isn’t a phony scene that romanticizes Native people as faraway figures from the past or allows us to feel virtuous; instead, she shouts, “Rip its fucking fur off with your hands!” Scenes like this let us know we should not perceive the characters as straight-up victims to be shallowly pitied but rather let them live inside us as real people with real agency, with whom we can empathize.
Each of us is the sum of our ancestors, but we make marks, in part, to carry our sense of the world forward. This week, in line with that element of the novel, we have an essay from oral historian Shanna Farrell, author of Bay Area Cocktails: A History of Culture, Community and Craft. She tells us which cocktail invented in the East Bay she’d pair with Orange’s debut.
We’re also proud to share with you a smart, candid Q&A with Orange by award-winning novelist David Heska Wanbli Weiden, author of the remarkable literary thriller Winter Counts. Weiden asks Orange about his novel’s relation to Native literature more broadly and one of the conventions Orange broke and why.
If you love There There as much as we do, you’re in for a treat when the third Thursday of the month rolls around. •
Join us on November 18 at 6 p.m., when Orange will be in conversation with CBC host John Freeman and a special guest. Please be sure to note the different time for this month’s gathering. And visit the Alta Clubhouse to discuss your thoughts about the role history plays in the present-day circumstances of There There with your fellow California Book Club members.
AWARD WINNERS IN CONVERSATION
Acclaimed author David Heska Wanbli Weiden asks Tommy Orange about changes in Native literature since There There was published, scene as an element of craft, and what he’s working on. —Alta
Oral historian Shanna Farrell provides an intriguing recommendation of a cocktail—invented in Emeryville, next door to Oakland—to pair with There There. —Alta
Michael Connelly’s 36th novel, The Dark Hours, reunites detective Renée Ballard with her mentor Harry Bosch. In the police procedural, the LAPD is demoralized by COVID-19 and the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder. —Alta
ENCOUNTERS WITH STARS
Former San Francisco Chronicle writer Ruthe Stein’s book, Sitting Down with the Stars: Interviews with 100 Hollywood Legends, details impressions in a career spent getting stars to open up. —Alta
Addressing a controversy about Beloved, Natashia Deón, author of The Perishing, argues that whether the history of slavery and critical race theory are taught can’t be based on comfort. —Los Angeles Times
Nella Larsen’s classic Passing has been adapted for Netflix. With the film version, director Rebecca Hall honors her family’s own complicated racial history. —Vogue
COMPETITION AMONG PUBLISHERS
The Department of Justice filed an antitrust lawsuit against Penguin Random House, the largest publishing house in the country, to stop it from buying Simon & Schuster. The lawsuit alleges that the deal would reshape the publishing landscape and hurt consumers and authors. —Los Angeles Times
TRAVEL TO UNLOVED PLACES
In A Salad Only the Devil Would Eat, Southern California writer Charles Hood writes delightfully about his travels and shows how the ugly can be reframed as the unique. —Los Angeles Times
Former mayor of Stockton Michael Tubbs writes an inspiring book, The Deeper the Roots, about defying what he calls the “soft bigotry of low expectations” imposed on him as a Black youth. —San Francisco Chronicle
RACE AND FREE SPEECH
PEN America issued a report on the more than 50 conservative bills that would restrict teachers’ ability to talk openly about race, slavery, and critical race theory. The vague terms of what the report calls “educational gag orders” chill free speech, according to Erwin Chemerinsky, dean of the UC Berkeley School of Law. —New York Times
Alta’s California Book Club email newsletter is published weekly. Sign up for free and you also will receive four custom-designed bookplates.