Tommy Orange’s Oakland

In this week's newsletter, read about how November's CBC selection There There explores Oakland from the perspectives of different Indigenous characters with distinct visions of home and belonging, an excerpt from There There, and a recap of the CBC conversation between Maxine Hong Kingston, James Janko and host John Freeman about The Woman Warrior.

tommy orange
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There is no there there,” Gertrude Stein famously wrote of her childhood home in Oakland, which had been torn down. This phrase in Everybody’s Autobiography overshadows the legacy of the book as a whole. In a stream, she wrote of the pain of returning to home nearly 45 years after she left it, only to find her pastoral memory vanished, made urban: “What was the use of my having come from Oakland it was not natural to have come from there yes write about if I like or anything if I like but not there, there is no there there.” However, this last clause is a saying that has been so stripped of its context that it has been rendered vacuous. Until Tommy Orange’s debut novel, the California Book Club selection for November, There There.

Orange was born and grew up in Oakland. The city is electric in his pages the way only a place with which a writer is intimately familiar—the place that formed the writer’s consciousness—can be. Under Orange’s gaze, the city is as loved as the land was by Stein before it was paved over. The novel gives us its variousness: the downtown skyline, the busy 880 with its burning-rubber smell, redwoods in the hills, the clouds of weed smoke, men in Kangols and beanies, the bright small houses.

The collective, poetic voice of “Urban Indians” in the prologue provides, “We did not move to cities to die. The sidewalks and streets, the concrete, absorbed our heaviness. The glass, metal, rubber, and wires, the speed, the hurtling masses—the city took us in.” The city gave many people a place to belong, a place that was not only one thing, one style, and certainly not the soulless, starched thing people imagine when they misinterpret Stein’s phrase.

Before Orange’s novel, which won the 2018 John Leonard Prize, perhaps no book brought the Oakland of the turn of the century more intimately to contemporary readers than Ishmael Reed’s 2003 Blues City. In it, almost two decades ago, the experimental, renegade poet and novelist served as a tour guide through the history and beauty of the city. It was, he mourned and railed, already disappearing under the force of a gentrification that has long since succeeded irrevocably.

With an acid tongue, Reed lambasted then-mayor Jerry Brown’s interest in changing the city’s racially and culturally diverse, gritty character, transforming it into a place more welcoming to hipsters. However, he was quick to point out that even with the Black drain,

Oakland still hosts one of the most ethnically diverse populations in the country, a callaloo of cultures. In the winter of 2001, in preparation for writing this book, I attended a black cowboy parade, a Kwanzaa celebration, and a powwow. In addition, I visited Yoshi’s, Oakland’s landmark nightclub located in Jack London Square, and heard a Lakota musician play John Coltrane’s “Naima” in traditional Lakota style. Oakland is a city where identities blur.

Similarly, the identity of Urban Indians and the language used to describe these characters are complex in Orange’s Oakland. These are characters who listen to both MF Doom and Radiohead. They are uncertain about who they are. They are certain they are not what they have been portrayed as. They are searching for who they are apart from the dominant culture’s caricatures.

We hope you enjoy reading Orange’s essential debut and glimpse the city’s reckless, polyphonic beauty in its pages. What Oakland became nearly a century after Stein mourned the loss of her family home was not a bland place. It celebrated digressions. It was alive with personality.

There was a there there for many of us who used to call Oakland home.•

Join us on November 18, when Orange will be in conversation with CBC host John Freeman and a special guest. In the meantime, gather in the Alta Clubhouse to discuss There There with your fellow California Book Club members.

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Alta

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