Looking Back on ‘There There’

Author David Heska Wanbli Weiden speaks with Tommy Orange about the significance of Orange’s debut novel, his literary techniques, and future projects.

tommy orange
Christopher D. Thompson

The New York Times called Tommy Orange and David Heska Wanbli Weiden “two of the most critically acclaimed young novelists working now.” Orange’s debut novel, There There, was feted with multiple awards and recognitions. Weiden’s debut novel, Winter Counts, published in 2020, was also honored with numerous prizes. Orange served on Weiden’s thesis committee at the Institute of American Indian Arts in 2018. When they first met, Orange’s book hadn’t been released yet, although advance review copies were circulating. They discovered that Weiden had given one of his characters in Winter Counts the same last name, Red Feather, as some of Orange’s characters. Weiden changed his character’s name to Jerome Iron Shell to avoid any confusion. The two authors have visited since, in Denver, and remain fans of each other’s work. This interview was conducted over email and has been edited for brevity and clarity.

DAVID HESKA WANBLI WEIDEN: It’s been three years since There There was released, and so much has changed for Native literature and arts since. We’ve seen several books by Native authors on the bestseller lists, Native writers being nominated for (and winning!) awards in genre and literary fiction, and, of course, fantastic television shows such as Reservation Dogs being broadcast and getting huge audiences. Looking back, your novel was a harbinger of sorts for this sea change in Indigenous literature and media. What are your thoughts on that now that you have the perspective of some time and distance since the novel’s release?

TOMMY ORANGE: There has been more visibility for Natives in books and on-screen since my novel came out, but I wouldn’t say my book alone was a harbinger. There are always so many factors in place when it comes to big industry shifts, such as the attention on #OwnVoices and diversity we’ve seen in the past several years. My book was acquired after Trump was inaugurated, in February 2017, which was after Standing Rock, when Native people made national news nightly for a solid amount of time. Though we lost the election as a nation, there were a significant number of people in influential positions in publishing who wanted change. They didn’t want to be a part of the “greatness” many in this country—led by a barking clown—claimed we were returning to: the idea that we were remaking ourselves as the great white hope again. Much of the diversity movement in publishing and in media is in direct response to the surge in racism and white nationalism we’ve seen these past few years. I see the success of There There as being related to its timing. Five years earlier, the same book may not have even been acquired.

That said, I’m grateful for the success of the book. If its success has meant publishers are willing to acquire more books by Native authors, that alone is something I’m extremely proud of.

WEIDEN: It was a pleasure to read There There again, and I’m still blown away by the prologue and interlude, as well as the rest of the novel. I read some of the reviews of the novel, many of which commented that the book concerns Urban Indians, rather than being set on a reservation. But I think these observations somewhat miss the point, although they are correct. My take is that There There was the first book to comment and muse explicitly on the nature of being an Urban Indian. It was first to discuss what it means and how it feels to be a Native American in a city—the quality of Indian urbanity, if you will. Can you speak to this?

ORANGE: Yes, I think you’re absolutely correct in making the distinction between simply a setting or background and a relational quality difference. Life on the reservation defines the lives of people who have lived there for, in some cases, more than a hundred years. Native people have been living in cities now en masse for at least 70 years, and yet our depictions in books and in film have hardly changed since The Last of the Mohicans. We were set in stone as the vanishing race and left to freeze or die there, unable to compare our more modern selves to those unrealistic standards of authenticity that don’t allow us modernity or adaptation. We as Native people have been adapting and changing here in this country since before the Ice Age, as recent evidence is showing. We’ve been changing all along, adapting, but our authenticity seems to always be based in history, because the goal was for us to vanish, to assimilate and disappear in cities. Living in urban areas represents our sheer will and ability to adapt and survive. I wanted the book to feel urban and have its characters reflect on urbanity, technology, and modernity as an act of resistance against all of the ways we’ve been frozen in time. That is, resisting that prolonged death depicted in the iconic End of the Trail sculpture, which shows an Indian in silhouette on horseback at the edge of a cliff, contemplating the extinction of traditional Native life.

WEIDEN: I’m struck by the number of bold choices in the book, especially for a debut author, all of which worked so well. Among other things, there are, surprisingly, somewhat fewer scenes than is typical in a 300-page novel. I counted around two dozen scenes in the book, while the average tends to be around 70. Did you deliberately forgo some of these conventions? If so, were you inspired by other writers and books?

ORANGE: That the average number of scenes in a 300-page novel is almost three times higher than what I wrote terrifies me, if I’m being honest! I’m glad nobody pointed this out while I was writing the book; I would have been paralyzed.

Scene and dialogue are not what brought me to reading and not what I’m interested in writing primarily. I used to scan books that had too much dialogue and scene—I could tell by the way the pages looked, and if there seemed to be too many scenes, I wouldn’t read it. This was at the beginning of my interest in fiction, when I preferred José Saramago going on for 15 pages without a single paragraph break or even a period. I love Javier Marías as well and the way he writes without explicit scenes. I’ve always been driven by voice as a reader. That usually doesn’t happen in scenes. Scene is where we get basic descriptions of action and dialogue from characters, and that’s where voice can end. I like to be surprised by sentences, and scenes are often where sentences go to die.

But I certainly have been writing more scenes in my next book. I may be afraid of losing the reader. I may be changing as a writer. I’m not heading in the direction of Saramago or Marías. During the pandemic, I read all of Toni Morrison again. She can write scenes and sentences and everything beautifully and with such originality and power. I had to rethink everything I was doing on the page.

WEIDEN: I’m sure that every fan of There There is eager to learn about your next project. What can you tell us about it?

ORANGE: It’s a sequel that has turned into something of a hybrid—a prequel and sequel. We travel back in time, starting with the Sand Creek Massacre and moving into a period when Southern Cheyenne prisoners spent at a prison/castle in Florida from 1875 to 1878, and how that ended up being the blueprint for Native boarding schools. We ­follow the lives of people recovering from the shooting at the powwow at the end of There There, the many ways it complicates their lives, and how they do and do not recover from it.•

Please be sure to sign up for our free, monthly California Book Club, which will discuss There There with Tommy Orange on November 18 at 6 p.m. Pacific. Please note that the usual time of 5 p.m. has been changed for this particular month to 6 p.m. To join the California Book Club, click here. Join us in the Clubhouse to discuss your favorite chapters of the novel.

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