Event Recap: Making Art Out of Historical Trauma in ‘There There’

Tommy Orange and California Book Club host John Freeman were joined by poet Kaveh Akbar to talk about Orange’s novel.

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Before introducing Tommy Orange’s There There, California Book Club host John Freeman spoke about the novel itself as a piece of technology, before which people told stories differently. Every once in a while, the novel needs an update; Orange’s novel is a book that is a reboot of the novel. He praised its “symphonic construction, exquisite patterning, and a channeling of inner and outer weather and language of a dozen or so characters on their way to a powwow.” When Orange joined him, Freeman asked him about his characters, commenting, “I’m really quite curious as to how you dialed into their inner music.”

Orange commented on his sound arts degree and tied his work with sound to his love of “voice-y” writing in which “language is thrust upon the reader in ways that are unconventional.” He circled back to Freeman’s introduction—that the novel is a piece of technology—and spoke about how a novel can bring new perspectives on our reality and the way we think about other people or think about ourselves. He remarked that Tony Loneman was a character that came out whole during the early morning hours of writing one day. While many aspects of the character weren’t intentional, he wanted to lean into what Tony embodied about Native history: “The loneliness that is made when people want to ignore you, your story, the story of your people, and they want to go with this other thing.”

Freeman said it’s unique to hear a novelist admit the not-knowing and instead use instinct to tap their way into the characters. He asked whether there were characters that resisted Orange more than others. Orange responded that “Opal Viola Victoria Bear Shield, her chapter on Alcatraz took four years to get to, and it really had to do with perch,” the vantage from which she was telling the story.

Freeman commented that what happens on Alcatraz in that chapter has ramifications that ripple across time in the novel. One thing Orange writes about is the transference of trauma. Orange explained that he’s worn many hats while working with the Native community in Oakland, and one of his jobs was stapling copies of grants. The idea of historical trauma was written into many grants to get funding. Orange understood on a deep level what it meant: “Historical trauma. Oh yeah, that’s how heavy I can feel my dad’s shit. How completely I can feel it and have carried it since I was very young.” However, Orange also knew the concept was abstract and meant for grants and academic writing. “It’s not something that translates to feeling.… Part of what I wanted the novel to do was to do something artful with this whole idea of historical trauma.” He wanted to render it so that readers could feel it.

Poet Kaveh Akbar joined Orange and Freeman as the special guest. Freeman remarked that Akbar’s recently released poetry collection, Pilgrim Bell, is “in and of itself its own enchantment.… It has the percussive mysteries of a long prayer.” Akbar is friends with Orange and had an easy way with him, bantering about basketball over the course of their discussion.

Akbar remarked, “People who are writing from positions of alterity often have to address those narratives in one way or another, either to explicitly reject them or to sort of lean into them because they have to in order to make ends meet. One of the things that I always found staggering about this novel, and your work broadly beyond this novel, is that it feels unbeholden to anyone. As if I handed you a pen and paper and said, ‘What would you write if you didn’t have to explain yourself to anyone?’ and I feel like There There is what would happen.” Akbar asked Orange to talk about how he got to the point where he doesn’t have to explain himself or doesn’t have the ghost of empire telling him what to write.

Orange responded, “I started writing the novel in a vacuum and was not a part of a writing community and was inspired by unconventional books.” At first, his writing was instinctual, led by his love of reading and the novel as a form. He then started an MFA program at the Institute of American Indian Arts, where he found community with other Native writers. The intense period that started to push the novel out “had to do with becoming a father and wanting to take on something that meant the most to me. Becoming a father was like, What are you really about?There’s a human. You’re about to be in charge of a human. What are you about?

Next month, the California Book Club’s selection is the social novel The Barbarian Nurseries, by Héctor Tobar, set in Orange County and Los Angeles. Tobar, host John Freeman, and a special guest will be in conversation on December 16 at 5 p.m. Note it on your calendars and join us!•

Anita Felicelli, Alta Journal’s California Book Club editor, is the author of the novel Chimerica and Love Songs for a Lost Continent, a short story collection.
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