I was standing in a bookstore in Chicago when I first encountered the words of Tommy Orange. His debut novel, There There, had already been out for some time, gathering rave reviews, awards, and other accolades. Browsing for a new acquisition for the library, I picked it up and started to read the prologue:
There was an Indian head, the head of an Indian, the drawing of the head of a headdressed, long-haired Indian depicted, drawn by an unknown artist in 1939, broadcast until the late 1970s to American TVs everywhere after the shows ran out. It’s called an Indian Head test pattern. If you left the TV on, you’d hear a tone at 440 hertz—the tone used to tune instruments—and you’d see that Indian, surrounded by circles that looked like sights through riflescopes.
I was staggered. The immediacy of the writing locked on to me like vice grips. The poetic repetition in the opening sentence, as if Orange is working his way up to letting his perspective be unbound, all too aware that the context in which he exists was often shunted to the side because it doesn’t comport with the concentrated myth-making in this vast and complicated land. His voice needed to be clear and forceful to ensure it wouldn’t be drowned out the distracting din of counternarrative that maintains he and his and not part of the American story, despite the fact — or, with guilt-stricken desperation, because of the fact — that he and his have roots that go far deeper in this soil.
It’s a timeworn piece of advice for authors: Write what you know. That’s arguably what Orange does in There There, drawing on his experience as a Native American who grew up as a city dweller. The novel has a vast cast of characters, collectively providing an expressing of the range of experience of people who can be described in shorthand as Urban Indians. Orange writes about himself and the people who interacted with through his life, but I don’t see the principle of writing what he knows are the predominant characteristic of the book. Instead, I think Orange does a greater service, taking it as his mission to write what the rest of us should know, what we need to know. It’s not done educationally nor didactically, but with a potency of expression, as terse, tough, smart, and assured as the fiction of Richard Price or Cormac McCarthy.
The same drive and personality persists through Orange’s other writing. Whether he’s providing a necessary reassessment of the Thanksgiving holiday, doing his level best to convey the cruelty-obscuring falsehood at its core, or relating the story of a Native American teenager he knows, showing how the universal and distinct intermingle, Orange commits to delivering the deeply personal. He makes the reader implicitly understand that it’s an injustice that his version of the personal shouldn’t be quite as unique is as it for most who will turn his pages. Orange doesn’t reclaim the American story so much as he asserts his rightful place within it.
Previous entries in this series can be found by clicking on the “My Writers” tag.