Member of Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes of Oklahoma and Pulitzer Prize finalist discusses celebrated novel There, There | Literary Arts | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Member of Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes of Oklahoma and Pulitzer Prize finalist discusses celebrated novel There, There

click to enlarge Elena Seibert - TOMMY ORANGE
Tommy Orange
Elena Seibert

Tommy Orange’s novel There, There has a unique structure. The author introduces 12 Native American characters whose lives eventually intersect at a powwow at the book’s conclusion. Their stories are diverse, and for many Americans, new. 

That unfamiliarity stems from a widespread obliviousness to Native culture, a predisposition to view anything about Native lives through the lens of pop culture. (Orange uses the term "Native" through the book.) To remedy this, Orange bisects the narrative with "Interlude," a section that was originally part of a much longer prologue, according to the author.

“I wrote the 'Interlude' in a 'we' voice,” says Orange, who appears Feb. 10 as a guest of Pittsburgh Arts & Lectures' Ten Evenings series. “It’s supposed to be a great chorus, set in the context of reading about the characters, 'this is who we are.' It comes with a lot of talking about history. It’s been called an essay and I have no problem with that, but I certainly didn’t write it as an essay, and I didn’t write it with any didactic purpose.”

Published in 2018, There, There (Vintage) earned numerous honors (including a PEN/Hemingway Award), made many year-end lists for best novel, and was a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize. Orange — a member of the Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes of Oklahoma — was an unknown writer until the book’s publication.

But the frenzy over publishing rights to There, There indicated it wasn’t an ordinary book.

“I was at Yaddo [the renowned writing colony in Saratoga Springs, N.Y.] and I came down for what was pretty much my first time in New York City,” he says. “There were all these people pitching me why I should go with them. That was pretty wild, a four-day bidding war with 14 publishers.”

Orange signed with Knopf, and after a series of glowing reviews, the novel charted on multiple bestseller lists, including the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times.

The question of why There, There resonates with readers is complex. 

There are many Native writers producing excellent books. But aside from Louise Erdrich, Sherman Alexie, and Joy Harjo, the current U.S. poet laureate, works by Native writers that find mainstream success are rare.  

“I like to think that I did something original,” Orange says. “But message-wise, information-wise, there are books out there that are serious works. I think the timing of my book, in the wake of Trump getting elected, and in the wake of Standing Rock [the pipeline protests mounted by the Sioux Nation] and people seeing it on national TV, this horrific thing happening in North Dakota, I think they wanted to do something about it. And sometimes the only option people know how to take is to educate themselves.”

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