Welcome to our very first (virtual) book club meet-up!
Our first selection—chosen by poll—is There There by Tommy Orange, published in 2018. Orange is a graduate of the MFA program at the Institute of American Indian Arts and an enrolled member of the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes of Oklahoma; he was born in 1982 and raised in Oakland, California. There There is Orange’s debut novel and finalist for the 2019 Pulitzer Prize. In my opinion, There There should be required reading in every high school American Lit class—I hope I can convince my own two high schoolers (9th and 12th grades) to read it this summer.
This week in the blog we’re focusing on the Prologue (pages 3-11) and Part 1: Remain (pages 13-78). I’ll start by addressing just the Prologue in this post; later in the week I’ll write about Part 1.
I found the Prologue both brutal and necessary—did it punch for you as much as it did for me?
NPR’s Maureen Corrigan reviewed the book for Fresh Air in June 2018:
In that 10-page prologue, Orange wittily and witheringly riffs on some 500 years of native people’s history, a history of genocide and dislocation presented mostly through the image of heads. He begins with a description of the “Indian Head test pattern,” a graphic that closed out America’s television programming every night during the age of black-and-white TV. He then catapults backwards to 1621 and the first Thanksgiving, then bebops through a litany of Indian massacres in American history.
I keep thinking about the closing section, titled Urbanity (page 11).
Urban Indians were the generation born in the city. We’ve been moving for a long time, but the land moves with you like memory. An Urban Indian belongs to the city, and cities belong to the earth…The process that brings anything to its current form—chemical, synthetic, technological, or otherwise—doesn’t make the product not a product of the living earth…We know the sound of the freeway better than we do the rivers…everything comes from something that came before, which was once nothing. Everything is new and doomed…Being Indian has never been about returning to the land. The land is everywhere or nowhere.
As a candidate running on a platform of the need to speak for the land lest we become too detached from it as a species (making it more difficult to address the changing climate and thereby save humanity), the thought-process this section kicked off for me is ongoing. I think the book’s title—borrowed from the Gertrude Stein quote “There is no there there”—reinforces this paragraph well. Orange writes—
We are the memories we don’t remember, which live in us, which we feel, which make us sing and dance and pray the way we do, feelings from memories that flare and bloom unexpectedly in our lives like blood through a blanket from a wound made by a bullet fired by a man shooting us in the back for our hair, for our heads, for a bounty, or just to get rid of us.
This book should have a blistering effect on those of us who are non-Hispanic white—who are non-Native. There isn’t there anymore for a reason. And that reason is part of us. Non-natives are the memories they don’t remember, too—even if we never realize it or can never admit it to ourselves or otherwise.
Reread that last sentence several times and really feel it—“a man shooting us in the back for our hair, for our heads, for a bounty, or just to get rid of us.”
There isn’t there for Native and Indigenous people in America because it was taken. Who took it? The land remembers—and this includes the skyscrapers, the bridges, the cornfields, the highways, the national parks. The land remembers even if it isn’t there in a form recognizable as “land” anymore. It’s still telling the story.
Once when I was young I was traveling through the Wisconsin countryside with my maternal grandmother Iona in her black Oldsmobile and we were talking about the dairy farms that rolled over the landscape as we drove past. I don’t know where we were going, but we were traveling through St. Croix County where I was born and raised, where my mother (Iona’s daughter) was born and raised, where my grandparents (Iona and Robert) were born and raised, and where my great-grandparents were born and raised. But beyond that generation, most of my ancestors immigrated to Wisconsin, to America, from Europe. I think I must have asked my grandma about not being a dairy farmer anymore and about all the subdivisions being built out in the rural spaces at that time. I remember she said to me something like—well, it is too bad to lose farmland, but if there’s just a house built on the land the “black soil is still there”. My grandma liked to talk about the black earth, the dirt, the richness of St. Croix County’s soil a lot. I have kept that conversation with me always. And I revisited it after reading Orange’s Prologue. It rings both differently and deeper.
My biggest takeaway from the Prologue circles back to Orange’s line “everything comes from something that came before.” What came before lives in every American. And it’s ugly: “a man shooting us in the back for our hair, for our heads, for a bounty, or just to get rid of us.”
Share in the Comments how you felt after reading the Prologue. What thoughts did you have? How did you feel about continuing with the book? Do you enjoy Orange’s style of writing? Please leave any other comments you’d like to share about the Prologue and/or about the book’s title, too!
Thanks for being part of the #RubyForIowa book club! Stop back again later this week for Part 1!