Native author Tommy Orange, 39, begins his award-winning novel “There There” with a short riff on the American Indian-head test pattern used in early television. From there, Orange accelerates into a crisp eight-page prologue, a fierce history of Indigenous subjugation and redefinition. Peppered with references to contemporary pop culture, Orange sets the stage for his fictionalized tale of today’s Urban Indian.
“As Native writers, there’s a certain feeling that you have to set the record straight before you even begin,” he said in an interview with a New York Times reviewer.
Orange has been invited to Fort Lewis College under the umbrella of its SkyWords Visiting Writers Series. Several events have been planned around his visit: small group sessions with students, a larger online event open to the public on March 30 and a special virtual lecture about Indigenous literature Thursday by FLC assistant professor Brian Twenter.
All of these activities center around Orange’s 2018 novel, “There There.” The title may seem mysterious, but the author embeds an explanation in his text. It has two layers: a reference to the English rock band Radiohead and Gertrude Stein’s reference to a visit to her childhood home in Oakland, California, which had changed so much she wrote “There is no there there.”
Orange’s story centers on 12 characters whose lives intertwine and careen toward the Big Oakland Powwow.
Since its publication, the novel quickly rose to be one of The New York Times Book Review’s 10 Best Books of the Year. Subsequently, it has won awards such as the Center for Fiction’s First Novel Prize, the Pen-Hemingway Award, the National Book Critics Circle John Leonard Prize and it was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.
“‘There There’ is a great book for the College’s Common Reading Experience,” Candace Nadon, assistant professor of English at FLC said. “I follow what’s happening on all the award lists. After ‘There There’ was published, I read it and put it on our fall reading list. The students loved it. The author tells us what it’s like to be an Indigenous person in the 21st century – living in an urban area, not just on a reservation.”
“Our SkyWords Visiting Writers Series is a big umbrella,” Nadon said. “It’s much more than the Common Reading Experience.”
The college’s program used to be an annual affair where a book by a contemporary American author was selected to be read by students and residents alike. FLC invited authors to campus to teach classes and present to the community. Books such as David Baron’s “The Beast in the Garden” or Sonia Nazario’s “Enrique’s Journey” were selected. In 2010, the Theater Department staged a dramatic interpretation of Nazario‘s book of unaccompanied youth migration to our southern border.
With COVID-19 interrupting everything, Nadon said, the college has reconfigured the CRE into the new SkyWords Visiting Writers Series. Now that the whole project has been revived, more casual events and a shift to emerging writers seems to be the direction.
“For example, we’re hosting a workshop for the students where they can hang out with the writer,” Nadon said. “And this year, a very generous donor, Dr. Austin Trembley, stepped forward to create an Emerging Writers Prize for our students. The theme is ‘Tradition.’”
The March 1 competition deadline has passed, but the awards and readings in poetry, fiction and creative nonfiction has been scheduled for 1 p.m. April 1 in the FLC outdoor amphitheater.
At FLC, copies of Orange’s book have been distributed free to students. Residents may purchase a copy at Maria’s Bookshop downtown. Several book clubs adopted the novel for discussion this year, and two of the college’s events will be livestreamed on Thursday and March 30.
Judith Reynolds is an arts journalist and member of the American Theatre Critics Association.