Gracie McKenzie is the audience engagement editor for CityLab. She previously worked in public radio, as the digital producer for NPR’s The Diane Rehm Show and Here & Now, and ran social media for Narratively.
There There author Tommy Orange discusses his experience telling stories about Oakland and Native Americans, and why cities should be seen as part of the natural environment.
Tommy Orange’s novel There There jumps through time and among the voices of 12 narrators, but its sense of place is constant and intentional. From the first chapter, you’re dropped into Oakland, California, biking from the Coliseum BART station to “Deep East Oakland, off Seventy-Third, across from where the Eastmont Mall used to be, until things got so bad there they turned it into a police station.” Over the course of the novel, the characters’ stories weave together, until they are all in one building for an emotional, chaotic powwow in the Oakland Coliseum.
“I love Oakland and Oakland is my home,” Orange told CityLab over the phone from Angels Camp, California, where he lives now. “It’s not very well presented in novels. I don’t even know if I could name one, where somebody from Oakland wrote a novel about [it].” (Michael Chabon’s Telegraph Avenue “has more of a Berkeley feel to it,” he says.)
Another experience that’s underrepresented in literature is that of urban Native Americans. Orange, who worked in Oakland’s Native community for a decade before writing There There, told The New York Times earlier this year that he wanted his characters to “struggle in the way that I struggled, and the way that I see other Native people struggle, with identity and with authenticity.”
The book’s title comes from a much-debated passage in Gertrude Stein’s Everybody’s Biography, in which she wrote, upon visiting the site of her childhood home in Oakland and finding it different than she remembered: “There is no there there.” Since its release in June, There There has made The New York Times bestseller list and has been longlisted for the National Book Award, and Orange is working on a new novel, about what happens after the Big Oakland Powwow. He spoke to CityLab about writing about his home, and being displaced from it; why he thinks about cities as a part of the environment; and the importance of reckoning with American history. The conversation has been edited for clarity and length.
Gertrude Stein’s passage refers to how much Oakland had changed since her youth. The characters in your book are dealing with later iterations of similar, more rapid changes. How have you seen the city change?
It’s changed in waves. It was one way when I was a kid, and there was this first wave of gentrification that wasn’t as extreme as the second one, when I was living in West Oakland.
We moved away in 2014, for financial reasons and for other reasons. And eventually, when we decided we wanted to move back, we couldn’t afford it. We can now, and we might be doing it next summer. But the difference between 2014 and 2018 was a lot more extreme.
There was not only a change in who you see, but also countless more storefronts where places that would not have been able to thrive were now booming with business. It’s not all terrible. There’s like three bookstores in downtown Oakland where there was none before. But it’s sad when people who have grown up in a place can’t afford to live there anymore, and it becomes someone else’s.
Your book makes a connection between the displacement and the rootlessness that your Native characters are experiencing now in Oakland, and the history of being removed from land. In what ways are those experiences similar and different?
That was one of the first things that struck me about that Gertrude Stein quote, more so than the modern-day experiences of gentrification. The idea of having a place that is yours—land that you have a relationship to—then being removed and what that does to you, as a Native experience.
It’s a difference in extremes, though, because people aren’t being killed. There was an active genocidal campaign against Native people, and so it wasn’t just a “we have to move somewhere else” situation.
It’s hard to compare pain and oppression, you know what I mean? You don’t really want to get into that territory because there’s no reason to.
In an interview with Powell’s, you talked about how you’ve been working with the idea that cities should be seen as more than artificial. Can you explain that a little more?
I see cities as coming from the Earth in the same ways as, you know, the superstructure of an ant colony. We act like we’re aliens here, or like we’ve been given everything to dominate by God. Both of those philosophies of what our environment is and what we’re supposed to be doing here are damaging. I see environment and city as all being part of the Earth. People have developed through time into civilizations with cities as part of their environment.
It sounds so basic to say, but I think sometimes we unconsciously feel like we’re not supposed to be here, or we’re doing something wrong. You know, there’s pollution and things that are horrible for the Earth. I understand the damaging aspects of it, but I think it does us better to think that we belong where we are, and not like there’s something wrong with this.
How do you square that with environmental tumult in California, like fires, droughts, and the threat of oceans rising?
I don’t know that I have a good squaring. I wrestle with the ideas. It’s a slippery slope, and if you follow the logic to its end point, like, “We’re all natural, everything is part of the Earth, and it’s supposed to be happening,” then we can just continue to frack and steal land, and anything we do is excusable because it’s just the Earth Earthing. I don’t mean to do that.
There’s a balance of cooperation and free will and fate that’s intertwined in perfectly confusing ways. So I don’t have any good squaring for climate change and the idea of us humans as part of the Earth in macro. It’s a conflicting point of view.
In the prologue, you write that, for Native Americans throughout history, coming to cities was supposed to be sort of a “final step of assimilation.” Yet at the same time, cities have been places for Native communities to come together, like the one you write about in Oakland. How can we work our way out of that paradox?
Sometimes when you bring up history to people who have benefited from it and haven’t been damaged by it, they get defensive and ask, “What are you expecting: Reparations? An apology?” I think there is a way to acknowledge how we got to where we are, and move on together with just the acknowledgement.
Looking back at history can make you want to be transgressive. I don’t know exactly what the answer is, how to live with those contradictions. I think you have to live with all kinds of contradictions all the time; each one of us has to do our best to bring more harmony and less discord.
You put specific details about Oakland into the narrative, like neighborhoods, street names, and BART stations. What was behind that decision?
It’s for people who live in Oakland. When you read New York novels, there’s all these references to things that, if you have never been there, you don’t know what they’re talking about. But New York writers don’t care.
It was this sense of pride and place. I knew if anybody from Oakland ever read it they would appreciate it.
Have you gotten responses to the book from people in Oakland?
I didn’t know it was going to have such a mass appeal. That’s been kind of a big surprise.
But it’s most important to me for Native people from Oakland to connect to it and I’ve seen that happen. One woman came to two of my readings and said to me and to the audience just how important and powerful the book is for Native people. I actually cried in public both times that she did it.