Tommy Orange was in a West Oakland Target when he pulled two spider legs out of his calf. Shocked, Orange scoured the internet for answers.
“I thought it was an ‘Indian thing,’” Orange said during UC Santa Cruz’s Deep Read event. “It was really scary and weird. I called my dad and he said to me on a phone call, ‘It sounds to me like you got witched.’ And I was like, ‘Well, what do I do?’ And he said, ‘I’ll pray for you.’”
Orange brought that and other experiences growing up Cheyenne in the East Bay into his 2018 debut novel “There There.” His novel is a historical meditation on the effects of colonialism on Native groups and a lens into Native lives as they struggle with identity, family, and poverty in present-day Oakland.
In Orange’s novel, the story of the nightmarish spider remnants in his leg is mirrored in the character Orvil Red Feather, a teenager seeking to embrace his heritage through a traditional Cheyenne dance performance.
“I had been writing about some spider themes in the book because it seemed like it belonged in fiction and not in my life,” Orange said during the event. “So that’s where I put it, but it happened to me. And I felt like I couldn’t not use it in the novel.”
Week 1: Let’s Find the ‘There There’
Week 2: Against Assimilation
Week 3: Real Stories
Week 4: Native Hubs
Orange conversed with UCSC’s literature professor and Director of Creative Writing Micah Perks in a live virtual event on March 3. The event was the conclusion of a four-part, in-depth collaborative reading by UCSC’s Humanities Institute through its Deep Read program. Members of the program participate in weekly coordinated discussions online around major themes of a novel.
Like a spider’s web, Orange’s novel entwines 12 characters ranging in age and background, connecting them through long-lost familial ties and a search for a clear cultural identity. These characters come together at the end of the novel at a powwow — a North American Native ceremony that includes feasting, singing, and dancing — at the Oakland Coliseum.
Every character is looking for something — money, a family, or a home — as they travel to the powwow. Yet all are in pursuit of the same thing: a community, one that is rocked by the novel’s shocking ending.
Orange, a member of the Cheyenne tribe, was inspired to write this novel because of an infamous massacre of members from the Cheyenne and Arapaho people in the 1860s. He wanted to write a multi-voice novel so readers could discover how Native lives can become connected by tragedy.
“I grew up hearing this massacre narrative as one of our family stories — the Sand Creek Massacre. My dad heard it from his grandparents and people that were a lot closer to it happening. It was this really deep betrayal that devastated our people for a long time,” said Orange during the event. “Native history in school was presented in too sad a way to even want to acknowledge this outside of a pitting sentiment. I can see [the Sand Creek Massacre as] sort of an echo of history in the way it has affected lives in the present.”
Many of the novel’s characters endure hardship. Among other characters, Calvin Johnson is forced into crime to support his family, Dene Oxendene works on a documentary project to honor his uncle who died due to years of alcohol and drug abuse, and Jacquie Red Feather navigates being a newly sober counselor in a tumultuous and abusive relationship. Orange is reluctant to label these characters as resilient though, because doing so makes them victims of struggle, not stronger because of it.
The Sand Creek massacre of Cheyenne and Arapaho people by the U.S. Army in the American Indian Wars occurred on November 29, 1864, in present day Colorado. More than 675 men from the Third Colorado Cavalry under the command of U.S. Colonel John Chivington stormed a village of Cheyenne and Arapaho people, killing and mutilating an estimated 70–500 Native people, about two-thirds of whom were women and children.
“Don’t make the mistake of calling us resilient. To not have been destroyed, to not have given up, to have survived. Is no badge of honor,” Orange writes in “There There.” “Would you call an attempted murder victim resilient?”
This passage stems from the center of the novels “Interlude,” which is a historical and philosophical meditation that breaks from the rest of the novel’s first-person voice. In the passage, Orange writes that wounds left by colonists after the annexation of Native territories still remain because those damages were never undone.
Although perseverance is a major motif throughout the work, Orange said many Native people and communities get labelled as resilient by non-Native people. This labelling inspired Orange to name the novel “There There,” as both a direction and an expression of comfort for Native groups with little mainstream representation today.
“Resiliency and the way that I’m attacking it goes around why people are getting up from what they have fallen down from, it goes around why there’s the wound. And I’m trying to say in the novel like, ‘There there. It’s okay,’” Orange said. “[Resilience] doesn’t bring accountability and [doesn’t acknowledge] all the reasons why people are getting up and what are they getting up from. There’s so much violence that was done in history, and that continues to be done to Native people.”
One of The New York Times Book Review’s 10 Best Books of the Year, “There There” was long-listed for the National Book Award and was a finalist for the 2019 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. It went on to receive the Center for Fiction’s First Novel Prize and the Pen/Hemingway Award in the same year.
Orange said he wrote many of the chapters of the award-winning novel in empty hotel rooms. He used these vacant rooms as a safe space for his words to breathe judgement free, and said many of his revisions came from this process of reading his novel aloud.
Orange is currently writing the sequel to “There There,” which he plans to title “Wandering Stars.” Orange said the sequel will answer some lingering questions within the cliffhanger ending of “There There” and delve deeper into the history of injustices inflicted upon Native people.
Orange was drawn to participate in the Deep Read program at UCSC because, even as an author, he still gets excited about reading characters somebody else made up — an attribute he calls essential to a deeper understanding of literature.
“Deep reading for me is being involved in a book you love. I know that’s the most elemental way of putting it but when I am spending all of my free time either reading a book or thinking about reading a book. That, to me, is a deep reading experience,” Orange said. “And that only happens like five or six times a year now. It’s rare. But that’s how I know it’s deep.”