Dene wants to tell him he’d looked up the quote in its original context, in her Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, and found that she was talking about how the place where she’d grown up in Oakland had changed so much, that so much development had happened there, that the there of her childhood, the there there, was gone, there was no there there anymore. …. But for Native people in this country, all over the Americas, it’s been developed over, buried ancestral land, glass and concrete and wire and steel, unreturnable covered memory. There is no there there.
This quote explains the title of the novel, There There. There is an ironic element to this moment, when this significant quote, central to the Dene's identity, is pointed out to him by a white stranger competing for resources with him. This small moment is a microcosm of the larger historical conquest and theft by white people of Native heritage and identity.
The quote itself describes how Gertrude Stein's assessment of Oakland, her former home, matches the pattern of loss that Native people experience all over the continent. Stein identifies a "there," or a comfort and sense of home, that is no longer there. In this way, the quote touches on the themes of authenticity and home, pointing out what has been lost at the hands of development and white colonization.
She told me we could only do what we could do, and that the monster that was the machine that was the government had no intention of slowing itself down for long enough to truly look back to see what happened. To make it right. And so what we could do had everything to do with being able to understand where we came from, what happened to our people, and how to honor them by living right, by telling our stories. She told me the world was made of stories, nothing else, just stories, and stories about stories.
In this quote, Opal expresses how she learned about the importance of storytelling from her mother, a central theme throughout the book. Throughout the book, Native characters deal with the loss of much of their culture and family. This is a reality for many characters. What they retain, however, is the power of stories. This quote provides the basis for Dene's storytelling project about Native life in Oakland—perhaps even for Orange's novel itself.
The wound that was made when white people came and took all that they took has never healed. An unattended wound gets infected. Becomes a new kind of wound like the history what actually happened became a new kind history. All these stories that we haven’t been telling all this time, that we haven’t been listening to, are just part of what we need to heal. Not that we’re broken. And 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. Would you call an attempted murder victim resilient?
This quote illustrates a stereotype-defying paradox that many of Orange's characters demonstrate again and again throughout the novel. The acts and legacy of colonialism are grievous injuries to Native people; at the same time, though, Native people are not defined by that damage. The theme of storytelling plays an important role in this paradox: stories show the beauty and wholeness of Native life even as they depict sorrow and tragedy.
Some of us got this feeling stuck inside, all the time, like we’ve done something wrong. Like we ourselves are something wrong. Like who we are deep inside, that thing we want to name but can’t, it’s like we’re afraid we’ll be punished for it. So we hide. We drink alcohol because it helps us feel like we can be ourselves and not be afraid. But we punish ourselves with it. The thing we most don’t want has a way of landing right ton top of us. That badger medicine’s the only thing that stands a chance at helping. You gotta learn how to stay down there. Way deep down inside yourself, unafraid.
This quote speaks to the role that addiction plays for many characters throughout the novel. Rather than placing blame on the characters that struggle with these issues, Josefina explains the generational trauma and feelings of loss that are filled by substance abuse for many people in her family. This quote provides an explanation for the trauma that is behind the violent actions of some of the characters, including those in Fina's own family.
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 quote is an introduction to the relationship between the individual and the community, an important theme throughout the novel. The narrator describes how each individual is shaped by the legacy and history of their ancestors. Even though they may not know it, the stories that came before live on in future generations. The quote also hints at the specter of violence that haunts Native history as well as the plot of the novel, comparing collective memories to blood from a gunshot wound in a vivid simile.
This was what it sounded like to make it through these hundreds of American years, to sing through them. This was the sound of pain forgetting itself in song.
Dance and song are important motifs throughout the novel as elements of Native culture that have persisted throughout the years despite centuries of colonial violence. If the hole created by that violence is sometimes filled by alcohol, drugs, and other addictions, Thomas finds ways to fill that hole with song as well. These cultural practices thus serve to bind the community together, connecting the individual to his or her culture. Native artistic practices, Orange suggests, also function as storytelling mechanisms, helping to keep the community's history alive.
Getting us to cities was supposed to be the final, necessary step in our assimilation, absorption, erasure, the completion of a five-hundred-year-old genocidal campaign. But the city made us new, and we made it ours.
This quote demonstrates one of the central commonalities of the novel's characters: each of them is an "urban Indian." Ironically, the very act that was meant to eradicate Native life instead created a new home and community. This illustrates the strength of Orange's characters, which take what is meant to kill them and turn it into something positive.
Something about it will make sense. The bullets have been coming from miles. years. Their sound will break the water in our bodies, tear sound itself, rip our lives in half. The tragedy of it all will be unspeakable: the fact we've been fighting for decades to be recognized as a present-tense people, modern and relevant, alive, only to die in the grass wearing feathers.
This quote illustrates another important irony: the Native community that gathers at the powwow has fought for centuries to stay alive and preserve their cultural traditions, yet it will be massacred while enacting that survival. Here, however, the narrator makes it clear that this tragedy is part of a broader historical trajectory. The characters that bring about this massacre are as victimized as those whom they shoot, trapped in the long line of colonial violence. The bullets, the narrator reminds us, come not just from the shooters at the powwow but also from centuries of violence.
But I stopped telling the story I'd been telling myself, about how that was the only way, because of how hard I had it, and how hard I was, that story about self-medicating against the disease that was my life, my bad lot, history. When we see that the story is the way we live our lives, only then can we start to change, a day at a time. We try to help people like us, try to make the world around us a little better. It's then that the story begins.
In this quote, Harvey speaks about the power of stories to change lives: stories, he says, actually shape reality. This illustrates the larger struggle many characters in the novel face over what story they tell themselves: many tell themselves that they are not Native enough or not good enough.
But had you really cultivated this lean, this drop-shouldered walk, this way of swaying slightly to the right in opposition? Is it really some Native-specific countercultural thing you're going for? Some vaguely anti-American movement? Or do you only walk the way your dad walked because genes and pain and styles of walking and talking get passed down without anyone even trying?
This quote illustrates the tension that many characters face between their individual identities and the weight of their family and history. In Thomas's case, he is influenced by both. His father's walk has influenced him to the extent that he is not sure how much is his own contribution at all. At the same time, his narrative about his own walk is that it is a deeply personal, political statement. Thomas's walk exemplifies the challenges many characters face throughout the novel in trying to distinguish themselves from troubled family histories while staying connected to their heritage and identity.
There There Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for There There is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.