Orange's novel is about the experience of urban Indians: every one of his characters has grown up in a city—specifically, Oakland—rather than a reservation. The novel thus challenges the stereotype afflicting white America that depicts Native life as solely revolving around the reservation. Tony, for example, loves to ride his bicycle around the different neighborhoods of Oakland just to see them. Dene laments the gentrification that emboldens young white people to think they own a neighborhood they have just moved into. Indeed, each character regards Oakland as their home.
Throughout the novel, characters struggle with the perceived authenticity of their Native identity. For some, this manifests in physical appearance: Dene, for example, worries that the Native panelist for his grant application interview won't realize Dene is Native, too, because has such pale skin. Other characters disavow ownership over Native identity and stories because they do not think they know enough: Calvin, for example, doesn't want to speak on behalf of his own Native identity and says he has no stories to tell. Many of Orange's characters' lives are shaped by the quest to find authenticity in their indigenous identities; that quest, in turn, shapes of the plot of the novel. Edwin is driven to join the powwow committee in order to get closer to his Native father, whom he has never met. Blue moves halfway across the country to try to find her mother's tribe after growing up in an adopted white family. Orvil learns about Indian dancing in secret, steals his grandmother's regalia, and enters the powwow competition—only to feel like a fraud dressed in feathers. The complicated relationship between indigenous identity and authenticity is never resolved by Orange, nor by his characters. It is simply a dance which each of them has to navigate.
Importance of Stories and Storytelling
Throughout the novel, stories are depicted as antidotes to the generational trauma and present troubles that afflict the characters. Opal's mother spells this out for us, telling her daughter that when the government forsakes them, the only hope they have left is to tell their stories. Forgotten, misrepresented, or unheard stories are powerful because they bring beauty out of the darkness for those who tell them. The novel itself is part of that effort: to tell the stories of Native life in Oakland, contradicting the prevalent stereotype of Indian life that exists only on reservations. Dene's storytelling project is a microcosm of Orange's larger effort. Dene takes up the project as a legacy from his uncle, but along the way, he realizes that he wants to tell the varied and multidimensional stories of urban Native life in order to depict the vibrancy and diversity of his community.
Individual vs. Collective
The character voices that tell the stories of this novel are diverse, sometimes disjointed. They speak in different tenses and with different narrative voices. Each individual has a very different set of experiences, hopes, dreams, and sorrows—a range that allows Orange to depict the diversity of the community. At the same time, they are absolutely shaped by the common history of settler colonialism and displacement. Each of their stories unfolds in relation to this history and, more specifically, in relation to the Big Oakland Powwow. As a literary device, the powwow functions as a foil in its illustration of the ways that the individual characters live their lives separately but still converge as a community.
Both the prologue and the interlude reflect on the motifs of bullets and blood that have trailed indigenous communities for centuries, ever since white arrival. Violence is a specter that looms overhead as the novel progresses; from the very beginning, readers learn of the plot to use 3D-printed guns to steal the prize money from the Big Oakland Powwow. Every character's story, therefore, is framed by the anticipation of violence, lending a macabre thrill to the plot. The irony of this violence that looms is that it will be inflicted from within, by members of the Native community itself. In this way, Orange shows the sad and twisted legacy of white violence, which has turned inward to the community he writes about.
Many of Orange's characters struggle with alcoholism, drug abuse, and, in Edwin's case, food addiction. Each of these addictions is a coping mechanism that characters use to address the difficulties of life. In this way, Orange confronts the stereotype of alcoholism in Native communities head-on. Rather than assigning blame, he shows how each character has directly responded to trauma by turning to substances when there is very little else to turn to.
The concept of home is a complicated one in There There. The opening essay reminds readers that the true homes of Native people were decimated by colonialism, with communities killed, driven off, and exiled to reservations. Orange's characters, however, are defiant in the face of this historical reality: they claim a new home in the city of Oakland, and they fight for that home. Daniel, for example, reluctantly participates in the plot to rob in the powwow in order to make some money and save the home he and his mother live in. Some characters do not have even that modicum of stability to fight for, however: Opal and Jacquie grow up moving from place to place. Their home, however, is each other. When Jacquie returns to Oakland, she is returning to the place she used to live, but she is also returning home to Opal. Throughout the novel, Orange reminds us that home is vitally important to his characters, especially in the face of their historical loss.
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.