There There is the 2019 Tacoma Reads book, and for once I managed to read the thing before the community events started, so right away I’m feeling pretty accomplished. The first big event was at the Rialto Theater on the 20th, when Tommy Orange came to town and the mayor interviewed him. The best part of the event was actually the opening section, before the interview. Representatives from the Puyallup Tribe, whose reservation is right at the mouth of the Puyallup River, next to the Tacoma Port and quite close to downtown, came on stage and welcomed Orange with singing and a presentation of gifts.
One of the representatives talked with Orange about being an “urban Indian,” like Orange, and how erasing it can be, how even those rare times when you see Native Americans in pop culture, you never see them in an urban setting. Except in this book, where you do see them/get seen. It was quite moving, and I felt honored to be in the audience witnessing a conversation between two people who were choosing to share their experiences with each other, because they had them in common, and with the world, because they were brave.
I loved this book even before I saw Orange speak about it. THERE THERE is complex, lovely, unflinching, and clear as a bell. In some ways it’s unselfconsciously and deliberately literary—I’m thinking of the chapter written in second person just because Orange wanted to, just because he was playing around with point of view and had already done first person and several third person chapters—but that’s part of its strength. The American literary canon is full of self-indulgently literary novels by middle-and-upper-class straight white men. Claiming a right to take part in that tradition is part of claiming the right to be seen, for one’s nuances to matter.
After the mayor’s interview, there was time for audience Q&A, and one of the young people who got up to ask a question asked about my one quibble with the book: why was it so full of pain and things going wrong and people hurting each other? Isn’t that negativity just perpetuating negative stereotypes about Native people?
They didn’t quite accuse Orange of writing poverty porn, which I maybe would have. (It’s a good thing I wasn’t the one who got the mic). Orange’s answer was a good one, though. He said that he started out writing by drawing on things that were true from his own life and the lives of people he knew well, and wouldn’t change the book to be less full of trouble because it was, in his experience, true. “You can’t sell the idea that life is okay when it’s not.”
I do wish I’d had a chance to ask him who his intended audience was, whether he felt like the book was for Native folks or non-Native folks. I’ve been thinking a lot about intended audiences ever since I read HEAVY: AN AMERICAN MEMOIR. But I don’t ever get up to ask questions at Q&As unless no one else is asking things and it’s getting awkward for the speaker, because I don't want to start an inside-baseball conversation in a crowd full of non-writers. But I think his answer would have been really interesting. Tommy Orange seems like a pretty interesting person.