I suspect Tommy Orange fears he’s not being judged on the same scale as other authors. He’s like Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. When Thomas got into Yale, people let it be known they thought he only got in because of affirmative action.
I suspect Orange fears he only got a book contract and won awards for his novel is because he’s Native American. I suspect he worries that he’s not being held to the same standard as other authors and having read the book I suspect he’s right.
There, There is an award winner due to the content, not the writing or the structure of the novel. His non-fiction Prologue, which cites ways in which Native Americans have been victimized over the centuries, seems designed to pull at our heart strings before he introduces the characters of his novel. Was he afraid non-Native readers wouldn’t empathize with those characters without having been softened up by reminders from the past? If so, he had good reason to worry.
The story portion of the novel introduces a dozen Native Americans living in contemporary Oakland, CA. It describes their struggles with identity in a way that teaches us that their past still colors their present. Reading about these people is difficult not because they are struggling, but because in many cases they not overcoming. Their circumstances are troubling, but their responses are more so. They drink, drug, rape and in general treat each other badly. If you’re looking for inspiration, you won’t find it in There, There.
But can’t having faced a past of difficult circumstances be said for the entire population of our country? Can’t it be said for African-Americans, Central American Hispanics, Asian-Americans, Irish, Italian, Russian and Jewish-Americans? And what about the original settlers who braved the Atlantic Ocean to search for a place they could practice their religion as they saw fit? Their struggles have been mostly forgotten, but their stories about establishing a foothold in a wilderness included failures as well as successes.
Orange makes it clear Native Americans don’t want to hear “it’s time to move on,” but what do they want to hear? What words would satisfy? He offers no answer and I suspect there is none.
It’s a shame the publishing industry, entertainment and media industries make decisions based on guilt instead of merit. I’m not saying Tommy Orange or the other victim authors don’t have talent or that their stories should not be read. They should and I suppose they can’t be judged without reference to identity because that’s what they’re featuring in their writings and songs. But like Clarence Thomas, I suspect the joy they feel when their works are heralded is tempered by the thought they aren’t appreciated for what they’ve accomplished but because of affirmative action. Once upon a time no one wanted to hear from them because of who they were; today it’s the reverse. Maybe some day it will equal out. I hope so.