Let’s get this out of the way: Tommy Orange’s debut novel, There There, should probably be on reading lists for every creative writing program in this country. It is a master class in style, form and narrative voice. Orange, who is from the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes of Oklahoma, utilizes first, second and third-person narration to incredible effect, creating a multi-voiced novel that effectively reflects an entire community, much like other urban Indigenous books such as Katherena Vermette’s The Break or Erika T. Wurth’s recent Buckskin Cocaine.
And unlike some male authors who think of their female characters as mere conduits for male desires or projections, Orange’s are rich and complex. The best section of the book revolves around a character named Blue. When she describes her decision to stay with her abusive boyfriend, there is no judgment of her choice, only heartbreaking empathy: “After the first time, and the second, after I stopped counting, I stayed and kept staying. I slept in the same bed with him, got up for work every morning like it was nothing. I’d been gone since the first time he laid hands on me.”
Despite the novel’s strengths, a strange thing happened as I read There There. I started thinking about the concept of double consciousness. First introduced by W.E.B. Dubois in 1903, double consciousness refers to the way that Black Americans are forced to divide their identity in two while living in a racist society: They must see themselves both as Black people, and, separately, as Americans. As a result, Black Americans are forced to always be conscious of themselves as white Americans see them, which is not necessarily the way that they see themselves or one another.
While this is a specific term with a specific history for Black Americans, as a Tuscarora woman, I think the idea of a double consciousness rings true to many racialized people. We must always be aware of the ways that we get stereotyped by others, how our actions may feed into those stereotypes and how our identities as racialized people seem constantly at odds with our identities as citizens of a nation that has been built on our oppression.
I bring this up because, while I was reading Orange’s novel, I found myself wondering how non-Indigenous people would read this book and whether they would interpret it to reinforce their stereotypes of Indigenous people. This unease started in the incredibly well-written prologue, which makes a compelling case for urban Indigenous peoples’ connection to cities: “We know the sound of the freeway better than we do rivers, the howl of distant trains better than wolf howls, we know the smell of gas and freshly wet concrete… better than we do the smell of cedar or sage or even fry bread…”
But then Orange ends this lovely passage with these rather suspect lines: “Being Indian has never been about returning to the land. The land is everywhere or nowhere.”
We are living in a political climate in which Conservative pundits have held up Tomson Highway’s words about his time in residential schools to deligitimize the entire Truth and Reconciliation Commission Report. As I read these last two lines in Orange’s novel, I couldn’t help but worry about how these words could be similarly weaponized to delegitimize land claims. “After all,” the imaginary op-eds read, “if the land is, indeed, everywhere, why does it matter if pipelines are built through them? Why does Indigenous title matter? The land is everywhere regardless.” This is what it felt like for me, as an Indigenous woman, reading this Indigenous work with double consciousness playing out in the background.
There are other such moments in Orange’s book. The climax of the book is a moment of violence enacted in the one place that many Indigenous people see as a space they can safely, unapologetically be themselves: a pow-wow. As a reader whose family gatherings revolve around my community’s local pow-wow every year, it was particularly difficult to see this setting used as the backdrop for such violence, especially considering young Indigenous men are the ones who ultimately enact it. Will non-Indigenous readers see this scene as evidence that we’re dysfunctional? That our men are inherently violent? That our peoples’ problems are all our faults?
That said, Orange’s novel does not let colonization off easy. Far from it. In the same vein as Vermette’s The Break, Orange starts his multi-character novel by historically setting the stage for readers, describing in devastating, unsparing prose the Sand Creek massacre, as well as the history of Indigenous people’s heads being used as iconography: “Our heads were on the penny first, of course, the Indian cent, and then on the buffalo nickel, both before we could even vote as a people—which, like the truth of what happened in history all over the world, and like all that spilled blood from slaughter, is now out of circulation.” Whenever Orange sets his sights on colonialism and racism, his criticism is sharp and unrelenting.
But that double consciousness lingered for me. Indigenous writers should be able to write about their people in whatever ways feel true to them, having their characters live or die as feels appropriate and necessary for the story they want to tell. Racism puts racialized writers in a curious predicament: they must choose between telling the story they want to tell and censoring their work for the sake of how others outside their community will read it. I highly doubt, for example, that Alice Munro has had to worry that writing a story about white people dying could reinforce stereotypes about white people.
While none of this takes away from the craft, beauty and power of Orange’s novel, it does make me wonder whether some non-Indigenous readers will love this book because it’s an effective, masterful execution of his singular vision. Or will they love it because they can selectively use parts of it to reinforce problematic ideas about Indigenous peoples that they already held? For the sake of Orange’s stunning novel, I certainly hope it’s the former.
Alicia Elliott is a Tuscarora writer from Six Nations, currently living in Brantford, Ontario, and author of the forthcoming book A Mind Spread Out on the Ground.