Books

Author Tommy Orange returns to Taos

He's a husband, a dad, a teacher - and a literary sensation coming off an international book tour

By Yvonne Pesquera
tempo@taosnews.com
Posted 11/14/18

"There There" was published in June and immediately appeared on The New York Times Bestsellers List that same month. When a debut novel debuts on the Bestsellers List, the literary world takes notice.

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Books

Author Tommy Orange returns to Taos

He's a husband, a dad, a teacher - and a literary sensation coming off an international book tour

Posted

Native American author Tommy Orange is returning to Taos to read from his debut novel "There There" (Knopf, June 2018). The free event is Tuesday (Nov. 20), 6-7:30 p.m., at Op.Cit. Taos Books, 124-A Bent Street. Seating is limited and on a first-come, first-served basis.

The last time Orange read in Taos was for SOMOS last January, before his book was published. How then is Taos lucky enough to get him to appear here twice within a 10-month time frame?

Noemi de Bodisco, the owner of Op. Cit. said by email: "We already knew of Tommy due to his local association (his mother lives in Taos, and he used to work at the Apple Tree, and frequented Moby Dickens when he was younger), so he was already on our radar. I was fortunate enough to run into him at Book Expo in New York, and was totally shameless in asking him if he'd do an event at Op.Cit. I'm sure he was just being polite, but he said he would try to after he completed his tour schedule, since he had to come back to Taos to pick up his dog. His mom is dog-sitting. We are thrilled this worked out."

About the book

"There There" is a gripping novel told from the viewpoints of multiple Native American characters living in Oakland, Calif. The plot builds with intensity and climaxes at the Oakland Powwow.

Orange (Cheyenne and Arapaho) teaches in the master of fine arts program at the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe. His writing style is blunt and lyrical. In one passage a character describes his diagnosis: "Being bipolar is like having an ax to grind with an ax you need to split the wood to keep you warm in a cold dark forest you only might eventually realize you'll never make your way out of."

He has conceived Native characters who are three-dimensional: They are tech geeks, nerds, homies, hotties, book lovers, film buffs, and all-around conscious of the historical legacy of disenfranchisement of Native people everywhere. The complexities, however, are not demoralizing but an honest portrayal of lives not often written about.

Of the urbanity Orange writes: "We know the sound of the freeway better than we do the rivers … We ride buses, trains, and cars across, over, and under concrete plains."

Referring to the white retelling of Native genocide and dislocation programs throughout the centuries, Orange writes: "But when you hear them tell it, they make history seem like one big historic adventure across an empty forest."

Orange began writing his novel three years before he enrolled in the IAIA MFA program as a student. "I was reading a lot and seeing what other writers are doing. I was getting craft advice from my mentors. It was definitely a formative experience to be part of a Native writing community," he said.

Orange got the idea for his book's title from a Gertrude Stein quote which he feels parallels what it means to be Native now. He writes: "The there of her childhood, the there there was gone, there was no there there anymore."

About the success

"There There" was published in June and immediately appeared on The New York Times Bestsellers List that same month. When a debut novel debuts on the Bestsellers List, the literary world takes notice.

He's been interviewed by the Paris Review, The Wall Street Journal, National Public Radio, The Guardian in the UK, Entertainment Weekly, and O: The Oprah Magazine -- to name a few.

His book has earned a 2018 National Book Award silver sticker and is one of six finalists for the Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction. After completing a U.S. book tour and giving readings of "There There" across the country, the Knopf publishing company sent Orange on a European book tour to London, Paris, Berlin, and Copenhagen. His wife and 7-year-old son accompanied him.

"I think you'd have to be a psychopath in anticipating this type of unlikely success. Especially for Native fiction," Orange said.

In his novel there are many cultural references and at one point, Native writer Louise Erdrich (Chippewa) is mentioned. In real life, Orange is fortunate enough to have a blurb by Erdrich on the book jacket, along with blurbs from Margaret Atwood and Pam Houston.

"I landed in New York and in the minute or two that it takes to check email, I found out one of my chapters was being published in The New Yorker and that Louise Erdrich was writing a blurb. I was pretty emotional -- of all the Native authors who I hold in highest regard," Orange said.

Orange returns to the IAIA in January for the next semester of students and hopes to demystify the mystique around good writing and inspiration. Drawing on his background as both an athlete and a musician, Orange speaks of "writing work" -- whether the book is a success or not.

"If you put in the hours, you see results. I try to encourage students: always find something to work on, even if you're not inspired."

For more information, call the venue at (575) 751-1999.

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