Rising literary star

Native American writer Tommy Orange plans to read from debut novel


Tommy Orange is a bright and rising star in the literary landscape. His first novel, “There There” is due out in June 2018 and is published by Alfred A. Knopf. It is already receiving rave reviews by authors such as Sherman Alexie, author of “The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven,” and Pam Houston, “Cowboys Are My Weakness”.

Orange is an enrolled member of the Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes of Oklahoma and was born and raised in Oakland, California. He graduated with a Master of Fine Arts (MFA) from the Institute of American Indian Arts (IAIA) in 2016 and now teaches fiction writing in IAIA’s MFA program. Orange is a 2014 MacDowell Fellow, a 2016 Writing by Writers Fellow and a 2017 Yaddo Fellow.

This Friday (January 5) at 7 p.m., Tommy Orange will read from his forthcoming novel, “There There,” at the Harwood Museum of Art, 238 Ledoux Street. Admission is $20 for the general public and $16 for members of the Harwood Alliance or SOMOS. The reading is presented by Society of the Muse of the Southwest (SOMOS), a Taos-based literary organization.

In his review of Orange’s novel, Alexie wrote, “When Tommy Orange first sent me a chapter of his novel, ‘There There,’ I read it and marveled. I then read it aloud to my wife. And then I emailed and called my closest writer friends. I said, ‘It’s here. That book I’ve been waiting for. It has arrived.’ Tommy Orange has indeed arrived. And his debut novel is a beautiful, dangerous, sad, poetic and hilarious revelation. Set in Oakland, California, ‘There There’ is truly the first book to capture what it means to be an urban Indian—perhaps the first novel ever to celebrate and honor and elevate the joys and losses of urban Indians. You might think I’m exaggerating, but this book is so revolutionary—evolutionary—that Native American literature will never be the same.”

Author Pam Houston gets right to her point in her review of “There There.” “This is Tommy Orange,” writes Houston. “Remember his name. His book’s gonna blow the roof off.”

In this email interview with Tempo, Orange speaks candidly about his entry into a literary life and the launch of his new novel.

Tempo: To start with, can you tell me about your early experiences with writing and what led you to become a writer?

Orange: I wasn’t an early writer or reader. I wrote a lot in the margins of books. Pretty unconsciously I guess. Actually, I didn’t really get into reading or writing until the summer after I graduated from college. I graduated with a B.S. in the sound arts and had no job prospects. I got a job at a used bookstore and fell in love with the novel as a form of literature while eating a doughnut and reading John Kennedy Toole’s ‘Confederacy of Dunces.’ I became pretty obsessed with reading and then writing because I always felt behind. I spent two separate years living in Taos–where my parents met in the 70s–dedicated to reading and writing while waiting tables to make ends meet. Eventually, I always ended up moving back to Oakland and had worked off and on at the Native American Health Center there doing various kinds of work between 2005 and 2013.

Tempo: When and where did you work in Taos?

Orange: I worked in Taos around 2006 at the Appletree, and around 2008 at Mondo Video and at the Italian Bistro where the Big 5 is now. I’m a little shaky on dates in general, but it was two different years I spent in Taos, all in that time period.

Tempo: Who are your parents?

Orange: My mom is Janet Lafaille and my dad is Victor Orange.

Tempo: Since the written word didn’t capture your attention until later, and since you said you studied sound, I’m wondering if you could say a little bit about your experience with musical and/or oral storytelling. Have those been influences in your life and approach to writing?

Orange: I am a musician; I play piano and guitar. Music in language does play a role in how I approach writing, but it’s never like: I’m gonna write a musical sounding sentence now; it’s more instinctual I think. As far as oral storytelling goes, I have been influenced by storytelling a great deal and worked for many years as a digital storytelling facilitator in Native communities as well as in non-Native communities, mostly through an organization out of Berkeley called StoryCenter. For certain characters I tried to write them the way people talk as opposed to writing them the way writers write people talking, or write their voices as first-person narrators, but I’m not sure if I’ve succeeded or not.

Tempo: What styles of writing do you tend to write in and why?

Orange: I love to write all kinds of fiction, for novels the most, but I also write essays, and just had one published in the Los Angeles Times in November. I write short stories as well. The newest edition of Yellow Medicine Review published one of my stories in their latest issue. I like the novel because of the length of the work and the experience it guides the reader through.

Tempo: Your novel, “There There” is set to be published in June 2018 by Alfred A. Knopf. Can you tell me a little bit about your novel and what you are exploring in it?

Orange: ‘There There’ is a novel about urban Indians set in Oakland CA, present-ish day. The novel follows the lives of a cast of characters and how their lives unexpectedly converge at a powwow at the Oakland Coliseum.

Tempo: Why did you choose a powwow for the setting of your novel? What does it symbolize, or represent, for you? What is your experience of powwows?

Orange: I chose a powwow because it’s intertribal, and has something old and new about it, but traditional and contemporary. I didn’t grow up going to powwows, but in my many years working in the urban Indian community in Oakland, I learned a lot about powwows and was even on a powwow committee at one point. I did have to do my share of research as well, since, as I said, I didn’t grow up going to powwows or ever powwow dance.

Tempo: When did you find out the book would be published by Knopf and what was your response?

Orange: I found out Knopf would publish my book in February 2017. It sold after going through an auction for four days. It was and still is pretty surreal. I feel different about it all the time, but overall I am very grateful it is coming out as any writer would be.

Tempo: Which writers have influenced your work and how?

Orange: I’ve been influenced by a number of authors over the years. Some books that come up for me in regard to my novel ‘There There’ are Roberto Bolaño’s ‘Savage Detectives,’ Jennifer Egan’s ‘A Visit from the Goon Squad,’ Marlon James’ ‘Brief History of Seven Killings,’ and Colum McCann’s ‘Let the Great World Spin.’ These books influenced me because they were polyphonic, had many voices with unique structures and this was something I knew I wanted my book to be pretty early on.

Tempo: What drives your passion to write? What is most important for you to say?

Orange: I’m inspired by the many writers who have come before me, Native and not. It’s important for me to talk about Native experience now, what it’s been like for me and people from the many communities I have had the privilege to be a part of. As Native people we battle erasure and being forgotten or thought of in the past tense constantly. It’s important to me to contribute to Native literature as well as the wider world of writing in general.