There There Live Event
By Taylor Cleek
Tommy Orange, author of best-selling novel There There, spoke in a virtual live event as part of Tri-C’s Common Read program on Wednesday.
The live conversation, held with Assistant Professor Theresa Gromek, covered a wide range of topics including Tommy’s creative process, adapting to change, living as a mixed race Native man in modern America, and what to anticipate in the follow-up sequel novel to There There.
“In my experience, it’s really been about adapting to the circumstances,” Tommy said of his writing process and how it’s had to evolve through success, fatherhood, and living through the pandemic this past year. “It’s just figuring it out as you go along.”
“I didn’t write at all growing up. I wasn’t a reader,” he revealed when speaking on his background in creative writing. It wasn’t until after finishing college that Tommy found a love for fiction while working at a used book store. “[Then] I committed to reading as much as possible and writing as much as possible, largely because I felt I was playing catch up to all the people who knew since they were young that they wanted to be writers”
One of the primary topics addressed wasn’t just how being a modern Native American helped shape the story of There There but how it’s also informed Tommy’s life and perspective.
“It’s really damaging for us to not have the agency to identify who we are,” Tommy said, while also acknowledging the uniquely cruel standard of Native Americans needing a certain Native blood percentage to qualify as Native. “All of these things are damaging when you’re trying to survive as a people and thrive and maintain your worldview because you feel attacked from the outside or delegitimized.”
“Identity was always a confusing and pressing thing for me,” Tommy said, as someone with a full blooded Native father and full blooded white mother.
Tommy also expressed aggravation with the ways that Native people are portrayed in sports and that fans are still defending offensive stereotypes in the name of tradition. The debate for changing the Cleveland Indians name and logo was referenced and Chief Wahoo was identified as especially hurtful by being a caricature.
Tommy cited a famous Malcolm X quote, “If you stick a knife in my back 9 inches and pull it out 6 inches, that’s not progress. If you pull it all the way out, that’s not progress. Progress is healing the wound that the blow made. They haven’t pulled the knife out; they won’t even admit that it’s there.”
Tommy also touched upon the ending of There There, that it would tie into the next novel, and that the book’s adaptation into a series would hopefully be a step in the right direction for on screen representation.
Though there’s plenty of progress yet to be made in terms of representation, There There has proven to be a contributor in that Native readers have responded very positively despite the story having such harrowing elements.
“All of the reactions have been exuberant and excited to be on the page,” Tommy said. “We don’t see our lives as tragic even if they have tragic elements in them.”
To view the entire Tri-C Common Read conversation, find the archived broadcast here.