Of yearn­ing and cap­tiv­ity

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - BOOKS - Ni­amh Don­nelly

There There

By Tommy Or­ange

TVin­tage, 290pp, £8.99

owards the be­gin­ning of There There, Tommy Or­ange’s pow­er­ful de­but, a char­ac­ter called Dene Ox­en­dene ap­peals for fund­ing for a film project. “[W]hat I want to do, is to doc­u­ment In­dian sto­ries in Oak­land,” he pro­poses. “I want to put a cam­era in front of them, […][L]et them tell their sto­ries […]with no di­rec­tion or ma­nip­u­la­tion or agenda. […]I want to bring some­thing new to the vi­sion of the Na­tive ex­pe­ri­ence as it’s seen on the screen.”

As Dene de­liv­ers his pitch, it is easy to imag­ine that Or­ange, too, is lay­ing out a man­i­festo for the book. “What we’ve seen is […]stereo­types” he tells us, whereas he wishes to de­pict what we haven’t seen – the “ur­ban In­dian story”, the “whole pic­ture”.

Or­ange had re­ceived fund­ing for a sim­i­lar project, from the Oak­land Cul­tural Arts Fund – a project that “never came to fruition, ex­cept for in fic­tion”. It’s easy to see Dene as an au­thor sur­ro­gate: Or­ange’s rep­re­sen­ta­tive in the text.

There There is named after the Ra­dio­head song, as well as Gertrude Stein’s ob­ser­va­tion about Oak­land: “There is no There There.” It was re­cently longlisted for the In­ter­na­tional Dublin Lit­er­ary Award, hav­ing re­ceived the most nom­i­na­tions of all the books on the longlist. Widely lauded for its de­pic­tion of Na­tive Amer­i­cans, it com­prises dis­parate nar­ra­tives.

There is Ed­win Black, a young man with food and in­ter­net ad­dic­tions, search­ing for his es­tranged fa­ther, along with his na­tive iden­tity. There are Opal and Jac­quie, sis­ters who, as chil­dren, live on Al­ca­traz as part of the Na­tive Oc­cu­pa­tion of the is­land. (This oc­cu­pa­tion took place be­tween 1969 and 1971, as a protest to call at­ten­tion to In­dian op­pres­sion. Marked as a suc­cess of ac­tivism by many, here, the ap­peal to “start from in­side the cell, which is where [In­dian peo­ple] are now”, and “work our way out from the in­side with a spoon”, ap­pears de­cid­edly fu­tile and tragic).

Cut to the story of Bill Davis, a dis­grun­tled jan­i­tor who was once “dis­hon­ourably dis­charged” from the army, or Daniel Gon­za­les, a vul­ner­a­ble young man who prints a gun from a 3-D printer, or Octavio Gomez a drug dealer who plans to steal money from a pow­wow (a na­tive cer­e­mony).

The char­ac­ters are wide-rang­ing, but all have some con­nec­tion to Oak­land and the na­tive ex­pe­ri­ence. Th­ese are sto­ries of yearn­ing and cap­tiv­ity, of ne­glect and re­pres­sion – sto­ries that search for re­demp­tion, all the while threat­en­ing re­gres­sion. As a por­trayal of na­tive peo­ple, it is the most nuanced and il­lu­mi­nat­ing I have seen.

But tempt­ing as it is to read the book as

Dene’s (and also Or­ange’s) filmic project comes to pass, it is also pru­dent to re­mem­ber that there is no film here – we never, in ef­fect, see “what we haven’t seen”. In­stead of Dene’s prom­ise to make some­thing “with no di­rec­tion or ma­nip­u­la­tion or agenda”, we get cu­rated, au­thored, pieces.

The seem­ingly dis­parate tales are in fact quite co­he­sive. Just as we be­come rapt in one, we catch the gleam of an­other, and are thus led to­wards the book’s re­veal­ing end­ing. (I long to tell you what hap­pens in this rap­tur­ous fi­nal scene at the pow­wow, but suf­fice to say you should go see the sorry spec­ta­cle for your­self.)

Most no­tably, this project is never ren­dered on screen. In fact, the screen is a dan­ger­ous place for an In­dian. The first sen­tence of the book de­scribes an “In­dian head test pat­tern” that, up un­til the late 1970s, ap­peared on Amer­i­can TVs after all the shows ran out. It was “just above the bull’s-eye, like all you’d need to do was nod up in agree­ment to set the sights on the target”.

“Turned-off TVs” ap­pear at var­i­ous points through­out the text, as does the re­minder of the dam­ag­ing por­tray­als of In­di­ans on screen through­out his­tory. At one point, a char­ac­ter en­coun­ters his face “in the dark re­flec­tion” of a TV and notes: “It was the first time I saw it. My own face, the way ev­ery­one else saw it.” Or­ange seems wary of cap­tur­ing the In­dian ex­pe­ri­ence as “ev­ery­one else” sees it. A cam­era, and it is no­table that Dene’s has a “pis­tol grip”, might have a dan­ger­ous and ex­ploita­tive power.

But dis­play­ing th­ese sto­ries on the page is not an easy out. What’s in­ge­nious about this book – a book about the In­dian ex­pe­ri­ence – is that it seems wary of cap­tur­ing the In­dian ex­pe­ri­ence at all. In­di­ans who “don’t look like what they look like”, “In­di­ans dressed up as In­di­ans”, the book sits in its own un­cer­tainty: grabs at the truth and misses. Which is per­haps just what it means to do: ges­ture to­wards the no­tion that peo­ple can­not be cap­tured. And that’s as pow­er­ful a man­i­festo as any.

Lay­ing out a man­i­festo: Tommy Or­ange

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