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Tommy Orange: ‘There’s a monolithic version of what a Native American is supposed to be’

30 June 2018

From The Guardian:

 Tommy Orange is a Native American writer. He teaches creative writing at the Institute of American Indian Arts and his debut novel, There There (Harvill Secker, £14.99), is a New York Times bestseller.

There There is about urban Native American lives. Are these lives and experiences under-represented in fiction?
Yes, you already find Native people in fiction, but there aren’t many representations of us as modern, contemporary and living in cities, so that was definitely something I saw lacking.

. . . .

Did you also want to portray as many different Native urban experiences as you could?
I guess so. There’s a monolithic version of what a Native is supposed to be. Writing a polyphonic, multigenerational novel is resisting this one idea of what being Native is supposed to look like. If we all have to be historical, with a headdress, looking off into the distance, that’s hopeless as far as building a proper, complex, human identity.

Many of your characters are deeply troubled. Why?
I wanted to write characters that felt true and real, and there’s a lot of harrowing detail about the lives of Native people. You can just look at the health statistics and they’re pretty staggering. I wanted the characters to be working-class, because so often the characters in novels that I’ve read are white and upper-middle-class with white, upper-middle-class problems. I didn’t want to go anywhere near the old romanticised view of the Indian as the warrior, the powerful, the unflinching, the brave. That just doesn’t feel whole to me.

. . . .

The novel explores what it means to be Native American today. What does it mean for you?
It’s meant a lot of different things over the years. Currently it means going back to see my dad, who lives in Oklahoma now, and slowly trying to learn the language, because while he’s fluent he didn’t raise us with it. It means making sure my son knows that he’s Native too. It’ll keep meaning more things along the way.

Why didn’t your dad teach you the language?
There’s a lot of pain related to the past, and I think he was wanting a fresh start, wanting to raise us in Oakland and have us figure it out for ourselves. I think if we had been born in the 21st century to a dad who was fluent in Cheyenne, we probably would have been taught it from an early age. But my dad had a lot of pain in his childhood. It was a time of assimilation.

. . . .

What’s the book you most like to give to people as a gift?
Clarice Lispector’s The Hour of the Star.

Link to the rest at The Guardian

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2 Comments to “Tommy Orange: ‘There’s a monolithic version of what a Native American is supposed to be’”

  1. Of course there is – any realistic versions would ‘trigger’ too many of those easily triggered in this day and age.

    I applaud those that control education and the news for training the latest generation to be so easily led about by their noses. Too bad you loaded so much powder in the pan that even you can’t control the spark that will set them off.

  2. [I]t means going back to see my dad, who lives in Oklahoma now, and slowly trying to learn the [Cheyenne] language, because while he’s fluent he didn’t raise us with it.

    My grandfather spoke German. Due to the anti-German sentiment in 1917-1918, he did not teach his children German. My father does not speak it. I learned German from meine Tante Ann-Marie, who is in fact my mother’s cousin’s wife.

    Same as it ever was.

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