Tommy Orange and the New Native Renaissance


Arts & Culture

Photo credit: Elena Seibert

On a June afternoon, Tommy Orange, author of There There, one of this summer’s breakout books, stood at the foot of the stage at the Fellowship of Humanity, a lavender-interiored church on 27th Street in Oakland, California. Behind him, a banner congratulated this year’s graduating class of East Bay Native American high school seniors. It read: “The students of today are the warriors of tomorrow.”

Orange hates public speaking. With his head buried in his notes, he intoned, “As Native people we have a bad history with schools, with institutions. They’re still teaching history wrong. We still hear them saying: ‘just get over it already,’ even when they’re saying they know the feeling is there. Get over what? The mountain that is history?”

Orange wore navy Nike high tops, a navy button down shirt to match, acid washed jeans and a black fitted cap with the iconic Port of Oakland crane (inspiration for the imperial walkers in Star Wars) and “The Town” in stylized cursive above its bill. His look, like his words, were authentic to this city—our shared hometown, The Townin a way that feathers, fringe, beadwork and mystical proclamations just aren’t. Everything about his person was Native to Oakland, troubling assumptions about both those things: Natives and Oakland. “It is an exciting time to be Indigenous,” he said, addressing the graduates. “We need you to help make this world a better place for your little brothers and sisters, nieces and nephews, cousins, whether they’re here yet or not.”

With the release of his acclaimed debut novel—which follows the struggles of Oakland Indians as their lives converge at a local powwow—Orange places himself in the vanguard of what some have described as a “Native Renaissance.” This wave in Native literature includes memoirist Terese Mailhot from the Seabird Island First Nation, who is the New York Times bestselling author of Heart Berries; Billy-Ray Belcourt, a Driftpile Cree poet who just became the youngest-ever winner of the Canadian Griffin Prize for his first book This Wound is a World; and a community of emerging writers schooled in Indigenous movements and educated in institutions like the Santa Fe Institute for American Indian Arts (IAIA), where Orange and Mailhot were classmates in the MFA program.

This new generation is heir to the first “Native Renaissance,” which spanned from the 1960s to 1990s, and included the likes of N. Scott Momaday, whose House Made of Dawn won the 1969 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, and Sherman Alexie, who published his first two collections of poetry in 1992. That first renaissance included many others with a talent for words, like Leslie Marmon Silko, Lee Maracle, Louise Erdrich and Joy Harjo. But those three decades of Indigenous literary proliferation, collaboration and competition ended as many emerging-market booms do: in monopoly. From the 1990s onward, Alexie dominated the Native lit scene, and was elevated by the media to the dubious status of racial spokesman. In a 2017 interview with NPR’s Terry Gross, Alexie joked that he had been “Indian du jour” for “a very long day.”

In March, ten women accused Alexie of sexual misconduct that ranged from unwanted advances to harassment, suggesting that patriarchy and old-fashioned exploitation may have played a hand in keeping Alexie atop the American Indian writing world for a quarter century.

As a Native kid growing up in the 2000s, I was an Alexie fanatic. I emulated his style through high school and beyond, and as a young journalist, I frequently referenced his work. For aspiring Natives-of-letters like me, Alexie was a hero. Through recurring characters like Thomas Builds-The-Fire, Victor Joseph and Junior Polatkin, he wrote the junker-littered Spokane reservation to life in gritty detail, spinning Native storylines into critically acclaimed fiction. The downfall of his irreverent voice and tragicomic take on the novel, which came as close as any I ever read to the truth about our Indian condition, felt personal. “In the Great American Indian novel, when it is finally written, all of the white people will be Indians and all of the Indians will be ghosts,” he wrote in the 1996 poem “How to Write the Great American Indian Novel.” When I read that line for the first time in my senior year high school English class, I underlined it and damn near stood up in my chair to proselytize its genius to my non-Native classmates. I wanted to wield words like Alexie, who could lay waste to a national colonial literature with one sentence.

But Alexie’s fall also felt necessary. We, the community of Indigenous writers coming up behind him could not rise with him on top. Alexie had grown into an Indigenous super-ego—an authorial autocrat who set the stylistic standards and shaped the careers of the Native writers who toiled, often in obscurity, below him. And as the years wore on, his ironic laugh-and-burn style seemed to settle into a formulaic shtick. Today, Alexie’s portraits of reservation life read more like simulations of rez-y-ness than windows into what our relatives are actually going through. Hey Victor! the percussive and oft-repeated-rez-accent-inflected expression of Thomas Builds-The-Fire, the protagonist of Alexie’s Reservation Blues, has become a running inside joke in Indian Country—an Indian “Damn Daniel” or “Bye, Felicia” that took-off in Native subculture before memes were a thing. But translated to the page and screen, Alexie’s exaggerated rez accent never felt true. That was the joke—we laughed because Alexie’s Thomas Builds-The-Fire tried too hard. He was corny.

The #MeToo movement has done for Native literature what a healthy publishing landscape should have done years ago: it killed Sherman Alexie’s career. For our Indigenous literary and intellectual community to thrive, Alexie’s day needed to end.

Like their seventies-and-eighties-era pre-Alexie forebears, Orange and his peers have arrived on the scene at a moment of escalating Indigenous activism as witnessed at Standing Rock in 2016. In a cultural moment defined by fear of ecological apocalypse, democratic decline and legitimized white supremacy, newfound interest in Native writers—who speak with the authority of a people who lived through genocide and survived to talk about it—makes sense.

If one can cite a silver lining coming out of the Trump era, it’s this: a rekindled inclusion imperative. Orange signed with the super-agent Nicole Aragi, whose clients include Edwigde Danticat, Colson Whitehead and Jonathan Safran Foer, just three days after Trump took office. He nearly sold There There to Sarah Jessica Parker for an undisclosed amount in the high-six-figures before taking the novel to auction and landing a deal with Knopf. (When he told me the amount, I exclaimed, “Holy Fuck!”) The New Yorker excerpted a chapter for its March 26th issue under the headline “The State.” The week before the book dropped, the New York Times published a profile of its author.

Visibility means little without talent, which Orange and his contemporaries have in spades. There There is a work of lyrical panache and structural ambition. Each chapter focuses on a different character. Their lives intertwine through Oakland’s Native and part-Native communities, converging at the fictional “Big Oakland Powwow” at the Oakland Coliseum. Some come to reunite with relatives in song and dance, while a few hustlers plot a grand heist of the powwow’s prize money. There There is like a Native take-off on Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction. And when I described it that way to Orange, he agreed: “I love Quentin Tarantino.”

Many characters are unforgettable. There’s Tony Loneman, a Cheyenne MF Doom fan with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, which he calls “The Drome,” who has been recruited by his homies to help with a powwow robbery. Orange pens a devastating description of Loneman in the character’s voice, “My eyes droop like I’m fucked up, like I’m high, and my mouth hangs open all the time. There’s too much space between each of the parts of my face—eyes, nose, mouth, spread out like a drunk slapped it on reaching for another drink.” Opal Viola Victoria Bear Shield, a veteran of the 1969 Occupation of Alcatraz, postal worker and rape victim who occasionally taps into her Indian grandmother survival wisdom to protect her family—a real Indigenous superpower if ever there was one—is another standout.

There are many characters here—too many despite the fact that Orange edited a few out. While reading the book’s grand finale, a heart-pounding series of rapid-fire scenes that jump from one character to the next, I found myself flipping back to earlier chapters to remind myself who was who. But upon further reflection, even that expectation—that you, the reader, will remember each and every one of these Indians—feels like a statement: Remember us. We matter.

What is perhaps most exciting about Orange and his peers is that they are unafraid to break old molds of theme, style and structure handed down by the earlier generations’ greatest Indian hits. Orange’s book is set in the city, eliding the reservation dispatches that have dominated Native fiction over the decades. Today, more than seven out of ten Native people live in cities. With There There, Native lit is catching-up to demographic reality.

Orange, Mailhot and Belcourt’s books also bend genres. There There’s prologue, a meditative essay on the terrible symbolic power of Indian-head Americana, is one of its most memorable sections. Mailhot’s hard-hitting Heart Berries is unusually short for a memoir, more poetry than non-fiction. Belcourt’s This Wound is a World is full of references to Indigenous and queer theory and is as much a set of critical theses about our colonial present as it is a collection of poems.

Circumstances, institutions and relationships have aligned to catalyze a resurgence in the world of Indigenous letters. “The institution of writing has been based in whiteness for so long,” Orange told me. “To have a Native writing program [at IAIA] and to be around a community of Native writers is really amazing.”

Over lunch, Orange spoke of Mailhot, his close friend and classmate, with admiration. The two exchanged work during their time together at IAIA and sold their books just two weeks apart in February 2017. Mailhot’s memoir, published from Counter Point Press—a tiny independent publisher based in Berkeley—beat the odds to become a bestseller. “She was just like a little bottle rocket that exploded,” Orange said of his friend. Orange also expressed interest in Belcourt’s work, and just got a copy of This Wound is a World.

“It’s an exciting time to be a Native writer,” Orange told me, riffing on his graduation speech from the night before. Then he finished the last of his pot stickers and hustled off to his next book talk.


Julian Brave NoiseCat (Secwepemc/St’at’imc) is a writer and organizer based in Washington, D.C. He is a contributing editor for Canadian Geographic and his work has appeared in publications including The Guardian, The Nation and High Country News.