Pulitzer Prize-nominated author Tommy Orange will be featured in Gonzaga University’s Visiting Writer Series on Tuesday. Orange’s debut novel, “There There,” set in Oakland, California, explores the lives of 12 distinct characters as their journeys converge. In the novel, Orange strives to showcase the complexity and variation of Native American lives often overlooked in literature.
“I wanted to have a range of experiences for these Native characters – different ages, different contexts and different struggles and backgrounds … different proximities to their native identity,” Orange said in an interview on “PBS NewsHour.” “Some struggle with it, some don’t.”
As an enrolled member of the Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes, Orange draws each of his narrators from a wealth of firsthand experience, good and bad. Growing up in Oakland, Orange was bullied and called racial slurs associated with persons of Asian descent.
“You can’t even be made fun of right,” Orange laughed, shaking his head in the same interview. This experience of being Native but seen only as “ambiguously nonwhite” and therefore, in a way, invisible led Orange to seek out authors and characters in literature with which he and others of his background could identify. What little he found left him a duty to fill the void.
“When I was researching Native authors and the way that Native identity and experience is written about, there wasn’t much regarding city life. A lot of reservation stuff and a lot of historical stuff,” Orange said in an interview on “Late Night With Seth Meyers.” “There was an openness to do what I wanted because there was nothing to compare it to … it was very lonely.”
But it won’t stay lonely for long. On Tuesday, Orange will participate in a free fireside chat followed by an audience Q&A moderated by Ann Caindec, a junior English major and Native student in Gonzaga’s Native American Studies program.
“I think having Ann facilitate the discussion is going to be much more impactful,” said Meagan Ciesla, Visiting Arts coordinator and associate professor at GU, of the choice for Caindec to moderate the discussion rather than a faculty member. “When (Ann) read the novel, she said she felt seen for the first time … that is really important for this particular book.”
The discussion will focus primarily on the novel’s subject matter and the representation of the Native community in literature but also will touch on the complex form that Orange chose when writing “There There.” “The book has 12 different narrators,” Ciesla said.
Gonzaga’s Visiting Writer Series has attracted authors like Art Spiegelman, Tim O’Brien and Marylin Robinson, and they are proud to add Orange to the list. In fact, bringing Orange to Gonzaga was an across-campus effort supported by the Native American Studies Program, Office of the Provost, Critical Race and Ethnic Studies Program, Office of Diversity and Inclusion, organizers from Spokane Community College and more.
“It’s been such a collaborative process,” Ciesla said. “This writing series is not just for Gonzaga. We hope to get a lot of community members from the general Spokane population in addition to our on-campus crowd.” Orange will stay after the discussion for a book signing.
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