Haringey Community Press

Haringey Community Press

The representation of history

Karin Lock review There There by Tommy Orange

Hero for The representation of history

Karin Lock review There There by Tommy Orange

What if the history we were taught in school was a misrepresentation, a distortion, an outright lie? Decolonising the UK school curriculum has been an ongoing demand from pupils and teachers since the radical 1970s. For five decades, alternative texts and syllabuses have been available but the system’s resistance to change has maintained the status quo.

The government’s recent diktat that teaching “anti-capitalism” is an “extreme political stance akin to antisemitism” shows how far they will go to uphold ‘official’ versions of history. But luckily books have not yet been banned. Contemporary literature offers many vital fresh stories which can change perceptions, re-educate minds and provide solace and hope.

There There should be on everyone’s reading list. It has a rich tapestry of nuanced characters cleverly woven together with pathos and humour by young prodigious American author Tommy Orange. The book is a blend of Native wisdom and mythology, intergenerational trauma, and lessons on Indian history and representation. It also portrays the traumas facing young people within this invisible urban community.

Tommy Orange is an enrolled member of the Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes of Oklahoma who grew up in East Oakland, around Fruitvale. Having flunked school, he worked in a bookstore, developed an interest in reading, and achieved two university degrees. This stunning debut work was a finalist for the 2019 Pulitzer Prize and won the 2018 American Book Award.

Written in instantly accessible prose that is conversational, poetic and gritty, There There is an engrossing read that builds up to its crescendo event – the Big Oakland Powwow. The novel revolves around a storytelling project taking place at the local Indian centre. Native filmmaker Dene Oxendene wants to pay the participants because: “Stories are invaluable, but to pay is to appreciate.”

Storytelling gives visibility and validation to both individual and community because as Dene remarks: “All we got right now are reservation stories, and shitty versions from outdated history textbooks.” The book has much to say about the genocide’s “unattended wound”– the ongoing effects of which are evident in prolific teenage suicide rates and babies born with “drome” (foetal alcohol syndrome).

There There, has a prologue and interlude, giving context to the characters’ narratives. The fiction of Thanksgiving; the fetishizing of feathered braves; the proliferation of sports mascots – all are tactics to impose an identity from outside. It is the elders, the medicine men and women who can teach about self-determination and belonging: “Don’t let anyone tell you what being Indian means… Every part of our people that made it is precious.”

This is also a book about place (the ‘there’ of the title). When Dene goes for his grant interview, he ruminates on what Oakland (and America) has become: “So much development had happened… there was no there there anymore.” The ancestral buried land has been built over long ago but songs, dances, drums, arts and languages have survived. The internet (and powwow) keeps them alive.

Reading There There is a sobering but familiar experience. The colonial project that started centuries ago decimated indigenous populations through disease and violence. The acquisitive nature of capitalism has continued that destruction of planet and people. Storytelling is part of the healing process, engendering courage and possibilities: “When we see that the story is the way we live our lives, only then can we start to change.”