Brief interview with John Leonard Prize-winner Tommy Orange

by Zack Graham

Tommy Orange leans against the wall near the entrance of the large spotlit room in which the reception for the National Book Critics Circle Awards is being held. He’s noticeably taller than the other partygoers, with a round, boyish face topped with a silky mop of black hair. When he stands up straight, his left shoulder sits slightly lower than his right shoulder, as though one side of his body is longer than the other. 

Admirers swarm him to confess what exactly about his brilliant debut novel There There moved them the most. When they speak the words they’ve been rehearsing in their minds, his eyes grow wide and soft. He beams. He thanks them. He even gives the more ardent supporters big hugs.

Tommy Orange (photo credit: Elena Seibert)

Tommy Orange (photo credit: Elena Seibert)

When he seems to be gathering his things to leave, I take my chance.

“Tommy, hi, I’m Zack. I loved your book. I’m writing about it for [Epiphany]. And I was hoping I could ask you a couple of questions.”

“Absolutely,” he says. “But I’ve gotta run. Can we do this outside?”

We emerge from the jagged glass of the New School’s central hub onto Fifth Avenue, where departing partygoers spot him immediately. Realizing we’ll need to find somewhere less public in order to avoid being interrupted, he gestures toward two adjacent pay phones around the corner from the entrance.  

“Let’s pretend like we’re using these phones no one uses anymore,” he says.

And so we nest our bodies into the pay-phone booths, face each other, and begin to talk.

*

That night There There received the National Book Critics Circle's John Leonard Prize, one given to an author’s first book in any genre. Carmen Maria Machado, Yaa Gyasi, Kirsten Valdez Quade, Phil Klay, and Anthony Marra have received the prize since its inception in 2013.

One part history, one part symphony, There There tells the tales of a group of Native American “Indians” (Orange’s descriptor) grappling with addiction and its genetic effects (inherited alcoholism, fetal alcohol syndrome), domestic violence, physical and mental illnesses (obesity, depression), and other symptoms of cultural marginalization as they prepare to attend a fictitious native gathering called the Big Oakland Powwow, which we know from the outset of the novel will be the site of an armed robbery perpetrated by petty criminals.

Orange begins his novel with a prologue describing in plain, direct prose the violence Indigenous Americans suffered at the hands of white colonists. Whether it’s New Yorkers of the early 17th century kicking the severed heads of Pequot leaders “through the streets like soccer balls” or Texas Rangers taking a bandit named Three-Fingered Jack’s hand on tour in a jar and “charging a dollar for the show,” Orange lays each trauma at his reader’s feet without asking for sympathy or recognition. It is this unfettered deliberation which imbues Orange’s voice with invincibility. It doesn’t matter how you feel about what he’s describing. Your feelings, like the feelings of any of the “Indians” he describes, mean nothing. He simply tells the stories of men, women, and children, old and young, in various shades of first, second, and third-person narration, and allows you to make of them what you will.

Orange’s dozen-odd characters are interconnected in more ways than they will ever know. Edwin Black, an obese man-boy who longs to find the father that abandoned him as a child, shares a father with Blue, a Native woman adopted by a wealthy white family who participates in the powwow in an attempt to find a sense of cultural belonging. The two are friends, but never discover that they are half-siblings. Edwin’s mother Karen shares a profession with a woman named Jacquie Red Feather — both are substance-abuse counselors in the Native community, and both of their sons end up crossing paths at the powwow. Dene Oxendene, a burgeoning documentary filmmaker who wants to capture Native people telling stories on camera, captures Calvin Johnson’s story on camera prior to the powwow; when he encounters Johnson at the powwow, Johnson is in the role of shooter, holding a gun instead of a camera.

Despite the shame and disgrace one might associate with the act of robbing a cultural gathering, Orange depicts the thieves who sneak 3-D printed guns into the powwow with as much compassion as he depicts their victims. Daniel Gonzales, one of the robbers, lost his brother Manny when his Uncle Sexto was driving drunk, and so he grew closer to his older cousin Octavio Gomez, who manipulates Daniel into taking part in the robbery. Tony Loneman was born with fetal alcohol syndrome (which he disaffectedly refers to as “the drome”); Octavio supplies the weed Tony deals, and Tony agrees to go along with the robbery. None of the men involved in the scheme have ever executed an armed robbery before, and haven’t done any planning beyond figuring out how to sneak guns into the powwow.

Orange’s novel tells the tales of impoverished, beaten-down, genocided “Indians” living in forgotten American tundras. Oakland. New Mexico. Arizona. Cheyenne. Arapaho. Pequot. There are no good guys or bad guys, no heroes or villains. There There simply contains human beings, disenfranchised, desperate human beings who are doing whatever they can to stay alive.

*

“How did you choose which characters to write in first-person or third-person?” I ask Orange over the beeping din of a reversing garbage truck.

“For every character, I transposed different POVs,” Orange says. “I experimented a lot.”

“So you’d write, let’s say, the Edwin Black section, in first-person and third-person and figure out which one worked best?”

He nods, then begins talking about a character named Thomas Frank, a half-Native alcoholic introduced near the end of the novel. Orange wrote Thomas Frank in second-person. 

“The Thomas Frank chapter was very much me. The rest of the chapters, I don’t know where those people came from. But I worked the sentences. Tried to find what felt true. And I’ve worked in the community for a long time so… I feel these things that are really rough.”

I was initially surprised that Orange didn’t base any of his characters off of real people (consciously, at least), and that he instead summoned a chorus of voices out of the collective trauma they shared. Orange’s characters felt so very real, after all. But that’s the magic of excellent fiction, I suppose. Orange’s ability to create these people is nothing more than the skill of a virtuosic novelist on display.

“I grew up white, Native, both. I don’t know what that means,” Orange continues. “The biracial experience is… I feel like even you—”

“I’m biracial too,” I interrupt. (My father is African-American and my mother a white Jew.)

He starts laughing. Of course I know what he means. The biracial experience is confusing and frightening and lonely and other things that only people who live it will ever understand.

I ask him what it means to him to be here, in New York City, receiving a prestigious literary award.

“I don’t know how to come out of all of this with any clear message,” he admits. “I can’t belong to anything. I don’t know how to come to a place that makes sense for anyone. I feel strong connections to people who I grew up with that are biracial. But I feel fucked up [about my identity] all the time, man.”

He looks at me. He eyes are buried in pain, a pain I can tell he swam in for years as he worked through drafts and drafts of There There, writing each chapter, paragraph, and sentence over and over again. For a moment, he isn’t Tommy Orange the phenomenon. He’s Tommy Orange the human being.

Zack Graham’s writing has appeared in Rolling StoneGQNewsday, and elsewhere. He is the recipient of an Emerging Critics Fellowship from the National Book Critics Circle, and is at work on a collection of short stories and a novel.