by Howard Lipke, PhD
Orange, the son of a Cheyenne father, has written a novel which has received wide praise and major awards for how it tells the neglected story of modern urban Native American experience. In There There, Orange builds tension to an inevitable calamity through the interlocking stories of several characters while briefly, poetically, interspersing the historic tragedy of the genocide against Native Americans. The lives of the characters show trauma to be the norm rather than the exception for a people who have inherited and experienced this history and daily face the repercussions of their loss. The characters in the novel struggle to overcome challenges, but as would be expected, the times they fail in this are psychologically destructive and sometimes even fatal.
The passage below shows how one character, Opal—after having suffered the childhood loss of her mother, father and other family member; the chronic instability of homelessness as a child; and having had to rescue her sister from sexual assault by their caregiver—learned to function day to day by blocking out intrusive painful memories and thoughts. Also worth mentioning is the way the passage opens, with Opal accepting an amorphous sense of self- blame despite intellectually recognizing that she, herself, had no responsibility for the tragic events which had occurred in her life. This seems to reflect a common pattern in which people think they get what they deserve, so as to at least sometimes avoid the even more destabilizing sense that the world is not orderly and just.
Opal is full of regrets, but not about things she’s done. That damn island, her mom, Ronald, and then the shuffling, stifling rooms and faces in foster care, in group homes after that. She regrets that they happen. It doesn’t matter that she didn’t cause them to happen. She figures she must deserve it in some way. But, she couldn’t figure it out. So she bore those years, their weight, and the years bored a hole through the middle of her, where she tried to keep believing there was some reason to keep her love intact. Opal is stone solid, but there is troubled water that lives in her, that sometimes threatens to flood, to drown her- rise up in her eyes. Sometimes she can’t move. Sometimes it feels impossible to do anything. But, that’s okay because she has become quite good in getting lost in the doing of things. More than one thing at a time preferably. Like delivering mail and listening to audiobooks or music. The trick is to stay busy, then distract the distraction. Get twice removed. It’s about layers. It’s about disappearing into the whir of noise and doing. (pp 161 – 162)
There There, Tommy Orange. Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf. 2018