Reclaiming Indigenous Voice – Tommy Orange

The irony behind the “coming-out-of-nowhere” narrative surrounding new artists is made abundantly clear for Native writers whose work reflects and is shaped by American history and colonialism. This narrative erases the history and systems that shape the work of contemporary Native artists. Even after establishing oneself as a modern artist, Native writers are pressured to create work that is more of a relic of the past rather than a testament of presence. Having been denied both a past and a present, Native artists find themselves victim to a colonial gaze that denotes them to be mere tour guides into the exotic rather than worldmakers themselves. 

Tommy Orange, a citizen of the Cheyenne and Arapaho Nations, is a novelist and writer born and raised in Oakland, California, who has turned these tired tropes on their heads, telling a gripping story of the contemporary Native experience that both acknowledges a brutal colonial history while pointing towards a pathway. His bestselling debut novel There There was a Pulitzer Prize finalist and won the prestigious American Book Award. 

In this article, Tommy Orange details the journey of becoming a published author and how being a Native artist has shaped that experience. 

This is an edited, excerpt transcript from a Bioneers 2020 Conference workshop called “The Power of Words: Indigenous Writers Workshop”

I sort of came to writing fiction and prose and literature, whatever you want to call it, through a kind of back door. I didn’t study it in school at all. I really came to it on my own terms. I read a lot of works in translation as a sort of entry point, and I was doing a lot of experimental writing at the beginning of exploring what it would mean for me to write, but as soon as I started thinking about what it would mean to include myself, my family, and my background, immediately the writing became Native, because I am. Bringing my experience to my writing immediately made it that because, while my my novel is not a piece of autobiographical fiction, there are certainly many elements that come from my, my family’s and my community’s experiences, and I think it’s important for Native People to get more exposure and representation in all the different forms of media that influence our society because our real experiences have largely been made invisible.

I just read that only 5% of books published in the U.S. since 1950 were by people of color, and that’s all people of color—5% during over 70 years of book publishing, so it was never a question for me once I got started how the work would be Native. Even in my MFA program, which was in a Native institution, some fellow Native students in writing workshops would ask “Do these characters have to be Native?” Maybe they were thinking their writing would sell more if the main characters were just in default mode, i.e. an assumption they were white males.  

It’s really important for Native people who are getting into media and literature to find ways that we can represent our diverse nations, to think about what it means to include our experience of being a Native person in this world, because it can reach a lot of other Native People, and it’s really important for us to be able to see ourselves represented in these media.

My novel got its start when I was part of a digital storytelling project at the Native American Health Center in Oakland. The people I interviewed there didn’t directly shape the characters in the book, but definitely the experience of being a part of these storytelling circles and helping people—non-storytellers, non-writers—create these digital stories influenced my thinking about the structure of the book and some of its elements. One key lesson was that it was important to get really specific. I was teaching non-writers how to write 300-word scripts that we would turn into three-minute films which would be about a poignant or transformative moment in their lives, and many people’s natural inclination is to hover over or generalize as a way to attempt to connect to other people, but, paradoxically, I found that getting as specific as possible was the best way for their stories to become more universal.

Before I worked at the health center and got into digital storytelling, I was really writing on my own, and I was working in the community. It wasn’t until I got into the MFA program that I really became part of a Native writing community, and that was really transformative for me, but my experience from 2005 to 2013 working at the Native American Health Center doing everything from data entry to grant writing to those digital storytelling projects was definitely formative in helping me think through how I wanted to represent this Oakland Native community in a novelized form.

Native artists of all kinds and Native People in general come up against a unique problem: how do we get the cred as being authentic if we’re not referencing something that’s pre-contact, some kind of ancient tradition. We’re expected to have some kind of ancient traditional tie to authenticate us while also somehow addressing being contemporary people expressing contemporary feelings from contemporary bodies. We grew up in this time, but we’re expected to somehow be connected to 500 years ago and have those two things in a perfect marriage, but nobody else is required to have that when it comes to trying to have an authentic voice. The culture is steeped in stereotypes from the cowboy and Indian era and even the more recent Dances with Wolves era, and the culture is too lazy to want to be inconvenienced about changing its narratives around what a contemporary Native person is.

But I also think we’re at a good moment in American history with more and more people ready to look at what really happened historically. The American consciousness has been holding onto this idea of the noble, fading away mystical Indian, and that’s been a convenient and romanticized version that has been held onto, without wanting to look at all the things that make us complex, because that would include questioning a lot of the foundations of this country and all the lies that are underneath the reasons why it’s so complex to be a contemporary Native person.

There are creative ways to change those old narratives. Here’s a good example from my own life: our son was getting into kindergarten and heading into November, and our fear was what the curriculum regarding Thanksgiving still consists of, especially in public schools. Our first instinct was to just pull him out for Thanksgiving week. We can sort of control it at home, and we’re not going to fight the system and try to change curriculum, because that’s sort of pointless or impossible or at least really exhausting sometimes, but it started not to feel right, so the next year we invited Manny Lieras of the American Indian Child Resource Center who has worked with urban American Indian youth for 15+ years and is a real role model and change agent in the Oakland Intertribal community as well as a singer, drummer and filmmaker, to come to our son’s first-grade classroom.

We didn’t really know what it would look like, but Manny brought his whole family, and it became an amazing episode in which they all danced in the classroom as he sang and drummed. And what was especially cool about it for me was that Manny came in jeans and a T-shirt and a ball cap, and he provided an opportunity for all the kids of “everything you wanted to ask an Indian but were afraid to ask.” And out of the mouths of children came a lot of frankly ignorant questions that of course aren’t their fault. It’s the fault of the system, the curriculum, their parents, popular culture. Some examples were: “Why don’t you live in a tipi? Why do you live in Oakland? What do you do?” And Manny was able to answer in a light and compassionate way, and everyone got to learn, including the adults and the teachers who were in the classroom. It was just an amazing contemporary Native educational opportunity.

I’m asked a lot about how aspiring Native writers can break into the publishing world, but I don’t know how well I can answer it. I was one of these crazy cases where I’d published almost nothing before my book came out. I’d had one story in the Yellow Medicine Review. I’d been looking for years for a Native-specific publication. Red Ink was one of them that I submitted stories to over the years. I’d been submitting pieces since about 2006, and I sold my book in 2017, so there was a lot of rejection and of not hearing anything back in there for over a decade. So even though I “came out of nowhere,” it wasn’t from lack of trying beforehand, or it wasn’t like my first try was a huge success; it was a lot of quiet work and getting used to rejection. Rejection is just the other side of the coin of publication. There really aren’t people that just get published by trying the first time. You have to just keep trying, and then it’s sort of a numbers game. You have to grow the skin to get used to it, and then the sooner you can accept the fact that rejection and publication are the exact same process, it gets a lot easier to keep submitting to places.

Initially I didn’t want to go into an MFA program because I just didn’t trust institutions. I hadn’t done well in school, and I just had a really deep mistrust for doing things that way, but I found out about the Institute of American Indian Arts, and I saw the faculty and the fact that it was a Native organization, and the fact that it was a low residency, which meant I didn’t have to move with my family, and all that sold me on the idea. Then, once I was in the program, I realized that to teach at an MFA, you have to have published a book, which made me realize that I was going to be building relationships with people who have access to the publishing world, and that’s a really good reason to get into an MFA program because you can meet a good number of people who have access and who can help you. And now I’ve helped students through the school. If you have access to the doors, do all you can to widen the doors by helping other people out.

In my case the way I got my book out there was that I was reading at a writing conference and somebody heard me read from There There, and that person happened to have one of the biggest agents in the industry, Aragi, Inc, and introduced me to Nicole Aragi, now my agent. I think that, on top of my previous hard work and the good luck of her hearing me read, and her having that agent, timing played an important role. Standing Rock was happening. This was the end of 2016, and Trump had just been elected (and here we are at the end of that nightmare…). My book went to auction to 14 different publishers right after Trump got in and right after Standing Rock. The timing of all of that really helped my book to get to where it got to. I think that if my book had been out there in 2012 or 2008, I don’t know what would have happened. I think my book’s success had everything to do with the timing of its publication.

So I worked hard, but I got lucky. I had a big agent. The book sold in auction, and because it went to a big publisher, they put a lot of money behind, trying to make sure it rolled out in a way that they could make money off of it, so things got pretty crazy. I’d been traveling all over, and I was shocked when I realized it was actually going to be an “airport” book. I had surreal episodes. I even had a crazy conversation with Sarah Jessica Parker, who wanted to buy the book before it went to auction for an imprint that she was trying to start under Penguin Random House, so because the whole situation was so unusual, there’s no real way for me to give advice on how to get published. I’m not trying to take away from the merit of the book I wrote. I worked really hard on it for six years, and I put a lot of myself and a lot of my experience into it, so I’m happy that it has had popular and critical success, but those sorts of conditions are impossible to predict or duplicate.

So, all I can say is that you have to try all the avenues and hope that something hits. I was trying for 11 years and then something happened after my MFA program. There are certain things you can do and certain situations you can put yourself in, such as attend a KWELI or AWP (Association of Writing Programs) conference. If you’re in a writing program, there are contests you can enter. Whatever publications you see that are publishing other Native writers that you like or that you are aesthetically aligned with, submit there and submit as many times as you can. Try to build up a resumé, and try to find whatever resources you have available in your circles, such as friends who might have agents. Asking doesn’t hurt. A lot of times people will help, if they can. You just have to try all these different avenues. And I think it’s also a really good time to self-publish. A self-published book is not going to get into a curriculum or get into institutions, but with social media and how cheap self-publishing is right now, it’s very affordable right now, more affordable than it’s ever been, and there are self-published books that can have an impact and reach folks in specific communities. If you have something to say, try to find a way to get it out there, because now it’s time for Native writers and artists to tell the real stories about our lives ourselves.

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