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Tommy Orange

Monday, February 25, 2019
7:30pm Pacific Time
KQED Broadcast: 04/07/2019, 04/09/2019, 04/10/2019

This event appeared in the series
"On Arts" Benefiting 826 Valencia Scholarship Program

We've made a recording of this event free to all. Please support our institution and these productions by making a tax-deductible contribution.

With his stunning debut novel, There ThereTommy Orange asks readers to examine their assumptions about who Native Americans are and how and where they live. The fierce and sorrowful novel grapples with the complex and painful history of a multigenerational Native American family living in Oakland, at once celebrating their rich spiritual heritage and illuminating the profound consequences of systematic discrimination. A recent graduate from the MFA program at the Institute of American Indian Arts, Orange is a member of the Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes. He does not take the responsibilities and impact of his public voice lightly, telling PBS that “when people think the only way to be Native or the only way to look Native is based on a historical, head-dressed feathered image, you have already disappeared.”

Jeff Chang is a journalist, music critic, and the author of Who We Be, Can’t Stop Won’t Stop, and We Gon’ Be Alright. He is the former Director of the Institute for Diversity in the Arts at Stanford University and currently serves as Vice President of Narrative, Arts, and Culture at Race Forward

Books Referenced:

Films referenced:

  • “Sorry to Bother You” (dir. Boots Riley, 2018)
  • “Blindspotting” (Dir. Carlos López Estrada, 2018)
  • “Black Panther” (Dir. Ryan Coogler, 2018)
  • “Fruitvale Station” (dir. Ryan Coogler, 2013)
  • “Dances with Wolves” (dir. Kevin Costner, 1990)

Writers referenced:


City Arts & Lectures Tommy Orange author of There, There in conversation. February 25, 2019. cityarts.netJeff Chang: Good evening, and welcome to City Arts & Lectures. We want to begin by acknowledging that the land on which we gather tonight is a traditional land of the Muwekma Ohlone people and to give thanks and respect for their Elders, past and present. May tonight’s event deepen our understanding of our relations and our obligations.

Tonight’s also a benefit for the 826 Valencia College Scholars. Where you at?  Welcome, welcome. My name is Jeff Chang, and tonight we present the debut author of one of the most honored books of 2018, “There There.”

It’s a New York Times bestseller, a National Book Awards finalist. It was chosen as a book of the year by countless critics and outlets, please join me Bay Area, in giving a loud and proud welcome to homegrown, Oakland born, town’s own, Tommy Orange. 

Tommy you got your family here tonight, huh? 

Tommy Orange: I can’t see anyone. 

Jeff Chang: Let’s start off with this. You know, it’s been a really good year, 2018, last year, was a really really good year for Oakland. The Warriors, right? The A’s–I think they won like three times as many games as the Giants did, by my account.

And movies, you know, “Sorry to Bother You” came out, “Blindspotting,” and of course Ryan Coogler, right, “Black Panther.” And your success on top of all that. I think actually it was such a big year that the New York Times said that Oakland was a destination for folks. And if the New York Times says, you know, it’s a destination, then people I guess have to come. 

But I guess I was wondering how 2018 felt for you in terms of bringing this book out after so many years of working on it. And having it come out to light and having the kind of reception that it got. How did it feel to you?  

Tommy Orange: Well, I think first off, the irony of Oakland being popularized through literature and movies bringing people to possibly gentrify Oakland is sort of weirdly problematic. For it to come out and be so well received was of course a huge surprise. I think for everyone from Oakland who had success in 2018. Because Oakland has had very little attention. 

I mean, “Fruitvale Station” came out and that was, you know, a piece about Oakland that I loved. And from then on when people referenced police shootings somehow that particular shooting always got left off the list. And that felt like leaving Oakland behind in a weird way, even though it was sort of like the start of the conversation.

Jeff Chang: All the organizing that went on in the street and all of the youth art that was put out there in remembrance of Oscar Grant.

Tommy Orange: Totally. 

Jeff Chang: Yeah. 

Tommy Orange: Yeah, and I worked at the Native American Health Center at Fruitvale and International. 

Jeff Chang: Yeah, give it up. 

Tommy Orange:  And there are people that worked and work there now in the audience that I love, who maybe were clapping.

So I think it’s been a surprising response. I think anybody who’s writing a book who thinks what happened to my novel might happen is a sociopath or like you know, delusional. So I certainly didn’t expect anything to happen and that it did I’m you know, I’m super grateful. 

Jeff Chang: There’s so many things of course that are facing, so many problems, so many issues, so many different kinds of questions that are facing the Bay Area and Oakland in particular, which has of course been the home of so much groundbreaking innovative ideas, community organizing over the years. And your book seemed to kind of catch a nerve, certainly out here. It was like on the top of the the Bay Area bestsellers list for weeks upon weeks upon weeks, because it was capturing so many kinds of questions. 

I wanted to ask you a little bit about how how you’ve seen things unfold? You were born and raised near Diamond Park, yeah? The Diamond District, and sort of saw that change in a lot of ways. How have you seen Oakland in the past, in the recent past? Has it been a narrative of decline in a new kind of, in a different kind of way? Has it been a narrative of hope? What have you seen happening like in the last 10 years?

Tommy Orange: Yeah, it’s changed a lot and for the past three and a half years I’ve not lived in Oakland. Oakland has always been changing in different ways.  But to me, it has remained the same and I got to feel the sting of that most clearly recently when I was on the way to a European tour for my book and parked my car at Lake Merritt Bart and then got everything of mine stolen, including my suitcase and my passport and my backpack and laptop. And there’s like a weird maybe masochistic sort of sense of like, oh I understand sort of, this is what Oakland still is. It was at Lake Merritt Bart and I was parked for an hour there and everything got stolen. 

Jeff Chang: Right at Tai Chi park, right over there.

Tommy Orange:  Yeah.

Jeff Chang:  Wow.

Tommy Orange: I think there are ways that it’s changed irreparably and ways that it’s stayed the same and will never change. And it’s really hard to say definitively in the ways that it changes that it’s necessarily bad or good. It’s hard to draw a hard line about how gentrification and a lot of the money that flows into Oakland and a lot of the ways that Oakland leaders sellout Oakland constantly over time and like, you know, losing the Raiders and Warriors in San Francisco. 

It’s a complex history and a complex thing to be a part of and I always wondered why it was not the subject of a novel. And so that’s part of what made me want to write into it, because it’s a very rich and complex place to come from.  

Jeff Chang: There’s so much pride in a lot of ways and so much soul. Did the characters come from people that you knew coming up in Oakland?

Tommy Orange: They didn’t. I spent many years working in digital storytelling both at the Native American Health Center and out of a non-profit from Berkeley called Story Center, and came to revere people’s stories as their own. And it’s something–you know, you earn your story. You live your story and you earn it. And fiction is supposed to be something that is created. 

And so I never would have felt right about just drawing from somebody else’s. Even the metaphor or the language around drawing from  somebody’s life–it’s like drawing blood. I would never want to do that. So the stories that are in the book or you know, they’re either from my own life or they’re just wherever fiction comes from, thin air as they say.

Jeff Chang: One of the things that you did, that was I think, even if it wasn’t your debut novel, would have been an incredibly risky thing to do, was to create this whole set of characters. Literally more than a dozen characters. And have them tell the story each in their unique kind of voice. How long did it take for you to be able to find the voices of all of these kinds of characters and to pull all this together? Did you start with the plot and then work backwards to the characters? 

Tommy Orange: I did. I started with the idea to have a bunch of different characters’s lives converge at a powwow in Oakland at the Oakland Coliseum. And there was always a tragic element, a violent sort of cataclysmic ending in mind, from the beginning. And so writing all the characters, it was always well, who are they and how will they end up there?

That was for sure a part of it. I was working full-time at the time and was waking up–I was newly a father, so I was waking up early and writing late at night for the first year of writing the book, and all these initial voices from the book came out at that point. 

Jeff Chang: Hmm, and was it a process of just sort of starting with these kinds of monologues and building it up or did you map it out? 

I ask because you know, last week we were talking to a friend of yours, Marlon James, who starts with characters and then lets the plot kind of emerge from what the characters are telling him. It sounds like you came at it the other way. 

You had this idea of where you wanted the the book to end up and then you peopled the plot with a bunch of different people. And so yeah, so I’m really curious how that process went for you.

Tommy Orange: So one of the first novels that inspired me to do something structurally, like what I did, was Colum McCann’s “Let the Great World Spin.” And so he starts out with a sort of an image and a moment that eventually connects all the characters. So my novel structure is sort of the inverse of that. Everybody ends up at the powwow for a different reason. 

In his novel everybody is connected to a guy walking across a tightrope wire between the twin towers. And it spans between  the 70s and modern times, post 9/11. And in some sense mine has similar things going on, with occupation of Alcatraz and this modern-day powwow. That doesn’t really exist, there’s no big Oakland powwow. There’s other powwows around the country that are big like that.

So, you know, I was writing into it–in a way I’m constantly feeling like a fraud. 

Jeff Chang: Imposter syndrome?

Tommy Orange: Yeah. And so I feel like I even like cheated into this novel. Like I had this sort of plot device that made it easy to–all I had to do is figure out how everyone ended up there.

Jeff Chang: Wait and that makes you feel like you’re faking it? That’s kind of the point of fiction though, right? 

Tommy Orange: Well, it’s less maybe interesting and complicated than being like, you know, I had this character in mind, and this one, and then this one, and I had them all, you know, figured it out over time. But this plot device of having everyone end up at the same place really made a complicated novel easier to write.

Jeff Chang:  Hmm, and yet, and yet, you would have to have gone through a lot I imagine, to be able to develop these characters who are so human. Like you really feel the pain of their loss. You feel the sort of anger towards, you know, some of the folks’ carelessness. And that wouldn’t have come if you had simply had sort of this you know, kind of rote kind of plot that you were kind of driving through. 

And so I guess I’m asking, you know, what gave for you the  characters their life, their voice, their depth, their trajectories? And I’m asking in a very general kind of way, because I’m hoping you’ll give me a really specific answer.

Tommy Orange: You know, working in digital storytelling and teaching non-writers how to write compelling three minutes stories, you have to try to give the most immediate and basic writing advice to people who, you know, don’t necessarily care about writing or having a future in writing. And there are two things that you end up teaching, which is like, get specific and write scenes. And this is what we know, readers like specificity and scenes. And that’s true for you know, cinema as well. 

And helping people to write these stories that eventually are used for you know, the nonprofit usage, to show how people overcame stuff. Like these are the reasons why contracts happen to fund a digital storytelling workshop, which, this is how I contracted over a number of years. I think in the writing process these were tools that I was thinking about and brought to my craft that were from experience. 

And I also was very willing to include my own personal idiosyncrasies and weirdnesses into my characters. Like I said, I have reverence for people’s stories and was more than happy to provide my characters with things from my own life.

And that’s I think part of what makes characters come alive, is specificity. And so my characters ultimately resemble me more than they do actual people. It may be embarrassing ways, depending on how much you know, I made up or come from me.

Jeff Chang: Was the panel that Dene Oxendene was speaking to, was that like a real-life, was that drawn, torn from the pages of your life?

Tommy Orange: Yeah. So I got a $5,000 Cultural Arts Grant from the city of Oakland and never did that.

Jeff Chang: Any grant folks in the audience here that might be like…

Tommy Orange: I apologized in the acknowledgement section.

Jeff Chang: Coming back for you asking for the money back and stuff now.

Tommy Orange: But I, you know, I did the project, it was just fictional.

I think, you know it doesn’t maybe do the same work that fictional character was projecting, but it does some work maybe.  

Jeff Chang: Yeah. Yeah, I think you could write a good wrap up report around that grant for sure. 

Tommy Orange: It was two years. They gave me $10,000. It’s unethical.

Jeff Chang: You just admitted this to an audience of thousands. Let’s talk about, we’ve been talking a lot about form. Let’s talk a little bit about about the content and maybe we can start with this amazing, powerful, moving prologue. This sort of short section that you wrote. Where did the idea come for that? 

Did it come in the beginning, even before you began writing the characters? Is it something that happened at the end? And why did you choose to to include this prologue on Indian heads? 

Tommy Orange: So I think you know, both the decision on multiple characters in the novel and having a prologue were actually craft decisions first. Like I just like novels that are structured with a prologue and with a multi-narrative, multi-point of view, sort of polyphonic novel. I just like that. So wanting to write the kind of book that I like to read, before I knew what I wanted to write. 

In trying to start to think about writing the urban Indian story, which is–to even say Urban Indian if you’re not from the community, it’s you know sort of a self-identified name that  people, Native people that live in cities use, that may sound like, if you hear it, you may not think of Native people. Always Indian with Indian, you know what I mean, is confusing. 

So to start talking about characters in the novel and what that means, you have to go back to relocation and a sort of, a move or many moves or policies that the US government has made. What they were doing, which was related to assimilation, which was part of Indian Termination Policy, which is an actual US government policy to terminate a people. Even terminate at this point sounds a little bit cleansed of violence. Indian Termination Policy doesn’t even sound as bad as it is. But this genocidal history–I felt like I needed to give the context before the story started to what all this meant.

Why did Native people end up in cities? Because for a while you weren’t even allowed off the reservation. Before we were chased and beaten and sort of broken on our way there, then you weren’t even allowed to leave. 

So I also grew up with a dad who grew up being raised by his great-grandparents and with stories. The story that I heard most often–I heard a lot of different stories from his life including owls throwing rocks at him from trees. But the story I heard most often was the Sand Creek Massacre and this is a horrific Massacre of mostly Elders, women, and children. And that happens in the prologue.

So this sort of–it may seem extreme or like I’m trying to do something with an essay that is shedding light on something unseen, but it’s been–you can access all of this information. For many years people have known, historians have known, and like these massacres and what actually happened in history–it’s been right there. It’s conveniently not looked at. 

So I felt like to set the stage for characters before I started a story, I wanted to write about what context means and how different people benefit from or suffer because of history and what’s happened in this country.

Jeff Chang: And the narrative itself of the book kind of spans this sort of 50-year process, or 50-year time line of Native Americans in the Bay Area, in Oakland specifically, but the sort of deep context that the prologue sets gives kind of an ambience to all of the things that happen to the characters. There’s a term for it in academics, historical trauma. There’s the idea that trauma can be so deep that it’s written into your DNA and this is something that ends up being passed down through generation from generation. And so it becomes sort of, it feels like it becomes sort of the ambience of the novel. Was that what you were kind of intending?

Tommy Orange: Yeah from working at the Native American Health Center you know, I can say I was helping to put together grants, but that would only be literally because I was like stapling and making copies of the grants. 

Jeff Chang: Yeah, there’s like the what you’re doing and then there’s the what you’re doing, right?

Tommy Orange: And in the stapling and you know, we would like burn sage and send the grants off in that way with a prayer. That was my role. 

But I came to know certain grant terminology, like resilience and–which I talk about in the book–and historical trauma. And over time there’s a certain distortion that happens with both of those terms that’s originally fresh and feels like oh, yeah that feels true, but ultimately sort of dies, right. And feels actually eventually condescending. Both of the terms either end up academic or condescending. 

So with historical trauma or resilience, it feels like either you’re too detached to actually think about how it plays out right now in a real life, and how it still exists, or are you saying like good job, you got over it without saying what you got over. Without acknowledging all of the years of education that we’re taught in either like a cleansed way or like not taught at all or you know, so.

I was having an interview today at KPFA and the interviewer was talking about my novel as being political. And I didn’t write a political novel, but as Native people like you’re automatically, you’re sort of born political, because of what has happened and your position in relation to the US government. The way you’re positioned is automatically political. 

So it’s strange to you know, have this exposure for the book and to have these conversations and automatically have to be sort of…You know, I wrote a novel, but like all of the conversation is like who are you and what do you stand for?

Jeff Chang: Does that feel constraining, does it feel like it’s pegging you in a way, that it’s reducing you? 

Tommy Orange: It’s just a part of it. I’m just bringing it up as like it’s a thing that is. I don’t actually have resistance to it. I know, I understand why it’s part of it, but it’s interesting that it becomes that. 

Jeff Chang: You’re talking in some ways, I mean, you’re kind of blowing my mind actually right now, Tommy. But you’re talking on this sort of level of what’s happening in the day-to-day, but you also kind of talking a lot about the way that knowledge and history is undone, right. That it’s sort of sedimented, that we literally throw dirt on it and cover it up as if we’re trying to bury it. And that it goes down the layers. 

And that in order to kind of resurface it, you have to find language, you kind of have to find characters, you have to find plots to be able to retell stories that should be told all the time, in some ways. Do you think about sort of the weight of what you’re trying to uncover in your process?

I know this book took a long time, in the way that many debut novels do. But does this feel like something that’s heavy in some ways, when you’re trying to go to the desk to actually do your work?

Tommy Orange: I think weight, in that context, in those terms, comes with the idea that you will be read and then judged. And I didn’t write it with that in mind.

Jeff Chang: But you did write with an audience in mind. 

Tommy Orange: Not exactly. I wrote it with the reader in mind, wanting to take care of the reading experience. At some point, as a writer, my journey as a writer, I came to realize that I wanted to respect the reading experience and to take care of, on a sentence level, and on a pacing level, like, what makes for a good reading experience? Who wants to keep turning pages and keep reading? Like that is the pure love of reading, and it has to do with a certain sentence level and pacing quality.

Before content, and before audience, there is like, make your sentences compelling and make your sentences shine or disappear, but make the reading experience flow and have your reader in mind. Nowadays you could be doing so many other things, reading is probably at the bottom of the list. So like at some point in my writing process I started feeling like, I really want to consider the reader in that way. And even myself, like I want to read that will bring me in and and consider me. 

So who I ended up thinking would read my book is Native people. Because that’s normally all we–it’s the only people who care about us is ourselves. The world doesn’t seem to care about us that much, and especially this country. So the fact that it’s gotten this attention is pretty amazing. But I think in terms of reading experience and wanting to respect somebody who’s willing to pick up a book and and spend their time with it. 

Jeff Chang: Yeah. I love that you keep coming back around to craft, too, because there’s a way in which the book could be read as a sociological tract, which is not what you intended at all, right. It’s not meant to be you know, the urban Indian novel as much as it’s meant, the way you’re describing it, as much as it’s meant to be a novel for other folks like you who could hear the story and be like I see myself in that. Yeah?

Tommy Orange: Yeah. I mean, it’s hard to quantify or qualify what it does or undoes to not see yourself depicted. You know, like people grow up with heroes that they see on screen or in books, and for Native people, for that to be an absence is a really destructive presence.  And it’s the reality for a lot of Native people.

You know, you have like Jim Thorpe. Or you have, Sherman Alexie’s now cancelled. You have Louise Erdrich who you know, I’ve since found out more recently, less people know about. Like, we have Wes Studi. There’s just–Graham Greene–there’s just very few people that people know about, and that you see, and if you do see them they may be just playing a sort of historical depiction, or it’s a mascot. 

You know, it does damage that is hard to quantify or qualify to the self. There’s other–a lot of people of color have this, the stick to measure yourself by is sort of a white man. And so everything that happens outside of that you’re trying to figure out, and everything that happens inside of that is distortion.

Jeff Chang: I wanted to ask you this question. You mentioned Louise Erdrich, you mentioned other writers who have come before, we could talk about Joy Harjo or Leslie Marmon Silko. A lot of folks are referring to you and other writers who are beginning to emerge now, Terese Mailhot who was your classmate at IAI in Santa Fe, which has become sort of this amazing place, moving so many young and not so young, but you know, like Native American writers, folks who are are thinking very deeply about craft and moving the artwork forward. 

In fact, folks have called you the New Native Renaissance and I was wondering what you thought of that? Is this sort of another marketing kind of tool? Is it something that that you take pride in? That there is this cohort of folks that are really trying to push the envelope in the way that folks were, say during the Harlem Renaissance, or you know writers were in, here in the Bay Area, right where there’s a color war in the 70s, really trying to push what became multiculturalism. 

Tommy Orange: Well just briefly before I comment on that, I think, my good friend Terese Mailhot, who wrote “Heart Berries”–everyone should go read that book. 

There’s been Renaissances that have happened since civil rights here, Native Renaissances specifically, or like waves of let’s say attention or publication.

So the occupation of Alcatraz was a sort of flag flown that got people’s attention and then a lot of the Native canon that exists now came from let’s say that attention. And then in the 90s Kevin Costner saved us in “Dances with Wolves.” 

Jeff Chang: Thank God for Kevin Costner. 

Tommy Orange: And there was a there was a literary Renaissance that came with it.

And then with Standing Rock. This sort of new thing is a part of people suddenly paying attention to Native people, and wanting to promote or just pay attention in a way that hasn’t been done. These are all waves. And the problem with waves or Renaissances is that they come and go. 

So with the Institute of American Indian Arts and possible other programs like it, I think an institutional, sustainable base that has a constant stream of voices from Native communities is important, because we don’t want to have to have Kevin Costner help us. Or to be shot with rubber bullets while trying to protect our water. Having the next wave of attention. We want it to be a sustainable thing. We don’t want a section in the bookstore that’s Native American literature, where the fiction lives there also, instead of being fiction. 

So I think in a weird way Trump has caused a lot of people to pay attention in a better way to marginalized communities and making structural changes that hopefully are sustainable and not just a pendulum swing away from…

Jeff Chang: We we’re talking backstage about how the pendulum’s always swinging hard to the left, hard to the right, and you were saying what if it would just sort of concentrate right in the middle here. I thought that was a really right on type of point. We’re going to open it up to questions from the audience in a second here.

But I wanted to ask you one more question before we did that, which is that your book was nominated for the National Book Award as a finalist in the fiction category in the long list, and I wondered if you had any kind of ambivalence about this idea of it being an American novel? You know is the idea of the American novel something that you were trying to write yourself, or position yourself against?

Tommy Orange: You know, I’ve given actually little thought to the idea of being an American, while, like sort of being a Native American. Because the term Native American is not referring to being an American. It’s actually referring to being pre-American in a weird way. 

I was super grateful to be acknowledged and I know that I am American. I think you know, people from a lot of different cultures who grow up in America connect with some of the ideas of identity in the novel that are about mixed heritage. I think no matter what your background is you are a hybrid dominant culture related person. So you have to relate, in a similar way that all the characters relate to their Native heritage. As un-American as you think you might be, that might even make you more American than you want, than you’re comfortable with being, so.

Jeff Chang: You can feel free to clap.  

Tommy Orange: I don’t know how I feel about the book award. I’m grateful that these different awards are happening, and I’m not in a place to feel criticism toward people who are trying to give me awards. I feel very grateful.  

Jeff Chang: I wasn’t trying to get you to denounce the National Book Award at all. I mean I’ve served on the committee. I was more getting at the question of, yeah of this notion of Americanness, and this national idea, as opposed to a more expansive maybe view of Americanness. 

And this is coming as somebody who you know, comes from a place that America forcibly took, who comes from Hawaii, and is Native Hawaiian, part Native Hawaiian.

So let’s open this up to questions. We got two mics that are circulating through the audience. And hear from this amazing crowd here.

Tommy Orange: Oh my God. 

Jeff Chang: Okay. Any questions? No questions, okay.  

City Arts & Lectures: We have a question here from the center of the orchestra to the front. 

Audience Member 1: Hey, Tommy. Question is, has the book’s success taken away some of the joy of writing? Is there more pressure? Or has it added more fun or enjoyment? 

Tommy Orange: I think initially I felt like with how fast everything becomes irrelevant now, I was writing really hard into two different novels over like the two years since I sent my version in. I just recently stopped thinking about those novels and started writing short stories. And I feel like I’m having fun now. And able to just write whatever.

City Arts & Lectures: This question’s all the way right, towards the front.

Audience Member 2: Hi, I just wanted to ask about, I know you don’t live in Oakland anymore, and what was your decision to leave Oakland, and where you’re living now, and how that’s different?

Tommy Orange: So, me and my wife both had jobs at the same tribal organization, who had a tribal leadership change suddenly, which is a thing that happens, and both did not have jobs suddenly and sort of, we had to leave Oakland because we couldn’t afford it. And she grew up in a town called Copperopolis, which is fun to say, but not to live in. 

And so we lived there for like a year and a half, and then we moved further north to Angel’s Camp where we live now. And because of the success of the book we’re going to be moving back to Oakland this year.

City Arts & Lectures: This question’s from the back of the orchestra to your left.  

Audience Member 3: Hi, what’s next in terms of writing for you or books?

Tommy Orange: So I started writing two different novels over the past two years. One of them’s a autobiographical novel told from different voices in my family. And another one I stopped wanting to talk about and won’t talk about now.

Jeff Chang: Does that mean you’re still doing it and you just don’t want to talk about it? 

Tommy Orange: Mhm.

Jeff Chang: Okay. Respect that.

Tommy Orange: And then I’m working on short stories. And happy to be doing that right now. 

Jeff Chang: Do you find, like in the writing process that you write a lot and throw a lot of stuff out, or do you sort of wait till it’s ready and ripe and then go to the keyboard?

Tommy Orange: Hmm. I try to, I feel better when I’m writing more. Even if it’s garbage, it makes me feel better to be writing more. So I’m constantly convincing myself that I’m working on something that matters. Even if it ends up not mattering at all.

Jeff Chang: Are there a lot of drafts that are sitting somewhere in some forgotten corner of your laptop?

Tommy Orange: I work only in the cloud and in Google Docs because I have a history of sleepwalk erasing a bunch of writing. 

Jeff Chang: What do you mean? Sleepwalk erase? What is that? 

Tommy Orange: Sounds like a David Lynch movie. So I’ve had two different experiences of erasing like two years of writing. Waking up to like having erased from the desktop and then erased from the garbage or recycling bin or whatever you call it.

Jeff Chang: Really? 

Tommy Orange: And so I started only writing in the cloud. And one time found all my stuff in the garbage of the cloud, but my sleeping self is not sophisticated enough to know to delete the trash bin in the cloud. 

Jeff Chang: Yeah, let’s definitely not educate your sleep self to do this. How did you discover that you were sleepwalk erasing?

Tommy Orange: Because it was gone and there was no explanation.

Jeff Chang: You just woke up the next day and it was like, where’s my file and…

Tommy Orange: It’s completely gone. Everything else was there, it was only one thing erased was my writing. 

Jeff Chang: Wow.  

Tommy Orange: I’m a self-destructive person.  

Jeff Chang: Damn. Yeah, that’s a good way to protect yourself from. From your own tendencies. Whoa. I you know, I feel like there’s about a hundred people in here who would like to live with you just to make sure that you don’t go back into your study at night after you’ve, you know closed the door for the evening. Just to make sure that all that stuff gets preserved.

Next question. 

City Arts & Lectures: This question is on your right towards the back of the orchestra. 

Audience Member 4: I found the last section of the book to be so disturbing and and tragic and sad and I just, and you mentioned that you already started out knowing you’re gonna have a cataclysmic ending. I just wondered a little bit about that, you know, what drew you to sort of end the lives of some of the people that had come to life in the first part of the book, in most of the book, and just curious about that.

Jeff Chang: And thank you. That was well played with the no spoiler alert thing going on.  

Tommy Orange: I don’t know if the spoiler alert is–I feel like it was not alerted and it happened. So I’m supposed to explain the spoiler, that it’s bad, without spoiling.

Jeff Chang: Without spoiling. Is that possible?

Tommy Orange: But explain why what bad happened. 

Jeff Chang: What bad happened.

Tommy Orange: Which is spoiler.

Jeff Chang: Something bad happened. 

Tommy Orange: And then I’m supposed to explain it. It’s like a further spoiling.

Jeff Chang: Yeah. You’re right. You’re right. You’re right. Is it possible to like talk about the bad thing that happened without saying what the bad thing was?

Tommy Orange: We shouldn’t be saying it’s a bad thing that happened. 

Jeff Chang: It was neutral. Maybe it wasn’t bad. Yeah, it could have been good.

Tommy Orange: According to her it was bad. 

Jeff Chang: Right. Maybe it was really good and some other people’s–right.

Tommy Orange: Some reader interpretation. 

Jeff Chang: Because readers can have different interpretations. 

Tommy Orange: Exactly. Yeah, so I’m not going to go into that one. 

Jeff Chang: Okay next question.

City Arts & Lectures: This question’s from the center of the balcony.  

Audience Member 5: Hi, Tommy. To your point about readers liking specifics. I was curious if you could share a few of the specific aspects of your life and anecdotes that were reflected in the stories of the characters?  

Tommy Orange: Okay, so probably the most interesting and gross one is the spider legs thing, which is also–oh people don’t even want to hear it. 

Jeff Chang: No, no this one you gotta tell. This one you have to tell. 

Tommy Orange: There’s another question that had that. 

Jeff Chang: Everybody wants to hear about spider legs. 

Tommy Orange: I hate starting the story because it happens in a West Oakland Target bathroom. Which like basically means I was taking a shit in a West Oakland Target bathroom. Which I was. And I had this growth on my leg. This is all so gross. Yeah, and then I don’t know how to explain this. It started poking out. It started feeling like it was coming out. And so I pulled it out, and there’s a leg, with a bend and a thinner point at the end. And then there was another one. There’s two. In the book there’s three. 

And I put it in toilet paper and I brought it out to my wife, who wondered why I was taking so long in the bathroom. And she said I looked like a ghost. And over the next like two weeks, looked it up on the internet to see if anyone had anything like it. And there was nothing. And so we proceeded to show it to all of our friends as just like this freak thing. But I was worrying.

Jeff Chang: You probably should have been.

Tommy Orange: And so I called my dad. I don’t like doctors, so I didn’t do that.  But I called my dad because it seemed like a really Indian thing to happen.  Like it says in the book. And this is literally what he said to me, and he gave me nothing else. “It sounds to me like you got witched.”

And he didn’t give me any other advice.  He later told me he got witched with a doll in his medicine box. And he knew exactly what to do, the people to go to. He wedged it between a tree in a specific area. He knew what to do when he got witched. He didn’t help me. 

Nothing seemed to happen. Unless this is it.

And so I decided like I should put it in the book, because I already had some spider themes going, and what else am I going to do? We had a party for my son’s first birthday and we had it in these napkins and somebody throw it away and we don’t have the evidence of the spider legs anymore. 

Jeff Chang: Oh. I was so wedded to the spider legs by the end of that story. That feels like a huge loss.

Next question.

City Arts & Lectures: This question is all the way at your right at the back of the orchestra.

Audience Member 6: Hi, Tommy. I really enjoyed what you said about crafting the reading experience, and I was wondering how this impacts the way you read, and what you enjoy reading.

Tommy Orange: I think after becoming a father and feeling my time became compromised I became pretty ruthless as a reader. Both of my own writing and what I wanted to read. And I think as soon as somebody’s writing in a way that feels self-indulgent, or is not considering the reader, I’m pretty quick to give up on anything.

I’m not trying to sound like I’m like doing the best job at that, but it certainly changed my lens and the way that I think about pacing and readability. Becoming a father and what that does to your experience of time and what is yours. I had so much time before I became a father and I wasted so much of it. So it really gave me perspective.  

Jeff Chang: I actually wanted to ask a little bit more about this, because I think you know, I always had the idea that all writers are like also incredibly robust and deep readers from like the age of 3 years old all the way on up. Like they were reading “A Tale of Two Cities” at five or whatever, and that’s why they’re able to write amazing novels. 

But we were talking last week with Marlon, and then we were talking backstage, and the thing that struck me was that both you and Marlon have had these different kinds of reader diets, so to speak. Right, you weren’t necessarily raised on  whatever, name your canonistic artist, and that kind of thing. You came in some ways to thinking about reading seriously late, yeah? 

Tommy Orange: I wasn’t raised on any reading. I read privately the Book of Revelations because I was raised by a Christian Evangelical and I thought the world was going to end within the next ten years of my life. I came to reading and the love of fiction after graduating with a degree in Sound Engineering when I was like 23.

So very much, and then from that point on, not getting into school, not having having anyone tell me what to read, my path to finding a voice, both what I love to read and eventually what I wanted to write, was very much instinctual and based on just what I happen to love. 

Jeff Chang: And I read somewhere that “Confederacy of Dunces” was one of the big turning points for you and “The Bell Jar,” as well, was like another turning point for you. 

Tommy Orange: It was. I was working at a used bookstore and I was eating a donut. And reading “Confederacy of Dunces,” which if you know “Confederacy of Dunces” and Ignatius, seems perfect. And I just sort of realized what the novel can do in that moment and made me want to eventually try to get there, you know. I knew I had a lot of steps to take to get there. And but to realize what the novel could do. That was the first moment. 

Jeff Chang: Marlon said the same thing. It seems like the common experience isn’t necessarily reading all of the the books from the canon, but more reading a book that just breaks open this notion that this is something that is possible. It’s maybe far out of reach, but it’s within reach.

Tommy Orange: I think with that book particularly, this pairing of funniness and sadness, to see that that’s possible to put into one piece as a whole is amazing, because I think life is so absurd and funny and so sad. For that to happen in one thing.

And then Sylvia Plath’s “Bell Jar” did another thing, she’s not necessarily funny. The fact that they both committed suicide is not funny either. But I think there’s something about the urgency of both of their voices that spoke to me as well. 

Jeff Chang: You’ve talked about this idea of sadness. And your characters all betrayed this sort of sentence–a sentence, they’re sentenced to sadness in some ways.

Is that something that you see in all of your writing, in the characters that you create, the plots that you’re putting together? That they’re carrying with them this…? 

Tommy Orange: I think everyone’s more sad than they’d like to admit. And I think there’s some shame that’s put on people who try to vocalize it. Because sometimes it’s vocalized in a sentimental way or in a way that doesn’t feel portrayed in a way that is allowable maybe by social standards. I think everyone experiences private sadness in a profound way all the time, but it’s subtle. And I wanted to express that through my characters, because I feel like sadness is something that permeates life and I don’t think it should be shied away from or…I think we should write about it. 

Joy too, little joys, and transcendence of sadness is also a part of life, and I feel like sometimes things are accentuated in a way that shies away from basic sadness. Which is fine, I just think it’s not woven into the narrative of what makes up life.

Jeff Chang: I think we have time for one more question.  

City Arts & Lectures: This question’s from the back of the balcony to the left.  

Audience Member 7: Hi, Tommy. 

Tommy Orange: Hi.

Audience Member 7: So I just want to first say, very proud of you, and your success. Urban Indian Native over here, real happy to just see you on the stage with this huge house of people. So congratulations.

Tommy Orange: Thank you. 

Audience Member 7: And just wanted to know if you want to share your creative process, and if you have any advice for for Native artists.  

Tommy Orange: I don’t know about Native artists specifically. I think it’s a small world, the Native artist community is small. And try to find as many people as you can within that small network, because it’s small but is powerful.

Otherwise just writing advice on a basic level. I think putting in as much time as you can. I think there’s a lot of artistic disciplines that emphasize putting in time, and writing sometimes gets put into this other category of inspired mystification. I think putting as many actual hours as you can and making good connections in the community that you can get access to is probably the best advice I can give.

Jeff Chang: Well, I lied maybe we’ll ask one more question, and I can do that because I have the mic. In so many ways the the book feels important as a way to be able to counter this sense of not just invisibility, but injustice, cultural injustice. This idea that these voices have been silenced, these histories have been suppressed, that there’s been violence that’s been done that needs to be repaired. That there’s a harm that needs to be repaired. 

And I’m wondering, you know, you majored in Sound Engineering, you went to go work with Joe Lambert at Story Center to do digital storytelling. You finally found a voice on the page and writing. Do you think that you could have imagined yourself doing anything else? Was this what you were born to do?

Tommy Orange: No, like I was saying earlier like feeling like a fraud. I feel like I stumbled into it. And while I love to write, I don’t feel like I always knew that that’s what I was going to do. So born to do feels like I always knew.  I love to write and I think I always will. I love to do a lot of other things.

I don’t know how I feel about fate and destiny and sort of things being put on people who are meant to do this or that. I feel grateful that my book came out in a time that it ended up being received so well and that it’s still being received well, and I’m so grateful for all of you for coming out tonight, but I don’t know how I feel about the mantle of responsibility or fate or all of that. I feel very uncomfortable.  

Jeff Chang: Well I can say that so many people are so happy that you did the work of putting this out there, and just want to say thank you for that.  

Tommy Orange: Thank you.  

Jeff Chang: Tommy Orange, everybody.