Nancy Fields and Tommy Orange onstage at GPAC. Photo/Tyler Karpovich
By: Lakota Craft
Author Tommy Orange was welcomed as a part of the Distinguished Speaker Series. This installment of the series focused on Orange’s literary work, including his best-selling novel “There There” which has gained national accolades including a PEN/Hemingway Award (2019), National Book Critics Circle John Leonard Prize, and a 2019 Pulitzer Prize nomination.
Each of the accolades, while representing and acknowledging the talent that Orange possesses, also represents much more to the Indigenous audience.
UNCP’s museum director Nancy Fields, the host of the evening and member of the Lumbee Tribe said, “Everyone has a story and that if you want to, it’s worth sharing with the public. Tommy Orange is so humble.
He talked about that he didn’t aspire to be a writer, but that he followed his journey and became a blockbuster writer. That is the other thing, following the steps of your journey. It’s very important.”
Orange is a member of the Southern Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes of Oklahoma and is one of the few Indigenous writers to receive national attention in nearly 20 years.
However, that was not his goal as a child or even as a beginning writer.
As a child and young adult in Oakland, California, Orange had a series of interests that he described as a “story of dying dreams.”
From his dream of being a professional baseball player to playing roller hockey, and graduating in sound engineering, Orange finally found his passion for writing after starting work at a local used bookstore and American Indian Center.
When he began writing, Orange described how “he would fall in love with authors, and their work, and their writing style” which guided him rather than role models, because Indigenous representation is not prominent in literature, media or film, and that representation is not seen in the context of modern times.
For most Indigenous people, their only representation is through Western Films or other films where Indigenous people are portrayed as stereotypes or caricatures.
For his novel “There There” Orange intentionally set the novel in present day to show his audience that Indigenous people are still here and remain relevant to society.
During his onstage interview at GPAC, Orange was asked to read the prologue of his novel, which focused on Indigenous peoples’ relationships to their environment, whether it is the city or the reservation.
After reading, Orange described why the prologue was the most significant portion of the novel: when working at the American Indian Center, his wife asked him to read some of his writing to a group of indigenous teenagers as part of a cultural exchange program.
“Nothing scared me more than reading to these Native youth…[but] they responded emotionally, …and I lit something up in them from [the] writing, … and I think that if I didn’t do that and that they didn’t have that reaction, I don’t think I would have kept going on,” Orange said.
Since the publishing of his novel, Orange’s schedule has remained busy with bookings and other events in relation to his work.
“Mr. Orange has been at the top of our list since 2018…[but] we were not able to get him here until recently. We negotiated with his agent for the better part of two years. [Orange] is working on two major projects including a movie script. He also recently wrote an extensive article about Distinguished Speaker Wes Studi for GQ magazine,” said Abdul Ghaffar, the Director of Campus Engagement and Leadership.
Orange is currently in the process of publishing a sequel/prequel to “There There.”