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Anisfield-Wolf Winner Tommy Orange Writes About Natives in the City

Native Americans are often portrayed in the media as living on a reservation or as historical figures in the old West.

This year's winner of the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award for fiction, Tommy Orange, wants his readers to know that many Native Americans inhabit a place much more familiar - the city.

His novel, "There, There," charts a contemporary group of Native Americans living and working in his hometown of Oakland, California.

"I think it was wanting to represent the experience that I came from and not seeing it represented in literature or in film or very much anywhere in popular culture," Orange said.  "It's just not accurate to today's present conditions for Native people."


The story features 12 Native American characters all heading to a fictional powwow in Oakland.

"I think the powwow, it is both traditional and contemporary feeling and it's inter-tribal. This to me is the perfect epicenter for an urban, native novel," he said. "I actually thought of where everyone, all their lives would converge. I thought of the location and the event before I thought of any of the characters."

The story is told through the voices of characters, like a documentary film, including a drug dealer with fetal alcohol syndrome, a young boy who wants to dance for the first time and a grandmother trying to reunite with her family.

It was a challenge for Orange to weave so many voices into a single, coherent novel.

"It was very difficult to have everything feel like it was coming together organically. There were a lot of points somewhere in the middle of writing it where I couldn't see through to the other side and wasn't sure that I'd make it," he said. "It took about six years to write, and there were definitely trying times."

When he began writing, Orange thought only Native Americans would read it.

"A lot of times only other Native people are reading Native writers. It's a small community and our visibility tends to be not high," he said. "Certainly when I'm editing I think of the general reader, but I wasn't necessarily trying to tailor it to meet the needs of a non-Native writer."

Orange sees some irony coming to Cleveland this week to accept his award where the Cleveland Indians' Chief Wahoo is still a beloved mascot despite its retirement by the team this season.

"I thought it was the most offensive Indian-head mascot out there. I was most wanting of all of them for that one to go first. It's got this ridiculous, giant nose. It's like something you'd see from the '20s and '30s representing black people. The fact that it's remained to this day is quite the shame," he said. "It's also a shame they couldn't come up with something better than the letter 'C' to replace it."

Still, Orange is excited to win Cleveland's prestigious annual book award.

"It was a pretty incredible day that I got a phone call from [jury chair] Henry Louis Gates Jr. It's a great honor to look at the people that have won in the past. I can't believe I'm a part of that list of people," he said.

Tommy Orange accepts the 2019 Ansfield-Wolf Book Award for fiction for his novel "There, There" Thursday in a ceremony at Playhouse Square's State Theatre.



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