Building Community Through Reading
Building Community through Reading: There There by Tommy Orange
Growing up an only child, I often found comfort and adventures in the pages of books. Whether it was browsing the books at yard sales on the weekends or carrying my book in a fire drill line, books have always created a safe space for me. They showed this Rez girl the world, from the Seine River in France to the magical hallways of Hogwarts, I was often transported to different places and times through my books. While my reading over my lifetime has been fairly diverse, there is a definite gap in literature from the Native experience. Thankfully, there has been more of a push for diverse perspectives from people of color in the literary world, but there is still more that can be done. Recently, I was transported to Oakland and delved into the lives of twelve Urban Natives through Tommy Orange’s debut best selling novel, There There. I am so excited for this year’s new Circle of Harmony offering with our lunch time discussion of this novel, on the first day of the conference, because it brings together two of my passions, reading and serving my community.
While I am no literary critic, I can certainly give you my own perspective of the novel, hopefully without revealing too much. Throughout the entire book, the following excerpt best describes my own emotions as I read the stories and began to know each character.
“Maxine makes me read her Indian stuff that I don’t always get. I like it, though, because when I do get it, I get it way down at that place where it hurts but feels better because you feel it, something you couldn’t feel before reading it, that makes you feel less alone, and like it’s not gonna hurt as much anymore.”
There were times when I felt like I did not fully comprehend what I was reading but when I did connect to the story, I was able to understand and empathize with the struggles of our Urban Native relatives. For me, this excerpt also connects to who we are as Native people and intergenerational trauma. “It hurts but feels better because you feel it…” Perhaps, like that character, we need to allow ourselves to feel the pain, anger, and sadness, so that we do not feel alone and it doesn’t “hurt as much anymore”.
I remember when I finished this book, I felt a bit of an emptiness and like there was something missing, but in reading the stories of the characters, that was how they felt in their daily experience. There was a constant disconnection from their identities and an ambiguity of their place in their communities. I think many Native people can relate to this feeling and there is a certain level of comfort in seeing it in the lives of the characters. It does make you feel less alone. For those attending the conference, know that the conference planning committee strives to ensure that we all belong in this community and we all have a right to feel safe, loved, and understood.
I hope in reading this, you are encouraged to learn more about the twelve characters in There There by Tommy Orange. To learn from their experience, feel the intense emotions, and heal, if even just a little. Every little step we take toward healing is a step in the right direction.
Come prepared to share your own reading recommendations at this year’s 2019 Circle of Harmony HIV/AIDS Wellness Conference!
To support Native owned bookstores and purchase your copy of There There visit:
Order online: Birchbark Books https://birchbarkbooks.com/