Tommy Orange was scheduled to talk about “point of view,” the literary device that played a big role in his 2018 acclaimed debut novel, “There There,” a multigenerational saga of the urban Native experience through 12 characters who converge in a powwow in Oakland, California.
Instead he pulled a surprise. The audience gathered for the Harvard University Native American Program annual lecture at the Harvard Art Museums’ Menschel Hall on Thursday evening were treated to a reading of Orange’s hotly anticipated upcoming novel, “Wandering Stars,” a follow-on to “There There,” which won the PEN/Hemingway Award and was a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize. After previewing his latest book, Orange discussed his writing process and influences.
The packed crowd responded with oohs, aahs, and applause as Orange read, for the first time in public, excerpts of his new work, which will be published in March 2024. The novel serves as both prequel and sequel as it travels back in time through the lives of his characters, showing how events from generations ago still affect their lives and experiences.
Many in the audience appeared to have read “There There,” which ended on a cliffhanger, and several leaned forward, eager to know what happened to the characters after the shooting at the powwow.
“There is a spoiler alert, but this is the one spoiler that will actually make the read better,” Orange warned about the reading. “But I think this is the one spoiler that actually will make the read better. There is a cliffhanger at the end of the novel that upsets most people. You’ll know something that I think you will be happy knowing.”
“Tommy’s talk was both hilarious and moving. I was especially struck by his reference to each Native birth as a victory in the longer term for survival and continuance,” said Daniel Carpenter, Allie S. Freed Professor of Government and chair of the Department of Government, of the reading. “The talk underscores the complexity of the Native American experience in the 21st century, as much of it is lived in cities but still affected by things that happened generations ago in spaces far away.”
The New York Times called “There There” “a new kind of American epic,” and hailed Orange as “part of a new generation of acclaimed indigenous writers from the United States and Canada who are shattering old tropes and stereotypes about Native American literature, experience, and identity.”
Orange, a citizen of the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes of Oklahoma who was born and raised in Oakland, California, delighted the audience with scenes that depicted the experiences of Native Americans who live in cities, playing the Minecraft videogame, doing TikTok videos but also dealing with historical trauma of discrimination and erasure. According to the Census, of the more than 6 million Native Americans in the U.S., nearly 80 percent live outside reservations.
Following his reading, Orange spoke about his own process and career in conversation with Mishuana Goeman, Tonawanda Band of Seneca, Professor of Indigenous Studies at the University of Buffalo. He spoke with candor and self-deprecating humor.
Orange graduated from college as a sound engineer but fell in love with fiction after working in a used bookstore, where he read novels that inspired him to write. Of the many novelists he read while at the bookstore, he was most influenced by Clarice Lispector, Denis Johnson, Colum McCann, and Louise Erdrich, an enrolled member of the Turtle Mountain Band of the Chippewa Tribe in North Dakota — whom he considers his biggest inspiration.
“I became a huge reader in 2005, but it was really late,” Orange said. “Between 2005 and 2012, when I started writing ‘There There,’ I was reading and writing as much as I could because I knew I was behind.”
Writing “Wandering Stars” was harder than “There There,” said Orange. His first book came out almost like a wave, as if he was “writing into a void,” but the success that followed made it hard for him to not waver. “Doubt was worse this time,” he said. “But I treat writing as a discipline. It’s not necessarily inspiration-based, but if you keep going back to it, something will happen over time.”
Harvard Medical School student Carson Moss ’23 attended Orange’s talk and was happy to get a sneak preview of his new book. He had read “There There” as soon as it came out and read it many times because he recognized himself, as a young urban Native, in the stories it told. Moss is a member of the Ottawa Tribe of Oklahoma and grew up in Sacramento, California.
“The book is a favorite of mine because I felt I was represented as a young Indigenous person living in the city and in the online era,” said Moss. “Being an Indigenous person in the online era is so different from the perceptions that people have of Native people. It’s great to see that Orange keeps referencing things like TikTok and all the things that are very big for young people. It’s great to see the voices of young, urban, Indigenous people represented.”