Earlier this year Alexandra Fuller broke open the Native American experience for a new contemporary audience, abandoning her beloved Africa for a story set on “The Rez”. Quiet Until the Thaw is an astounding novel about two Native American cousins, Rick Overlooking Horse and You Choose Watson, who live on the Lakota Oglala Sioux reservation in South Dakota. The novel was released soon after the Sioux protests at the Dakota Access Pipeline, and was widely acclaimed for its insight into the ongoing oppression of Native Indian people in the US.
Now Tommy Orange, a young writer from the Native American community in Oakland, California, has stepped centre stage with a stunning debut novel titled There There. The title comes from Gertrude Stein’s cutting line about Oakland, “There is no there there”, and the novel itself has been anointed by the New York Times as the book to read this summer, and hailed by Margaret Atwood as “astonishing”.
This is the young urban Native American experience, told through multiple characters who crosshatch each other’s lives and attempt to reconcile themselves to their shifting sense of identities. There’s Tony, a kid with Foetal Alcohol Syndrome (he calls it the Drome), the result of an alcoholic mother. “There’s too much space between each of the parts of my face — eyes, nose, mouth, spread out like a drunk slapped it reaching for another drink.” Thomas Frank is a drummer with a heavy chip on his shoulder: “A concrete chip, a slab really, heavy on one side, the half-side, the side not white... You’re from a people who took and took and took and took. And from a people taken.” There’s a woman named Blue who has to decide whether to stay with her abusive boyfriend, and another, Jacquie Red Feather, a substance abuse counsellor who struggles to stay sober after her daughter killed herself 13 years before. The magnet drawing all the characters together is a powwow that they attend towards the explosive end of the book.
Terese Marie Mailhot is another Native American writer creating a buzz. Her memoir, Heart Berries, details her growing up on the Seabird Island Indian Reservation in the Pacific Northwest. Don’t be fooled by the title — this is not a romantic or nostalgic tale. It’s a gutting story of poverty, addiction and abuse that lays bare the boarding school system (also explored in Quiet Until the Thaw) that separated indigenous children from their families and cultures, a system ripe for neglect and trauma, and much worse. Mailhot’s grandmother went to one such school. So many children reportedly starved to death there, the nuns ran out of places to bury them; their bones were hidden in the walls of a new school under construction.
Orange and Maillot were classmates in the new MFA programme at the Santa Fe Institute for American Indian Arts, which is providing, at last, a megaphone for young Native American voices. While Louise Erdrich and Sherman Alexie are long established, this is a new and urgent generation.