In There There Tommy Orange uses individual human vignettes to represent the way that history reverberates into the present. The aftershocks of settler colonialism tear through the lives of indigenous people today, even those living in urban environments far from traditional geographies and ways of life.
Orange’s novel depicts a specifically Native American experience, yet one shared collectively by all Native Americans, as emphasized by the culminating event of a pan-tribal powwow. One character tells another who’s struggling with grief and violence, “Some of us got this feeling stuck inside, all the time, like we’ve done something wrong. Like we ourselves are something wrong. Like who we are deep inside, that thing we want to name but can’t, it’s like we’re afraid we’ll be punished for it. So we hide.” In another vignette a young man who’s failed to live up to his education and other expectations feels the slippage of perception coupled with time: “While I was talking something in me reached back to remember all that I’d once hoped I’d be, and placed it next to the feeling of being who I am now.” Orange examines how cultural violence becomes familial disfunction compounded by ongoing cultural violence, becoming further familial disfunction…you get the idea.
To be clear, Orange aims to articulate something shared by indigenous Americans while simultaneously resisting the idea that all native experiences are the same. He pushes against narratives of both unending tragedy and triumphant resilience, a challenging line to walk. But while his thematic focus is on contemporary Native Americans, he resides in good company with his literary impulses regarding time and the effects of historical traumas and other evils.
F. Scott Fitzgerald, haunted by the spectre of madness and his own layers of expectation, has his narrator, Nick Carraway, tell the idealistic Jay Gatsby that he can’t repeat the past. To which Gatsby incredulously replies, “Can’t repeat the past? … Why of course you can.”
William Faulker, obsessed with the repercussions of slavery and the Civil War on the souls of white Southerners and other white Americans, famously wrote that, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” And in The Sound and the Fury, Quentin Compson reflects on his father’s words upon giving Quentin a pocket watch:
“I give you the mausoleum of all hope and desire; it’s rather excruciatingly apt that you will use it to gain the reducto absurdum of all human experience which can fit your individual needs no better than it fitted his or his father’s. I give it to you not that you may remember time, but that you might forget it now and then for a moment and not spend all of your breath trying to conquer it. Because no battle is ever won he said. They are not even fought. The field only reveals to man his own folly and despair, and victory is an illusion of philosophers and fools.”
And perhaps most related to Orange’s work, African American authors have articulated the ongoingness of slavery and racism in their experiences. W. E. B. DuBois influentially explained the idea of a “double consciousness” experience by all black people in America. In the speculative fiction of Octavia Butler, the protagonists are often women-of-color who must nevertheless navigate society’s limited expectations and pre-judgements of them, even in the future. And then there is James Baldwin, who wrote, “People are trapped in history and history is trapped in them” in his essay “Stranger in the Village.”
Ultimately, we are all always and constantly shaped and weighted down by history—of our families, our countries, the world. As Gatsby‘s narrator Nick Carraway concludes, “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”