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I love novels that immerse me in a culture I don't know and give me an insight into lives that I am not living. There There is written by a Native American author (or Indian, as he would have it), narrating the stories of various members of the Native American community in and around Oakland, California. It is a poor community, largely urbanised, largely invisible to wider America. As the popular conception of Native Americans doesn't extend much further than the silent, sink-throwing character in One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest, members of the community are widely mistaken as hispanic or just undefined people of colour. 

 

What we find is a subculture within (and around) a neglected city, living in the shadow of its more successful neighbour. The characters we meet include ageing hippies, a documentary film maker, gangsters, a drug peddler, alcoholics, community workers, absent parents and abandoned children. Some are proud of their heritage, others are embarrassed by it. Some embrace their tribal regalia, others think it feels like dressing up as Red Indians, and still others are not even aware of their ancestral roots. 

 

In looking at their stories, the reader is invited to consider what it means to be Indian. Do you have to register? Do you have to know your tribal history? Do you learn to read the land or is it innate? How is the land even relevant when you live in Oakland? 

 

There is a narrative arc where the various characters are all heading to a powwow in the Coliseum. They all have different reasons for being there - most of them not strictly pleasurable. In fact, the powwow sounds like a pretty dreadful thing: drums, dancing competitions, food stalls and lots of milling around. There's a huge commercial angle and a giant sense of obligation. There are grants and an organising committee, but never much sense of what the powwow is supposed to be. And it doesn't end well.

 

But the real strength of There There is this window into other people's lives. Most are compelling if somewhat compact. Perhaps there are slightly too many gangsters and their story is a little hard to follow. Overall, though, the sense of having been born into poverty and trapped in a world of low expectations brings the many short stories together into a coherent whole. Add some small doses of editorial comment, history and some great metaphors... In particular, there's a story of the white guy settling into someone's apartment and turning it into an office which is a great metaphor for colonial settlement. 

 

There There is a short, accessible read with multiple narrators and points of view. It is socially important and gives a voice to a community that many readers will never have known they have not previously heard. It is a story that is set in the present day and is completely relevant to 2018, but also probably relevant to decades past and decades still to come. 

 

Thoroughly recommended. 

 

****0
 

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As I understand it, "Native American" is a term coined by well-meaning white people, but most Indians prefer to be called "Indians."  What they really prefer is to be called by the name of their tribe, but most outsiders can't manage that.

 

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