New Literary Voices: The Storytelling of Tommy Orange and Kali Fajardo-Anstine

Tommy Orange, Politics and Prose, July 25, 2018
WHAT IF the stories others tell about the land where you live don’t reflect your experience of that place? What if you are told, from the time you are a toddler, that home is faraway and that this place where you live will never be your true home?

What if Opal Viola Victoria Bear Shield’s mother is correct, “the world is made of stories, nothing else, just stories, and stories about stories”?

What if, like Sierra’s mother tells her, the land really does “swallow us whole, wrapping its beauty around us so tight it’s like being in a rattlesnake’s mouth”?

What if Weh’na Ha’mu Kwasset is correct when she tells us that the land’s relationship with language, with storytelling, is about the sound that travels across it, and about how new stories keep the ancient wisdom alive because the mirror neurons firing in our brains allow us to live these stories?

Science, it seems, is finally catching up to what storytellers have always known. We live in a responsive world. To hear a story, is to experience a story.

To speak a word is to vibrate a thought. Writers speak of narrative voice, but we often forget the power of the voice. Sound carries vibrational frequencies that can heal body and spirit. Even written language, black words on white pages, vibrate into existence new, multi-colored ways of seeing and experiencing the world.

Sierra is a character in Kali Fajardo-Anstine’s forthcoming collection of stories, Sabrina & Corina. She lives within the pages of a story set in the southern Colorado town of Saguarita, “a place where the land with its silken fibers of swaying grass resembles a sleeping woman with her face pressed firmly to the pillow, a golden blonde by day, a raven-haired beauty by night.”

Sierra lives within this world of raven-haired Latinas in the shadows of the Native world of her ancestors—all the while straddling the ragged golden edges of that other untouchable world.

Opal Viola Victoria Bear Shield lives between the pages of Tommy Orange’s award-winning novel There There. She also straddles worlds—the child’s and the adult’s, the Indian’s and the non-Indian's.  One day, Opal’s mother tells her to pack her things because they’re leaving East Oakland and heading to Alcatraz. It is 1970. Opal leaves home carrying two sets of clothes, and a teddy bear named Two Shoes who speaks to her as if channeling the voice of her Indian ancestors.

Decades later, Opal utters a prayer to save the lives of those she loves. The prayer is coming from, "The place where her old teddy bear, Two Shoes, used to speak from." She recognizes that to have power, the prayer must be said out loud. The prayer must vibrate with belief. The belief she once had when she was a young girl on the island of Alcatraz, before hope died, while the future was before them, a thing of beauty wrapping itself tight around the world.

Opal shares these pages with twelve other main characters. Through their eyes, the cadence of their speech, and the intimate corners of their lives, Tommy Orange brings alive for us what it means to be an urban Indian living far from any ancestral home, yet in a place where old stories become new stories. A new relationship rises from the land even when what was there, is no longer there.

KaliFajardo-Anstine brings alive on the page what it means to be a Latina woman in a land whose stories have only been half told. These new voices remind us that there are millions of untold stories.

Stories can wrap us in their beauty, swallowing us whole. We discover the inside of the rattlesnake's mouth, and like Sierra's mother, we discover it is both our salvation and our cross. We can live other lives, shed the old skin and come to the land with a new awareness of the multitude of stories lying in wait.

Read There There and you will feel the firing of mirror neurons as you discover the many layers of truth to the Native American experience. 

Read Sabrina & Corina and the stories will twist and turn, leading you away from what you thought you knew about the West and her cities, and back to the truths that have always been self-evident.

NOTES: Sherri Mitchell, Weh’na Ha’mu Kwasset, is an Indigenous rights activist, spiritual teacher, and transformational change maker. To read her complete essay on the land's relationship with language, "Hearing the Waters," go to Orion Magazine

Kali Fajardo-Anstine’s story collection will be released this April. In the words of her publisher, she "breathes life into her Indigenous Latina characters and the land they inhabit. Set against the remarkable backdrop of Denver, Colorado–a place that is as fierce as it is exquisite–these women navigate the land the way they navigate their lives: with caution, grace, and quiet force." You may pre-order from Penguin Random House.

Considered one of the best novels of 2018, Cheyenne and Arapaho author Tommy Orange's debut novel There There has garnered high praise from literary corners near and far. The web is overflowing with interviews, reviews, articles and videos about this breakout book and the man who wrote it. I especially enjoyed this video where he reads and talks about the novel on 6/25/18 at
Politics and Prose at the Wharf.


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