Arts

Adaptation and Interiority

The weight of survival in Tommy Orange’s “Wandering Stars”

The inscription of Tommy Orange’s new novel Wandering Stars reads: “For anyone surviving and not surviving this thing called and not called addiction.”

For Orange’s fictional Bear Shield family, who first appeared in his debut Pulitzer Prize-nominated 2018 novel There There, pain comes from the very real circumstances of generational trauma; of surviving genocide; Native American boarding schools; dislocation and relocation; the loss of tribal customs and family memories; and contemporary tragedies. But as is true of real life, the characters’ individual struggles with addiction serve as windows into the deeper pain and disconnection that lies beneath. Orange says he wanted his first novel to be “fast-paced and scene-based.” Wandering Stars, on the other hand, is slower. Readers practically climb inside characters’ heads and hearts and just about feel their pain.

“We have tons of amazing movies and TV shows that do better scene work than any book will ever do—sometimes this ‘write the scene, write the scene’ advice can slow or stop development of a writer’s individual unique voice,” Orange says. “I understand the scene advice, and I give it myself sometimes, but I think it’s overly prescribed. What I’ve always loved about fiction is how it can capture consciousness and interiority.”

Orange heads to town this weekend as part of the third annual Santa Fe International Literary Festival, where he is slated to appear among a star-studded line-up of prominent writers including Anne Lamott, Douglas Preston, Arthur Sze and Jesmyn Ward.

As he did in his first book, Orange includes a short, nonfiction prologue in Wandering Stars to provide readers with the proper historical context for the book’s scope and themes. The first section begins generations before the events of There There and introduces readers to Jude and Charles Star, the ancestors of the Bear Shield family, and Richard Henry Pratt—the real-life man responsible for the creation of the Carlisle Indian Industrial School. The second section of Wandering Stars, however, picks up with the Bear Shield family immediately where There There leaves off and continues the story.

Writing is a form of release for Orange. Although he acknowledges exploring heavy topics can be difficult for some, he sees it as a way to lighten the weight. As a father to a teen, sharing histories and stories is important, too.

“You have to let their curiosity guide because you can’t just talk at them. We’ve always been really honest with our son about history,” Orange says. “My dad was always very clear about the way things went down in history, and I was hearing a very different thing at school and it made me very distrustful and I didn’t do well in school, I think partly because I knew there was this massive lie being told about the country and what happened to Native people, and also this massive absence of not teaching anything about Native people. I think I felt invisible in a lot of ways.”

One of Orange’s strengths is his ability to push back against both the erasure and the broad generalizations that are often made about Native people. In writing from different characters’ perspectives, he humanizes the vast array of experiences held even within one family—or the same person as they age. As with his debut, Orange writes each chapter from a different character’s perspective and often moves between first, second, and third person perspectives, depending on which character is telling their story.

“I shift POVs as part of my writing process for all my characters,” Orange says. “I’m asking the reader to go from these different POVs and these different characters, I want to make them feel as distinct as possible.”

Not only does the perspective shift from chapter to chapter, Wandering Stars traverses centuries and sometimes moves back and forth in time within sections. In the hands of a less skilled writer, such movements might be jarring, but Orange pulls it off. The layers of perspectives create a rich, complicated story that reveals sometimes stark differences in how characters pull old stories and old survival skills forward from the past. In Wandering Stars, various characters are seen reaching for some kind of connection with their heritage or culture, grasping onto half-remembered stories or inventing new ones to replace the loss.

Orange says his characters’ experiences of cultural disconnection somewhat reflect his own. He is Cheyenne and Arapaho and was raised in Oakland, California with a Cheyenne father and white mother. Although Cheyenne was his father’s first language, it was not spoken in the house; and though as a child Orange visited relatives in Oklahoma from time to time, that commonplace experience sometimes caused discomfort.

“There were certain elements of not feeling the same amount of Cheyenne as our cousins,” Orange says.

Adaptation through storytelling is thus central to connection and survival for Orange. Writing fiction provides an entry into a long legacy of making sense of identity and belonging.

“Native people have always been about adaptation and sometimes we are talked about in a static way, like we’re only authentic if we’re doing something ancient,” Orange says. “But if you look at any tribe’s history, it’s a very diverse and changing people. We’re held up to this impossible standard and our humanity has been taken away—and with that the complexity and nuance of what it means to be human.”

Santa Fe International Literary Festival: On Stage with Tommy Orange: 2:30 pm Saturday, May 18. $27.50-$75. Santa Fe Community Convention Center, 201 W Marcy St., sfinternationallitfest.org

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