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Book Club: What There There by Tommy Orange teaches us about urban Indigenous life

Storytelling and the enlightening power of art: Orange’s debut novel is a call to action

Book Club: What <i>There There</i> by Tommy Orange teaches us about urban Indigenous life

The title of Tommy Orange’s debut novel, There There, is derived from Gertrude Stein’s memoir, Everybody’s Autobiography. Upon seeing that her childhood home had vanished, Stein famously remarked: “There is no there there.”

As one of Orange’s characters observes, this feeling of despair and loss is not unfamiliar to Indigenous people. The novel’s title is perhaps better interpreted as defiant sarcasm rather than as a soothing sentiment, for the characters in There There seldom find stablilty and comfort.

During the mid-twentieth century, the United States government instated an “Indian termination policy,” which was intended to terminate tribal life and assimilate Indigenous populations into urban society. The policy forced them to move out of reservations and into American cities to find employment as full tax-paying citizens.

The Indigenous people who ultimately emerged in cities, however, were not mainstream Americans as had been imagined, but what Orange calls “urban Indians,” who had arrived there by their own volition. This is where There There, Orange’s story of modernity and tradition, of innocence and guilt, and of hurting and healing, begins.

“Massacre as Prologue” is the title of one section of There There’s introduction, as Orange proposes that the history of violence against Indigenous people in the Americas serves not only as a prologue to his novel, but to life itself as an “urban Indian.” Each of the novel’s character carries the burden of hundreds of years of subjugation.

Another character is a mother who teaches her daughters about their heritage by taking them to a protest off the shore of San Francisco. She reminds the reader of the 1969 Occupation of Alcatraz, when Indigenous activists camped out on the island for 19 months in a fight to reclaim their land and their rights.

Orange’s tragic stories of addiction, homelessness, and domestic abuse should be a testament to the fact that this fight is not over. While the novel focuses on Indigenous populations in the United States, its themes and diverse cast of characters speak volumes about Indigenous life and history all over the world.

On Indigenous identity, Orange writes about the importance of names and labels. He refers to the “blood quantum” laws which came to widely define membership to Indigenous tribes — many of which had not previously implemented such definitions — in the United States in the early twentieth century.

Some tribes still follow these membership laws. In Canada, the Indian Act grants status to individuals generationally, historically excluding Métis and Inuit peoples. In There There, Orange insists that these complicated labels and legislations can be dehumanizing, reducing Indigenous identity to “undoable math” and “insignificant remainders.”

Through Orange’s brilliant ability to write both intimately and expansively, connecting people, places, histories, and emotions, There There paints a remarkably extensive portrait of urban Indigenous life.

In Canada, the number of Indigenous people living in urban centres has been steadily growing. In fact, it was recently uncovered by Our Health Counts (OHC), a research project aiming to shed light on health and social inequalities experienced by urban Indigenous people, that data published by Statistics Canada on urban Indigenous populations has been misreported.

The OHC study of Ottawa found that the Inuit population in the city is four times larger than reported by Statistics Canada. The OHC also found that there are three to four times more Indigenous adults in Toronto than estimated by Statistics Canada in 2011.

This is all to say that there are more stories to tell — more than we think, and probably far more than we will ever know. In this view, perhaps the most impressive aspect of Tommy Orange’s debut novel is that it demonstrates the enlightening power of art.

Another part of the novel’s courage is its ability to uncompromisingly confront grim realities, as violence and trauma infiltrate the lives of Orange’s characters, particularly women.

Between 1984 and 2012, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police reported 1,017 cases of murdered Indigenous women and 164 cases of missing Indigenous women, of which 225 are unsolved. In There There, a female character recalls seeing a post “about women up in Canada” — referring, of course, to this crisis.

However, as Orange highlights in the novel, “it’s not just in Canada, it’s all over. There’s a secret war on women going on in the world. Secret even to us. Secret even though we know it.”

Indeed, the crisis is global. 

A 2008 report from the US Department of Justice found that “some counties have rates of murder against American Indian and Alaska Native women that are over ten times the national average.”

As part of a move to thrust this issue into the spotlight, the junior US Senator from North Dakota Heidi Heitkamp found that 5,712 cases of missing Indigenous women were reported in the United States to the National Crime Information Centre in 2016, and in July 2017, Indigenous women in Alice Springs, Australia marched in the streets to raise awareness about the violence against women plaguing their community. 

There There is a call to action. It is a call for storytelling, if not for one’s own sake, then in honour of those who are silenced and who have been silenced from telling their own stories.

Honest reviews: popular places to eat in Toronto

"Dairy Queen is better"

Honest reviews: popular places to eat in Toronto

Toronto is known for many things: the CN Tower, the Blue Jays, Drake. While Toronto is a world-class city, it is not known as a purveyor of world-class cuisine. There are a few gems, but many of Toronto’s spots are pretty average. I scoped out some of the most popular — and overrated — places with a friend, and gave them a much-needed honest review.


Sweet Jesus
106 John Street

Just a short walk from St. Andrew station, Sweet Jesus is home to some of the most photogenic ice creams in Toronto. As mediocre as my experience was, I could not help but jump on the bandwagon and post an Instagram picture of my s’mores cone, which is precisely why this place has gotten such a flurry of attention over the past couple months.

Because the cones are so large, my friend and I debated sharing one but finally decided to each get our own — this was a mistake. Although smaller plain or dipped soft-serve cones were available for a cheaper price, I wanted one of the fancy ones that I kept seeing online. They only came in one giant size though and it was $7.35 with tax — a preposterous price in hindsight.

The quality of the ice cream was nothing special, and the cones were regular wafer cones. I did not even find my toppings to be that amazing. Halfway through her ice cream, my friend announced, “It’s so much. I cannot eat any more.”

She proceeded to throw her cone away. When she returned from the garbage can, she said, “There are so many half-finished ice creams tossed out in there, just like mine. That is such a waste.” Eventually, I gave up as well and threw out my last few bites.

While I would consider returning if smaller sizes were made available, I definitely did not find the price of the large cone to be worth it. As my friend put it: “Dairy Queen is better.”

147 Dundas Street West

I love matcha and, judging by the popularity of this new Toronto matcha café and bakery, so do a lot of people. The line, reminiscent of the one at Sweet Jesus, was out the door. Several other similarities to the Instagram-famous ice cream parlour were striking: the highly photogenic quality of the desserts and the slightly ludicrous price of soft-serve ice cream.

When I went, Tsujiri was cash-only, which I had not known in advance. This limited me to a total of about five dollars, ruling out pretty much the entire menu. Additionally, half of their desserts were unavailable that day anyway, including the famous Tsujiri sundaes. Borrowing a couple dollars from my friend, I finally settled on a matcha soft-serve ice cream cone, which only came in one size and cost $6.50 with tax.

Service was slow, but the ice cream was good enough. The matcha flavour was delicious and unique — and it came in a waffle cone! If I were not a poor student, I would definitely be open to returning, though there are places that have far better ice cream in Toronto.

Tsujiri samples. WYN LOK/CC FLICKR

Tsujiri samples. WYN LOK/CC FLICKR

Bang Bang Icecream
93A Ossington Avenue

I arrived just a few minutes before the 1:00 pm weekday opening and was the first one in line. However, I took my time looking at the menu and quickly lost my spot as the place filled to capacity by 1:02 pm. Having menus handed out in line would have significantly reduced the very long wait times.

That being said, the ice cream sandwiches here are among the best desserts I’ve ever had in Toronto. There are so many creative flavours of ice cream — London Fog is my favourite — although there is, understandably, a strict limit on how many samples you are allowed to try.

A half-sandwich was definitely enough for me and cost only $5.10 with tax. Unlike the last two dessert places, this one was entirely worth the hype.

El Furniture Warehouse
410 Bloor Street West

Famous for their $4.95 food menu, El Furniture’s prices are comparable to those of food trucks. While their food is quite plain, I have never once left the restaurant thinking that it was not worth it. After tax and tip, the meal still only comes to about $7.

One big selling point of this place for me was the variety of options. There are many types of salads, wraps, sandwiches, and more, so everyone can find something of appeal. Although some dishes are better than others — I was not a fan of the pasta, but enjoyed the burgers — they were all satisfying enough for such a good deal. I found that one order was usually enough to fill me up, but several of my companions had to order more.

The design of the place is a simple dive bar, which works for many people, but is not my scene. For me, the atmosphere is the principal deterrent. Even at midday, the lighting is so dark that I can barely read the menu, and the music so loud that it is hard to chat. While some may love this setting and the crowds, this is usually enough to make me choose another place to sit down.

The Burger’s Priest
463 Queen Street West

The Burger’s Priest California Classic was the best burger I have ever had in my life. Every part stood out: the grilled bun, the juicy beef, the delicious sauce. Although there were far fewer creative burger options in comparison to The Works, the quality was high enough to make up for it.

When considering how small the portion sizes were, this was also one of the most expensive burgers I have ever bought. A single California Classic was $8.00 with tax, but it was not enough to fill me up; a double was $11.30.

My vegetarian friend, was not nearly as enthused as I was: “I had no option except the ‘The Option’ (pun intended). Instead of a meat patty, The Option featured a deep-fried breaded cheese and portobello mushroom. Though it was delicious enough, the serving felt meagre and the flavour did not stand out. I left feeling neither satiated nor satisfied.”

Burger Priest burger. LUCAS RICHARZ/CC FLICKR

Burger Priest burger. LUCAS RICHARZ/CC FLICKR