Archives for category: Christina Matekel Gibson

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In “THERE, THERE,” by TOMMY ORANGE, 12 strangers make plans to attend the Big Oakland Powwow in Oakland, California.

Opal Viola Victoria Bear Shield, who has raised her sister’s three grandchildren, hopes to catch a glimpse of her oldest nephew in full regalia dancing for the first time. Her sister, Jacquie Red Feather, is newly sober and driving from New Mexico with the man who first got her pregnant as a teenager on Alcatraz Island. Tony, a young man with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, which he calls “the Drome,” gets mixed in with Calvin, Charles, Carlos and Octavio, a group of men planning to rob the powwow to make up a drug deal debt. One character, Dene Oxendene, plans to attend the powwow as a voyeur, hoping to document people’s stories and how their stories fit into the story of the urban Native American. These are just a small handful of the characters in Orange’s debut novel.

The degrees of separation could be difficult to follow if crafted by a less-skilled writer, but Orange deftly threads the stories together with the skill of a spider weaving a web. The reader may find him or herself flipping back and forth among stories and marveling at the seemingly inconsequential role one person plays in several other stories before making an appearance in their own, often heartbreaking, accounts.

What does it mean to be an urban Native American? What does it mean to be half-Native but raised by your white mom? This fleeting identity is at the center of Orange’s novel; it begins with a searing look at the United States’ treatment of Native Americans that serves as an entry point to these answers, as told through each character’s story.

In the prologue, Orange writes, “We (Urban Indians) know the sound of the freeway better than we do the rivers, the howl of distant trains better than wolf howls” and that “being Indian has never been about returning to the land. The land is everywhere or nowhere.” Few of the characters know who they are as individuals, much less who they are in the context of the history of their culture. But maybe that is what Orange is positing with “There There;” there is not one way to be a good or authentic Native American. Maybe Native heritage is more dependent on this country’s treatment of Native tribes and nations, and the bearing of centuries of abuse and torture on the psyche. Orange’s use of epigraphs is extraordinary, but the following by James Baldwin feels especially representative of the entire novel: “People are trapped in history and history is trapped in them.”

Overall, “There There” is an exceptional and well-developed novel. My chief complaint is that I wanted more of each character. The conclusion, however is spectacular. To avoid spoilers, I will only note that the conclusion is electrifying, spectacular and worthy of a Shakespearean tragedy.

piecing me together

Writing about social justice issues can be difficult when the audience is composed of middle school students because of the complexity inherent in such discussions. RENEE WATSON’s “PIECING ME TOGETHER” addresses issues of race and social justice deftly and accurately while maintaining authenticity of character.

The main character, Jade, is a poor, black teenager who attends a predominately white private school. She is smart and driven, so she is given many opportunities. But she begins to realize that most of these opportunities are given out of pity rather than as rewards for her real scholastic successes. She knows she is supposed to feel grateful, and she does. However, she also feels frustrated that her teachers and mentors view her neighborhood, family, friends and status as hurdles to overcome rather than as integral to her being.

Jade initially transferred to the school because she was excited by the possibility of visiting a Spanish-speaking country on the study abroad trip her school sponsors every year. She’s certain she will be chosen to go; she is a star Spanish student who assists classmates with their assignments, and she has a nearly perfect GPA.

Instead, her counselors select her for Woman to Woman, a mentor program that pairs underprivileged students with successful women of color to attend culturally enriching workshops and events. The program sounds great, and it culminates in a college scholarship, but Jade wants to be chosen for programs because of who she is and not in spite of it. At the same time, she must navigate new and old friendships and family relationships as well as her passions. In addition to being an excellent student, Jade is a talented and passionate collage artist who is inspired by the recent officer-involved shooting of a black teenager in neighboring Vancouver, as well as by York, the slave who traveled with Lewis and Clark.

“Piecing Me Together” offers a nuanced discussion of the way black kids can be treated, both in school and society, even when intentions are good. Jade’s relationships with her friends, her family and her mentor provide excellent opportunities for discussions of race and social justice issues. For example, when Jade confronts her Spanish teacher regarding his decision not to select her for the study abroad program and he explains that it is because she is already given so many opportunities, readers can better appreciate what true support of underprivileged and minority youth can look like. When Jade’s new friend Sam argues that her experience with a racist store clerk was not, in fact, racist, readers learn what being an ally should look like. When Jade comes to Maxine with her concerns about the mentor program, readers can better appreciate the importance and value of speaking up. The novel, while targeted toward middle school readers, is an excellent choice for any reader interested in realistic fiction and/or social justice fiction.