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Tommy Orange on his new novel 'Wandering Stars'


Tommy Orange's new novel begins with a young man who lives through an annihilation, the Sand Creek Massacre of 1864, where U.S. Army troops savagely - to invoke a word they often use to describe the human beings they slaughtered - murdered about 230 Cheyenne and Arapaho people. Jude Star is later sent to the Fort Marion prison castle in Florida, where his jailer is a devout Christian named Richard Henry Pratt, who believed Native Americans had to be forcibly shorn of their language, culture and history. He's remembered for this especially noxious quote, kill the Indian in him and save the man. The journey of Jude Star and his descendants is the story of "Wandering Stars," the second novel from Tommy Orange. His first, "There There," was a Pulitzer finalist. Tommy Orange joins us now from Oakland. Thanks so much for being with us.

TOMMY ORANGE: Thank you so much for having me.

SIMON: This novel is so beautifully written and so hard to read. Why did you devote six years of your life to writing it?

ORANGE: This piece of history was not something known to me, this - as far as the historical part. I initially set out to write a more straightforward sequel, and I stumbled across this piece of history while I was in Sweden for the Swedish translation of "There There." I was at a museum, and I saw a newspaper clipping that said Southern Cheyennes in St. Augustine, Fla. And I didn't know why we would ever be in Florida and fell down this rabbit hole of information, and I didn't know how it would connect to "There There" necessarily. It was just a piece of history that I became fascinated with. And I was doing some research, and one of the books I was reading, there was a list of the prisoners. And one of the characters' names was Star, the actual prisoner, and another one was Bear Shield. And that's one of the families from "There There," one of the core families. And I realized I was going to try to write this family line.

SIMON: And we should explain, you're a member of the Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes and are also biracial.

ORANGE: Correct.

SIMON: I wonder if seeing this story, hearing of it, put an expectation - and the success of your first novel, to be sure - all put an expectation on you.

ORANGE: Yeah, there was - the sophomore effort is sort of doomed. And why I would take on a sequel when that's already tough to get past the sophomore effort - sequels are also sort of doomed to not be as good as the first and - but this is just what compelled me to write. And if you're going to be sitting with your work for long periods of time, you have to be pretty convinced about it. And I felt convinced.

SIMON: I want to ask you to read a section, if I can, about an episode Star goes through. I'll just have you read it and introduce the story of a life mask.

ORANGE: (Reading) Before we were released from the prison castle, a man came to measure our heads, to make masks of us, molds of our heads with white liquid. He called them life masks. The man wanted to compare Indian heads with white heads. He thought if Indian heads were smaller, that could explain why we were savages. I froze as the thick liquid poured over and enveloped me. It was cold and then warm and tight against my face. It got quiet, and then it cracked. There were tubes stuck into my nose so I could breathe. I wondered if it was death the man meant by life masks. I thought maybe I was being turned into a thing for them to keep. But a head was a living thing. The face moved and changed all the time, and then I couldn't move mine anymore at all, so I thought this must be some kind of death, some kind of keeping.

SIMON: The novel moves ahead through generations, and then to Oakland in 2018, following a shooting at a powwow, which is in your previous novel, "There There." A young man named Orvil, who's a member of the Bear Shield Red Feather family, has been shot. What brings these events together as you construct it?

ORANGE: Well, Orvil's story in a way echoes his ancestor, Jude Star. It's a young man running away from a massacre and essentially trying to recover from what that means and sort of a harrowing thing that he has to go through, to be shot while dancing in full regalia. It's a lot for him to handle.

SIMON: And addictions run through these generations, too, don't they?

ORANGE: They do. There's alcohol, laudanum. And then in the midst of this opioid crisis, Orvil gets addicted to painkillers.

SIMON: I want to ask you about your book's dedication, for everyone surviving and not surviving this thing called and not called addiction. First, may I ask, were you thinking of people you know?

ORANGE: Yeah. Yeah, my life has been shaped and mangled by addiction. I've had my own struggles, and everybody in my family has, so it's just been a big part of my life. And my heart goes out to people that suffer from this thing 'cause it's tough, and, you know, this whole country is facing it right now.

SIMON: How did you begin writing? I mean, I've read you were working at a bookstore.

ORANGE: Yeah, I was moving the entire fiction section from the back of the store more toward the front. It was a bookstore like they don't exist anymore - huge and dusty and didn't get very many customers. Because we didn't get very many customers, I could just read for the first time. I had never - you know, I skimmed through novels in high school to pass tests, but I never really understood what fiction could do. And so, you know, soon after I became a reader, I decided I wanted to try writing and spent many years just doing that privately while I worked, just all my free time putting it toward reading and writing as much as I could 'cause I felt like I needed to catch up.

SIMON: I'm struck by a line that Orvil's brother utters, speaking of Cheyenne and Arapaho. Everyone only thinks we're from the past, but then we're here. But they don't know we're still here. What does that feel like?

ORANGE: You know, it's an exciting time right now for representation. Most people in this country don't understand what it's like to never be seen, to never be represented in popular culture, or if you are, it's a misrepresentation. Our educational institutions almost exclusively teach the Indian, the Native person, as it relates to pilgrims one month out of the year, or maybe just one week. So it's - I think it's a really exciting time, but it has felt lonely. And it's a big part of American history, and for that to be omitted all this time, it does something to you. I'm not sure if I could spell it out entirely. You know, it's part of why I write novels, 'cause I can think and process quite a bit on the page.

SIMON: Tommy Orange - his novel, "Wandering Stars" - thanks so much for speaking with us.

ORANGE: Thank you, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.