One of the perks of Rice University as an Inprint venue is Rice's proximity to Half Price Books. I go early to the author event and spend a lovely hour at my favorite used book store, thus avoiding the terrible, going-home Houston traffic.
But even my early arrival to Houston doesn't prevent the storm. The rain pours. The thunder booms. The lightning flashes. The streets flood.
I get wet. But I drive on. I arrive at Rice, wet but happy.
Tommy Orange is up first. He stands there, silently, behind the podium, for an awkward amount of time. Is he going to read?
"I'm always nervous when I do a reading," Orange tells us. "I'm always nervous for everything."
There There, Orange's first novel, is a collection of linked stories, each with a different narrator, all about the urban Native American experience, culminating in a scene at a Native American Powwow held in Oakland in which all the characters appear.
Orange reads from his prologue to the book first. In this essay, Orange explores an idea of James Baldwin: "People are trapped in history and history is trapped in them."
"We are the memories we don't remember, which live in us, which we feel, which make us sing and dance and pray the way we do, feelings from memories that flare and bloom unexpectedly in our lives like blood through a blanket from a wound made by a bullet fired by a man shooting us in the back for our hair, for our heads, for a bounty, or just to get rid of us," Orange reads.
When he finishes the prologue, there is another long pause. "That feels like as much as I should read, but I feel like it's not enough," Orange says. He decides to read from the chapter narrated by Opal Viola Victoria Bear Shield.
We are left, after his reading, thinking about both his fictional Native American characters and his thoughts about Native Americans, in the past and in the present.
Valeria Luiselli is next up. Luiselli is a much more established writer; she has published five books, including three novels. She was in the process of trying to write a novel, she tells us, when she realized she was using the novel to dump her rage and confusion about the 120,000 children who were pouring into the US from Central America, "I wasn't doing justice to the novel," she says. She decided to spend time writing a short nonfiction book about her time translating for these children in the court system and that was eventually published as Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay in Forty Questions. Then she was able to write her novel, Lost Children Archive. She reads from her novel.
Both authors are then interviewed by Daniel Peña, a University of Houston-Downtown faculty member and author.
Peña asks questions about the common themes of the books - survival, the role of art, humor.
"If you don't belong to a race that tells the story," Luiselli tells us, "you don't have a story."
"I know how to write stories," Luiselli goes on to say. "Useless. But, more and more, as I've become obsessed with truth, I see that fiction is a way of observing the world and threading it together in community in dialogue with the past and the present."
"I believe in what art can do," Orange chimes in. "People must be willing to suspend belief and to be open to be changed by art. It sounds naive for some people to trust in art," he says, pausing with that long hesitation I'm finding to be characteristic of Orange, "but I don't care."
I drive home, through the sheets of rain and loud thunder and blazing streaks of lightning, thinking about the two authors. And then I spend the rest of the week reading their books.
My reviews: There There by Tommy Orange and Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay in Forty Questions by Valeria Luiselli
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