Diverse Books & Open Conversations

Guest post by Holiday Vega

On Thursday, January 16th 2020 the University of Chicago Library hosted our first book discussion as part of our new Diverse Books & Open Conversations initiative. We hope that this group provides a space for the UChicago community to engage in critical discussion around diversity and inclusion. Our first book was There, There by Tommy Orange, a fiction book about “Urban Indians” centered mainly in Oakland. (Trigger Warning: some discussion of sexual assault and domestic violence.)

Orange, Tommy. There There. First edition. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2018.

One reader started the conversation around the experience of reading the book, and the medium through which we read the book. She had listened to the audiobook, as had I, and she articulated very much the same experience that I had with the audiobook: The audiobook narrators are wonderful, but because the book has so many characters and so many interwoven stories, it was difficult to connect them all. I even had an electronic copy of the book on the Libby app and it was still too disjointed in that format. Those who read the physical book and were able to easily flip back and forth across the pages of the book had an easier time keeping track and connecting the stories together.

Louise Rosenblatt, though the first to discuss the importance of the reader’s perception in the meaning of a text (Rosenblatt, 1960), may not have imagined the implications for readers who engage with the text differently when they experience it in different formats. As readers, we bring our own experiences and perceptions of the world into the works we are reading (or listening to). So the meaning we take from a work may not be what the author intended, or even what other readers understand the work to mean. And I for one am fascinated by how the format with which we experience a book impacts our perception of that book.

As the discussion went on, we shared our thoughts about the book. We had many different points of view with some aspects of the book we all agreed on, and other aspects we had several different, and at times conflicting, thoughts about. We all agreed that There, There tackles the concept of identity and cultural history among Native people living in a city very well. Though we each remembered different moments in the book that indicated the significance of regalia, with one reader discussing the regalia as being of such importance as it begins and ends the book. Another participant believed the most important moment with regalia was the point in the book where one Native character put on the regalia and felt as though he was “pretending” to be Indian, as he wasn’t raised learning about his culture. And yet another discussed the moment a character talks about hating a particular color in a family member’s regalia, and how much she (the character) hates that color, as being a significant moment in the book.

The internet as portrayed in the book also sparked an interesting conversation among the attendees and was a moment of contention in the discussion. Some readers felt that the internet is a negative force in our world, disconnecting people and having detrimental impacts on their health and wellbeing. Other readers felt the book showed the ways the internet helped the Native people in the book connect with their own identity and with each other. And still others felt that the internet has both beneficial and harmful effects, depending on how it’s used.

Another meaningful part of the discussion was around the female characters in the book and how they were portrayed. A few members of the discussion felt that the female characters felt off compared to how the male characters were written. Another reader stated that the experiences of the female characters as victims of rape, sexual abuse, and domestic violence didn’t ring true. And while some disagreed and felt that the characters were portrayed as having an accurate response to trauma, another reader felt that the female experience was not well portrayed but it was made up for in how well the author wrote the male characters, especially the teenage boys in the book.

Overall, this first book discussion led to a fascinating discussion on identity, cultural awareness, systems of oppression, and how people of color and women are marginalized in our society.

We also talked about books we’re reading now, and future book ideas for the next discussion. Please vote on our next book selection and stay tuned on when the next discussion will be held!

References:

Orange, T. (2018). There, There. New York, NY: Penguin Random House.

Rosenblatt, L. M. (1960). Literature: The reader’s role. The English Journal, 49(5), 304. https://doi.org/10.2307/810700

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