Native American author Tommy Orange, of Oakland, has won the prestigious 2019 PEN/Hemingway award for “distinguished first novel.”

The honor was announced Tuesday by PEN America, a project of the Hemingway Society created after the death of Ernest Hemingway.

Orange, a member of the Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes, wrote his debut novel, “There There,” about modern-day native Americans struggling with loss of identity in urban Oakland.

Published by Knopf in 2018, the novel was rated by the New York Times as one of the best books of the year.

“After noticing a lack of stories about urban Native Americans, Orange created a remarkable work that explores those who have inherited a profound spirituality, but who are also plagued by addiction, abuse, and suicide,” says a biography on the Penguin Random House Speakers Bureau website.

In a June 2018 Bay Area News Group review of the book and interview with Orange, Lisa Wrenn wrote: “His love for Oakland and its people is obvious in his book’s broad cast of characters, who are introduced in eponymously titled chapters that read like standalone stories. Like Orange himself, the characters are biracial, with names like Orvil Red Feather, Edwin Black and Opal Viola Victoria Bear Shield.

“Oakland itself serves as a character, drawn in such details as the characters’ allegiance to the A’s and Raiders, the whiff of cannabis smoke at the bus station and the faded pink glow of the Tribune Tower, which ‘seems like it should be red, but somehow lost steam along the way.’”

Regarding the book’s title, she writes: “Orange draws parallels between the identity issues facing Oakland and the Native Americans who are ‘nearly invisible’ here. When Dene applies for an arts grant, he’s interviewed by a smirky, hipster judge, Rob, who tells Dene: ‘No one’s really from (Oakland), right?’ Rob goes on to parrot the oft-misinterpreted Gertrude Stein quote, ‘there’s no there there.’ ”

The PEN/Hemingway comes with a $25,000 award from the Hemingway Family and the Hemingway Foundation. Orange also will receive a month-long residency fellowship at the Ucross Foundation, a Wyoming retreat for artists and writers.
Séan Hemingway, the grandson of Ernest Hemingway, will present Orange with the award during an April 7 ceremony at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum in Boston.