The Backstory: Tommy Orange

“Why does it feel like reopening schools is like when I—which I know you hate—pick off a scab and the thing opens back up again and I have to start all over again?” This is the boy in Tommy Orange’s remarkable new story “Reopening,” an immersive, haunting work torn from the headlines of the new school year, yet from a fresh, often unrepresented perspective: that of the students actually going back to school.

“I think for kids, the political realm is really abstract, and there’s sort of nothing more concrete than a parent,” says Orange, the author of the best-selling debut There There, which won the PEN/Faulkner Award and was nominated for the 2019 Pulitzer Prize in Fiction. So instead of blaming the systems that gave rise to the crisis or the politicians exacerbating it, they channel their fears inward: “ ‘C’mon Mom, do something. Can’t you do something?’ ”

That. Or they create their own worlds: ones in which half-human, half-animal mutant zombies, felled by Covid, rise from the dead to get their revenge on the living . . .

Below, Orange on the gamble of reopening schools, the toll of Covid on Native Americans, and what’s happening inside the minds of kids.

Tommy Orange

Interviewed by Ashley C. Ford. August 26, 2020. Murphys, California

Chronicles of Now: We’re in the midst of the weirdest back-to-school season ever. I’ve never seen anything like it. I don’t think any of us ever have. According to media reports, it’s hell on parents and teachers, but we don’t often hear about how the kids are experiencing it. Is that why you wrote this story from the boy’s perspective?

Tommy Orange: Yeah, and the story goes into this internal feeling the boy has that the adults don’t really care about kids as much as they pretend to. And I like the idea of getting inside of young people’s minds. I think the consciousness of kids is sometimes not respected, or seen as not worthy of our attention.

CON: I think yes. I end up talking quite a bit with people about the fact that this is a world that talks about children and protecting children as if they’re our most precious resource, and we invest so little in our most precious resource that we should be ashamed. The mother in your story says people love their children and the boy says people hate their kids. Who’s right?

TO: Well, I think—and you probably know people like this—I’ve seen a lot of parents who say they love their kids but they can’t wait to get back to work. Or they can’t wait to drop their kids off, or there’s all this kind of gross language around, this hidden detesting of their children. And I think the kid sees it and wants to be able to say it, and the kid probably doesn’t feel that all the way, but it can feel that way for kids, and parents can show that without knowing it.

I think there’s a lot of people who were very comfortable in their lives, and they want to go back to the comfort because it’s uncomfortable to be in purgatory.

CON: The kid in the story mentions a statistic he saw on TikTok, and it seems like no one really knows what the numbers or statistics to believe are anymore. Do you think the politicization of reopening and Covid overall has made this all harder, especially since people no longer trust the government to do things right or for the right reasons or based on science?

TO: It’s a gamble with their lives that’s not based on facts. The politicization of the pandemic and not being able to trust anyone and then sort of blindly gambling with children, it’s a really insane thing. If 10 kids died for the gamble, that’s 10 lives that will be changed irreparably.

CON: Not to mention the ways that branches out into a family, a community, and then ultimately back into our world. In the story, the government has completely failed this mother and this boy and put them in this predicament of having to go back to school when it obviously might not be safe. But the boy’s not mad at the government; he’s mad at his mom. Why do you think we often attack those closest to us instead of the root issue or the oppressor, the perpetrator of our pain?

TO: I think for kids, the political realm is really abstract, and there’s sort of nothing more concrete than a parent, and at least up until a certain age when the political becomes less abstract. I think for a lot of kids their parents are to blame, even if the boy sort of understands it’s outside of his mom’s control, what he’s really bothered by is her using the rhetoric that she’s talked about as a bad thing of these—I think I called them gross old white men—in the news. So I think for kids, they don’t know that same outrage once you understand systems and the systemic damage that comes from decisions from politicians, from the way history has set people up to manage humanity. All of that, when you’re a kid, is just sort of parent talk and like, “C’mon Mom, do something. Can’t you do something?” is more of the feeling.

CON: According to a new CDC report, the incidents of Covid-19 among Native Americans was 3.5 times those of whites. As an enrolled member of the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes of Oklahoma, what do you take from a statistic like that? I hear that and I have to say, personally, it’s one of those things where having spent time with Native folks, Indigenous folks, First Nation folks, and people describe themselves different ways, in all of them the subjugation and the marginalization of their people is ramping. And so for me, this statistic is not at all surprising, but I don’t necessarily know to say what went wrong.

TO: Well I think health disparities across the board for a long time standing have been an issue in a lot of Native lives. And we’re often kind of the “well, we’re not a big enough number to worry about” kind of population, the minority of minorities kind of thing. And I’m maybe somewhat callous to all of it. It’s no surprise, it’s no shock that we’re being affected in the worst ways regarding Covid. We’re affected in worse ways regarding everything, and this is a system that at first tried to wipe us out and then tried to make us unlearn our languages and our culture and our histories and then expects us to somehow make it, given the weight of history and how some people have benefited from it greatly and others have continued to this day, as we see in the news, continue to be oppressed by people unwilling to admit that there’s a difference between our lives and where we start from and how the government treats us.

I like the idea of getting inside of young people’s minds. I think the consciousness of kids is sometimes not respected, or seen as not worthy of our attention.

CON: You write about the boy, “He didn’t want life to return to what it’d been before, but it couldn’t stay like it was. That wasn’t living. That was waiting.” And he’s not wrong, right? We all seem right now to be waiting for things to do something. Go back, go forward, just do something. But why do you think so many people were so desperate to return to a sense of “normal” even when normal is not very good?

TO: Well I think there’s a lot of people who were very comfortable in their lives, and they want to go back to the comfort because it’s uncomfortable to be in purgatory. But I think the people who are seeing the social changes and addressing old wounds, I think we don’t want to go back because this whole thing has shaken our country up and revealed things that some of us knew were already there. So the sense of going back to normal can be really tone-deaf—the way some people talk about it to get your comfort back—for others of us who know it wasn’t right before and this kind of opened our eyes to a lot. We do want something different, but we don’t want to go back to the way it was.

CON: At the end of the piece, the boy is playing with toys, imagining this story about zombies, of people who died from coronavirus and how they returned to life without sickness or oppression. What does he mean when he says, “Let them come, let them come back”?

TO: Well I think it’s somewhat literal because they’re zombies, but I think it’s kind of a sweet kid thing where he knows the injustice of all these lives lost uselessly and he’s just sort of imagining the idea that sort of a nice version of zombies happens and they’re maybe invincible at that point because they’ve already died, and so there’s this idea that they could come back in an ideal way and live a nice life. It’s just a hopeful, wishful, imaginative thought that he has playing this game, trying to feel some sense of things could be okay somehow.

CON: Schools throughout the country are reopening as we speak, right now. The virus is still very much with us, and it looks like it’s going to be a tumultuous school year to say the least. What does this tell you about America?

TO: It’s really grim to think about. I mean we’ve already talked about the gambling with children’s lives, but the reopening not only of schools but the stubborn refusal to close business because the economy. The shortsightedness, the myopic lens that so many Americans see through, that the president very much leads with. Myopia—it’s just going to extend the life span of the virus and the damage that it will cause. So it’s just another example of ignorance and carelessness, and it’s unfortunate—it’s tragic.

This interview has been edited for clarity.

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Tommy Orange: Reopening

As schools reopen across the country, parents are facing another round of pandemic fear...

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