Dene Oxendene walks up an out-of-order escalator at Oakland’s Fruitvale Station and sees a train starting to arrive—he feared he’d missed it. Dene is tired and out of breath, and wishes he had a cigarette that could “invigorate” him. He refuses to drink, but no other substances he’s tried make him feel any better. Dene studies the graffiti all over the tracks and thinks about the first time he saw someone tag, when he was much younger. He stared as another kid taking the same city bus as him wrote on the window, even though to stare at someone on an Oakland bus was—and still is—to ask for trouble. As the train pulls down the tracks, Dene fights the urge to throw himself in front of it.
This passage introduces Dene, one of the novel’s central characters, as someone insecure, embattled, and full of self-loathing. Dene spends a lot of time lost in memory, reliving the stories of his own life as a way of coping with—or understanding—his fraught present.
Dene is on his way to face a “looming panel of judges” who will determine whether he is eligible for a cultural arts grant. Dene worries that appearing “ambiguously nonwhite”—not necessarily Native—will hurt his chances at securing the grant he’s applied for. As the train pulls away from the station, he puts his headphones on and selects Radiohead’s song “There There,” the lyrics of which intone “Just ‘cause you feel it doesn’t mean it’s there.” As the train dips underground, Dene spots on the tunnel wall some graffiti he himself tagged years ago.
The Radiohead song which harkens to the novel’s title warns Dene not to be deceived by his feelings—but clearly Dene is a man ruled by his emotions, his connections to the past, and his memories.
When Dene was younger and just starting to tag the word “Lens” throughout the Oakland public transit system, his uncle Lucas came to visit him and his mom, Norma, from Los Angeles. Dene hadn’t seen his uncle in years, and was initially impressed by his uncle’s claim that he’d been in Hollywood making movies—however, Dene grew disappointed when he learned that his uncle was only a boom mic operator, and only made his own movies “in his head.” Dene grows even sadder when his uncle Lucas confesses to drinking heavily and nonstop in order to blot out the sense of failure he feels.
Dene idolized his uncle, whom he believed to be a great storyteller. The letdown of discovering that Lucas was a washed-up drunk hit Dene hard, but also caused him to feel a wave of empathy for his uncle, as he grapples with similar feelings.
Lucas told Dene that he had come to Oakland to work on a new project—a series of on-camera interviews with Indians living in Oakland. Lucas said that a woman named Opal, who “knows a lot of Indians” and may even be a distant “auntie” of Dene’s, had connected him with some Natives who had agreed to share with Lucas the stories of what living in Oakland meant to them. After excitedly describing the project to Dene, Lucas pulled a flash from his hip and drank from it deeply, a strange look in his eyes.
In spite of his addiction and the setbacks he’s clearly suffered in his life and career, Lucas remains clear-eyed about his vision for a project that could really make a difference. This passage foreshadows the role Dene will soon take up—the role of storyteller, and weaver of the disparate threads of the Native community in Oakland.
Back in the present, Dene has been stuck underground between stations for ten minutes. He begins to sweat heavily, nervous about missing his interview with the panel, or about having to condense his description of the project he wants to undertake—an extension of his uncle Lucas’s original idea—for the committee.
Dene has shouldered his uncle’s burden, and is seeking resources to continue the work Lucas could not complete himself.
As a youth, Dene tagged the word “lens” everywhere he could, but writing the graffiti made him feel lonely, as he came to picture the word as “a name written to no one,” a useless cry for attention and connection. One afternoon, Dene returned home to find that Lucas, who had been staying with him and his mother, had been admitted to the hospital. Norma told Dene that Lucas was dying of liver failure due to his heavy drinking, and that there was nothing that could be done. Dene grew angry with his mother for failing to help Lucas, but Norma insisted that she never could have helped her brother for reasons she can’t explain.
Dene sees himself as a lens—a scope which sees and absorbs what’s happening around him. Dene has always felt this way about himself, and his current project is both a product of his desire to carry on his uncle’s work and a desire to remain on the sidelines, a mouthpiece for other people’s voices and a lens for their experiences.
In the present, Dene gets off the train in downtown Oakland and navigates his way through the busy streets, but continues thinking of Lucas. He remembers coming home from school and finding Lucas on the couch the day after Norma told Dene that his uncle was dying. When Dene asked Lucas how much time he had left, Lucas replied, “We don’t have time, Nephew, time has us.” Lucas took another drink from his hip flask, apologizing to Dene but assuring him that he would be around a while longer—long enough for them to make a movie together.
Lucas’s sage warning that “time has us” is perhaps one of the galvanizing forces behind Dene’s present moment. No one ever knows how much time they have left, and Dene wants to do all he can to ensure he’s able to finish the movie his uncle never could before his own time runs out.
Dene enters the building where his interview is to take place. He mops his sweat using his undershirt and then sits in a waiting room next to a white hipster with a bushy beard who introduces himself as Rob. As Rob and Dene talk, Dene feels contempt for the man, who is clearly a white gentrifier with no real concept of what it means to live in Oakland. When Rob quotes a line from one of Gertrude Stein’s writings about returning to her hometown of Oakland after a long time away and seeing the development that had taken place—“There is no there there”—Dene recognizes the quotation and becomes annoyed, feeling that Rob doesn’t truly understand the quote and how it applies to Native experiences of the world.
The Gertrude Stein quote about the disappearance of the “there” she once recognized as home points to the novel’s title and takes on a new light when viewed through a Native point of view. The lands that belonged to Native people for millennia were stripped away violently and totally, and the “there” of Native culture has been lost. Dene is angry with Rob for appropriating the quote when he’s no doubt seeing it from a shallow point of view.
Dene is called into the interview room, where he sits in front of the panel of judges who are already discussing his work. The panel is made up of an older white woman, two middle-aged black men, two middle-aged white women, a young Latino man, an Indian woman “from India,” and an older Native man wearing turquoise and silver feather earrings. Dene begins explaining his project to the panel, giving them the history of his uncle Lucas’s mission and his desire to collect—and pay—Native storytellers for their stories in order to make what has long “remained invisible” visible. Dene is sick of Native stereotypes on film, and wants to tell “the Urban Indian story.”
Dene is at last given the chance to share his goals with a group of people who are in a chance to help him realize them—he is nervous but determined, and his dedication to the project is genuine and evident.
As Dene nervously waits for the judges to respond to his pitch and ask questions about his proposal, he takes several deep breaths. After a minute, the only Native man on the panel speaks up to say that though Dene’s idea is “interesting,” it seems to lack “real vision.” Dene, knowing that “it would be the Native guy” to question him if anyone was going to, grows upset. Dene worries that because he is only half-Native, he doesn’t appear Native enough. Another judge, however, speaks up in support of the project, and then one of the women on the panel tells Dene that they’ll all be in touch with him once they’re done meeting with other applicants. On the train home, Dene can’t stop himself from smiling, believing he has won the five-thousand-dollar grant.
The fact that a fellow Native person seems to reject Dene’s idea outright signals to Dene that he’s not seen as “Native enough” by other members of his community. This worry and self-consciousness no doubt weighs on him each day, and to have it confirmed in such a sensitive setting threatens to derail Dene—but with the support of the other judges, he at last allows himself to believe that his project is going to come to fruition.
In the past, Dene came home from school one afternoon to an empty house. He found his uncle’s camera sitting on the coffee table—Dene picked it up, and found that it has a “pistol grip.” Dene sat alone on the couch with the camera until Norma came home, wearing a look on her face which told Dene that Lucas had died. Dene took the camera out to a local park to escape from home for a while, and on his way back, began filming parts of Oakland, documenting his walk home. Dene came home to find his mother crying in the doorway, and despite feeling a sense of regret for treating his mother cruelly in a difficult time, pointed the camera at her and filmed her weeping.
The fact that Dene filmed his grieving mother unflinchingly, without looking away or providing her some peace and privacy, shows how dedicated he is to capturing and preserving even the most painful parts of the Native experience. Dene knows that to shy away from the truth is to betray his uncle’s very mission.