Essay I wrote for my Contemporary American Novel class on Junot Díaz’ wonderful novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao:
The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, the 2007 debut novel of Dominican-American author Junot Díaz, was an instant hit in the literary world, recognized for its fast-paced, hip style of narration, which mixes more literary registers with barrio Spanglish in a gripping account of a second-generation Dominican immigrant’s bildung. In telling the life story of protagonist Oscar de León, a tragic misfit in the Dominican Republic and the United States alike, the novel weaves together an account of the colonial status of the Dominican Republic, and hence the internal colonization of the Dominican minority of New York and New Jersey, in which state the novel is set. The account of Oscar’s Quixotic quest to find love as a Dominican ghetto nerd conceals a devastating implied critique of the values of this immigrant society linked to masculinity and sexuality, while footnotes document the history of the relationship between the Dominican Republic and the United States, forcing the reader to consider the American perspective he or she brings into reading the novel. Díaz’s deeper engagement with the post-colonial literary traditions of the twentieth century complement these frameworks in a compelling narrative documenting the status of the book’s main characters, caught between their colonized homeland and the colonial metropolis they have immigrated to.
Narrated in the first person by Yunior, a friend of the protagonist, much of the plot of Oscar Wao focuses on the protagonist’s desire to find love. Despite the attentions from women he drew as a child, Oscar finds himself as a teenager and adult unable to become anything more than friends with women, and completely unaware of how to go about approaching them. Yunior describes a typical encounter between Oscar and a woman who has caught his attention:
Oscar’s idea of G was to talk about role-playing games! How fucking crazy is that? (My favorite was the day on the E bus when he informed some hot morena, If you were in my game I would give you an eighteen Charisma!) (174)
In contrast, Yunior goes on at length about his sexual conquests. At one point he describes how he is “fucking with not one, not two, but three fine-ass bitches at the same time, and that wasn’t even counting the side-sluts I scooped at the parties and the clubs” (185), making him fit perfectly into the hyper-sexualized stereotype of Dominican men. According to Yunior, it is “against the laws of nature for a dominicano to die without fucking at least once,” a notion that preoccupies Oscar until his death (174). This masculine stereotype, it is revealed in the course of the novel, is a value of the prevailing Dominican culture into which both Yunior and Oscar have been indoctrinated from an early age. When, for example, the child Oscar comes home to complain to his mother about problems with one of his girlfriends, Hipatía Belicia Cabral de León instead throws him to the floor and tells him to “Dale un galletazo [give her a big slap]… then see if the little puta [whore] respects you” (14 – my translation).
Yet, it is clear from the history the book relays in the footnotes and later in the story of Belicia herself that the stereotype of the hyper-sexualized Dominican male is in fact more reflective of the performance of masculinity by the leaders of the country under Rafael Trujillo’s dictatorship than an actual strain of Dominican culture. Yunior notes how Trujillo himself was famous for “fucking every hot girl in site, even the wives of his subordinates, literally thousands upon thousands of women” (2) – an example followed by his son Ramfis Trujillo, and all of his subordinates including “The Gangster,” a man who Oscar’s mother has a torrid affair with as a teenager, which nearly results in her death, thus exiling her to the United States, where her children will grow up.
Certainly, the fact that Yunior himself remains unhappy despite being the consummate Dominican “player” would seem to question the role assumed to be that of a typical Dominican man. His hyper-sexuality renders him unable to sustain a relationship with Oscar’s sister Lola due to his cheating, despite his being very much in love with her, and toward the end of the novel he finds himself having “woke up next to somebody I didn’t give two shits about, my upper lip covered in coke-snot and coke-blood” (325). “If I knew why,” says Yunior about why he cheats on Lola, “it wouldn’t be a problem” (313). From a post-colonial perspective, it might be said that their hyper-sexualization in the Dominican Republic under Trullijo and as an émigré community in the United States in indicative of the tendency of colonizers, in this case the United States, to sexualize their subjects, much as the British were fascinated with the brute force held to be the attributes of Irish men. That Yunior and others in The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao internalize the stereotype is typical of a colonial status to the white United States, just as poets in the Gaelic Renaissance revived and elaborated the myth of Cúchulainn to demonstrate Irish masculinity.
It is this colonial relationship between the United States and the Dominican Republic, from the 1920s through the Trujillo era and into the present day, which Yunior emphasizes in the many footnotes that litter the novel. While footnotes in their traditional context of an academic work are a certain extent extraneous to the main text, Yunior’s footnotes on many pages take up more space than the text, disrupting the concentration of the reader and forcing him or her to consider them as a legitimate part of the narrative. Early on, Yunior sets the tone of these footnotes:
The pejorative parigüayo is a corruption of the English neologism “party watcher.” The word came into common usage during the first American Occupation of the DR, which ran from 1916 to 1924. (You didn’t know that we were occupied twice in the twentieth century? Don’t worry, when you have kids they won’t know the U.S. occupied Iraq either.) (19)
In another footnote, Yunior, when first explaining the history of the Trujillo period, addresses the reader as “those of you who missed your mandatory two seconds of Dominican history” (2) – clearly addressing an implied reader in the American literary public, that is to say, most likely white, educated to a certain extent but ignorant of the history of countries even as close as the Dominican Republic. The footnotes, which address the history of the country under U.S.-backed dictator Rafael Trujillo, therefore directly talk back to the reader’s position of privilege as a member of the colonizing power. By upsetting the reader’s concentration through physically impinging on the main narrative, they form a mimesis that effectively alienates the white American reader from the story and forces him or her to consider their own position as an outsider to the characters depicted in the text, in addition to the use of Spanish words and phrases intended to challenge the reading of the novel to a non-Spanish speaking reader.
This line of post-colonial critique of both Dominican society and the American reader’s implied relationship to Dominicans is made more clear by Díaz’s numerous references to the tradition of post-colonial literature in English, especially to the writings of Salman Rushdie, long regarded as the doyen of post-colonial English literature. Díaz indirectly acknowledges his debt to Rushdie in one footnote of Oscar Wao when Yunior contests Rushdie’s notion that “tyrants and scribblers are natural antagonists.” According to Yunior, the antagonism between dictators and writers, in this case that between Trujillo and the Spanish dissident Jesús Galíndez, is because “dictators… just know competition when they see it. Same with writers. Like, after all, recognizes like” (97). He also acknowledges Rushdie in a passage describing Belicia’s reaction to her adolescent development as “Shame. Sharam. Vergüenza,” the last two being the cognates in Urdu and Spanish, respectively. Shame is the title of Rushdie’s third novel, which develops this emotion as a major motif as both “shame” and sharam in a narrative that satirizes the military dictatorship in Pakistan under General Muhammad Zia ul-Huq, just as Díaz does with the Dominican Republic under Trujillo. Belicia herself is noted as having unusually dark skin – she is “so dark it was as if the Creatrix had, in her making, blinked” (77) – a distinction of dubious nature in Dominican society, as indeed Trujillo led infamous pogroms against the Haitian-Dominican community in the 1930s. “Unfortunate” darkness of skin tone also afflicts the mother of Saleem Sinai, the protagonist of Midnight’s Children, despite her being descended from typically pale-skinned Kashmiri Muslims.
The structure of Oscar Wao, moreover, follows partially the bildungsroman style employed by Rushdie in Midnight’s Children. Just as more than half the novel passes with Yunior telling the story of Oscar de León’s mother and sister, so Saleem Sinai spends much time telling the stories of his parents and grandparents before he finally gets around to describing how he was born. This device, appropriated in different measures from Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy and Günter Grass’ The Tin Drum, allows Rushdie to complicate the history of Saleem’s origins, in line with the representation of Saleem as a personification of India. Saleem’s life mirrors indirectly that of the nation as a whole. That Oscar personifies the Dominican Republic as Saleem personifies India is suggested directly by one of the Díaz’s epigraphs to Oscar Wao, taken from his fellow Antillean Derek Walcott’s “The Schooner Flight”:
I’m just a red nigger who love the sea,
I had a sound colonial education,
I have Dutch, nigger, and English in me,
and either I’m nobody, or I’m a nation.
Using the tragicomic figure of Oscar Wao, an overweight, comic book-obsessed ghetto nerd, to represent the Dominican Republic, allows Díaz to challenge the notion that there is any “one” way of being Dominican, namely that of the hyper-masculine and hyper-sexual figure of the Trujillo era and the Dominican diaspora in the United States, which he implicitly criticizes in the text. This matches Rushdie’s mission in Midnight’s Children – to fracture the idea of a single Indian national identity, metaphorically and literally, as Saleem is trampled to death by the multitudes of Bombay at the end of the novel. Following Rushdie, Díaz’s text maintains that Oscar de León is just as legitimate a representative of Dominican manhood as the Trujillo and his “ringwraiths.” “I might as well be myself,” Oscar tells Yunior. “It is, lamentably, all I have” (174).
The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is a compelling transnational narrative that reflects deeply on the displacement of the main characters, Dominican immigrants, stuck emotionally and mentally between their new home United States and their ancestral home in the Dominican Republic. This paper has argued that in this narrative, the colonial relationship between the two, with the U.S. having occupied the D.R. twice and later supported the brutal dictatorship of Rafael Trujillo, is a central reference point for the novel. While this can be seen in the fact that the U.S.-backed Trujillo dictatorship was the motivator for the exile of Oscar’s mother to the United States, thus beginning the story of her children as immigrants, Díaz simultaneously constructs a powerful argument for a post-colonial Dominican identity which challenges the role of the United States in the affairs of that nation. He uses footnotes that fill the reader in on Dominican history, but which disrupt their concentration and force them to consider their relationship to the text as a reader coming from the colonial power, which he parallels with a powerful critique of the stereotype of the hyper-sexualized Dominican man as a prominent value of his society at home and in the diaspora. Similarly, his invocation of the work of Salman Rushdie, especially Midnight’s Children as a key post-colonial novel operates alongside these elements to weave together a post-colonial conception of Dominican identity which critiques widely held perceptions in both American and Dominican society.