The Great (Dominican) American Novel

Junot Díaz, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (New York: Riverhead Books, 2007), 335 pages, ISBN 978-1594483295 (paper).

• December 2010

Junot Díaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is an irreverent and at times deeply moving exploration of the history of the Dominican Republic and the sojourn of Dominican immigrants to the US.  Díaz offers a more contemporary, more masculine confrontation with the Dominican Republic’s unwieldy heritage of the Trujillo dictatorship than that offered by an earlier generation of well-known Dominican and Dominican-American writers.

Although the novel purports to be the story of how Oscar de Leon, a “ghetto nerd” loser in search of the ultimate love, confronts the ways his family has been shaped and misshaped by surviving Trujillo’s Dominican Republic and by movement back and forth between the US and the Dominican Republic in the aftermath, it in fact encompasses the story of a nation fractured by historical traumas.  Díaz half-humorously figures the freight of this trauma as a fukú, variously understood by characters in the novel as the colonial legacy of genocide and slavery, as a distinct part of the African heritage of the Dominican Republic, as the modern day traces of violence inflicted by Trujillo, or simply as bad luck that is occasionally balanced out  by the opposing force of zafa.

Díaz’s novel is in dialogue with a body of work that explores the experience of first-generation immigrants from the Dominican Republic and the complications encountered by their sons and daughters as they deal with the legacy of colonial violence, the structurally similar postcolonial violence of the Trujillo regime, and the psychological violence that was one of the tolls of movement to the North.  For writers grappling with the legacy of the Trujillo regime, Julia Alvarez looms large because of the success of In the Time of Butterflies and How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents.  In grounding her work in the perspective of women, Alvarez (one of several writers in this tradition, which includes Angie Cruz, Sofia Quintero, Loida Maritza Perez, and Nellie Rosario) offers a corrective to the devaluation of the feminine and devaluation of men’s relationship to the feminine, key elements of the highly gendered violence of the Trujillo regime, and the representation of such violence in novels of the Trujillo regime. 

Oscar Wao can be read as a corrective to this corrective.  Díaz, for example, represents his work as an effort to name and address silences he notes in Dominican cultures, such as that surrounding discourse about masculinity among men of color. In a 2007 interview in The Progressive, he told interviewer Juleyka Lantigua that he “was surrounded by a lot of male writers of color who have this incredibly bizarre relationship to masculinity. It's like we were all mega-nerds but you would never know that if you listened to the way they talk about themselves.”  He goes on to state that after a difficult summer in Mexico City, he stumbled upon the “concept of Oscar, the concept of this poor nerd, the concept of the real version of everything that we're performing against—at least as a Dominican man of color—suddenly came into my mind. This was the pariguayo (loser); this was the figure who shadows all of us in our attempts to live out this excessive masculinity.”1 Given that “excessive masculinity” and sexual potency are key elements of the Trujillo myth, writing Dominican masculinity is fraught, to say the least.

What is intriguing about the novel is Díaz’s appropriation of multiple discourses in the service of refiguring how one speaks about Dominican masculinity.  Díaz deploys fictionalized trauma narratives in the stories of the Cabral and de Leon women, storylines and characters from the science fiction universes of Marvel and DC Comics, and a rich oral tradition that is central to Hispano-Caribbean culture. The male dyad of the novel—Oscar, who anchors his notions of the masculine in those comic book universes when he finds himself incapable of fulfilling the notions of masculinity foisted upon him by his community and family in the US and the Dominican Republic, and Yunior, whose highly stereotyped approach to women as “ass on legs” softens as a result of his encounter with Oscar and his family—offers a more nuanced representation of the masculinity of men of color.

Oscar’s discovery of “the cure for what ails us: the cosmic DNA” at the end of the novel, gestures toward the possibility of a masculinity that is powerful but still celebrates the possibility of love and a creative impulse that can be named feminine. What is troubling, of course, is that such a pairing is presented as suicidal in Oscar’s case.  It is through the sacrifice of Oscar, a somewhat odd sleight of hand, that Yunior is redeemed. Oscar's death becomes a condition of Yunior's transformation, enabling him to come to understand and inhabit this more complex mode of masculinity and by extension embody an alternative voice as a writer. Unsettling is the fact that Yunior achieves this by appropriating (not foregrounding) the stories of women.  It is to Yunior, as opposed to Lola, that Isis, the last of the de Leons, will come when she is ready to be told the story of the fukú.  This insertion of Yunior into these lines of heretofore matrilineal transmission is key to the achievement of this new mode of Dominican/Dominican-American masculinity.  Yunior’s transformation is not quite plausible, though, given that he continues even at the novel’s end to embody in small the aggressively sexualized perspectives on women that owes much to the legacy of the Trujillato.

Oscar Wao is nevertheless a stunning contribution to American literature, US Latino literature, and literature of the African diaspora.  Readers unfamiliar with the history of the Dominican Republic will learn something about the nation’s history, while readers already in the know will likely be captivated by Oscar’s story. 

 

Angela Shaw-Thornburg is an assistant professor of American and African American literature at South Carolina State University.  She co-edits Plenum, a multidisciplinary journal.

 


Juleyka Lantigua-Williams, “Pulitzer Prize-winning Novelist Junot Díaz interviewed by The Progressive” The Progressive (September 2007) http://www.progressive.org/mag_intv0907 (accessed 17 December 2010).

 

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