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Diaspora in Junot Diaz’s “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao”

Diaspora is a term that impends on Caribbean history. Otherwise called immigration or movement of nations, it is entwined among the diverse origins of the Caribbean.1 The Dominican Republic has witnessed two major events of diaspora, which Junot Diaz writes about in his novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. The first major movement brought African slaves to the area in the 16th century. The second mass movement of Dominicans to the United States was under Trujillo’s dictatorship from the 1930s. Junot Diaz’s novel tells the history of Dominicans with one fictional family, grandparents and parents living in the time of Trujillo in the Dominican Republic, and children living in the Dominican habited areas in the US. As a society, the Dominicans are essentially composed of diasporas. Aspects of Dominican culture agree with this statement, as The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao also presents curses and other old beliefs tracing back to the slave trade that supposedly still haunt the children of their ancestors today.

Even the language used in the nove ands in the Dominican Republic and areas habited by the, is multicultural. Using both English and Spanish, especially Spanish slang, Diaz creates a heterogeneous environment for the reader and reminds them that the linguistic borders and national borders are porous.2 The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao begins in the 1970s in Paterson, northern New Jersey, an area highly populated by immigrants from the Caribbean. Hypatia Belicia Cabral, Beli in short, migrated to the United States in 1962, where she then had two children, Lola and Oscar. The family represents the modern history of the Dominican Republic. Oscar and Lola are first-generation Dominican-American but relate more to American culture than that of their ancestors. Oscar is obsessed with comic books, sci-fi and J.R.R Tolkien; he is obese and a terrible ladies’ man. Everything a Dominican man is not. Diaz writes about Oscar as such, “Had none of the Higher Powers of your typical Dominican male, couldn’t have pulled a girl if his life depended on it. Couldn’t play sports for shit, or dominoes was beyond uncoordinated, threw a ball like a girl.”

3 Lola has phases of rebelling against her mother and the Dominican culture by being a punk, shaving her hair off and listening to Siouxsie and the Banshees. She keeps having unlucky relationships with men and tries to find acceptance from sex. In chapter II, Lola runs away with a boy to the Jersey Shore, only to be miserable and long to go home. “It was the stupidest thing I ever did. I was miserable. And so bored. But of course, I wouldn’t admit it. I had run away, so I was happy! Happy!”4 Lola describes her experience. The family’s own first diasporic event took place when Lola was sent to the Dominican Republic by her mother. In her country of origin, she found the sense of belonging that she had been looking for. Oscar also visits the Dominican Republic on two occasions, and even though he never returns from his second trip, he found love and lost his virginity.

The characters of Oscar and Lola might live in America and lead what seems like very American lives, but they still have a strong connection to the Dominican Republic. This connection is not always obvious, but the sibling’s trips to their country of origin prove that they are not whole without their own heritage and history. Derek Walcott’s words, “Either I’m nobody, or I’m a nation.”5 define the diaspora and its destruction on individuals. An individual needs a background, a society that moulds it. Oscar is the outsider of the story, and he is a metaphor for the immigrant. An immigrant does not belong to his own country, nor his new country, as he does not exist in his own country, but he is not part of thennew country’s historyer. The two Old World Dominican characters, Beli and Beli’s aunt La Inca, are different since La Inca has never left the Dominican Republic, and Beli forms the bridge between the Dominican Republic and the United States. La Inca is still mourning her husband and occasionally looks back on the tragic family history under Trujillo’s rule. She has never witnessed diaspora first hand, and is a part of Beli’s and the children’s lives when they visit the Dominican Republic.

Beli, being a stubborn, strong headed woman, avoids visiting her home country because of the bad memories. Forced to migrate to the States in the first place, she surprisingly made it a home for her and her children. As it is presented in the lives of the de Leon family, Dominican diaspora is cursed “the Curse and Doom of the New World”6 that haunts the family. The curse was set upon the family ever since Beli’s father committed treason against Trujillo by not handing his daughter over to him. According to Diaz has transformed into a power, a source of misfortune that lived on even after Trujillo’s reign was over. Beli’s whole family except for her aunt, La Inca dies in odd accidents, and Beli was sold to be a servant. Even though Beli moves in with her aunt and lives a relatively happy youth, she follows her, and she is almost killed for getting pregnant to a gangster that was married to Trujillo’s sister. After the incident, she is forced to leave the Dominican Republic, but to have the curse follow her.

According to the novel, it is tied to diaspora that is a part of Dominican culture. Brought by the Europeans to the island 500 years ago, it has changed from being a foreign threat from abroad to being within the Dominican diaspora.7 Bad luck that the Dominican people cannot shed even by leaving their country of origin. The narrator of The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, Yunior, states “No one, alas, more oppressive that the oppressed”.8 The story of Oscar and his family presents how they had turned inward when immigration to the United States started. On Oscar’s last trip to Santo Domingo, however, he decides to ‘sacrifice’ himself to the in order to be the last person in his family to suffer from the curse. Thus, Oscar’s story ends as bloodily as his ancestors’ did.

Fuk is not without a counterpart, zafa that is the good that happens to the family. Fuk might cause tragedies, but zafa protects the family from total catastrophe. Both fuk and Safa are characters in an immigrants experience, as they are a part of the themes of finding new worlds and the boundaries of one’s own world. Diaz’s novel frequently repeats sightings of a faceless man and a mongoose. A faceless man is present every time something bad happens, while the mongoose comes to guide them to safety. The faceless man can be considered as and the mongoose as safe. After Beli saw the faceless man for the second time, she was dragged to the cane fields by two of Trujillo’s agents, and nearly beaten to death. The narrator explains what happened afterwards “So as Beli was flitting in and out of life, there appeared at her side a creature that would have been an amiable mongoose if not for its golden lion eyes and the absolute black of its pelt.” The mongoose then said to Beli “You have to rise.”9 The same description was given of the events following Oscar’s first beating in the same cane fields. The fuk and zafa represent the everyday hardships and miracles that a family goes through, and especially an immigrant family.

The language used in The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is an eclectic mix of English, Spanish from the Dominican Republic and Spanish slang, used in Dominican habited areas in New Jersey and New York. Diaz also incorporates “geeky” language, as he references to J.R.R Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings and Marvel comic books, such as the Watchmen. The language used relates mostly to the narrator of the story, Yunior, who is more of an interpreter of the story than an actual character and Oscar’s friend. The language he uses is very much tied to pop culture, both in the Western World as well as in the Caribbean, which again presents a sense of diaspora or movement. Diaz brings forward the reality of the modern immigrant, through an assortment of images from all over the social spectrum, which breaks down the hierarchical structures that privilege particular languages and cultural references. Diaz’s narrative, rich in events and interpretations, creates a new reality, that exists as a result of history. Oscar Wao gives the reader a shattered history lesson, with the often sarcastic footnotes and the chapters of Abelard and Beli, which reflect the atrocities better than past immigrant narratives.

Diaz purposefully creates a collage of references and stories that give insight into the modern, multicultural world, which can be only presented through a mixed-up, incoherent narrative.10 Language is easily used to define social class, and immigrants are often seen as lower class, as their language is considered a lower form of communication. This is not only seen in the new country of immigration, for example, “Spanglish” slang created in the Dominican areas, but also the country of origin. Especially the Dominicans have been victims of colonization, and having to create a new identity, they create a form of language with it. Diaz uses the language of the immigrants to write a story about the immigrants, as it maintains their story and culture without trying to Americanize it. This does not make the novel an easy read but it forces the reader to make sense out of the reality these immigrants face. Diaz writes about all genres of literature and art after another, eliminating all prejudice about art being either low or high class. “Cicero, Stan Lee, The Sound of Music, and Spanish slang are all written into the same sections, without privileging one over another”, states Max Abrams.

11 Besides using references to “high or low class” art mixed with each other, Diaz writes a large amount of references in the same passage, allowing the reader at least one reference they understand but also giving them one that they have not heard of before. In the quote, Diaz is describing the feud between journalists and dictators by saying, “Since before the infamous Caesar-Ovid war they’ve had beef. Like the Fantastic Four and Galactus, like the X-Men and the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants, like the Teen Titans and Deathstroke, Foreman and Ali, Morrison and Grouch, Sammy and Sergio.”12 Even the most cultured reader will get bewildered by this passage, but in some way that is Diaz’s goal. He wants the reader to be confused, to not understand something, a feeling all too familiar for immigrants in a new country with a new language.

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is not only a tale simple tale of a geeky boy. The novel deals with issues of diaspora, history, love and family. Oscar’s sister, mother and grandfather are as much in the spotlight as Oscar himself. The clever usage of footnotes and multiple languages include even more characters to the story. Trujillo, the disastrous dictator and zafa, a curse and its counterpart and even “Spanglish” slang are given important parts in the story. The de Leon family is only a fictional setting for the hole heritage of the Dominican Republic. Represented the first Dominican diaspora of African slaves arriving on the island and Beli represented the second form of diaspora, where Dominicans tried to escape the bloody rule of Trujillo. Oscar and Lola are the first generation Dominican-Americans who are trying to find where they belong in the United States and in the Dominican Republic since neither of the countries are exactly their home. Diaz presented this extremely well with his use of language and humor. The language swallowed the reader into the world of the immigrants, and helped in understanding what their life is like. Without humor, the novel would have been too heavy a read for many, as the themes focused on violence, solitude and alienation. The novel was an in depth look at Dominican diaspora over history and in the present.

Bibliography

  • Abrams. M. Immigrants and Galactus: Junot Diaz’s World in The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. http://scholar.oxy.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1001&context=ecls_student [16.5.2011]
  • Diaz. J. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. 2007.
  • Fofana. S. The Dominican Curse and Death. http://www.seeingblack.com/article_365.shtml [17.5.2011]
  • Johnson. R. The Caribbean Diaspora. http://www.caricom.org/jsp/projects/uwicaricomproject/caribbean_diaspora.jsp [16.5.2011]
  • Sharpe. M. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao Review. http://www.powells.com/biblio/9781594489587 [16.5.2011]
  • Walcott. D. The Schooner Boy.
  1. Johnson. R. The Caribbean Diaspora. http://www.caricom.org/jsp/projects/uwicaricomproject/caribbean_diaspora.jsp [16.5.2011]
  2. Sharpe. M. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao Review. http://www.powells.com/biblio/9781594489587 [16.5.2011]
  3. Diaz. J. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. 2007. (p.19-20)
  4. Diaz. J. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. 2007. (p. 64)
  5. Walcott. D. The Schooner Boy.
  6. Diaz. J. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. 2007. (p. 1)
  7. Fofana. S. The Dominican Curse and Death. http://www.seeingblack.com/article_365.shtml [17.5.2011]
  8. Diaz. J. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. 2007.
  9. Diaz. J. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. 2007. (p.149)
  10. Abrams. M. Immigrants and Galactus: Junot Diaz’s World in The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. http://scholar.oxy.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1001&context=ecls_student [16.5.2011]
  11. Abrams. M.
  12. Diaz. J. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. 2007. (p.97)

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Diaspora in Junot Diaz's "The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao". (2021, Aug 25). Retrieved September 16, 2021, from https://essayscollector.com/essays/diaspora-in-junot-diazs-the-brief-wondrous-life-of-oscar-wao/