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The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

A Dominican Family in the African Diaspora
Review by Brenda M. Greene
By Junot Diaz
340 pp., Riverhead Books, $24.95

Junot Diaz, the young Dominican American writer who is a representative of the hip hop generation and who came of age in the 80s, initially caught the world’s attention in his groundbreaking collection of short stories, Drown.

In describing Drown, Walter Mosley notes that “Junot Diaz’s world explodes off the page into the canon of our literature and our hearts.” Our extensive wait for The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (more than 10 years) is well worth it, for once again Diaz has captured our hearts and minds by realistically rendering the frailties of the human experience in a well-crafted narrative.The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, a Pulitzer prize winning debut novel, is an American story that recounts the “tragic” experience of three generations of a Dominican family in the African Disapora. People in the African Diaspora now reside all over the world and their experiences and culture reflect unique blends of African, Caribbean and European traditions. Diaz draws upon history, politics, race and class struggles to depict the diasporic struggles of this Dominican family who eventually settle in Paterson, New Jersey, after experiencing the lingering effects of despair, poverty and betrayal in a country torn by political strife under the brutal regime of Rafael Trujillo, a dictator who ruled the Dominican Republic for more than 30 years. Diaz’s exploration of the inter-relatedness of the emerging themes of love, politics, racism, prejudice, and the immigrant experience in the novel all converge to portray a complicated saga of the African diasporic experience in the Americas.

As Diaz begins the novel, he introduces us to the cloud of “fuku”, “a course of doom that has its origins in Africa and that hovers over the world and the lives of the Dominicans in this narrative. Three generations of the de Leon family cannot seem to escape “fuku’s curse.” We witness how “fuku” affects the life of Oscar, his sister Lola, his mother Beli, his grandfather, Abelard and his aunt, La Inca.

A watcher and all-knowing narrator in the story, Diaz dramatically illustrates the impact of “fuku.” He is constantly by our side as we experience the anguish and travails of Oscar, the lonely, fat, nerdy boy who comes of age in a culture that values thin and hip and that marginalizes difference. We cringe as we see Oscar desperately attempting to connect to his peers, girls, teenagers and finally, women. We empathize as he retreats into his world of science fiction, thereby creating his own universe replete with characters from his sci-fi books and Japanese films, a world that provides him with shelter from his frailties. We are sensitive to the plight of Beli, Oscar’s mother, who, despite her “escape” from Santo Domingo comes to America and faces the plight of those who, abandoned by their mates, partners and husbands, desperately struggle as single women to raise their families. We sympathize with her determination to overcome her illness. We share in the tragedy of Oscar’s grandfather who never comes to the realization that to live with one’s head buried in the sand, to refuse to stand up for principles, to ignore the despair and atrocities of those around you, does not guarantee survival. In fact, it may even ensure your demise.

If you have not mastered a second language, you may be motivated to do so by the time you have completed this novel. On the other hand, if you have grown up around Latinos and Dominicans, lived in an urban city or in places such as Washington Heights, the Bronx or Spanish Harlem, you will be very comfortable with the language. Diazintersperses Spanglish throughout the novel, just enough so that you might ask a friend to give you some insight on a word or phrase, pick up a dictionary or simply realize how much you intuitively know about Spanish.

Junot Diaz, your ever-present watcher and interpreter in the novel, reminds you (in case you missed it in your two seconds of Dominican history while in school) of the historical struggle of people in the Dominican Republic and in particular, of their years of suffering under the dictatorship of Trujillo. In fact, some may think that there is too much of Diaz in the novel for he uses his notes to present you, the reader, with historical facts as well as his own very detailed opinions as to what happened and why it happened. You may initially view these extensive footnotes as distracting, but trust me; you will quickly come to appreciate them as you are reminded of the brutal murder of the Mirabel sisters, vividly depicted in Julia Alvarez’s novel In the Time of the Butterflies or the atrocities inflicted upon the Haitians by the regime of Trujillo and heart wrenchingly captured in Edwidge Danticat’s’Farming of the Bones. You will understand why Diaz’s acknowledgements include Danticat who wrote a compelling family memoir, Brother I’m Dying, to depict and critique the immigrant experience in America. Diaz, too, has been critical of the ways in which immigrants are treated.

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is also a testament to what happens when one is not loved. It reminds us of the need for love and passion in our lives and how happiness is an illusion that many come to realize as they journey through life. It is also a testament to how the human spirit survives in the midst of tragedy and despair and to the importance and value of accepting difference, of learning how to break patterns and barriers to success, of becoming, as President-elect Barack Obama reminds us, a “proponent of change”.

A master at story-telling, Diaz keeps you engaged. His crisp, fresh language brilliantly depicts the essence of life as lived by those growing up in the 70s and 80s, and his use of dialogue, point of view, language and foreshadowing and time and space, combine to keep you in suspense and motivated to continue reading. In fact, it may only take one or two sittings to read this prize winning novel that mirrors the lives of many in our culture and that epitomizes the best of contemporary American fiction. In recounting this story, Diaz has provided us with a critical lens through which to closely examine the Caribbean experience in the Americas.

Brenda M. Greene, Ph.D. is Professor of English and Executive Director of the Center for Black Literature at Medgar Evers College, CUNY

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