The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao: Cultural Duality of an American-Latino Youth

Featured image: Esquire

As a Dominican who lives in Texas, I am very much outside of the norm. My father grew up in a traditional Dominican household—one that spoke Spanish in a very distinct ​(loud) manner, and danced merengue and listened to Johnny Ventura. Fast forward some twenty years down the genetic ladder to myself, a Dominican American who has lived an incredibly different lifestyle. As an assimilated Dominican, I often don’t know which category to fall under—or which one I actually am accepted into. At school, I don’t think about Meringue, Yucca, Platanos, or Sancocho—a mouthwatering Dominican soup. In all earnestness, I often feel stuck in between my assimilated self, and the culture of my ancestors. I thought I was alone in this narrative, but recently I learned differently. Last week my dad slipped me a book, all nonchalant, and said “read this.” The message was simple, and he didn’t explain (which usually bugs me, but on that day I didn’t mind.) It was called ​The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. ​So, I flipped open the first page, as casually as he handed it to me, and started to read.

Then Junot Diaz rocked my world.

Junot Diaz

Junot Diaz

The Story follows the overlap of a family’s story as they root themselves in the Bronx, New York. Specifically, it focuses on the story of Oscar Wao, a tragically awkward Dominican nerd, who would rather read star Wars than pick up chicks, and who battles the cursed fuku—or Curse of the New World. Oscar lives most of his life in an awkward shell and attributes it to the curse, but as time progresses, he finally decides to take action, returning to the land of his parents, and end the curse. Inevitably, Oscar is faced with the history of his family. He begins understand why they are cursed through the actions of his ancestors. In every way but two, his physique and demeanor, Oscar resembles a Tragic-hero. In a sense, he exemplifies the Modern Tragic Hero.

I found myself entrenched in the Storyline. I knew the characters—I have met them, I recognized them, I loved them like I would a relative. I found myself wanting Oscar to be liked, to find firm ground. Part of it was empathy, but also, it seemed to perfectly describe my, and countless others’, lives. The book touched on teenage angst, cultural duality, and the struggles of being 2nd or 3rd generation Latinos. That’s not to say that 1st generation immigrants do not have it hard, because they absolutely do, but the story of their children is less represented, and Diaz does a good job of dissecting it.

Junot Diaz’s The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is at times poignant, funny, and grippingly real, because the book skillfully analyzes what comes after the immigrant story—what happens to their offspring and how they cope with assimilation; it deals with how 2nd generation Latinos are at a crossroads: between the culture at home and the culture outside it, and the gripping choice that this entails.

The story’s nonlinear structure is at times confusing, and at other times gripping. The book circles back between Oscar .The story is mythic in its scope, circling back and forth between the genesis of the family, and Oscar battling social-anxiety. Oscar is constantly reminded that he doesn’t have “game.” I won’t explain that one to you readers; I believe in your inference skills.

But I digress.

Chapters cycle between Oscar, his mother, his sister, his friends, and ethereal beings watching him in his life. Diaz did a brilliant job of illustrating Dominican mysticism, which at its core is shaky and speculative. Oscar does not want to believe the fables and myths of his parents’ homeland, but inevitably he is converted to a full-blown believer—of the Fuku and other mystical ideals. Possibly the most interesting aspect of the book is Oscar’s theory of Trujillo being the cause of the family curse, the Fuku. To give context, Trujillo was a Dominican totalitarian dictator who committed heinous acts against the Haitian residents of the Dominican Republic; he was essentially the “Hitler of the Caribbean.” He was an installed dictator by the United states until a coup de’ ta. Oscar likened the end of the regime, even though it was a malicious and bitter one, to an end of the fortune of their family. Trujillo did not go down easy; he pulled down anyone and everyone in his path—including Oscar’s ancestor—as he fell from grace.

More than anything, this Novel truthfully analyzes what it means to be in transition; it analyzes the duality of being an immigrant son. For Oscar, he has no firm roots in either world.

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