Published in 2007, Junot Diaz’s debut novel “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao” raises many though-provoking questions, dealing with the themes of culture, racism, identity, coming of age, love, and family. The novel is set in a neighborhood in Paterson, New Jersey, and follows the life of an overweight boy named Oscar de León, nicknamed Oscar Wao, from his teenage years (Diaz). The main narrator of the novel is Yunior, Oscar’s friend, who is in love with his brother, Lola. The characters’ parents and grandparents had lived through the horrible historical period when the Dominican Republic was under the dictatorship of Trujillo, a president of the state, from 1930 to 1961. This tragic background haunts Oscar on both conscious and subconscious levels, and the so-called ‘fuku’ curse that pursues Oscar’s family through generations is often mentioned in the novel. The main argument of the book focuses on the post-colonial relationship between the United States and the Dominican Republic, and the devastating effect colonial legacy had on the immigrants and their families.
There are many aspects of Junot Diaz’s life that are reflected in the Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. Junot Diaz was born in the Dominican Republic in 1968 and immigrated to the US with his family when he was six. His parents and grandparents had lived under the repressive regime of Trujillo, so Diaz experienced the consequences of those horrifying events himself. Like Oscar, Diaz is the son of the Dominican immigrants in the United States. Similar to Oscar, the author is interested in comic books, science fiction, and other aspects of popular culture. To an even larger extent, however, Diaz can be identified with the narrator, Yunior, who is also a representative of the Dominican immigrant community in the United States. Although Yunior’s public persona is that of “a playboy” and “a womanizer”, his private self is much more artistic and creative (Diaz 175). While he may have difficulty committing to his relationships with women, he still maintains his commitment to writing.
Post-colonial relationship between the Dominican Republic and the United States plays a major part in the novel. Although there is no detailed political and historical analysis of that period, Yunior’s storytelling engages the readers and makes them a part of the experience shared by the main characters. One example of Yunior’s original recap of the nation’s history can be found early in the novel:
“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.)” (Diaz 19)
Yunior uses this somewhat teasing and slightly condescending tone in many footnotes. For example, in one of them, he addresses the readers as “those of you who missed your mandatory two seconds of Dominican history” (Diaz 2). This way, Yunior does not only teach his readers about the history of the Dominican Republic and its relationship with its colonizers, the United States. He also reminds the American literary public about how ignorant they are of the history and the tragedies of the peoples and countries colonized by the U.S. Through the text and the footnotes, Yunior also tells the history of the Dominican Republic during Trujillo dictatorship, implying its connection to the U.S. government and the support that the latter provided to the regime.
Post-colonial theory can be applied to analyze the complicated relationship between the American and Dominican public. Developed by Edward Said, the Palestinian American cultural critic, post-colonial theory focuses on several major aspects: colonialism, imperialism, cultural domination, and subservience (Elam). These were and in certain ways still are some of the major issues at the Americas, Africa, the Middle East, and Asia (Elam). States considered as imperial powers, such as England and France, and cultural powerhouses, including America, have all demonstrated imperial intentions, colonizing other countries at some point of their history. Post-colonial theory, therefore, studies the cultures that remained after the occupying states left the colonized countries.
The perspective of post-colonial theory demonstrates how challenging it is for the characters and people represented by them to develop the sense of self-identity in the country that colonized their homeland. The colonial past and cross-cultural upbringing of Oscar, Lola, and Yunior cause tensions and complicate their life in New Jersey. For example, Lola describes the struggle with her Dominican and American identities in the following passage:
“So much has changed these last months, in my head, my heart. Rosío has me dressing up like a “real Dominican girl.” She’s the one who fixed my hair and who helps me with my makeup, and sometimes when I see myself in mirrors, I don’t even know who I am anymore” (Diaz 71).
It can be argued that the problem of self-identity is based on the fact that the characters do not feel connected to their roots or to the place they live in the United States. Although Oscar and Lola’s mother identifies herself as a Dominican, she raised her children in America, which makes it very difficult for them to reconnect with their national identity. The characters fail to categorize themselves as American or Dominican, and this is what constantly causes tensions that could have been mitigated if their parents discussed the issue of national identity with them. However, due the horrifying experiences of living under Trujillo regime, they were more willing to avoid reminiscing about them than to relive again. The fact that the Dominican Republic was colonized by the US adds to these tensions.
Another issue that complicates the characters’ lives and adds to self-identity crisis is the lack of acceptance they experience due to racist prejudice common among many people that surround them. For example, in the following passages of the novel Yunior tells about Oscar’s frustration caused by constantly feeling different:
“The white kids looked at his black skin and his afro and treated him with inhuman cheeriness. The kids of color, upon hearing him speak and seeing him move his body, shook their heads. You’re not Dominican” (Diaz 49).
A significant part of the novel describes two superstitious phenomena, fuku and zafa, which can also be seen as symbols of the immigrants’ traumatizing past. Thus, fuku is described as “a curse or a doom of some kind; specifically, the Curse and the Doom of the New World” (Diaz 1). Zafa, in turn, is a sort of “counterspell” that the characters use to confront the fuku curse (Diaz 1). The novel uses magical realism to explain the origin of the curse and how it passed from generation to generation.
However, it can be suggested that the curse symbolizes the horrors and the scars, both psychological and physical, that survivors of the regime were left with for the rest of their and their children’s lives. According to Tillman, “it was not until the last quarter of the 20th century that the Dominican Republic began a (true) transition to free democratic institutions in politics” (Tillman). The extreme “intimidation and violence” that Rafael Trujillo used “both to control and to modernize the state” still existed in the form of constant fear and tension that were passed generations of immigrant Dominicans (Tillman). These confrontations and struggles never cease for the characters, which might be why Diaz chose to describe them as a family curse.
While The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao covers a number of important topics, its main argument is the impact of post-colonialism on the lives of generations of immigrant Dominicans in the United States. Through Yunior, the main narrator, Diaz tells the history of the Dominican Republic, including the period of cruel dictatorship of Rafael Trujillo. Although Oscar, Lola, and Yunior did not live during the times of colonialism or Trujillo regime, they experience the devastating effects of those horrors through their family’s tragic encounters with the regime and its emanations. As a result, the characters struggle with identity crisis, not being able to identify their place in the U.S. or reconnect with their Dominican roots. Their lives are even more complicated by the ghost of their past history, symbolized by the fuku curse that haunts the main character’s family though generations.
Díaz, Junot. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. Penguin, 2007.
Elam, J. D. “Postcolonial Theory.” Literary and Critical Theory, 2019.
Tillman, Ellen. “The Dominican Republic: From Military Rule to Democracy.” Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Politics, 2021. Web.