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Junot Diaz opens his novel of clashing cultures, stereotypes, dreams of a better life and the curse of the doomed with a description of an ancient African curse that plays a prominent role in The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, the fuku:
“They say it came first from Africa, carried in the screams of the enslaved; that it was the death bane of the Taínos, uttered just as one world perished and another began; that it was a demon drawn into Creation through the nightmare door that was cracked open in the Antilles. Fukú americanus, or more colloquially; fukú — generally a curse or a doom of some kind; specifically the Curse and the Doom of the New World.”
The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is a tragedy that slowly reveals the extent of the suffering endured by one family, first at the hands of the brutal dictatorship that ruled the Dominican Republic under Rafael Trujillo, and later during this family’s transplanted life as immigrants in the United States. The novel’s main character, Oscar de Leon, is an overweight, nerdy boy whose entire existence is the antithesis of the stereotypical image of the swarthy, macho Latin lover. While the expectation of young Dominican boys is that they will be tough and obsessed with sex, as the novel’s main narrator and occasional boyfriend of Oscar’s sister, Lola, clearly represents, Oscar is more interested in science fiction and fantasy and becoming a writer, although he very much hopes to have sex at the earliest opportunity, experiencing the same hormonal changes that most boys experiencing at some point in their young lives. Oscar’s entirely unrequited sex life is a problem for which he has no ready answer, at one point inquiring of Lola’s boyfriend, Yunior, who rooms with Oscar to stay close to Lola but also tries to school the young boy in the finer points of dating,
"I have heard from a reliable source that no Dominican male has ever died a virgin. You who have experience in these matters--do you think this is true?"
Oscar’s outsider status, courtesy of his weight and penchant for more intellectual pursuits, leads him down many lonely roads, with the predetermined fatal ending a seeming validation of the fuku’s role in his life. Diaz’s novel covers a great deal of territory, jumping back and forth in time to enlighten readers regarding Oscar’s family’s history and their unfortunate episodes living under Trujillo and then suffering a different kind of emotional pain in the New World. Oscar’s mother, Beli, is beaten and left for dead in a sugar cane in the Dominican Republic, her life saved by a Golden Mongoose that would reappear throughout the novel and provide similar guidance to Oscar under similar circumstances. Lola’s life is filled with sadness and betrayal, as her relationship with Yunior is characterized by his philandering ways – an expectation given his heritage but one destined to doom a more substantive relationship. Yunior himself seems incapable of fidelity and never finds happiness, even as a married college instructor in New Jersey, the locale for much of the U.S. narrative. Oscar’s one true love, a Dominican prostitute named Ybon (“Oscar considered her the start of his real life.”), is doomed by virtue of her relationship with a psychotically jealous police captain who first has Oscar beaten in the aforementioned sugar cane field and later has him killed – just another crime of passion in a culture where such occurrences are a part of life.
Stereotypes of Latin culture play a very large role in The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. Diaz knows he is treading on politically sensitive ground, and at one point interrupts his narrative to address the issue of the Hispanic prostitute, Ybon, and how he has gone out of his way to portray her in positive light. There are, of course, darker skinned and lighter skinned Hispanics, grounds by itself for intra-Dominican prejudices, as occurs with Beli early in her adulthood, when she is initially rejected for having darker skin. Also, Oscar’s last name is “de Leon,” not “Wao.” He was labeled “Oscar Wao” because one of his penchant for science fiction and fantasy and his nerdy, unLatino demeanor and appearance. Dressing up as a character from the television series “Dr. Who,” Yunior suggests that Oscar looks like “that fat homo Oscar Wilde,” which is misunderstood by one of Yunior’s friends as “Wao.” So, descriptions of Ybon, Diaz suggests, need not conform to stereotypes:
“I know what Negroes are going to say. Look, he’s writing Suburban Tropical now. A puta and she’s not an underage snort addicted mess? Not believable. Should I go down to the Feria and pick me up a more representative model? Would it be better if I turned Ybón into this other puta I know, Jahyra, a friend and a neighbor in Villa Juana, who still lives in one of those old-style pink wooden houseswith the zinc roof?”
Running under all of this remains the curse, the fuku, and the Golden Goose, which exists to counter that curse, and which represents both the immigrant experience to which Oscar and his family are subjected and the positive presence that offers glimmers of hope.
Diaz’s novel is an filled with allegories regarding racial and gender stereotypes, the oppression of life under one dictatorship, that of Rafael Trujillo, and its substitution with life under another, the image to which Oscar is expected to conform but can’t, and about the need of people for love and relationships and how those stereotypes impede our ability to develop those life-affirming relationships. That The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao ends tragically, with Oscar’s death, but with a postscript suggesting that, prior to his death, he succeeded in losing his virginity is the basis for the book’s ironic title. Oscar’s life was brief; whether it was “wondrous” is a matter of perspective.
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