Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Junot Díaz | The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

A few days ago in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic – where my parents currently live and the place I tend to call home – Pulitzer Prize-winning author Junot Díaz delivered a speech at my high school alma mater, the Carol Morgan School. Though his first novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao had won the prize last month, this was far from an award tour. As an artist in residence at the school, he conducted workshops and worked individually with students. The most anticipated portion of his visit was his speech and reading in the evening, where most members of the audience loudly demonstrated their pride as some parents gasped at the incessant cussing.

As in many of these kinds of talks, the speaker tends to be self-indulgent. It was no different here, except that it was charming. Díaz speaks joyously, with personality and wit, and the intermixed Spanglish pandered to the knowing crowd. The content of his speaking and its style instantly made him personable and familiar, though the reading of his novel and ensuing Q&A was more a lecture than a conversation.

The book is a coming of age story in which an overweight, sci-fi- and fantasy-obsessed romantic tries to find happiness and acceptance. Doesn’t sound quite earth-shattering, right? But the book’s grip lies in how it describes the Dominican immigrant experience in New Jersey as well as life under the tyrannical Rafael Trujillo regime back on the island. It is less a bildungsroman and more a portrait of the Dominican experience in the 20th century, with Oscar Wao and his family as Díaz’s lenses.

When it was time to begin the Q&A, the audience appeared ready to probe the author’s ideas and purpose for writing the novel. The subject that sucked the air out of the gym was negative hallucination. Díaz said it’s a concept that says that people don’t see themselves as what they are, or in psychoanalytic theory, the "active erasure of a perception." Its clearest example is race in the Dominican Republic, he said. A black Dominican he knew said he wasn’t black, that he was Dominican; Haitians are black, he said; the “other” is black. In a country where people obsessively straighten their hair, where Trujillo powdered his face and ordered the massacre of thousands of Haitians, where the most powerful and wealthiest families are white Dominicans, the subject of race is all but unspoken.

However, when people in the U.S. read or talk about race in other countries, people must remember that the racial construct that applies here doesn’t apply in other places. Different histories, different cultures, different everything. For example, Hispanic only exists in the U.S. Call a Venezuelan Hispanic and they are not going to know what you’re talking about.

Oscar Wao doesn’t examine these issues as much as demonstrate how they’re present in Dominican life at home and abroad while also presenting the resiliency of the human spirit.
(Photo by: Jim McKnight)

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