The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao
Reading by Author Junot Díaz
Sept. 12, 2007
Brattle Street Theatre
Last fall, I took a class in American Literature that read Drown, a collection of short stories by the Dominican writer, and MIT professor, Junot Díaz. I considered myself a pretty well read individual; said considerations generally rely on knowledge of, more than anything, names. I toted the titles of canonical heavyweights like Faulkner and Melville in classrooms, parties, and dorm rooms. A young Dominican-American author, whose debut work described life in both the Dominican Republic and immigrant America with enough fervor and sadness to knock the breath out of you, wasn’t really something I was accustomed to.
But the revelations continued as I learned that Professor Díaz taught creative writing at MIT. Enrolled in his class, I proceeded to discover a voice as unique and dynamic in person as it was on paper. On Sept. 12, at the Brattle Street Theatre in Harvard Square, I had the distinct pleasure of experiencing both sides of that voice when Díaz read from his first novel, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.
The night consisted of Díaz reading two excerpts from Oscar Wao, separated by a Q&A session “to break the monotony of one voice” as Díaz described it. But it was very quickly evident that there was nothing tedious about the way Díaz’s writing exploded with a striking diversity of voice, character, and even language. The two excerpts both detailed, with beguiling insight, aspects of the Dominican-American (human may be more appropriate) condition using two different narrators with varying perspectives.
The first, a piece called “Wildwood,” introduced two key characters in the novel: the title character’s sister, Lola, and her unforgettable mother, who is at once proud, brutal, and tragic. In the short excerpt, Lola is forced to confront her burgeoning sexuality and womanhood, in many ways in spite of her mother. But looking at her mother, Lola faces the inevitability of who she will become. When asked by a female student how he had such a strong perception of what specific details would “matter to a girl,” Díaz replied, “I have two sisters … we were all in each other’s shit, like, all the time.” It’s a current that runs through all of his writing: the deep and unmistakable imprint of personal experience.
Fittingly enough, a question on how much of Díaz’s writing was based in his experiences was asked a few minutes later. He said that he had difficultly simply writing that which is real (“It takes me so much more effort to sound everyday than to sound third person stilted.”), and instead he used his experiences as a “compass.” He explained that writing novels required an incredible “structural and intellectual apparatus” and that his writing is very much a reflection of the stories and films that compelled him intellectually. Nevertheless, the triumphs of his prose: his seamless and inventive brand of Spanglish, fascination with history and sci fi, and meditations on the insecurities bred from racial differences are all very much a part of him, the answers he gives, and the way he speaks.
The second excerpt read was the opening of the novel: an engaging description of a curse that oppresses the minds and spirits of the Dominican people, the fukú. This curse weighs heavy on Oscar, the book’s awkward and overweight protagonist, whose fascination with Tolkien’s Middle Earth is only rivaled by his desire to find love. The description of the fukú provides such a savory blend of humor and honesty that the tragic pitch tucked within it is potent and surprising; it sometimes stings you with a quick jab and sometimes washes over you, slowly but undeniably.
Díaz’s ability to combine ideas that are seemingly disparate, to blend languages and infuse them with bits of genres largely seen as “unserious” is a reflection of a unique relationship with language that was born out of his immigrant background. “You carry how you learned it, when you learned it. English as structure. Language as pedagogy,” Díaz explained, describing a heightened consciousness of language that stems from learning English so late in life.
The uniqueness of Oscar Wao begs an inescapable question: what kind of novel can we call this? “We simultaneously love our categories and simultaneously love resisting them,” Díaz stated. He somewhat facetiously talked both about lofty aspirations to transcend genre and futile attempts to characterize his book (he jokingly suggested “multigenerational family saga”). A source of our desire to resist categorizing is that specific genres or novels pertaining to the condition of an ethnic group, are often assumed to have a limited scope. But Díaz stressed that one cannot aspire to write in a manner that is universal and that “universality springs from specificity.” He writes about being Dominican as if to his best Dominican friend, but the reader’s involvement is not mitigated by race or condition. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao celebrates that expression of particular human experiences, which in its honesty, seeps into our conscience and becomes our own.