“You want to know what being an X-man feels like? Just be a smart bookish boy of color in a contemporary U.S. ghetto…Like having bat wings or a pair of tentacles growing out of your chest.”
The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz
Publisher: Riverhead Trade
It was during my first read of Junot Díaz’ short story, “Ysrael, ” the tale of two boys in search of a boy said to have a disfigured face, that I first ran into one of my favourite characters in this novel, Yunior de las Casas. Yunior, a Dominican who doesn’t seem to stop being likable and then makes horrible mistakes for his life, is joined by the main character, Oscar, another Dominican living in New Jersey, who is as thirsty as the Sahara desert. Alongside Lola, Oscar’s sister, a woman who has to deal with one of the worst and most manipulating mothers of all time, we are told a story of racial and ethnic identity, masculinity and sexism, and life under dictatorship. Lucky for us, all of these misfortunes and struggles are hidden under the colourful guise of Oscar’s geeky tastes. Seriously, one page you’re learning about someone being murdered by a dictator, and next you’re learning about The Matrix.
“If you didn’t grow up like I did then you don’t know, and if you don’t know it’s probably better you don’t judge.”
One of the most explored themes in the text is the racism and discrimination that exists within the same cultural group of people, based on ethnicity and skin colour. While many may focus on the bigger sociological spectrum, of white-Americans versus Dominicans (of all different backgrounds), my focus fell on the disparity between Dominicans, mostly explored through the stereotypes perpetuated to the younger characters by their elders. Due to the racial history the world is plagued with, particularly in countries were slavery was prominent ( such as America and Caribbean islands), the tensions between the racial groups are still quite strong, there is this belief of “separate but equal”, of “we can be friends, but in the end, each with their own race”. This is not an aspect often represented in media, in which we see people of the same culture being thrown together, as if the variety between culture, ethnicity, religion, gender, sexuality and everything else is not an aspect of daily life. The characters are often one-dimensional, with not depth, usually known as the “minority side-kick”. Books, movies, television shows, seem to forget we live in an increasing global world and that old classifications to seem “diverse” need to change with the times.
There is a particularly strong scene that shows the point perfectly, Aldo, a white Dominican makes a racist joke while looking at Lola, who is a dark skinned Dominican. In reality they were friends, but Aldo, internally, and quite obviously externally, felt the need to demonstrate to his white friends he wasn’t like the other Dominicans, that he was not black like his other friends in the same “group”.
The other main issue in the text is the sexism, particularly from Oscar and Yunior, both very limited in their understanding of women, as well as the signs of machismo that they display. While these two idiots are out there discriminating and ruining their own lives, Lola is enduring an abusing relationship with her mother, and the game Beli (mum) plays with Lola in order to keep her submissive to her, which is all in all, much more interesting that Oscar trying to get laid, and Yunior ruining his chances with someone he actually loves. Lola is us, a character in search of freedom and belonging, but who doesn’t see the way of achieving it as a game of ruining other people, she just wants to be able to live her life without interference of a mother that mistreats her, of the men that have hurt her, of the society that discriminates against her.
“By the undeniable concreteness of her desirability which was, in its own way, Power.”
I’ve often heard that Junot Diaz is a closeted sexist because of his characters’ dialogue, all the while forgetting about Lola’s nature, and the depiction of women characters. This reminds me of how people say that Lolita is a book that endorses pedophilia, rather than as a text that highlights everything wrong with rape and rape culture, and the disgusting “relationship” that can form between victim and her rapist. It is suppose to make you uncomfortable, squirmy, because it underlines the issue, it brings it to light, it becomes as similar as possible to us to feel what the victims feel, without actually enduring it.
Read this novel without thinking of Oscar as the main character, because he truly is not. This is a tragicomedy about an entire family, the pain one suffers and then chooses to inflict on their children, and how those children deal with everything around them, and how all of this affects their relationships to others. What a magnificent text! Plus, if you’re not interested in any of that, just read it as the tragic story of a nerdy boy who loves Lord of the Rings, games, and the idea of sex.