Last week, in preparation for writing, I collected the Junot Díaz books from my bookcase, but I soon discovered a problem. Despite the number of copies of The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao that I have owned since its publication, an hour-long search failed to turn it up. Turns out that I had loaned it out (again) and had never gotten it back (again). I mention this because it’s a testament to the power of the book, both in my willingness to keep buying copies, and in the reluctance of friends to return it to me once they’ve read it. I’d like to think that those copies were passed along from my friends to their other friends, and that even now, someone somewhere is reading one of my copies. As for my immediate need, the town where I live does not have a bookstore, but it has an excellent local library. I found a copy there, and once again sat down to read Díaz’s fusion of novel about Oscar Wao, his friends, and his family, and history of the Dominican Republic.
Junot Díaz; Illustrated by Leo Espinosa
I was inspired to re-read Oscar Wao because of my delight over Islandborn, the children’s picture book for which Díaz provided the text, and for which Leo Espinosa provided the playful illustrations. In the story, Lola attends an elementary school full of kids from “somewhere else.” One day, Lola’s teacher, Ms. Obi, gives the children a project: she wants them to draw a picture of the country they are from. The kids love the assignment, and Díaz channels the voices of children who are excited to share what they remember of their homelands: the tigers, the pyramids, the cities as big as some countries, even memories of a mongoose.
Lola wants to share but she was only a baby when her parents brought her over from “the island.” So, with her teacher’s encouragement, Lola questions the people in her neighborhood and her family about their memories of the island. The stories they tell her paint a picture of a seeming paradise, and Lola begins to wonder why anyone would have ever left such a place to come to America. That’s when her grouchy super, Mr. Mir, tells Lola about “the monster,” who had made living on the island into something frightening. Lola then creates a piece of artwork that incorporates these various aspects of life on the island—the good and the bad—the little girl having gained a new understanding about her island, but also about the brave adults with whom she lives.
Those who are familiar with Dominican history, or who have previously read Oscar Wao, will recognize the “monster” as Rafael Leonidas Trujillo Molina, the brutal dictator of the Dominican Republic between 1930 and 1961. As Díaz described him:
A portly, sadistic, pig-eyed mulato who bleached his skin, wore platform shoes, and had a fondness for Napoleon-era haberdashery, Trujillo (also known as El Jefe, the Failed Cattle Thief, and Fuckface) came to control nearly every aspect of the DR’s political, cultural, social, and economic life through a potent (and familiar) mixture of violence, intimidation, massacre, rape, co-optation, and terror; treated the country like it was a plantation and he was the master … He was our Sauron, our Aran, our Darkseid, our Once and Future Dictator, a personaje so outlandish, so perverse, so dreadful that not even a sci-fi writer could have made his ass up.
Oscar is a FanBoy before FanBoys became a ubiquitous part of culture. His love for comic books, science fiction, and their assorted media separate him from his mother, who doesn’t understand Oscar’s love for reading, nor his desire to stay in his room reading all day when he “should” be outside hanging out with other boys and playing sports. Oscar is also a writer, and as a writer, an excellent observer of those around him. Díaz doesn’t just write about Oscar, but rather inhabits a number of characters and elucidates their histories. The novel accomplishes many things in addition to being great entertainment. Díaz focuses with laser-like vision on the ways in which the internalized tyranny of parental expectations, social mores, and class divisions have huge impacts on determining who is allowed to become a creator, who is allowed to speak for their generation.
Critics recognized the brilliance of the novel, awarding it a multiplicity of prizes, including the Pulitzer and the National Book Critics Circle Award.
Drown was Díaz’s first collection of short stories. Originally published in 1996, the stories reflect the experiences of a number of young male characters who struggle on the cusp of manhood to define and understand themselves and their roles. Most of them are working-class, and whether they live in the DR, the United States, or go back and forth between the two, many of Díaz’s young men seem at loose ends, not sure what is expected of them by older adults. They are boastful of their successes with young women, simultaneously demonstrating a masculinity that is full of sound and fury but devoid of meaning. Some of the characters first mentioned in these short stories will show up both in The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao and the 2013 collection This is How You Lose Her.
In this later collection, Yunior, one of the characters who had appeared in previous work, becomes the focus of a series of stories about love, sex, and relationships. Yunior will remind many women of the guy who tells them that he’s not “good at relationships,” but who they somehow don’t believe him until they get involved with him, and he proves to them that he was telling the truth, he really isn’t good at relationships. Or, as Díaz writes:
I’m not a bad guy. I know how that sounds—defensive, unscrupulous—but it’s true. I’m like everybody else: weak, full of mistakes, but basically good. Magdalena disagrees though. She considers me a typical Dominican man: a sucio, an asshole. See, many months ago, when Magda was still my girl, when I didn’t have to be careful about almost anything, I cheated on her with this chick who had tons of eighties freestyle hair. Didn’t tell Magda about it, either. You know how it is. A smelly bone like that, better off buried in the backyard of your life. Magda only found out because homegirl wrote her a fucking letter. And the letter had details. Shit you wouldn’t even tell your boys drunk.
Díaz has always written complex male characters who occupy the intersectional spaces created when ethnicity, race, class, gender, and culture map themselves onto the individual. Some of these guys will cape up, embracing the world of the superhero, itself derived from the fusion of ancient myth and modern technology. Others will become Lotharios, seeking to distract themselves with women’s bodies, regardless of the thoughts and feelings that accompany those bodies. Still others will become writers and artists, the observers of culture who, by paying attention, accrue wisdom and have a message to impart, if they can gain access to the cultural means of production.