Clashing cultures can make it difficult for an individual to find meaningful, healthy relationships in his or her life. This is a sample essay that focuses on the literary work of author Junot Diaz and his novel, “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao”. The paper explores the ways in which the clashing cultures of the Dominican Republic and the United States make it difficult, and ultimately rewarding, for Oscar Wao to find a love-filled relationship and true intimacy.
The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao and societal views on finding love
Junot Diaz has come to literary fame with his work The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. This novel examines some of the most trying and important aspects of the lifestyles of those of Dominican descent. It looks at the lives of several members of a family and leads the reader through their triumphs and tribulations. The complexities of the clashing cultures of the United States and the Dominican Republic is a major theme throughout the novel, and it is the way in which the different characters come to terms with their own identity that gives the novel a truly unique, ‘wondrous’ feel to it.
Through the character interactions and narrations of Oscar, and Yunior, the reader is exposed to the different pressures and expectations that the characters have experienced throughout their lives; specifically the constant struggle to live up to the Dominican expectations that are placed upon their respective genders while living within in American society.
Oscar de Leon
The protagonist character from the novel is Oscar de Leon. He is described as an overweight outcast who is constantly struggling to fit into the world in which he lives. Oscar is considered by many to be a “nerd” and spends a great deal of his time writing about many different topics, his favorite being science-fiction, and attempting to create a romantic relationship (Scott).
Oscar is in a constant battle with not only himself but also that of the expectations of his cultural heritage to find acceptance and happiness about his own identity. Being that he is of Dominican decent, it is seen as imperative that he shows his masculinity because that is known as a sign of power and prestige within their culture. Unfortunately for Oscar, he is neither masculine nor generally thought of as an attractive individual and is instead usually described as an extreme nerd.
The reader sees his journey from the time that he is seven through his adolescence, all the way to his early adulthood and is shown throughout at the way in which he consistently attempts to find romance. This quest is one of the driving factors of Oscar’s character.
Societal views on finding love in the novel
Despite his lack of masculinity and, generally thought of, desirable traits to women, Oscar falls in love at several points in the novel. His only real success comes at the tender age of 7 when he attempts to date two girls at once. Obviously they found out that their supposed boyfriend was literally two-timing them, and they both broke up with him soon after.
What follows in Oscar’s romantic life is only downhill from there. He has the unfortunate trait of becoming friends with the girls that he desires and not having his intimate feelings reciprocated. As his pseudo-friend Yunior describes Oscar’s romantic endeavors,
“…without even realizing it he’d fallen into one of those Let’s Be Friends Vortexes, the bane of nerdboys everywhere. These relationships were love’s version of a stay in the stocks, in you go, plenty of misery guaranteed and what you gout out of it besides bitterness and heartbreak nobody knows,” (Diaz, 41).
This basically sums up the way in which Oscar’s relationships go with women throughout the novel. Because he is constantly told by society that he is unattractive and non-masculine, he has so little self-confidence in himself that the women that he feels affection towards do not really see him as a candidate for their affections.
Over the course of his life, Oscar continually feels that his short comings in the romantic field are some sort of test that make him out to be a martyr or a tragic hero. This idea is further backed up by the idea of fuku that continually plays a role within Oscar’s life. This fuku is a mysterious, historical concept to those of Dominican descent and is described through the novel as not
“just as ancient history, a ghost story from the past with no power to scare. In my parents’ days the fuku was real as heck, something your everyday person could believe in,” (Diaz, 2).
Oscar feels that it is because of this fuku that he never experiences good fortune with the opposite gender. This link is further backed by the
“consolidation, specifically demarcating the borders of a representative diasporic subject in terms of masculinity and sexuality,” (Saez).
The concepts of these two characteristics are at the heart of the upbringing of men of Dominican descent and are some of the most important traits for young males to exhibit. These are not necessarily the most important traits for Americans to show, however, so the distinction between the two serves as one of the pulling points of the novel: the struggle to see a distinction between American and Dominican life, or it could be called a Dominican American diaspora (Saez). This struggle is perpetuated in the romantic struggles for Oscar throughout the novel.
Finding love and inimate relationships
For Oscar, the intimate relationship is not felt until his early adulthood when he meets and falls in love with the semi-retired prostitute Ybon. Unfortunately for Oscar, as with many of his love interests, she is with another man who has power and prestige that Oscar has never had. Hey boyfriend is the captain of the police force, but for the first time in his life, Oscar shows determination and self-confidence and refuses to give up his pursuit of Ybon.
This ultimately leads to two ends for Oscar. First, he is able to become intimate with her, which he sums up by saying that he,
“enjoys the intimacies of a romantic relationship” (Diaz, 333).
Unfortunately, the second outcome of his relentless pursuit of Ybon leads to her boyfriend’s men taking him to a cane field and shooting him down. He is not afraid or saddened by his death, however and again takes the mantle of being a sort of martyr be saying,
“….they would sense him waiting for them on the other side and over there he wouldn’t be no fatboy or dork or kid no girl had ever loved; over there he’d be a hero, an avenger. Because anything you can dream you can be,” (Diaz, 321-322).
This is a showing of one of the fundamental ideas that Oscar has held throughout his life finally culminating: the notion of transcending life and finally defeating the fuku that has plagued his family and himself for as long as he can remember.
One of the most interesting aspects of the story comes from the fact that it is narrated by a character that is removed from Oscar for a great part of the events that occur. Yunior is the narrator over the course of the novel, though this fact is not revealed immediately to the reader. One of the most interesting aspects of this choice of making him the narrator comes in the way in which he links the story of Oscar to that of his family while still making historical references.
The aspects that Yunior describes from the life of Oscar are, in his own words, somewhat unreliable, as he is prone to his own embellishments and feelings of bias, whereas the historical elements are, supposedly, unbiased and simply facts for the reader to know about concepts such as Dominican heritage. He links much of Oscar’s life to the rule of the dictator, whom he somewhat admires, Trujillo.
For example, Yunior relates the love life of Oscar to the ruling principle of the Trujillan dictatorship model in that it is a model that is heavily based upon violence (Hanna). These sort of comparisons and insights from a character who also acts as a narrator give the novel a feel of being told as a story and helps the readers feel as though they are not reading the typical account from a narrator who is removed from the situation and all knowing. The choice is making narrator a character in the story with his own biases, feelings, and actions adds a much deeper element to the story.
Dominican immigrants in the United States
From an interview with Diaz himself, the concept of choosing Yunior as the narrator and the elements that that brings to the novel are further discussed. Diaz states,
“One might say that for him the telling of this story is an act of contrition, but that’s too simple—it’s something else, I would argue,” (O’Rourke). Diaz further states, “Yunior’s telling of this story and his unspoken motivations for it are at the heart of the novel and can be easily missed” (O’Rourke).
It seems that, in a sense, Diaz is saying that Yunior’s motives can be left up to the reader of the novel, who can apply their own feelings towards him, as well as the other characters, and gain a certain respect or disdain for the way in which he operates throughout the novel.
Yunior as a narrator
What one clearly can infer from this is that the choice of having the character of Yunior be the narrator is a way in which to get a perspective of the actions that Oscar, an outcast from traditional Dominican men, from a character that is basically everything he is not. Unlike Oscar, Yunior is athletic and handsome. He is not a nerd or socially awkward and displays the masculinity trait that is so sought after for those of Dominican descent.
He continually is a part of Oscar’s life through the time that he lives with him at Rutgers to the relationship that he develops with his sister, Lola. Yunior attempts to help Oscar become more competent with women in the novel and even attempts to help him lose some of his weight to be more desirable.
He is the one that sees how Oscar constantly is placed in the ‘friend-zone’ and has to deal with the outcomes of the issues that face Oscar when he realizes his loves do not feel the same way that he does. For example, when Oscar discovers that the girl he cares about, Jenni, does not feel the same way about him, he loses it and berates her and destroys some of her possessions.
Yunior describes the situation by stating Oscar,
“called her a whore and attacked her walls, tearing down her posters and throwing her books everywhere. I found out because some white girl ran up and said, Excuse me, but your stupid roommate is going insane, and I had to bolt upstairs and put him in a headlock” (Diaz).
What this shows is that although the two characters were entirely different in many respects, Yunior does serve, for a time, as a guardian of sorts to Oscar and attempts to help him find his way on the journey for understanding and accepting the person that he is.
Not finding love leads to a suicide attempt
When Oscar attempts to commit suicide, Yunior is there for him and famously reminds him,
“Dude, you don’t want to be dead. Take it from me. No-pussy is bad. But dead is like no-pussy times ten” (Diaz).
Yunior serves as a reminder to Oscar that though his life seems impossibly difficult and unbearable, the alternative will not really solve the problems that are plaguing him. The two characters stand in sharp contrast of each other, but in a sense are so very similar. They both are trying to find their way in life and become the men that they want to be. The audience can see the relation between the feelings that Yunior and Oscar have on love and their struggles to understand and find it, albeit that Yunior has a much easier time gaining intimacy with women than Oscar ever did.
Yunior sums up the notion of love by saying,
“love was a rare thing, easily confused with a million other things, and if anybody knew this to be true it was him” (Diaz).
What this shows is that Yunior, although appearing to be the playboy and ideal Dominican male, has his own issues and problems with love that have simply manifested themselves in different ways than Oscar’s struggles. These, as well as other, common elements can be seen as drawn from Diaz’s own life.
Overarching life and society’s views on love
Looking at the novel as a whole, Diaz blankly states that elements of his own life helped in shaping and creating the story. As an immigrant himself, Diaz wanted to create a story that had ties between his two homelands, both the United States and the Dominican Republic, and he feels that the novel is a way to represent the somewhat forgotten, darker history between the nations.
As noted by Diaz the two nations are linked by,
“the way the Dominican Republic casts a shadow onto the Untied Sates. Its involvement, which is completely forgotten, has shaped the entire density of this one country” (Celayo & Shook).
Diaz felt that the story would be a way to speak about the demon-child that the United States created by linking the story to the dictatorship of Rafael Trujillo, whom he points out was put into place and able to maintain power because of the involvement of the United States war machine and political powers. The description and adaptation that Yunior gives to the dictatorship are just a way to remind the readers of the sometimes forgotten past events that have played such an important role throughout the history of the Dominicans and the way that these events have shaped their own cultural heritage.
Diaz also drew on the notion of the growing pains that everyone feels as they reach adulthood. He notes,
“…growing up I sometimes, like everyone, felt like ‘man, there’s never been anyone like me and there will never be anyone like me, and that’s a good thing’” (Gross).
The struggles that everyone feels in their life are personified in Oscar as he tries to find his way through life. As the novel puts it,
“it’s never the changes we want that change everything,” (Diaz)
This certainly hold true for much of Oscar’s life. At a constant battle for finding happiness, Oscar and Yunior take very different routes to fight their battle, which leads them to two very different ends.
The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao examines some of the fundamental struggles that immigrant families face when living in the United States. Their cultural identities are defined by two different nations, which can be seen to be I direct conflict with each other. The life of Oscar shows the constant struggle that one can have to accept them even when their heritage tells them otherwise.
As a portrait of everything that a Dominican man should not be, Oscar lives his life as a perpetual outcast who constantly fights himself in a quest to find acceptance and peace in who he is. In a sense, the narrator Yunior serves as a sort of mirror opposite of Oscar in this sense. Possessing every physical trait that Oscar does not have, Yunior serves as the stereotypical Dominican male, yet he too reveals his own struggles in life to understand and become the man that he wants to be. The novel weaves the story of these two characters together in such a way that the audience is given a very in depth look at the battle between cultural heritage and acceptance of oneself.
Celayo, Armando, and David Shook. “In Darkness We Meet: A Conversation with Junot Diaz.” World Literature Today. (2008): 12-17. Print.
Diaz , Oscar. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. New York, NY: The Penguin Group, 2007. Print.
Gross, Terry. “Junot Diaz Discusses his ‘Wondrous’ Debut Novel.” NPR. 02 May 2008: n. page. Web. 19 Apr. 2013. .
Hanna, Monica. “Reassembling the Fragments: Battling Historiographics, Caribbean Discourse, and Nerd Genres in Junot DA-az’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.” Callaloo. 33.2 (2010): 498-520. Print.
O’Rourke, Meghan . “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao: Questions for Junot Diaz.” Slate. 8 Nov 2007: n. page. Web. 19 Apr. 2013. .
Saez, Elena Machado. “Dictating Desire, Dictating Diaspora: Junor DA-az’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao as Foundational Romance.” Contemporary Literature. 52.3 (2011): 522-555. Print.
Scott, A.O. “Dreaming in Spanglish.” New York Times. 30 Sept 2007: n. page. Web. 19 Apr. 2013. .