M. Keith Booker, University of Arkansas

The Dominican American author Juno Días was relatively unknown when The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao was published, but the book took the American literary scene by storm, winning a Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and making Díaz a star. In 2015, the novel’s growing reputation was solidified when a critics’ poll published in The Guardian declared Oscar Wao to be the greatest novel of the twenty-first century up to that time. In many ways, this novelis a classic specimen of postmodern fiction. It is written in a lively, playful style and makes extensive use of materials and motifs derived from popular culture. Moreover, its narrative is highly fragmented, jumping around in time and space and frequently shifting narrators. At the same time, the novel addresses a number of serious historical, social, and cultural issues, which is fairly unusual for a postmodern novel. In particular, much of the action is set in the Dominican Republic (D.R.), much of it during the reign of notorious dictator Rafael Trujillo. As such, it provides something of a lesson about Dominican history, including the history of the relationship between the D.R. and the United States. Meanwhile, the “Oscar Wao” of the title (like the author) is a Dominican immigrant who grows up in New Jersey and goes to college at Rutgers. As such, the experiences of Oscar and his family also comment on the immigrant experience in the United States.

The Hybridity of Oscar Wao

One of the things that is immediately striking about Oscar Wao is its cultural hybridity. The novel is, in many ways, extremely American. It is sprinkled with American slang and with references to American popular culture, especially to films, television series, and role-playing games. These references are largely presented, incidentally as signs of the nerdiness of Oscar, though they are actually employed mostly by Yunior, who seems to be much more familiar with nerd culture than he lets on. Meanwhile, the novel is also extremely Dominican. Much of it takes place in the D.R., and most of the characters, even those who spend most or all of their lives living in the U.S., identify as Dominican. But the most important characters are both Dominican and American, so that their identities are hybrid in much the same way as the novel itself.

The language of Oscar Wao is also hybrid in nature. Díaz has often talked about his difficulty in learning English after moving to New Jersey from the D.R. at the end of 1974. He ultimately learned it quite well, though, and his mastery of various registers of English—from the comfortably colloquial, to the more literary, to the Nerdspeak of Oscar himself—is quite impressive. One would never know that English was not the author’s first language, except for the fact that his novel is also liberally sprinkled with Spanish words and phrases, which serves as a sort of welcome mat for Hispanic readers, making them feel at home in a way that most American literature does not. The fact that the characters employ a great deal of Spanish also serves as a reminder that their Dominican heritage remains important to Díaz and his characters, despite the fact that they are so well acclimated to life in the U.S. This use of Spanish (somewhat reminiscent of the Igbo words and phrases with which Chinua Achebe enriches the language of his 1958 novel Things Fall Apart) also serves as a reminder to non-Hispanic readers that Hispanic Americans can be perfectly legitimateAmericans, too, and without disavowing their Hispanic backgrounds. It is also significant, I think, that the Spanish words and phrases that appear within Oscar Wao appear in normal text, even though the rules of English typography require that foreign words and phrases be italicized. The implication is that, in the world of this novel, Spanish is not a foreign language, given that the major characters are all Dominican; by extension, of course, Spanish can no longer be considered a foreign language in a United States in which Hispanics form a growing part of the population and where the majority of Americans will likely speak and read Spanish within a few decades. In this way, we are reminded that the Dominican and American cultures that inform this novel are somehow opposed alternatives but overlapping ones. Dominican culture has been powerfully influenced by American culture over the years, and American culture has been influenced by Dominican culture and by the many other cultures that have gone into the making of American culture. Thus, ultimately, Oscar Wao is a cultural hybrid not because it is both a Dominican novel and an American novel, but because it is an American novel that reminds us of the inherent hybridity of American culture.

Oscar Wao also moves back and forth geographically between the U.S. and the D.R. The majority of the action of the novel takes place in New Jersey, either on the campus of Rutgers University or in Paterson, Oscar’s American hometown and a town that has occupied a prominent place in American literary history ever since the publication of William Carlos Williams’ Paterson, a unique combination novel and epic poem, which was initially inspired by Williams’ reading of James Joyce’s Ulysses in the 1920s but was not published until it appeared in five different segments between 1946 and 1958, as Williams spent decades fine-tuning the work. All of Paterson was published as a single volume in 1963, including the five previously published volumes, plus a sixth section left unfinished at Williams’ death, also in 1963. The poem treats the town of Paterson, New Jersey (where Williams lived for many years with his wife and two sons), as a sort of microcosm of America; thus, while it is entirely focused on that one town, it can be taken as an epic of America as a whole. The same can be said for Oscar Wao, though the emphasis in Díaz’s novel on Dominican American characters reminds us that “America as a whole” includes many different components, including Hispanic Americans and other immigrants and children of immigrants.

To that end, it is also important that so much of Oscar Wao takes place in the Dominican Republic, a Caribbean nation probably best known to most Americans as a rich source of talent for major league baseball, including such Hall of Famers as Juan Marichal, Pedro Martínez, and Vladimir Guerrero, Sr.; as well as later stars, such as Albert Pujols, Adrián Beltré, David Ortíz, and Manny Ramirez; and emerging young stars, such as Fernando Tatis, Jr., and Vladimir Guerrero, Jr. But the Dominican Republic also has a long and rich (but problematic) cultural and political history, of which Oscar Wao contains many reminders.

For example, the island of Hispaniola was one of the first places where Christopher Columbus landed on his first voyage to the Americas in 1492, and the current capital city of Santo Domingo, where most of the island’s Dominican action is set, was founded by Columbus’s brother Bartholomeo in 1494. Díaz provides a vivid reminder of this fact and its baleful consequence for the Taino Indians who inhabited the island before the arrival of Europeans in one of the many footnotes that constitute one of the most unusual structural aspects of Oscar Wao. Here, Yunior as narrator tells the story of a beautiful Taino princess by the name of Anacaona, “the most beautiful Indian in the world.” But she was also a fierce warrior who tried to rally resistance of the Taino to the Spanish invaders, who had killed her husband and were murdering her people. As Junior tells us in his inimitable style, the Spanish “started going all Hannibal Lecter on the Tainos.” He notes that Anacaona herself was captured and hanged, though only after she rejected an offer of clemency if she would marry a Spanish leader who was obsessed with her. Then, Yunior makes the crucial move of relating the Spaniard’s attempt at the sexual exploitation of Anacaona to Trujillo’s famed habit of using his power as dictator to sexually exploit young girls: “See the trend? Trujillo wanted the Mirabal Sisters[1], and the Spaniard wanted Anacaona” (244, n. 29). In this way, Díaz subtly suggests that the Spanish conquerors whose rule led to the genocidal extermination of the Taino were the direct forerunners of Trujillo.

The Fukú and Dominican History

Oscar Wao presents us with a sort of capsule narrative of Dominican history, tied together by the notion of the fukú, presented to us in a sort of prologue that makes clear the centrality of the notion of fukúto the coming narrative:

“They say it came first from Africa, carried in the screams of the enslaved; that it was the death bane of the Tainos, uttered just as one world perished and another began; that it was a demon drawn into Creation through the nightmare door that was cracked open in the Antilles. Fukú americanus, or more colloquially, fukú—generally a curse or a doom of some kind; specifically the Curse and the Doom of the New World” (1).

This curse, the narrative eventually makes clear, began with the landing of Columbus in America, which led to the near extermination of the native peoples of the Caribbean; it then continued with the subsequent development of sugar plantations in the Caribbean, which were facilitated by the importation of African slave labor. In modern times, the fukú in the D.R. is reflected primarily in the horrors of the Trujillato, though this prologue makes very clear that the notion of the fukú continued even beyond the death of Trujillo. For one thing, Trujillo’s assassination led to the ascension to power of Joaquín Balaguer, who was possibly even more brutal, if less colorful. We also learn that the fukú can be either small or large, aimed at the private life of a lone individual or family or at the public life of an entire nation. Oscar, the text suggests, was the victim of a small fukú, while the Dominican Republic is seen as the principal victim of the large fukú, as it is “Kilometer Zero,” of this larger curse because of the role played there by Columbus and then by sugar plantations and finally by Trujillo (2)[2].

However, the D.R. is not the only nation described in Oscar Wao as a victim of the fukú. The narrator of that prologue suggests that the fukú was responsible for the assassination of U.S. President John F. Kennedy in 1963 and his brother Robert Kennedy in 1968 as retribution for the CIA-backed killing of Trujillo (3–4). We are also told that the American military defeat in Vietnam was surely due to a fukú that was placed on the American military as retribution for the fact that American President Lyndon Baines Johnson ordered an American invasion of the D.R. in 1965:

“LBJ launched an illegal invasion of the Dominican Republic (April 28, 1965). (Santo Domingo was Iraq before Iraq was Iraq.) A smashing military success for the U.S., and many of the same units and intelligence teams that took part in the “democratization” of Santo Domingo were immediately shipped off to Saigon. What do you think these soldiers, technicians, and spooks carried with them, in their rucks, in their suitcases, in their shirt pockets, on the hair inside their nostrils, caked up around their shoes? Just a little gift from my people to America, a small repayment for an unjust war. That’s right, folks. Fukú” (4).

Oscar Wao also introduces other elements of the relationship between the Dominican Republic and the United States, which is longer and more complex than many Americans realize. Oscar and his family serve as reminders of the number of Dominican Americans who still maintain ties to the D.R. and frequently move back and forth between the two countries, but the relationship between the two goes far beyond that. It has particularly involved a number of American interventions in the D.R. In addition to the assassination of Trujillo and the 1965 invasion, for example, Oscar Wao reminds us that U.S. Marines invaded the D.R. in 1916, occupying the country until 1924, then withdrawing and leaving behind a weak government that eventually led to Trujillo seizing power in 1930.

Oscar Wao’s account of Dominican history also extends beyond the Trujillo era, noting that Trujillo’s eventual successor, Joaquín Balaguer, who ruled as president from 1966 to 1978 and again from 1986 to 1996. The U.S. was again a party here, because the 1965 invasion (ostensibly aimed at eliminating communist influence in the country) led to Balaguer’s first term as president. Yunior, in his narration, makes clear his negative view of Balaguer, referring to him as a “demon,” a “ringwraith,” and as “a Negrophobe, an apologist to genocide, an election thief” (90, no. 9). Indeed, it might be significant that the narrative of Oscar Wao ends with Oscar’s brutal murder at the hands of a Dominican police apparatus that was a key to Balaguer’s power, suggesting that things might have been about to take a turn for the better in Dominican politics, which they seem to have done.

Finally, Oscar Wao makes it clear that Dominican international relations include nations other than the United States. The most obvious and important of these is Haiti, which occupies the Western 3/8 of the island of Hispaniola, the remainder of which is occupied by the D.R. There is a long history of tensions between Haiti and the D.R., dating back to the time when what is now Haiti was a French colony and what is now the D.R. was a Spanish colony, introducing cultural differences. These tensions were heightened when black slaves in Haiti staged the first successful slave revolt, eventually winning independence from France after a rebellion that lasted from 1791 to 1804. The Dominican people finally won their independence from Spain in 1821 but were promptly annexed by Haiti, winning their independence from Haiti only in 1844, in the Dominican War of Independence. Since that time, the larger D.R. has become much richer and more powerful than the impoverished Haiti, and (as Oscar Wao makes very clear) one of the key social problems in the D.R. in the twentieth century has been the brutal racist oppression of Haitians living and working in the D.R., including the Trujillo-ordered “Parsley Massacre” of October 1937, in which as many as 35,000 Haitians living in the D.R. near the Haitian border were slaughtered by Dominican forces.

Finally, as Wilks emphasizes, the Dominican is part of a broader Caribbean context, a fact to which Oscar Wao calls attention, largely through references to the broader context of Caribbean culture. For example, the novel begins with two epigraphs, one from a Fantastic Four comic from 1966, and one from “The Schooner Flight” a poem by the Nobel Prize–winning Saint Lucian[3] poet Derek Walcott. These epigraphs immediately announce the rich mixture of pop culture and high literature that will inform the upcoming novel, but the second one also indicates a borader Caribbean cultural context than just Dominican culture. Then, there is a section late in the novel, describing Oscar’s return to the D.R. in the trip that will lead to his death, that is entitled “The Condensed Notebook of a Return to a Nativeland.” As Wilks points out, this title clearly alludes to an important book-length 1939 poem entitled Cahier d ’un retour au pays natal (Notebook of a Return to the Native Land), by the Martinican[4] writer Aimé Césaire, a work that made an important contribution to the anti-colonial movement throughout the Caribbean, especially in the Francophone Caribbean. Thus, in these seemingly passing allusions, Díaz not only places his work within a broad Caribbean cultural context but indicates the richness and diversity of that context by referencing an Anglophone writer and a Francophone writer to supplement his extensive engagement with the Hispanic culture of the D.R.

Yunior and Dominican Culture

The narrator of this prologue identifies himself as the author of the upcoming novel, noting that he had posted about the fukú on an on-line message board “while I was finishing this work.” He then notes that “these days I’m nerdy like that” (6). This information might at first lead one to believe that this prologue is being narrated by Díaz himself, though a close look makes it clear that it is being narrated by one “Yunior,” a character Díaz originally created soon after graduating from Rutgers in 1992 and who has been used as a character and narrator in several of Díaz’ books[5]. In fact, most of Oscar Wao is narrated by Yunior, though parts of it are also narrated by Oscar’s older sister Lola. In this sense, he plays a role in the fiction of Díaz somewhat similar to that played by Charlie Marlow in the fiction of Joseph Conrad or by Stephen Dedalus in the fiction of James Joyce[6]. The relationship between Yunior and Díaz resembles that between Marlow and Conrad or Stephen and Joyce as well, in the sense that all three characters are semi-autobiographical and have much in common with their authors, while all three characters also deviate from their authors in important ways and are sometimes depicted in a negative light, though often (especially in the case of Díaz and Joyce) with good-natured humor.

Yunior is a somewhat problematic narrator. First of all, he has personal relationships with some of the other characters and is personally involved in some of the stories he tells, calling into question his objectivity. We also know from the evidence of his own narration that he might not always be entirely honest and has a tendency to play roles rather than simply be himself as he truly is. And, finally, he often tells stories about which he himself has incomplete information, admitting that there are sometimes “páginas en blanco” (“blank pages”) in his narrative—something that he notes is typical of Dominican history, especially during the Trujillato, when Trujillo and his henchmen were careful not to leave paper trails concerning their nefarious deeds.

Yunior is a complex character in his own right, and his attitude toward Oscar is complex as well. The two are friends and sometime college roommates, and Yunior expresses a certain amount of sympathy for Oscar, though he can also be rather harsh in his descriptions of Oscar’s excesses. In many ways, in fact, Yunior is the polar opposite of Oscar. Like Oscar, he participates in multiple identities, but, unlike Oscar, he manages to at least seem to inhabit all of them relatively comfortably, even if he is not really happy with any of them.

Oscar Wao and Nerd Culture

One unusual dynamic at work in Oscar Wao is that its title character and ostensible protagonist does not dominate the text nearly to the extent that the protagonists of most Western novels dominate their texts. As a result, Oscar Wao is far less thoroughly informed by the ideology of individualism than are most Western novels. Junior is, in fact, the major character, and we always view Oscar from a distance—from Yunior’s perspective. The characters in the novel form very much an ensemble cast, as different sections focus on different characters and have different narrators. Oscar does not even appear at all during long segments of the novel, many of which take place long before his birth. For example, from evidence in the novel[7], we can deduce that Oscar was born in about 1968. Trujillo was assassinated (by CIA-backed attackers) in 1961 (and much of the Trujillo-related action of the novel occurs in the 1930s and 1940s), so there is no overlap between the life of Oscar and the reign of Trujillo, known in the D.R. as El Trujillato.

Of course, it makes perfect sense that Oscar would, in many ways, be marginal to his story because his most distinctive characteristic is his standing as the ultimate and perpetual outsider. Indeed, Oscar is such an outsider even to his own story that his name isn’t even “Oscar Wao”—it is, in fact, Oscar de León. At one point during his college career at Rutgers, Yunior tells him that he looks just like “that fat homo Oscar Wilde” (180). Another student, Melvin, overhears but misunderstands (possibly knowingly) and asks, in Spanish, who this “Oscar Wao” is. From that point, the nickname sticks to Oscar so thoroughly that he himself begins to accept the appellation.

Yunior’s homophobic remark about Wilde is an example of the numerous moments when he is shown in a rather unflattering light, though one could speculate that here he is merely playing the role of the macho Dominican male for the consumption of his fellow students. Oscar, on the other hand, is much more honest, and many of his troubles originate in the fact that he makes absolutely no attempt to disguise how nerdy he is, which means that he, unlike Yunior (or at least Yunior when he is playing that role) is anything but the typical macho Dominican male. Yunior informs us early in the novel that “Our hero was not one of those Dominican cats everybody’s always going on about—he wasn’t no home-run hitter or a fly bachatero[8], not a playboy with a million hots on his jock. And except for one period early in his life, dude never had much luck with the females (how very un-Dominican of him)” (11). Oscar, of course, is perfectly aware that he, clumsy with women and grossly overweight, does not match the stereotypical image of the athletic, hyper-masculine Dominican male, smooth with women and proud of his physical prowess. So, like many young American males who feel unable to live up to the mainstream expectations of patriarchal masculinity, Oscar retreats into the world of nerd culture, immersing himself in role-playing games and in science fiction and fantasy novels and films. The problem in Oscar’s case is that, as a dark-skinned Hispanic, he also doesn’t really fit in with the overwhelmingly white world of nerd culture, either. Indeed, Oscar is doubly cursed: his turn to nerddom alienates him from his own Dominican culture, while his Dominican background prevents him from being completely accepted within nerd culture, despite his affinity for it.

In one key passage, Yunior sums up Oscar’s immersion in nerd culture:

“You couldn’t have torn him away from any movie or TV show or cartoon where there were monsters or spaceships or mutants or doomsday devices or destinies or magic or evil villains. In these pursuits alone Oscar showed the genius his grandmother insisted was part of the family patrimony. Could write in Elvish, could speak Chakobsa, could differentiate between a Slan, a Dorsai, and a Lensman in acute detail, knew more about the Marvel Universe than Stan Lee, and was a role-playing game fanatic. (If only he’d been good at videogames it would have been a slam dunk but despite owning an Atari and an Intellivision he didn’t have the reflexes for it.) (22).

In addition, Yunior notes, Oscar displays his nerdiness quite openly, despite the trouble that sometimes causes for him: “Dude wore his nerdiness like a Jedi wore his light saber or a Lensman her lens. Couldn’t have passed for Normal if he’d wanted to” (22). Of course, Yunior’s ability to draw upon all of this material from nerd culture in his description makes us suspect that Yunior, concerned with presenting a more conventional Dominican masculine façade, is himself much more at home with nerd culture than he admits.

Here, it is worth noting that Oscar’s turn to nerd culture begins at age seven back in 1975, when being a nerd was much more decidedly uncool than it is now. In particular, Oscar was already a nerd long before the personal computer that would ultimately become central to nerd had gone into wide use. Indeed, the rise of the personal computer contributed to much more positive representations of nerds in popular culture, as in the figure of the “hacker,” who became a sort of nerd outlaw. Meanwhile, entrepreneurial nerds such as Steve Jobs and Bill Gates also helped to create a much more positive image of nerds in mainstream culture, typically as swashbuckling figures of renegade (but still very capitalist) enterprise. In their wake, the next generation of capitalist nerds would be led by Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk, who were successful enough to become the two richest men in the world—rich enough to build their own spacecrafts, something poor Oscar could have never dreamed of doing.

American nerd culture is a classic case of a “subculture” of the kind discussed by Dick Hebdige in an important and influential study that focused especially on British punk culture. For Hebdige, disaffected youth, feeling excluded from the mainstream culture, often express their identities by developing a distinct cultural style of their own. However, Hebdige argues that even the most radical subcultures have a tendency to be appropriated by the mainstream if they are successful enough, becoming simply another sort of commodity: “Youth cultural styles may begin by offering symbolic challenges, but they must inevitably end by establishing new sets of conventions; by creating new commodities, new industries, or rejuvenating old ones” (96). In short, the very countercultural forces that were originally meant to oppose the dehumanizing and spiritually impoverishing power of the system of capitalist commodification themselves tend to be co-opted by that system and to become a part of it.

The conversion of American nerd culture into a new form of cool, but a cool that is reflected largely in the economic success of nerds from Steve Jobs to Elon Musk, would seem to be a classic case of this sort of co-optation of a subculture. However, though Oscar becomes an avid computer user in the course of the 1980s, he uses his computer mostly for word processing in the composition of his endless string of science fiction and fantasy novels, none of which will ever be published. Thus, as usual, poor Oscar misses out on a chance at success in the burgeoning computer indsutry, being left behind even by the nerd culture he so cherishes.

In the meantime, Oscar’s status as a nerd who lacks the supposedly typical skills of a Dominican male in seducing women (and one suspects that this stereotype should be questioned, given that Oscar is Dominican) is complicated by the fact that Oscar, if anything, seems to want sex even more than the typical adolescent male. When he does finally lose his virginity, it is with Ybón, a middle-aged prostitute back in Santo Domingo. However, despite Ybón’s profession, Oscar seems genuinely to love her, or to think he does (though there are plenty of reasons to wonder whether his judgment is to be trusted in this area). In any case, whereas Yunior jumps from one woman to another, treating them all like objects (though he does seem to have a special fondness for Lola), Oscar seems genuinely devoted to Ybón, despite the fact that she is already also involved with a local police captain. This latter fact poses considerable danger for Oscar and ultimately leads to his shocking murder. In the meantime, though, he has that brief relationship with Ybón, a relationship that (at least as Yunior describes it) is informed by almost heartbreaking tenderness. Indeed, the description of Oscar’s feelings for Ybón, while perhaps making Oscar seem a bit foolhardy, does at least make him seem earnest in his feelings for the woman in ways that go well beyond what is, for Oscar, the amazing experience of finally having sex. He sends Yunior a written account of his time with Ybón, noting that “what really got him was not the bam-bam-bam of sex—it was the little intimacies that he’d never in his whole life anticipated, like combing her hair or getting her underwear off a line or watching her walk naked to the bathroom or the way she would suddenly sit on his lap and put her face into his neck. The intimacies like listening to her tell him about being a little girl and him telling her that he’d been a virgin all his life” (334). Yunior then ends his narration with a final summary of Oscar’s account of the experience with Ybón, an account that gains poignancy from the fact that Yunior receives it only after Oscar’s gruesome death: “If only I’d known. The beauty! The beauty!” (336)

This is no declaration of conquest by a macho Latin lover. This is a sincere expression of joy and appreciation at having established some genuine intimacy with another human being. It is Oscar at his finest and most sympathetic. Thus, a story that can humorous, bawdy, and silly ends on a note that is both affirmative and heartbreaking. It seems wondrous that Oscar was able to have such an experience at least once in his brief life, but also tragic that the circumstances of that experience almost inevitably led to his death, thus potentially casting doubt on the meaning of the entire experience.

The Women of Oscar Wao

Oscar Wao is an extremely masculine text, in which women function primarily as the other, either as unsolvable mysteries (in the case of Oscar) or objects of sexual conquest (in the case of Yunior) for men. Indeed, the hypersexualization of the women in Oscar Wao has been the subject of much critical discussion, and it is certainly problematic that women are characterized so often in the novel in terms of specific body parts or of how sexually attractive they are to men. We should remember, of course, that the principal voice we hear in Oscar Wao, though created by Díaz, is not that of Díaz himself, but of Yunior, a character who has a certain autobiographical relationship with Díaz, but who also maintains an ironic distance from his creator. In short, the attitude toward women that we see in Oscar Wao is primarily the attitude of Yunior, which is not necessarily the same as the attitude of Díaz.  

Discussing this aspect of the novel, Hakyoung Ahn concludes that the hypersexualization of women in Oscar Wao is related to its vision of Dominican diasporic history as an ongoing trauma, with rape as its defining metaphor: “Trauma leaves everyone internally and externally displaced; Díaz’s novel connects the external displacement of migrant diaspora to the internal displacement of the feminine within the construction of a diasporic masculine identity, as a rape trauma that transcends generations and national borders. In the wake of Díaz’s self-admittedly autobiographical depiction of Yunior, this displacement not only inflects the author’s critique of the narrator’s exploitation of women both physically and narratively but also casts the author as complicit” (227). In short, Díaz maintains a critical distance from Yunior’s hypersexualization of women, but not a complete distance.

It is also worth noting, meanwhile, that women do, in fact, play an extremely important role in the text, well beyond their roles as sexual objects for men. For one thing, Lola shares the duties of narrator with Yunior (even though his role in this sense is much larger). For another thing, a number of women are portrayed in extremely positive ways, ultimately suggesting a portrait of Dominican women as strong, fierce, intelligent, courageous, and faithful (though, of course, not all Dominican women are the same, just as not all Dominican men are the same). Moreover, with the story of the warrior-princess Anacaona in the background, Oscar Wao suggests that this legacy of strength is a long one, despite an equally long legacy of exploitation and oppression.

In terms of the actual characters in the novel, there are actually as many important female characters in the book as male ones, even though Oscar and Yunior tower over all of the other characters in importance. The most important female character in the novel is Lola, partly because she is both Oscar’s sister and Yunior’s girlfriend. However, perhaps as a way of avoiding any suggestion that Lola is only important because of her relationship with these male characters, Lola also serves both as the central character and as the narrator in two sections of the novel in which Oscar and Yunior are not even involved. In the first of these (the second chapter of Part I, entitled “Wildwood, 1982–1985”), Lola relates her difficult relationship with her mother, which drives her into goth-punk culture in an attempt to establish an independent identity for herself. Thus, she resembles Oscar in that she feels alienated from her family and from the mainstream around her, then responds by seeking a place for herself within a subculture. Lola is also very devoted to and intensely protective of her brother, but in most ways the two siblings couldn’t be more different.

After Lola runs away from home with her questionable white boyfriend Aldo, their mother (with Oscar’s reluctant help) tracks down Lola and sends her back to the D.R. to live with an old woman relative, La Inca. Another chapter of the novel, also narrated by Lola, describes her experiences during this “exile,” though in fact she seems to feel more at home in Santo Domingo than she had in Paterson. In fact, free from the conflicts with her dominating mother, Lola blossoms back in Santo Domingo. For example, she becomes a high school track star, demonstrating that she is very athletic, unlike her brother. She also seems very attractive to the opposite sex, though she doesn’t necessarily choose her men (including Aldo and Yunior) very wisely. Indeed, she becomes even more attractive in the D.R. when a friend helps her learn to do her hair and makeup properly. She even acquires a faithful boyfriend, Max, though she eventually rejects his advances (after she learns that she is being ordered back to Paterson)—and then feels terrible when he is subsequently killed in a traffic accident. Eventually, Lola marries a Cuban man and seems to be happy in that marriage as the novel ends, suggesting that she has finally achieved a successful relationship.

The mother of Lola and Oscar, Hypatía Belicia Cabral (generally referred to simply as “Beli” in the text), is another important (and extremely complex) female character in Oscar Wao. Abandoned by her husband soon after Oscar’s birth, Beli is in some ways the prototypical hard-working immigrant mother, working multiple jobs to be able to give her children a good home, even when she is suffering from breast cancer. In other ways, though, she is a problematic figure, often distant from her children and making little effort to see things from their points of view. In fact, at times she can be downright abusive. Beli, however, has her own backstory. For one thing, she grew up in D.R. during the Trujillato, which is bad enough in itself. But it is especially bad in her case because her father, Abelard Cabral, a respected medical doctor in Santo Domingo, had been arrested while Beli’s mother was pregnant with her because of his refusal to hand over his beautiful oldest daughter, Jacqueline, to be sexually exploited by Trujillo.

The story of Abelard is one of the most vivid accounts we have of the abuses of the Trujillo regime. Though he is well educated, affluent, and well connected, Abelard has no chance once he finds himself standing in the way of Trujillo’s abusive sexual impulses. Once it becomes clear that he will never yield to Trujillo’s demands regarding Jackie, Abelard is immediately arrested on trumped-up charges. Then he is brutally tortured and finally murdered while in custody. Jackie somehow escapes Trujillo’s clutches, but most of Abelard’s possessions, including the four books he authored and the many books he owned, disappear from the face of the earth, destroyed by Trujillo’s agents in an apparent attempt to erase all traces of Abelard’s existence. Not even a sample of Abelard’s handwriting survives.

Beli’s mother Socorro, Abelard’s nurse, commits suicide soon after Beli’s birth, leaving the infant to experience a nightmare of neglect and abuse at the hands of distant relatives until she finally winds up with La Inca, the cousin of her father, and is given a relatively stable life. Beli comes to regard her time with La Inca as “Sanctuary,” seeing La Inca as “the mother she never had” (259). Among other things, La Inca tells Beli about her parents, about whom she had previously known nothing, instilling in her a sense of pride in her family heritage. Beli blossoms in La Inca’s care, but her newfound beauty only gets her into trouble when she becomes involved in a (predictably disastrous) affair with the Gangster, one of Trujillo’s henchmen. Beli becomes pregnant and is abandoned by the Gangster, then beaten nearly to death before finally returning to New Jersey.

La Inca is herself a very interesting character, even though she is one whose point of view we do not get to know well. She functions primarily as a mother figure to both Beli and Lola, though it is also the case that, by the time Lola comes to live with her, La Inca is old and perhaps a bit out of touch with the lives of young people such as Lola. She does her best, though, as she tells Beli, and there is very little reason to dislike her as a character, except for the fact that she is a bit stereotypically nurturing in her motherly role.


Melissa Gonzalez sees the final reference in the novel to Oscar’s double declaration of the “beauty” of life as a reversal of the famous declaration by Joseph Conrad’s Kurtz in Heart of Darkness of “The horror, the horror” (291). However, despite this hopeful ending, I think Gonzalez is also correct when she argues that Oscar Wao primarily serves as a critique of the prevailing postcolonial capitalist order that seeks more to diagnose the negative characteristics of that order than to imagine positive, utopian alternatives. For her, Oscar Wao ultimately emphasizes not escape from the power of the prevailing order but ways of better living within that order. Hellman thus concludes: “Despite the failures of older dreams of emancipation, despite our subjection to capitalism, and despite our subjectivity being constantly made and remade in negotiation with external social and textual forces, the novel ultimately asserts that it is worthwhile to continue writing, critiquing, and resisting the world and its ideologies of sex and race” (291). Put differently, Oscar Wao diagnoses a number of systemic problems in both American and Dominican society but offers no real program for solving those problems. Instead, it suggests that, in the meantime there are ways to have a better life within that order thanks to the pleasures that are to be had within that order, whether they come from personal relationships or from experiencing cultural texts such as the books and films Oscar reads and watches—or the books Díaz writes. As far as the books Oscar writes are concerned, Lola wants Oscar to become the Dominican James Joyce, while Oscar himself prefers to imagine becoming the Dominican Tolkien. On the evidence of this novel, Juno Díaz is neither of those: he is the Dominican Juno Díaz, seeking a new, original voice rather than trying to be a Dominican echo of established Western voices.

Works Cited

Ahn, Hakyoung. “Masculine Failure:Rape Culture and Intergenerational Trauma
in Junot Díaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.” Displaced: Literature of Indigeneity, Migration, and Trauma. Edited by Kate Rose, Routledge; 2020, pp. 214–28.

Díaz, Junot. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. Riverhead Books, 2007.

Gonzalez, Melissa M. “‘The Only Way Out Is In’: Power, Race, and Sexuality Under Capitalism in The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.” Critique: Studies in Contemporary Fiction, vol. 57, no. 3, 216, pp. 279–93.

Hebdige, Dick. Subculture: The Meaning of Style. Rev. ed. London: Routledge, 1979.

Hellman, Caroline Chamberlin. Children of the Raven and the Whale: Visions and Revisions in American Literature. University of Virginia Press, 2019.

Lee, Joori Joyce. “Invoking Joyce, Avoiding Imitation: Junot Díaz’s Portrait of Nerds in The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.” Ariel: A Review of International English Literature, Vol. 47, No. 3, July 2016, pp. 23–43

Wilks, Jennifer M. “Dominican Décalage: Comparative Negotiations of Race and Gender in Junot Díaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.” Comparative Literature Studies, vol. 56, no. 2, 2019, pp. 348–73.


[1] One of Trujillo’s most famous excesses involved three Dominican sisters, Patria, Minerva, and María Teresa Mirabal, at least one of whom Trujillo unsuccessfully attempted to seduce and all three of whom became members of the underground resistance to the dictator. All three were murdered (almost certainly on the orders of Trujillo) in November 1960, causing an international outcry and probably contributing to the decision of the CIA to aid the resistance in assassinating Trujillo himself six months later.

[2] The prologue also introduces the concept of the “zafa,” or counterspell, intended to work as a counter to the fukú or other bad things. The narrator admits that the concept of zafa seems less pop[ular now than it used to be (and it is certainly less prominent in this text than is the fukú). However, the narrator ends the prologue by wondering “if this book ain’t a zafa of sorts. My very own counterspell” (7).

[3] Saint Lucia is a small island nation in the Lesser Antilles, to the southeast of Hispaniola. The French and British contested control of the island for years, but the British took firm control from 1814 until eventual independence in 1979.

[4] Martinique is an island in the Lesser Antilles, just north of Saint Lucia. Once a French colony, Martinique is now an integral part of the French Republic.

[5] Yunior was born in Santo Domingo and lived there until he was nine years old, as we learn a footnote (253, no. 31). Oscar, by contrast, lived in the D.R. only “for the first couple of years of his life” (21, no. 6).

[6] For an extended argument that Joyce might have been an important influence on Díaz, see Lee. Influence or not, there are numerous points of contact between Díaz and Joyce, perhaps the most important of which is that both are writing as postcolonial writers in exile, challenging the power dominant Western literary traditions. Thus, Hellman notes with regard to Díaz’s relationship with Ernest Hemingway, “Here I propose a new category of intertextuality: literary colonialism, in which an author responds not to geographic occupation but to canonical occupation, and seeks to reclaim this space” (68). It might also be noted that Díaz resembles Joyce in that both employ frequent allusions to both high literature and popular culture, thus undermining the traditional hierarchical relationship between the two.

[7] The first chapter of the novel is titled “GhettoNerd at the End of the World, 1975–1987.” It begins, we are told near the beginning of the chapter, when Oscar is seven years old. Depending on the month is which Oscar was born, something we do not learn in the course of the novel, he could have been born in 1967 or 1968. As Díaz himself was born in 1968, it seems reasonable to go with that year.

[8] A “home-run” hitter literally refers to the importance of baseball in Dominican culture and figuratively refers to sexual success with women. A “bachatero” is a man who sings or dances to a form of music called bachata. The dance that accompanies bachata music includes exaggerated pelvic flourishes that are quite sexually suggestive. The suggestion that Oscar is no bachatero literally that he is not a smooth Latin dancer and figurately implies that he is not great at sex. Yunior’s language often operates on multiple levels at once.