In The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (2007) Dominican American author, Junot Diaz, chronicles the life and death of Oscar de Leon, an overweight, fantasy and science fiction obsessed, Dominican boy growing up in Paterson, New Jersey. But the focus is not on Oscar alone. Through overlapping storylines, languages, and narrators, the stories of his family’s many struggles and misfortunes, thought to be brought on by a curse called the fuku, are also revealed.
Themes of Novel
Oscar’s story is often overshadowed in the book. The recounting of his literary projects, unrequited love struggles, and failed suicide attempt are interrupted with stories of the women in his life and of the family’s past in the old world. Even in the narrative of the book that bears his name, poor Oscar is marginalized.
This theme of marginalization is prominent throughout the book. It is most obviously explored through Oscar’s character. With his nerdiness, social awkwardness, and failure to get laid and be a real Dominican man, Oscar is always an outsider. He is plagued not only with not being seen as a real man, but also not being seen as a real Dominican.
This immigrant struggle of feeling that you never quite belong anywhere is one that every character experiences. Their identities have all been shaped by their own search to belong to something, to someone, to somewhere. This struggle is what unites them. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is poignant literary commentary on how the personal struggle to find or create one’s own identity can be affected and even defined by immigration, multiculturalism and transnationalism.
The term was firstly used about hundred years ago. Back then, the idea of it was not that clear and the definition was vague. However, later on, with the progressive changing of countries, cultures, social significance and people, the idea of transnationalism became broader and clearer. To be more precise when it comes to defining the term, it can be stated that transnationalism has to do mostly with crossing the borders of national interests and boundaries. This social phenomenon is tightly related to interrelation between people, social and economic significance. In other words, it shows new way of thinking about relationships between cultures.
There are several major topics which transnationalism addresses. Among them are economic globalization, transnationalization of culture, states and classes. The economic processes involve the global restructuring of the production process, in which numerous phases of the production of any product can arise in different countries, typically with the goal of diminishing costs. The second topic is related to transnationalization of culture, state and classes which is directly related to the main issue in this blog. The idea of crossing the borders and accepting the changes of different cultures and classes is important stage of accomplishing successfully the transnationalization of any of the above mentioned. Therefore, it is crucial to relate to the dispersion and extension of political, social, economic processes among and beyond the independent jurisdictional limitations of nation-states.
Transnationalism and Oscar
At the beginning, the narrator mentions Oscar’s family curse, fukú. This doom on Oscar certainly develops itself during Oscar’s sad quest for love. As he searches for a place to belong and a woman to love, the fantasy and science fiction books that Oscar form his personality are symbolic of his struggle. In these books, the characters go through intense missions and quests to save the world and eventually fall in love, like how Oscar desires. These books’ struggles are an exaggerated depiction of, truly, what goes on in Oscar’s head. He wants to save the world, but in his eyes, the “world” is himself; he wanted to break free of his marginalization and create his own peaceful world where nerdism ruled and Oscar was king. Ultimately, he wanted a place where he was not an outsider.
However, the Dominican idea of a “machismo” man represents traditionalism and, to Oscar, a fettering force. Perhaps, it is the perception of being a traditional, good Dominican boy that leads Oscar to struggle immensely with his identity until his death. In this case, the transnational influences of being a proper “Dominican man” lead him to succumb to the worst of his family’s fukú.
No matter what he believed or went, fukú followed him. Therefore, fukú’s relationship with Oscar is probably the novel’s best symbol of transnationalism.
"Because no matter what you believe, fukú believes in you." - Epigraph of The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao
Transnationalism and Lola
Lola is an intelligent independent woman in a society where generic gender norms are highly valued. In the Dominican society in the book women tend to always be in abusive relationship with men and even though Lola is portrayed as a more modern woman, she cannot escape the same faith. Escape and the character of Lola seem to go hand in hand. As she longs to escape her home town and the role she is meant to play as a well-behaved Dominican girl. The author even links the theme of running away with Lola’s literal running on a track.
We can really see the distance of cultures when it comes to Lola and her relationship with her mother. The character’s rebellion is expressed through her becoming a punk girl and shaving her hair, actions her mother strongly disapproves of. But even though Lola is scrutinized for being different and not belonging she does the same to her brother Oscar. She is very kind and caring towards him, but still fails to accept him as he is and longs for him to be more like the average Dominican male.
Even though we find Lola happy at the end of the novel, the fear of fukú still lingers on, as her daughter wears charms against evil around her neck (azabaches).
In the End...
The world today is becoming more connected on an emotional and physical level. Changes in technology continue to blur the lines between traditional borders and spread the wings of transnationalism. In this book, Oscar and Lola maintain their individual struggles with the extent to conform to their traditional cultures while also reaching out to cultures beyond what borders dictate they should know. Sometimes, these competing influences lead people to do seemingly irrational things and stir up feelings of not belonging; this is what mostly Oscar feels through much of the novel.
We all may have our own fukú, but that does not mean we should live in fear of it. Even though fukú will always believe in us, we should still believe in each other and embrace the differences that make us who we are.
Does the book ultimately present transnationalism in a positive or negative light? Why or why not?
Do you think Oscars unhappiness is due to transnationalism or something else?
Transnationalism affects all characters in the novel. Who does it affect the most? How so?