Even as Junot Diaz freely employs postmodern literary strategies, such as writing himself into the text and thereby radically blurring the distinction between author and narrator, he implicitly challenges the core tenet and grounding premise of poststructuralist theory, epitomized in Derrida’s claim that all language statements are indeterminable because language is socially constructed and words are “infinitely iterable.” Alex Thomson explains Derrida’s concept of iterability this way: “the ideality of written and verbal signs . . . allows them to be repeated, used, and understood in new contexts, to mean things quite different from what was originally ‘intended’ by them.” Thus, there is no “single, fixed, definite meaning which stands behind and apart from all its [a particular word’s] uses; ‘deconstruction’ is one of a potentially infinite series of uses of the same word, in different contexts, to communicate different meanings.”
In “Signature Event Contest,” Derrida argues that there can never be any clear communication of discernible meaning in spoken or written language because there is no direct, necessary correlation between the intent of the speaker or writer and the way his words are interpreted and understood by his listeners or readers. Since language, in Derrida’s view, is entirely socially constructed, linguistic expressions are inevitably subject to varying personal interpretations. Derrida also insists that individual words each contain within themselves their own opposite denotations, and that therefore words “iterate” constantly, taking on various shades of meaning and nuance that are potentially infinite in scope. Furthermore, since writing persists over time in the text, written statements exist independently of both author and reader, and thus automatically and continuously “deconstruct” their stated meanings, due to the slippery nature of language itself.
Moreover, according to poststructuralist theory, reality itself must be regarded as subjectively and semantically constructed; Alex Thomson puts it this way: “If writing is iterable, so is ‘reality’: if there is nothing beyond textuality, it is not merely because our understanding of the word becomes heavily mediated through cultural assumptions . . . but because in its very structure, an ‘event’ is like a word, a text. Events are ‘iterable’: they can be cited, discussed, and examined in new contexts” (305). The idea that events are textual suggests that reality itself is constructed by language, a notion that approaches metaphysical subjectivism (as well as subjective idealism), as familiarly articulated in the popular expression “perception is reality.” This is tantamount to asserting that reality can only be what the individual person claims it to be, since language actually establishes, rather than merely represents the world around us.
Because iterable word meanings (as well as iterable events) become complicated and obscured by intention and interpretation, as well as altered by social and historical context, the import of semantic significance necessarily varies from person to person, which implies that linguistic expressions can ultimately be said to mean only what any given individual says they mean. If interpretation and understanding remain ultimately undecidable due to individual variance, then articulating any general consensus regarding events, as well as arriving at agreement on moral standards for evaluating them, becomes impossible, since human perceptions are inherently relative. All we can examine or evaluate is the concrete, particular expression, text, situation, or occurrence; there is no possibility of formulating broadly encompassing narratives or postulating universal ethical principles that support basic human rights, since semantic meaning (and thus reality itself) varies from person to person, culture to culture, and context to context.
Of course, individual literary critics express their own various perspectives and personal points of view regarding texts, events, and ethics; poststructuralism represents a general tendency in contemporary thinking and analysis, not a rigidly organized doctrinal system. Yet the overall emphasis that poststructuralist theory places on the inevitable deconstruction of intended meanings, so that any given statement or text is seen as automatically and necessarily undermining itself, leads not only to an intellectual ethos of implicit moral and cultural relativism, but also to a pervasive skepticism regarding encompassing statements about reality -- a tendency that has become especially problematic with regard to poststructuralist claims about the constructed nature of history, and the supposed collapse of distinction between center and periphery.
The associated problems of deconstruction and moral relativism are of particular concern when it comes to interpreting and understanding Junot Diaz’s fiction, because for all his respect for the play and plasticity of language, and reliance on postmodern literary strategies, Diaz boldly challenges readers to confront and account for the moral outrages of unprecedented genocide and brutal human bondage at the core of Western history, as well as the extreme economic inequality and worsening deprivation and misery that pervades the neoliberal present. Diaz also forces us to confront the grim prospect of possible species suicide that is being insidiously perpetrated by transnational corporate capitalism’s cannibalistic avarice. Despite these pressing concerns and disturbing themes, most of the critical discussion of Diaz’s work to date -- due to the pervasive influence of poststructuralist theory -- remains focused on how his texts supposedly deconstruct and undermine their apparent meaning.
Poststructuralist theory has produced significant benefits for human understanding, proponents argue, in that deconstruction has provided a useful tool for challenging what Lyotard refers to as “grand narratives;” one would think this might be especially applicable to narratives promoted as justifications for European conquest, colonization, and imperial exploitation of the globe. Thus, as a result of the deconstruction of dominant First World discourse, we would no longer accept claims of white racial superiority, for example, nor automatically subscribe to devious notions such as the self-proclaimed, self-justifying “civilizing mission” of the colonial-imperial project. Imperial discourse would thus be subjected to compelling interrogation from multiple perspectives and widely varying voices.
Yet the poststructuralist proposition that there can be no general truth statements, or “grand narratives,” challenges the legitimacy of counter narratives as well -- such as those proposed by Diaz -- and thus, ironically, undermines or “deconstructs” itself, since this sweeping prohibition asserts a universal truth claim even as it denies the validity of any and all universal truth claims. David Hirsch describes the difficulty with the poststructuralist position as a “plethora of contradictions: for example, there is no absolute truth, except the absolute truth that there is no absolute truth; consciousness . . . is historically determined, but . . . there is no subject; the subject . . . does not exist, but the deconstructionists . . . speak and act as if they were individual subjects; [they] are opposed to all forms of authority . . . except that they claim authority for their own writings.”
According to Chris Snipp-Walmsley, the conflation of postmodernist and poststructuralist theory results in a world view wherein “a wholesale relativism . . . has infringed upon all areas of knowledge and interest, leading to a wholesale skepticism about truth, ethics, value, and responsibility.” Poststructuralism “advocates the dissolution of the grand narratives and is, in itself, the grand narrative of the end of grand narratives. . . . it is the cultural logic of late capitalism; it is the loss of the real” (405-06). The human individual is stripped of all agency, for she is “culturally determined and created by the various discourses of power and language games that flow through and from her” (408). As a result, the “tragic becomes farcical, because the search for, and belief in, Truth has been discarded” (410). As the “logic of late capitalism,” poststructuralist theory, intentionally or not, thus serves as a convenient form of contemporary ideological justification for the ongoing, exacerbating exploitation engineered by the imperial project that dates back half a millennium.
Poststructuralist skepticism, according to Snipp-Walmsley, derives from Derrida’s insistence on the indeterminacy of all language statements: “Derrida argued . . . that no sign or system of signs is ever stable; meaning is always deferred, and any system or explanation is always undone by the elements it contains but needs to suppress. These aporias, or self-contradictory impasses, effectively deconstruct any authoritative claim or explanation. Reality is not only constructed through language; it is . . . always already textual. There is no way of escaping the endless chain of reference. There is no outside vantage-point or transcendental position which would allow any effective or lasting guarantee. . . . Truth is always contingent. . . . Ethics, values, and truths are always relative” (411).
Catherine Belsey attempts to defend deconstruction from the charge of moral relativism; Belsey contends that Derrida’s key insight, supposedly based on Saussure’s structuralism, is that “language is not ours to possess, but always pre-exists us and comes from the outside . . . ideas . . . are language’s effect rather than its cause [therefore] there is no final answer to the question of what any particular example of language in action ultimately means.” Nevertheless, Belsey assures us, “That does not imply . . . that it can mean whatever we like . . . a specific instance of signifying practice can mean whatever the shared and public possibilities of those signifiers in that order will permit.” In Belsey’s view, we are not dealing with moral relativism -- although this is far from obvious -- so much as cultural relativism.
One cannot hope to arrive at the universal ethic that Kwame Anthony Appiah appeals for if it is impossible to talk about universals at all. Christopher Butler notes that for poststructuralists, all propositions consist of mutually contradictory binaries, which can be resolved because “they depend on one another for their definition.” According to this assumption, “binaries can be undone or reversed, often to paradoxical effect, so that truth is ‘really’ a kind of fiction, reading is always a form of misreading, and, most fundamentally, understanding is always a form of misunderstanding, because it is never direct, is always a form of partial interpretation.” The key assertion of poststructuralists, that language pre-exists and thus constructs the subject, thus necessarily leads to both epistemic and moral relativism, because “the world, its social systems, human identity even, are not givens, somehow guaranteed by a language which corresponds to reality, but are constructed by us in language, in ways that can never be justified by the claim that this is the way things ‘really’ are. We live, not inside reality, but inside our representations of it.” [Butler’s emphasis].
This means, Catherine Belsey asserts, that there can be no discussion of universal principles with respect to social justice or human rights: “Deconstruction . . . pushes meaning toward undecidability, and in the process democratizes language. Binary oppositions do not hold, but can always be undone. The trace of otherness in the selfsame lays all oppositions open to deconstruction, leaving no pure or absolute concepts that can be taken as foundational. Meanings . . . human rights, for example, are not individual, personal, or subjective, since they emanate from language. . . . they are not given in nature or guaranteed by any existing authority.” It is interesting that Belsey seems to feel a need to front-load her claims rhetorically (“pure,” “absolute”); further, her insistence that binaries “can always be undone” expresses a sweeping, totalizing assumption. It also seems ironic that anyone would assert that deconstruction “democratizes language,” since the effect of the “undecidability” it imposes, along with its emphasis on cultural relativism, effectively disables democratic conversation about social justice and human rights. It turns out that, from a scientific perspective, it may well be that human rights actually are, in fact, “given in nature,” as suggested by John Mikhail and the current research on the Universal Moral Grammar.
With a sense of wry humor conveyed with gravity as well as playfulness, Junot Diaz poses an explicit challenge to poststructuralist moral relativism in The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. Yunior describes the police capitan who orders Oscar’s murder as “one of those very bad men that not even postmodernism can explain away. . . . Like my father, he supported the U.S. Invaders, and because he was methodical and showed absolutely no mercy to the leftists, he was launched -- no, vaulted -- into the top ranks of the military police. Was very busy under Demon Balaguer. Shooting at sindaticos from the backseat of cars. Burning down organizers’ homes. Smashing in people’s faces with crowbars.” The irony and sarcasm of the style does not relieve the moral revulsion that instinctively arises at the revelation of how this sadist “played mazel-tov on a fifteen-year-old boy’s throat with his Florscheim (another Communist troublemaker, good riddance)” (294-295), but instead reinforces the cruelty of both the agent and the political agenda that he represents. Elsewhere in the text, Diaz makes a similar sarcastic observation, though in a tone that merely makes fun of moral relativism, belittling the notion with playful disdain; as a result of the rigors of La Inca’s intensive prayer marathon, “one woman even lost the ability to determine right from wrong and a few years later became one of Balaguer’s chief deputies” (145).
Diaz challenges poststructuralist assumptions that make it impossible to question the ruthless brutality of sadists like the capitan, or the criminality of political bosses like Balaguer, who rely on the violence of hired thugs to maintain power. Poststructuralist ambivalence regarding morality ends up undermining any possibility for the type of ethical dialogue that could foster collective action leading to progressive change. This issue emerges toward the end of the legendary Chomsky-Foucault debate in the Netherlands in 1971, when Foucault insists that challenging the dominant discourse inevitably proves to be an futile project, because one must borrow the terms of that same dominant discourse in order to critique it: “these notions of human nature, of justice, of the realization of the essence of human beings, are all notions and concepts which have been formed within our civilization, within our type of knowledge and our form of philosophy, and that as a result form part of our class system; and one can’t, however regrettable it might may be, put forward these notions to describe or justify a fight which should -- and shall in principle -- overthrow the very fundaments of our society.”
Derrida would go much farther than this, for he maintains that because words always contain what Belsey describes as “traces of the selfsame in the other,” any terms or concepts one formulates in arguing for social justice inevitably deconstruct or undermine themselves, leading to a muddled state of ethical ambiguity. Whose version of social justice? Whose notion of human rights? All of these subject/cultural positions are socially constructed by what Lacan refers to as the “big Other,” by language that exists independent and outside of the individual (or in Lacan’s terms, in the unconscious part of the split self from which every individual is inherently alienated); all universal principles regarding social justice and human rights and are therefore inevitably suspect.
The paradoxical result, as Christopher Butler describes it, is a form of postmodernist-poststructuralist skepticism that indirectly supports the very authoritarianism that it purports to subvert: “Postmodernists . . . seem to call for an irreducible pluralism, cut off from any unifying frameworks of belief that might lead to common political action, and are perpetually suspicious of domination by others. In this, they have turned against those Enlightenment ideals that underlie the legal structures of most Western democratic societies, and that aimed at universalizable ideals of equality and justice. Indeed, postmodernists tend to argue that Enlightenment reason, which claimed to extend its moral ideals to all in liberty, equality, and fraternity, was ‘really’ a system of repressive, Foucauldian control, and that Reason itself, particularly in its alliance with science and technology, is incipiently totalitarian.” The unfortunate result, especially with regard to concerns about social justice and human rights, is hardly fortuitous: “For many, the postmodernist position is a disabling one -- postmodernists are just epistemological relativists, with no firm general position available to them, and so, however radical they may seem as critics, they lack a settled external viewpoint, and this means that so far as real-life ongoing politics is concerned, they are passively conservative in effect.”
David Hirsch criticizes poststructuralists for failing to account adequately even for the moral outrage of the European Holocaust of the 1930s and 1940s; given Derrida’s position that ethical principles and truth statements must be relative because meaning can never be fixed or determined, but instead always remains subject to reinterpretation and reevaluation, universal agreement in evaluating and judging the morality of Nazi practices can never be achieved: “One of the unfortunate, but perhaps not unintended, consequences of deconstructionist nihilism is the imposition of the dogma that all human acts must remain morally undifferentiated, since differance exists only in the language system, only as differences in sounds and concepts, in signifiers and signifieds, so that the only difference between a collaborator and a resister is a difference in sound images” (130).
According to Hirsch, the exclusive poststructuralist focus on the nature of language, as well as ontology and epistemology, makes attempts at drawing meaningful ethical conclusions from literary work utterly ineffective as well as totally irrelevant: “The inability of European postmodernist literary theorists . . . to face the implications of the recent cultural past of Nazism and of the genocide committed on, and in the full view of, the European continent, has rendered contemporary criticism incapable of dealing with the human dimension of literature. In its concentration on the ontological status of fictions and on the epistemic status of literature and of literary criticism itself, contemporary literary theory manages to enact a perpetual deferral of human reality” (115-116).
Sandra Cox raises similar concerns regarding the potentially disabling effects of poststructuralist criticism. Cox argues that both Junot Diaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao and Edgewick Danticat’s The Farming of the Bones evoke instinctive outrage as well as moral condemnation in response to the horrendous crimes of the Trujillo dictatorship: “the texts serve a forensic function; they revise an incomplete historical narrative,” by including the perspective of the dictator’s victims. These novels correct “a selectively constructed historical record by writing into the silences of the official history. . . . By giving voice, even through fiction, to those who witnessed, suffered through and survived the Trujillato, Danticat and Diaz contribute to a counter-narrative that refutes the official history from which those voices have been expunged.” In so doing, “they apply . . . narrative pressure in an effort to suggest the making of a value judgment” on the part of readers, a judgment presumably based on an innate sense of justice that is genetically grounded in the universal moral grammar that all human beings share (110-111).
In an intellectual atmosphere dominated by moral relativism and ontological skepticism, however, the ethical force of the literary testimony that Cox describes becomes all too easily obscured, especially when individual authors are denied personal agency in employing language to convey intended meanings. According to Cox: “The disciplinary consensus in Anglophonic literary studies to refute authorial agency arises at the same approximate time that the U.S. is opened to authors occupying historically marginal subject positions . . . this suggests that authorship became unimportant to the field at the same time that most authors deemed worthy of study were no longer from a narrow and privileged minority” (112). Challenging authorial agency naturally leads to deconstruction of the ethical import of marginal texts, because uncertainty about who is speaking inevitably leads to confusion about what is being said. Purposefully or not, the introduction of poststructuralist skepticism thus ensures that voices once silenced will now be considered irrelevant to critical discussion. As a result, the value judgments called for by both Diaz and Danticat end up being discounted and ignored.
If it is the socially constructed language that speaks or writes, rather than the individual person who consciously employs language to express a particular intended meaning, then the author of the text he or she writes is automatically stripped of both agency and intentionality. As Arif Dirlk astutely observes, “the identity of the postcolonial is no longer structural but discursive” (332), which implies that the focus of criticism must properly be the socially constructed language system that “speaks” the author, and that continually and automatically deconstructs itself, rather than what the author is actually saying about concrete conditions in the marginalized society about which he or she writes. Thus, “the term postcolonial, understood in terms of its discursive thematic, excludes from its scope most of those who inhabit or hail from postcolonial societies” (337) [Dirlik’s emphasis]. Moreover, according to Dirlik, postcolonial-poststructuralist theory “repudiates all master narratives,” which results in “rejection of capitalism as a foundational category” (334). The consequence of this theoretical bias is that postcolonial-poststructuralist criticism “disguises the power relations that shape a seemingly shapeless world and contributes to a conceptualization of that world that . . . subverts possibilities of resistance,” reducing “into problems of subjectivity and epistemology concrete and material problems of the everyday world” (355-356). Capitalism, especially in its present, particularly malevolent transnational corporate form, is quite clearly the major cause of grave injustice in the postcolonial world, and in Western societies as well. To deny captialism’s crucial importance (and even its existence) as a predominant existential force, as well as its relevance for discussions of human rights and social justice, obviously renders such conversations utterly meaningless.
It comes as no surprise, given the contemporary preponderance of poststructuralist theorization, that one encounters numerous critics who concentrate solely on the literary form of Oscar Wao, consistently arguing that the novel somehow undermines and contradicts itself, rather than engaging with the radical critique of predatory capitalism and obvious appeals to social justice and human rights that the text urgently expresses. Pamela J. Rader, for example, minimizes Diaz’s personal agency as a writer in the creative process, contending that “Diaz’s novel is his narrating character’s creation” (1), although she admits vaguely to the presence of an “author-persona speaking from the footnotes” (2) who “competes with the narrator’s tale of Oscar and his family” (4), and thus introduces a disruptive sense of skepticism regarding the veracity of the narrator’s account.
The issue of the purpose and effect of the footnotes as subtext has received much critical attention, most of it arguing that the footnotes serve to undermine and deconstruct the fictional narrative, even though close reading of the novel reveals that this is not necessarily the case. Monica Hanna observes that “traditional histories rely on what can be considered objective fact supported by accepted forms of evidence whereas Yunior’s history explicitly relies on imagination and invention” (504). Yet at the same time, Hanna notes that “lesser-known historical facts [presumably “objective” and “supported by accepted forms of evidence”] . . . are often included in footnotes modeled after those of Patrick Chamoiseau’s Texaco” (506).
Both Chamoiseau’s and Diaz’s footnotes blend documented historical fact and imaginative reconstruction, along with authorial commentary, in such complex ways that it is often impossible to tell where these separate and how they overlap. In many instances, the footnotes seem to be merely an extrapolation of the fictional account; footnote number six in Oscar Wao, for just one random example, is indistinguishable in style, tone, and substance from the superimposed narrative: “being a reader/fanboy . . . helped him get through the rough days of his youth, but it made him stick out in the mean streets of Patterson even more than he already did . . . You really want to know what being an X-Man feels like? Just be a smart bookish boy of color in a contemporary U.S. ghetto” (22). The footnote in Texaco that describes Julot the Mangy, for another random example, produces a similar effect: “He was a tall fellow, ye big, no thicker than a sigh, a skeletal face with icy eyes -- his skin wore the ever-changing shades of a thousand scars” (23). Historical fact is often peppered with authorial editorializing in both of these texts: “when twentieth-century Dominicans first uttered the word freedom en masse the demon they summoned was Balaguer” (Oscar Wao 90); for those aspiring to become affranches -- slaves who eventually won their freedom -- “There a thousand and seven hundred and fifty twelve thirteen ways [sic], of which all slaves dreamed in their quarters. The governors who read the consequences in the city police reports had nightmares” (Texaco 67). Chamoiseau and Diaz both hopelessly confuse the distinction between author and narrator, and do so quite deliberately. Chamoiseau the author writes himself into the text as a character with the obvious name Oiseau de Cham into Texaco as well as Solibo Magnificent; Diaz clearly does the same, under the name Yunior, in much of Drown, all of Oscar Wao, and to an uncertain extent This Is How You Lose Her, as well. For these two postmodernist-postcolonial writers, it is often utterly impossible to determine where the narrator begins and the author leaves off.
The correlation and conflation of author and narrator in Diaz and Chamoiseau’s fiction resonates strongly with Ramon Saldivar’s account of parabasis. The unique manner in which Diaz and Chamoiseau each blends the persona of the actual writer with that of the narrator, who appears as a semi-fictional character that is imagining and conveying the story, creates an aesthetic effect that is quite similar to the effect that Saldivar describes. In classical Greek comedy, the chorus interrupted the drama periodically, in asides, to address the audience directly and comment on relevant issues of the day. Commedia dell’arte productions during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries were marked by intermittent interruptions involving variations of form to reinforce the illusory nature of the dramatic performance. In both cases, according to Saldivar, “parabasis consists in a rupture of the illusion of the separation between the fictional and real worlds, as the audience is drawn into the illusion at the same time that the illusion reveals itself as an illusion” (579). Saldivar points out that Friedrich Schlegel regarded this persistent, interplay of reality and illusion as “irony.” The irresolvable ambiguity of the relationship of author and narrator manifested in the constant interplay between the narrative and footnotes in Oscar Wao, combined with the narrator’s persistent rhetorical strategy of direct address, sustains the tone of irony throughout Diaz’s text. Junot Diaz and Yunior function as two sides of a double or divided self.
Nevertheless, T.S. Miller, like Pamela Rader, regards the entirety of The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao as being entirely Yunior’s creation; thus Miller, too, discounts authorial agency. There are, according to Miller, actually “two Yuniors -- the closet nerd and the card-carrying nerd -- warring it out on the same page” (103), so that “events in the story [remain] undecidable . . . shifting the burden to [the] audience” (100). It is noteworthy that Miller consistently refers to Yunior, or to multiple Yuniors, as the author of the novel throughout her argument, as if Junot Diaz is irrelevant to the discussion; almost reluctantly, Miller concedes that Diaz does play a somewhat peripheral role, yet it is one that only reinforces the text’s essential ambiguity: “Diaz has designed the novel to permit a reading that ascribes . . . something defiantly postmodern and antirealist,” starting with the fact that “Yunior establishes the ontological status of the fuku as contested from the beginning” (100).
Miller does not explain exactly how Yunior establishes this uncertainty; presumably, she concurs with Monica Hanna, who claims that the initial words, “They say,” on the opening page, “signals the injection of doubt from the beginning of the first sentence” (502). Miller goes on to state unequivocally that when Yunior “proceeds to blame all of the untimely deaths in the Kennedy family and the entire Vietnam debacle on the Dominican fuku,” he does so with “a sense of self-conscious absurdity” (101), disregarding the fact that Diaz, given the context of comments elsewhere in the narrative and throughout his fiction, would probably, and quite seriously, contend instead that what occurred in Vietnam was closer to genocide than a “debacle” for the victims, and would also insist that the fuku is a manifestation of the effects of predatory capitalism extending far beyond the shores of Hispaniola. The phrase “they say” represents standard story telling technique that in no way necessarily casts doubt on the veracity of the ensuing narrative. Therefore the key phrase in the opening sentence of Oscar Wao should more aptly be regarded as “the screams of the enslaved,” an allusion to grave injustice that makes it clear that the fuku will be a matter of serious concern, rather than ambiguity, throughout the text.
Endless debate over the precise ontological/epistemic relationship of Diaz-as-author to Yunior-as-narrator can only prove ultimately fruitless, like attempting to stand on one’s own head. In the title story of This Is How You Lose Her, there is a strong suggestion, based on circumstantial evidence (such as teaching creative writing in Cambridge, for example), that Diaz himself closely resembles the narrator, whose sexual politics in that account seem nearly as problematical as Yunior’s in Oscar Wao. As Pamela Rader appropriately concedes, “the novel’s characters are created by Diaz who suggests that they are imagined by his first person narrator Yunior” (6); thus, it is only logical to conclude that, while keeping a close eye on Yunior as a character in the story, the reader must also pay careful attention to indications of Diaz’s implied perspective as author of the text. Diaz attests to this tension in an interview with Katherine Miranda, pointing out that the thing that is “really dangerous about the novel, why Yunior’s such a scary narrator, is because he’s so incredibly charming . . . He’s a fucking winner, people like this guy. And he’s a horror” (36), chiefly because of his constant philandering.
According to Diaz, focusing solely on Yunior’s perspective as narrator can cause one to misunderstand the central argument of the text, so that “many readers miss the novel’s lessons” (34). There can be no doubt that the narrative is deliberately designed to confront readers with compelling issues regarding social justice; therefore the question of the actual status of the fuku, and the possibility of a zafa for dispelling its chronic, malignant effects, must be regarded as a central focus for interpreting Oscar’s story. Ramon Saldivar argues that “justice, poetic or otherwise, is precisely what we do not get at the end of Oscar Wao” (591). Richard Patteson, on the other hand, contends that Diaz’s novel creates a space where “Hope, language, and life fall together on one end of a kind of spectrum, staring down despair, silence, and death at the opposite end” (15). It is obviously necessary for us to interpolate the conceptual dimensions of this stark critical discrepancy if we want to understand what Diaz means when he refers to “the novel’s lessons.”
It is essential to account for the perspective of the author of The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao because, despite poststructuralist insistence on the social construction of language, Junot Diaz obviously subscribes to the compelling significance of personal agency in language use. If as a young immigrant he found himself culturally constructed, as well as discounted as a member of an invisible minority, language itself became an important means for reasserting Diaz’s identity as an individual: “You come to the United States and the United States begins immediately, systematically, to erase you in every way, to suppress those things which it considers not digestible. You spend a lot of time being colonized. Then, if you’ve got the opportunity and the breathing space and the guidance, you immediately -- when you realize it -- begin to decolonize yourself. And in this process, you relearn names for yourself that you had forgotten” (896). For Diaz, language provides a crucial tool for finding the way back to one’s roots.
Diaz asserts that language establishes the bond that holds people together through shared meanings and values within a community; employing language for this purpose occurs spontaneously, and involves an intuitively understood, intrinsically creative form of dynamic human interaction: “One of the things about having childhood friends is . . . you have your own goddamn idiom. You just create this entire language, and in some ways it holds you together.” This kind of conscious, creative agency operates in and through “anyone who’s attempting to use language in an artistic enterprise . . . to say something that might even be mundane . . . in an original way. . . . language is already plastic in ways that I think are exceptional” (4). Such flexibility makes room for playfulness, yet does not at all leave us stranded in endless ambiguity.
Linguistic science confirms this concept of language plasticity. Postcolonial-postmodern writers do not require Derridean theories of indeterminacy and “infinite iterability” to support the notion of “play” in verbal and written expression, because human language by its nature is endlessly creative. Derrida’s intuitive insight was correct; he just got the linguistic science wrong, which has led to unnecessary confusion: individual words are not infinitely iterable; “dog” can never “really” mean “cat.” But people can indeed design and combine words to form an infinite variety of sentences and verbal expressions. Noam Chomsky points out that every time we walk down the street, we are hearing novel linguistic formulations that have never been articulated previously, and that may never be expressed in quite the same way again. Unique phrases that are particularly catchy and resonant often become integrated into colloquial parlance, until some new phrase catches on and replaces them. Thus, human language continues growing and changing all the time, although language is not evolving, as some try to argue. Language capacity appears to be the result of “some small genetic modification that somehow rewired the brain slightly. . . . It had to have happened in a single person. . . . [Whereby] You got an operation that enables you to take mental objects (or concepts of some sort), already constructed, and make bigger mental objects out of them. . . . As soon as you have that, you have an infinite variety of hierarchically structured expressions (and thoughts) available to you.”
Chomsky explains that this infinite linguistic potential is “based on an elementary property that also seems to be biologically isolated: the property of discrete infinity, which is exhibited in its purest form by the natural numbers 1,2,3, . . . a means to construct from a few dozen sounds an infinity of expressions.” Stephen Pinker discusses discrete infinity in some detail; Pinker concludes that there must be a generative grammar that human beings use as a code to “translate between orders of words and combinations of thoughts.” Pinker elaborates: “A grammar is an example of a ‘discrete combinatorial system.’ A finite number of discrete elements (in this case, words) are sampled, combined, and permuted to create larger structures (in this case, sentences) with properties that are quite distinct from those of their elements. . . . In a discrete combinatorial system like language, there can be an unlimited number of completely distinct combinations with an infinite range of properties. . . . each of us is capable of uttering an infinite number of different sentences.”
Derrida’s contention that there is no exact correspondence between sign and signifier -- a truism in linguistics -- does not necessarily imply that semantic communication is inevitably indeterminate. Although Diaz accepts the fact that “there’s no exchange rate of language-to-experience that ever holds steady” (In Darkness 4), he also clearly concurs with Ngugi’s claim that “without conversation . . . the human community would never come to be. We would have remained like all the other components of nature, undifferentiated from it. . . Nurture out of nature is enabled by the word as language” (38). Language makes it possible for human beings to communicate meaning efficiently and effectively enough to form collaborative communities as well as highly organized societies. This easily recognized fact, along with the compelling evidence for the innate universal grammar for language acquisition attested to by Chomsky, Pinker, and many other linguists, makes it obvious that human language is not nearly as ambiguous as Derrida seems to suggest.
Language may indeed be an imperfect medium for human communication, as Derrida insists, and linguists have long understood; Chamoiseau, through the admonitory voice of his storyteller Solibo, cautions: “To write is to take the conch out of the sea to shout: here’s the conch! The word replies: where’s the sea? . . . It’s all very nice, but you just touch the distance” (28). Yet Solibo, because he possesses the gift of language, nevertheless assures his community’s ability to endure, and embodies the common people’s abiding sense of hope. Naming him for the creole term that means “blackman fallen to his last peg -- and no ladder to climb back up,” the old women in the market “offered him tales, oh words of survival, stories of street smarts where the charcoal of despair watched small flames triumph over it, tales of resistance, all the ones that the slaves had forged on hot evenings so the sky wouldn’t fall.” In transmitting these allegories of human endurance that have been handed down through the generations, Solibo plays a crucial role as spokesperson for the subalterns of Martinician society: “They say his words were beautiful and knew the road to all ears, the invisible double doors which open the heart” (46).
Nowhere is the power and majesty of human language more evident or more clearly displayed in Chamoiseau’s evocative novel than during the elaborate celebration that the community organizes for the funeral of Ma Gnam: “Solibo Magnificent . . . got on stage. Oh language master of all things! The cops were speechless before him. Mouths and drums fell silent. His voice whirled, ample, then thin, broken, then warm, mellow, then crystal or shrill, and rounding off with low cavernous tones. A voice splitting with caresses, tears, enchantment, imperial and sobbing, and shaking with murmurs, dipping or fluttering along the frontiers of silent sound.” Even after the bloody beatings with billyclubs and mass arrests that ensue, Solibo’s eloquence inspires continuing celebration and irrepressible joy: “never, not ever, did that jail that I know so well resound with so much laughter, songs, riddles and jokes, and words, words, words . . .” (107). Chamoiseau’s tribute to the healing, rejuvenating power of language correlates well with Ngugi’s reminder to his global audience, in his passionate appeal for peace, justice, and culture: “Theory must always return to the earth to get recharged with new energy. For the word that breathes life is still needed to challenge the one that carries death and devastation” (33).
Junot Diaz not only extols language as a vehicle for evoking innate ethical principles and appealing for social justice, he shows no reluctance whatsoever in challenging the poststructuralist prohibition againstgrand narratives; thus for Diaz, the reality of the fuku is not contested at all. The curse of imperialism and predatory capitalism operates as a pervasive force not only throughout his novel, but permeates all of contemporary human affairs: “The curse of the New World is still upon us. Everything that we did in the Caribbean and the New World has had repercussions on the whole planet, and no matter how much it changes -- how much the technology creates these new paradigms, how much hegemony alters itself and mutates to deal with a more dispersed capillary, a cow of power -- the very brutal, racialized, hierarchical, Neolithic inhumanity of the ‘conquest’ of the New World, that moment we’ve not escaped from. We’re still there, we’re still in it. That’s why the Caribbean is such a fascinating place. It’s the site of the original sin upon which all of this is based” (In Darkness 8-9).
Instead of causing irresolvable uncertainty, language can create an alternative historical narrative that defies the conventions of hegemonic ideology; by incorporating the testimony of victims, language enables the human community to begin an honest assessment of the past as well as the present, with an eye toward building a more sane, just, and equitable world: “in the end what is so fascinating . . . about language is that language is in some ways a catalog or a pantheon of our survival, because in all languages -- inside of their lexicons, inside of their syllabaries -- in there are all these survivors from past catechisms . . . people are handing these tiny relics, these small . . . fragments of their survival, forward in time.” The writer can play a crucial role in furthering this process; he can appeal to a universal ethic and thereby awaken the innate conscience of humanity, eliciting the nobler qualities and capacities in human nature: “being part of that . . . you’re helping something that’s really the most human thing, because one day that’s gonna have a great purpose, one day people will remember, one day there will be a reckoning, and it’s those fragments in language that are the testimonies, the testament, to what has happened. All our history, all our crimes, all the good things we’ve done are embedded in that thing, that fluid thing we call language.” Far from producing ambiguity and indeterminacy regarding human affairs, language makes it possible “to give the illusion to the reader that they’re inhabiting a body that didn’t make it out of the abyss of exterminations. . . it’s probably a good way to humanize people” (In Darkness 8-9). “Humanizing people” is obviously Diaz’s purpose as the author of The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao; focusing solely on how his text supposedly undermines and deconstructs itself only distracts from our understanding of the crucial themes this novel is intended to convey.
Catherine Belsey insists on the ambiguous nature of moral standards that might support the notion of any form of ethical universal. Belsey claims that the fact that there are no exact equivalents from one language to another proves that language must be differential instead of referential; moreover, she asks, since “different languages divide the world up differently, and . . . different cultures lay claims to distinct beliefs, what, apart from habit, makes ‘ours’ more true than ‘theirs’? ”(70-71). Yet Belsey’s argument that “if the things or concepts language named already existed outside language, words would have exact equivalents from one language to another” (8-9) seems less than convincing given that such exact equivalents do, in fact, exist. According to Noam Chomsky, “There often are exact equivalents, just as there are from one person to another. Where there are no exact equivalents, variation is within a narrow range. Of course, if we move to connotations, associations, etc., then variability increases, but that is not a matter of language but of variation in a host of other factors that enter into our lives.” Belsey’s insists that “different languages divide up the world differently,” but this claim does not hold up under linguistic scrutiny either. Chomsky notes that a visitor from Mars “would be struck precisely by the uniformity of human languages, by the very slight variation from one language to another, and by the remarkable respects in which all languages are the same. . . . he would [also] be struck by the uniformity of human societies in every respect.” The commonly observed fact that children learn language far more efficiently than their actual experience of language can explain indicates that “in their essential properties and even down to fine detail, languages are cast to the same mold. The Martian scientist might reasonably conclude that there is a single human language, with differences only at the margins.” Catherine Belsey’s insistence that proposed ethical principles that support basic human rights must be regarded as subjective and relative, rather than innate and universal, derives largely from her misunderstanding of language, and the role of human agency in language choice.
Raymond Tallis argues that the notion that language speaks us, rather than the other way around, derives from the fact that Derrida makes a crucial error when he “extends the domination of difference (absence, negativity) from the signifier and signified taken singly (where they are indubitably the playthings of absence) to the sign-as-a-whole (a step specifically warned against by Saussure), and thence to the completed speech act. This is nonsense, of course -- the speech act does not belong to the system of signifieds and signifiers. It uses the systems, but is not part of them.” Nevertheless, poststructuralists continue to contend that language pre-exists, and therefore remains independent of the intention of the person who uses it. Lacan, blending psychoanalysis with deconstruction, labels language the “big Other,” equating it with the unconscious; according to Belsey, “The big Other is there before we are, exists outside us, and does not belong to us. . . . we necessarily borrow our terms from the Other, since we have no alternative if we want to communicate. . . . the little human organism . . . gets separated off from its surroundings and is obliged to formulate its demands in terms of the differences already available in language, however alienating these may be.”
For Tallis, the notion that language speaks or writes us is the result of a serious misinterpretation of Saussure, involving confusion over his distinction between langue and parole: “Saussure himself emphasized that the act of speech (parole) is an individual act of intelligence and will in which the speaker’s freedom of choice is only loosely constrained by the possibilities available in the linguistic system (langue). The choice is still the individual’s, and the choosing is still conscious or part of an act that is conscious. Far from decentering the self, parole requires a centered self in order that the speech act shall be spoken and enacted. The post-Saussurean claim that it is language which speaks . . . cannot be sustained . . . Parole -- actual talk -- is always rooted in particular occasions, and those occasions are not intralinguistic . . . The rules of language do not specify what we say, even less how we say it, precisely because so much of what we say is prompted by events whose occurrence is not regulated by the rules of discourse.” Tallis’s argument reinforces the significance of authorial agency as well as the essentially creative and potentially transformative qualities of language that Junot Diaz espouses and emphasizes.
Along with disregard for human agency and ethical universals, poststructuralist theory is notable for its aversion to totalizing truth statements, and to what Derrida refers to as appeals to any form of “transcendent signified.” According to Belsey, “If there are no pure, free-standing signifieds, we look in vain, Derrida explains, for the transcendental signified, the one true meaning that holds all the others in place, the foundational truth that exists without question and provides the answer to all subsidiary problems. Metaphysical systems of belief, laying claim to the truth, all appeal to some transcendental signified. For Christianity this is God, for the Enlightenment reason, and for science the laws of nature” (38).
Yet God, reason, and science cannot be equivalent, as Belsey seems to suggest they are. Religion does require belief in some form of a “God,” yet there is no way of knowing with any degree of certainty about the possible existence or exact nature of such a “transcendental signified.” If the term “God” can be said to mean anything at all, it must by definition refer to an entity that is beyond human comprehension. The human intellect is strictly circumscribed by the categories of space and time; an infinite, eternal being extends by definition far beyond the boundaries of either, and therefore must remain forever unfathomable and unknowable -- any conclusions human beings attempt to draw in that regard can only be speculative, at best, and impossible to submit for verification. Only dogmatists and authoritarians would pretend that “God” embodies “the one true meaning . . . the foundational truth that . . . provides the answer to all subsidiary problems.” For people who take the idea of God seriously, the matter ultimately reduces to incomprehensible mystery. No one can assert conclusively that God exists “without question,” or begin to describe the “foundational truth” that “God” might represent. On this question, Derrida and the poststructuralists are simply echoing the same skepticism expressed by the Enlightenment thinkers whom they purportedly scorn.
Junot Diaz, in any case, seems to believe that the indeterminacy of the concept of divinity and the inadequacy of language for conveying any clear sense of what might be involved does not at all remove the idea of God from serious consideration in the scheme of things. As with the prohibition against grand narratives, he shows himself more than ready to defy fashionable intellectual trends, with characteristic tongue-in-cheek irony. Regarding the intensive prayer marathon that La Inca initiates after Beli is recaptured by La Fea’s thugs, readers are advised: “We postmodern platanos tend to dismiss the Catholic devotion of our viejas as atavistic, an embarrassing throwback to the olden days, but it’s exactly at these moments, when all hope has vanished, when the end draws near, that prayer has dominion.” The somber tone of the second part of this compound sentence is quickly belied by the playful assurance of the opening line of the following paragraph: “Let me tell you, True Believers, in the annals of Dominican piety there has never been a prayer like this.” The irony of the parabasis is reinforced throughout the hyperbole of the ensuing description, especially the reference to participants collapsing due to “shetaat” -- spiritual burnout -- and the “plucky seven-year-old whose piety, until then, had been obscured by a penchant for blowing mucus out of her nostrils like a man,” lines that leave the audience hovering between amusement and skepticism. Yet the ensuing paragraph reintroduces the somber tone, suggesting that Diaz (or Yunior, and quite probably both) takes the idea of spiritual supplication quite seriously after all: “To exhaustion and beyond they prayed, to that glittering place where the flesh dies and is born again” (144-145).
Admittedly, one would have to be a “true believer” to accept such a credulous interpretation, yet this reading receives ample support from the repetition of allusions to mysterious spiritual interventions that repeat throughout the text, events that are not easily reducible to totalizing concepts of generic “magical realism.” In the midst of her murderous assault by the thugs in the cane field, Beli has a vision of La Inca praying, which somehow renews her collapsing courage; she is subsequently visited by a lion-like mongoose figure with chabine eyes who speaks to her prophetically about her unborn children, and whose song leads her out of the hopeless maze of the cane. Oscar is later visited by what he describes as the Golden Mongoose just before he dives drunkenly and despairingly off the railroad bridge (190); this same Mongoose appears in Oscar’s dreams shortly after his near fatal beating at the hands of Grod and Grundy, and asks: “What will it be, muchacho? . . . More or less?” (301). Oscar’s choice of “more” turns out to be pivotal not only in terms of his personal destiny, but for what Diaz refers to as the “lesson” of the novel itself.
An “Aslan-like figure with golden eyes” speaks to Oscar while he remains unconscious for three days -- like Christ in the sepulcher -- after the cane field beating; Diaz repeats the tone of ironic humor by noting that Oscar fails to comprehend what the apparition is telling him, because he “couldn’t hear a word above the blare of the merengue coming from the neighbor’s house” (302). Clives is about to give up his search for Oscar’s broken body after the relentless beating finally ends, until he hears mysterious singing and feels the rush of a “tremendous wind . . . like the blast an angel might lay down on takeoff” (300). The rhetorical strategy of repeated direct address draws readers into participation in the narrative as if they are observing the action unfolding as it would in a film or during a stage production. The tone of pervasive irony leaves it up to the audience to decide whether Yunior is serious or not when he claims: “It’s all true, plataneros. Through the numinous power of prayer La Inca saved the girl’s life, laid an A-plus zafa on the Cabral family fuku” (155). Recourse to the spiritual realm for intervention and protection is by no means a strange -- or simply “magical” -- notion among victims of violent oppression, for as Chamoiseau/Oiseau de Cham reminds us, “in these ill-fated times, a blackman’s prayer is never useless . . .” (Solibo Magnificent 86).
As with the concept of divinity, poststructuralists similarly reject the transcendental signified “Reason,” yet human reason is not a matter of ontology, like the idea of “God,” but rather an aspect of epistemology; reason is an intellectual tool that human beings employ, within the limits of space and time, to attempt to account for and explain the phenomena of experience. Reasoning can be logical or illogical, coherent or incoherent; Besley’s statement, “If there are no pure, free-standing signifieds, we look in vain . . . for the transcendental signified,” is itself a product of reason: if “a” is such and so, then “b” must logically follow. Reason can hardly be considered a “transcendental signified” at all; it does not have an independent existence in its own right, but rather is only an instrument, a means of analysis.
Of course, in situations where Reason (with a capital R) becomes touted as the only way of knowing, and is regarded as an exclusive instrument of the ruling classes, then “reason” takes on an authoritarian characteristic that needs to be challenged, as well as “deconstructed.” In Solibo Magnificent, Chamoiseau satirizes the Chief Inspector’s notion of reason, which reflects the rigid analytical methods he acquired during his professional training in France. The Chief Inspector incorrectly assumes that Solibo has been murdered; his unshakable faith in the absolute certainty of his logical conclusions leads him to calmly oversee the brutal torture of Congo, regardless of the more complex understandings he had developed as a child and adolescent growing up in the Caribbean, which his European education subsequently taught him to abjure: “the Chief Inspector had never liked the irrational side of ‘cases’ in this country. The initial facts were never reliable, a shadow of unreason, a hint of evil, clouded everything, and despite his long stay in the land of Descartes, since he had been raised in this country like the rest of us with the same knowledge of zombies and various evil soucougnans, the Inspector’s scientific efforts and cold logic often skidded. He stuck to it at the price of rather unpleasant mental exertion, but still dreamed for this country . . . of a mystery drawn with a compass (and a protractor)” (75).
In the process of investigating the mysterious circumstances surrounding Solibo’s sudden demise, the Inspector’s cold logic reduces him, along with his underlings, to the level of a savage barbarian: “They made [Congo] undress and kneel on a square, they hammered his skull and ears with thick phone books, they kicked him . . . knocked him in the liver, the balls, the nape, they crushed his fingers and blinded him with their thumbs. He who had known so much pain and so many miseries discovered a thousand more, punctuated by the Chief Inspector’s tranquil and innocent voice asking: Who killed Solibo, Mr. Congo -- and how? . . . One word: there was nothing human around there” (143-144). This graphic passage resonates powerfully with the vicious beating Beli receives at the command of the imperturbable, implacable La Fea, who “had hundreds of thousands in the bank and not one yuan of pity in her soul,” and who sits “like a shelob in her web . . . Scrutinizing Beli with unflinching iguana eyes” (139-140). La Fea’s henchmen the Elvises beat Beli “like she was a slave. Like she was a dog.” Thankfully, Yunior offers to “pass over the actual violence and report instead on the damage inflicted” (147), which is disturbing enough.
Christopher Butler notes that postmodern fiction “enacts a disturbingly skeptical triumph over our sense of reality, and hence also over the accepted narratives of history” (79). Yet history cannot be simply whatever the individual decides it to be; responsible historical accounts must include evaluation of verifiable facts which, however incomplete and subject to individual interpretation, nevertheless require acknowledgment, as well as collective assessment. Even though language is malleable, and must allow for multiple voices and perspectives, including marginalized counter-discourses deriving from wholly analogical, fantastical, non-traditional forms of “writing” such as animes, comic books, role play and video games, and so forth, neither the limitations nor iterability of linguistic expression prevents us from drawing reasonable conclusions about our collective past, shared present, and common prospects for the future. The limitations of language neither confine us to subjectivism, nor reduce us to moral relativism. We are fully capable of stringing together the threads provided by various discourses, and combining polyglot voices, including folklore, superstition, legends and traditional belief systems, into a syncretic, synthetic narrative which, while not “grand” in Lyotard’s sense, still enables us to arrive at a certain degree of reasonable consensus, however partial and incomplete.
In the 2008 interview, “In Darkness We Meet,” Junot Diaz emphasizes the self-conscious strategy behind his polyglot approach to writing: “Language eludes any attempt anyone has [i.e. makes] to control it. So, it’s always weird when people feel that there’s this sense of ownership in a language and that people try to use it to victimize other people, because language just doesn’t work that way” (3). By incorporating numerous Spanish words and phrases in an otherwise English text, which itself is a mix of formal, inner-city, hip-hop, sci-fi, fantasy, horror and comic book dialectical variations, Diaz creates a compelling counter discourse by interpolating the juncture where languages intersect. He emphasizes that in order to sustain an effective alternative narrative one must include multiple perspectives and voices, and even multiple languages, as well as mixed forms of language that result when languages interpenetrate and intermingle, as they do throughout Oscar Wao. The languages interacting throughout the text include not only Spanish and English, but also American “street language,” as well as the marginalized discourses of science fiction, fantasy, and horror. Diaz describes science fiction as having been “imported” from France and England; he includes the “indigenous” languages created by comic books and the blues, which Diaz insists have been “an important part of what we call the North American narrative, what we would call the formative literary experience” (4). All of these must be incorporated into the reexamination and reevaluation of the contemporary world that Diaz inhabits as both a Dominican and an American.
Diaz is quite deliberate in his efforts to challenge not only the dominance of Western intellectual paradigms, but the very integrity of English as a distinctive language. By incorporating numerous Spanish words and phrases, he is creating what amounts to a linguistic hybrid; he regards the resulting interpenetration of tongues as a crucial part of the process of cultural liberation and decolonization: “for me, allowing the Spanish to exist in my texts without the benefit of italics or quotation marks was a very important political move. Spanish is not a minority language . . . Why ‘other’ it? Why denormalize it? By keeping the Spanish as normative in a predominately English text, I wanted to remind readers of the fluidity of languages, the mutability of languages. And to mark how steadily English is transforming Spanish and Spanish is transforming English. . . . When I learned English in the States, this was a violent enterprise. And by forcing Spanish back into English, forcing it to deal with language it tried to exterminate in me, I’ve tried to represent a mirror-image of that violence on the page. Call it my revenge on English” (904). Much of the “violence” of English acquisition that Diaz describes here stems from the fact that the immigrant quickly discovers how many forms of English he is being forced to assimilate and master all at once: “your mind kind of torments you with every mistake you’ve made, preparing yourself against this ideal that doesn’t exist anywhere . . . one discovers very quickly as an immigrant kid that there’s English acquisition and then there’s English acquisition, that there is this almost endless array of vernaculars that you have to pick up . . . you keep stacking up all these little languages, these threads” (In Darkness 4).
Diaz elaborates on the extreme contrast in living spaces within Third World Dominican Republic and First World United States, discrepancies so vast and incomprehensible that it seems like shuttling back and forth between distant planets. The language of sci-fi becomes essential for describing immigrant experience, Diaz argues, because the intergalactic space separating these two radically different societies challenges the limits of language to the very limit; in attempting to describe the process of transition, acculturation, and assimilation, Diaz initially found himself completely perplexed: “how in the world to describe the extreme experience of being an immigrant in the United States, the extreme experience of coming from the Third World and suddenly appearing in New Jersey. . . . Every language I was deploying, every language system, fell apart. . . . every time I tried to use a narrative to take me from here to there, it disintegrated, as soon as it reached that -- I don’t know how to call it -- world barrier. But science fiction, fantasy, and comic books are meant to do this stupid kind of stuff, they’re meant to talk about these extreme, ludicrous transformations, and so I really wanted to use them. I felt a great kinship to these narratives, which served as a backbone for so much of what we call ‘America’ but are completely ostracized; it felt like the history of the immigrant, the minority, the woman. I was like, Yo, we’re friends. In darkness we meet” (4).
Although Diaz does not refer to the language of horror in this passage, it plays a distinct role in The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (the reference to Twilight Zone and the similarity of Trujillo to Anthony in Peaksville on page 224 is one prominent example); he picks the topic up later in the interview while describing the emigrant’s experience: “you’re trying to talk about how immigration is used as the way to shake off history, but also to smuggle it with you without even knowing it. It’s like the horror movie where the guy leaves the island, he’s like, Whew -- you know -- and the little thing is clinging to the back of his suitcase” (7). This ghost in suitcase conveys interesting implications, for it reinforces the idea that citizens in the receiving country will also be challenged to assimilate to the immigrant, perhaps just as much as the other way around; instinctive fears of immigration may not stem just from racial bias and fear of job competition alone. Who knows what unwelcome, unexpected horrors might be included in the immigrant’s baggage? Is it possible he brings with him the germs of the fuku? And how can one ever expect to be able to screen successfully for an insidious pathogen like that? Are citizens in the United States going to be forced to pay for ongoing injustices elsewhere that they are completely unaware of, or that they choose to deny or ignore, yet in which they remain necessarily complicit, whether they want to acknowledge it or not?
Diaz elaborates on the role comic books play in creating a space for articulating the immigrant’s journey. He compares the contrasting worlds he experiences in the Dominican Republic and the United States to Billy Batson and Captain Marvel: “Billy Batson, the normal guy, suddenly says shazam! And turns into this superbeing. And in some ways it’s basically what happens. Santo Domingo’s typical-normal, we think the Third World’s commiseration and suffering is normal, and the United States is this superbeing. And so I kept wondering, What the fuck? Where’s my role in this? And you find yourself neither. The joke is you’re neither Billy Batson or Captain Marvel, you’re basically shazam!, you’re the word, you’re that lightning that transforms, that runs back and forth between them and holds them together . . . part of this narrative was trying to write the lightning” (In Darkness 7).
Far from deconstructing or undermining itself, writing the lightning interpolates the blank spaces between various languages, dialects, narratives, ideologies, nationalities, races, ethnicities, theologies, customs, and traditions. Transcending ambiguities, writing the lightning disentangles Tower of Babel babble and the confusion of conflicting voices and contradictory accounts. Writing the lightning appeals to a universal ethic and sounds a clarion call for global social justice. Writing the lightning plants seeds of deeper human understanding, leading to the promise of mutual cooperation that can develop, expand, and grow through ongoing conversation in a rapidly shrinking, beleaguered world, where technology facilitates international communication in ways never dreamed possible before. Writing the lightning creates “the testimonies, the testament to what has happened,” enabling us to account for and come to terms with our collective past, a necessary step toward establishing egalitarian harmony in the present, reassured of a brighter, collectively prosperous human future. The writer of lightning, in the terminology of Ngugi’s impassioned appeal for world peace, is “working in the tradition of the first intellectual who made the word become flesh” (39) -- whose story is recounted in the New Testament, one of the principal grounding discourses, on both sides of the colonizer-colonized divide, in all of human history. Writing the lightning enables humanity, at last, to respond to Anacoana’s plea, in the face of her own death and the imminent destruction of her people, that human beings finally cast aside destructive differences and build an abiding bridge of love.
Vincent Walsh was born in Omaha, Nebraska in 1946. He graduated from Fordham University in 1969, and attended the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill on a Woodrow Wilson Fellowship from 1969-1970. He earned his Masters in Education in 1987, in the midst of a career as a secondary school English teacher, a career that has included many years of teaching in the inner-city. Vincent taught graduate courses in the Education Department at DeSales University from 2005 – 2012; he entered the doctoral program in English at Lehigh University in 2006, and graduated from Lehigh with a Ph.D. in Postcolonial Literature in 2014. He is currently teaching English at New Britain High School in New Britain, CT, where he is conducting action research on incorporating the principles and practices of Restorative Discipline for the inner-city studentshe is currently teaching, while simultaneously aligning this disciplinary approach with the scholarly work of Eric Jensen.