For all the skepticism that critics express with regard to the true status of the fuku, and their persistent concerns about constructed histories, along with gaps and uncertainties -- paginas en blanco -- in ambiguous, self-undermining texts, close scrutiny of the numerous interviews Junot Diaz has given over the years suggests rather compelling conclusions about the meaning and purpose of his literary work. It turns out, for example, that Diaz’s idea of the fuku does not originate with the novel, but instead constitutes a central component of Caribbean legend. As Diaz confides to his colleague and close friend Edwidge Danticat during their conversation shortly after Oscar Wao’s 2007 publication, “the fuku has been one of those Dominican concepts that have fascinated me for years. Our Island (and a lot of countries around it) has a long tradition of believing in curses. The fuku . . . was the one curse that explicitly implicated the historical trauma of our creation, as an area, a people” (90).
The fuku in Oscar Wao, it seems, rather than just an ordinary popular superstition or some vague, ambiguous curse, represents a key piece of silenced Caribbean history. The fuku whispers tales that disclose the savage underbelly of so-called civilization, revealing a shameful record of calculated injustice that powerful elites are anxious to erase from public memory. Diaz’s novel speaks into the deliberate gaps left in official narratives in order to challenge and debunk hegemony’s self-serving interpretations: “All societies are organized by the silences they need to maintain. I think the role of art is to try to delineate, break, and introduce language into some of these silences. I think more than anything I was just trying to get people to acknowledge how much of what we call ‘Caribbean history and culture’ is, in reality, one vast silence.” The story of Oscar Wao’s confrontation with the fuku provokes readers to question conventional accounts of Columbus’s “discovery,” and recognize the blank spaces in a tragic human story that only marginalized voices of suppressed subalterns can fill. Diaz attempts to open people’s eyes to harsh realities they have been systematically programmed not to recognize: “the real issue of the book is not whether or not one can vanquish the fuku -- but whether or not one can even see it. Acknowledge its existence at a collective level. To be a true witness to who we are as a people and to what has happened to us” (Danticat 90).
Diaz’s novel also makes it clear that the fuku is not simply a matter of collective trauma in the past, but rather that this insidious curse still persists as an ongoing blight on human affairs, continuing to warp and distort daily life in contemporary global societies, causing indescribable suffering. Transnational corporate elites persist in imposing their self-serving agenda of predatory exploitation in the neoliberal era, simply picking up from where the former imperial powers left off. Rafael Trujillo was a willing instrument of U.S. business interests, an all too typical, local hit man for the ruling mafia don in D.C., a well trained, ruthless puppet. His were hardly supernatural powers; the violence and terror he exercised derived from his role as the Dominican Republic’s enforcer for the hemisphere’s monolithic economic hegemon: “Trujillo was one of the U.S.’s favorite sons, one of its children. He was created and sustained by the U.S.’s political-military machine. I wanted to write about the demon child of the U.S., the one who was inflicted upon the Dominican Republic,” just as Columbus and the conquistadors had been inflicted upon Hispaniola and the Caribbean by the Spanish crown half a millennium earlier, introducing “a demon . . . through the nightmare door that was cracked open in the Antilles” (Oscar Wao 1). El Jefe was just another poisonous manifestation of a chronic global malady: “Trujillo exemplifies the negative forces that have for so long beleaguered the peoples of the New World.”
The significance of the recurring motif of paginas en blanco that runs throughout the text of The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao derives not only from the notion that Oscar overcomes the fuku by writing the story of his own life, as each of us faces the challenge to do, but also from the fact that Junot Diaz is writing a version of the story of the Dominican Republic and the Caribbean that has heretofore been suppressed; he is filling in pages of history books that have been deliberately left blank. Children in the United States are typically educated to view Christopher Columbus as an intrepid explorer, an epic, legendary hero who carried forth the torch of Christian civilization on a noble crusade to uplift and enlighten a benighted pagan underworld. Students never learn about the systematic rape and mutilation practiced by the Spanish, the forced, deadly labor imposed on Native Americans in New Spain’s gold and silver mines, the unparalleled genocide systematically conducted by the conquistadors -- a scale of wanton slaughter that makes even Hitler seem like a mere neophyte in comparison. The horrors of slavery are glossed over in classroom textbooks; atrocities committed by Latin American dictators are blamed on uniquely evil individuals, rather than on the neo-imperial political-economic system that creates and sustains them, and that grooms efficient substitutes ready to step in when traditional favorites prove unsuitable or inconvenient and suddenly need to be replaced -- just as Balaguer followed automatically in the footsteps of Trujillo. The vast majorities of human beings who are condemned to wretched, desperate poverty remain invisible to polite Western society; subalterns are blamed for their miserable plight, and consigned to brutal repression if they dare to resist.
The carefully constructed silences that disguise and rationalize these pervasive social injustices keep the privileged classes within developed countries lulled into complacent ignorance: “what fascinates me is how people ‘un-see.’ How societies are trained not to see . . . The world has organized itself to be completely blind about what happened in the New World, specifically what happened in the Caribbean” (29-30). In his 2008 interview with Armando Celayo and David Shook, Junot Diaz describes the Caribbean as “the site of the original sin,” and comments further, “I think it’s no accident that the site of the crime has been sort of anesthetized and amnesiatized into the place of sun and fun and rum. I think that says it all about how severe and terrifying that original crater is in our imagination” (9). Judgment and punishment are necessary for obviating criminal transgression; original sin requires recognition, if there is to be any chance for redemption.
By writing into the blank pages of history the stories of the under classes, the innocent victims who suffer from the arbitrary cruelty and brutality of self-serving elites, Junot Diaz hopes to expose the hypocrisy and duplicity of prevailing ideology. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao speaks into secret places in the Caribbean’s past to reveal unpleasant truths that have for centuries been kept carefully hidden: “this book is an arrow to what’s missing. And the ‘paginas en blanco’ is just a metaphor for that. . . . My whole dream was to get the community I was born in to recognize that it had a hole the size of its country in the middle of itself.” There is an empty space at the heart of the Dominican Republic that its citizens “cannot even talk about. There is not even the language.” This hole is analogous to the vast gap in the consciousness of citizens in the United States, who bear implicit responsibility for the crimes that their elected leaders have committed -- and brazenly continue to commit -- in their name, and in the name of “democracy” and “freedom,” in the name of a political ideology that promotes economic exploitation of the many, the vast majority of humanity, for the exclusive benefit of a radically restricted few, a tiny plutocracy that presumes the right to dominate the entire world.
Rather than introduce ambiguity and uncertainty, Junot Diaz’s literary strategy of borrowing from the discourses of science fiction, fantasy, and horror purposely aims at breaking down the walls of silence that prevent readers from recognizing what would otherwise be obvious in plain sight: “Why this continued commitment to genres? So much of our experience as Caribbean Diasporic peoples, so much of it, exists in silence. How can we talk about our experiences in any way if both our own local culture and the larger global culture doesn’t want to talk about them and actively resists our attempt to create language around them? Well, my strategy was to seek models at the narrative margins. . . . If you’re looking for language that will help you approach our nigh-unbearable historical experiences you can reach for narratives of the impossible: sci-fi, horror, fantasy, which might not really want to talk about people of color at all but that takes what we’ve experienced (without knowing it) very seriously indeed. . . . the metaphors that the genres have established (mostly off the back of our experiences as people of color: the eternal other) can be reclaimed and subverted and expanded in useful ways that help clarify and immediate-ize our own histories.”
Tragically, as Diaz implies, the fictional representations found in horror and sci-fi have countless precedents in ordinary human reality. Read with empathy, C.L.R. James’s description of living conditions beneath the decks of Middle Passage human cargo ships challenges the most vivid and dreadful of genre accounts: “slaves were packed in the hold on galleries one above the other. Each was given only four or five feet in length and two or three feet in height, so that they could neither lie at full length nor sit upright. . . . the revolts at port of embarkation and on board were incessant, so that the slaves had to be chained, right hand to right leg, left hand to left leg, and attached in rows to long iron bars. In this position they lived for the voyage [which typically lasted seven weeks or longer], coming up once a day for exercise and to allow sailors to ‘clean the pails.’ But when the cargo was rebellious or the weather bad, then they stayed below for weeks at a time. The close proximity of so many naked human beings, their bruised and festering flesh, the foetid air, the prevailing dysentery, the accumulation of filth, turned these holds into a hell” (8).
Patrick Chamoiseau’s account of life for slaves on Caribbean plantations is equally disturbing: “that most searing day-after-day distress . . . Imagine not misery or anguish, but well-trained reflexes for which there was no reason at all to Exist [sic]. We would set out for the fields without even raising our heads. The Long-beasts [poisonous snakes] knew how to bring us down when, bent over the soil, we combed out the long, burning hair of suffering. Imagine not grief (that was too absolute to be constant), but the slow vertigo of absence. . . . the body sank into pain: hands were raw, singing with scratches from saw grasses. . . . the field swallowed us up until the anus of nightfall. Think of that, repeated times without number . . . the death suffered each hour in the almost fatal acceptance of this slow drowning. . . . What you thought was essential breaks apart, dangling uselessly. . . . Now you are no more than gaping nothingness” (110-111). The description of a slave’s hand being pulled between the crushing stones of a sugar cane mill, a frequent occurrence on the plantation, rivals the most lurid fantasies conjured by Stephen King: “Oh a finger’s caught! The beast awakens in an inexorable slushing of ground-up bones and flesh. The hand is tugged in before your helpless eyes. Then the arm. The shoulder. You can barely cry out. The cane juice turns rusty with blood and marrow. The water of your soul is squeezed out and gushes down into the tubs. What greater horror than a sugar press jammed with the stubborn, grimacing head of a nigger?” (112).
Any slave guilty of the temerity of insisting on equal rights as a human being, and seeking to escape such brutalizing bondage in order to attain his or her freedom, could expect only the harshest punishment if caught. Michelle Cliff’s description of the usual practice of Clare’s ancestor (a matter of “family pride”) in such cases recalls the shocked dismay of Coetzee’s magistrate, and his outrage that one would not treat even an animal this way: “The recaptured slave was strung up in front of the quarters, where the queen’s justice applied the cat-o’-tails to his or her back. The number of lashes depended upon the exertion the justice was capable of on a given afternoon, or morning. Usually about a hundred or so strokes. After the whipping, the slave had salt rubbed into the wounds on his or her back. Then the slave was hanged by the neck until dead . . . Finally the rebel was cut down and the justice dissected the naked body of the African man or woman into four parts. Each quadrant was suspended by rope from a tree at a corner of the property, where it stayed until the vultures . . . or the bluebottle flies finished it off” (30).
This kind of gothic barbarism is by no means confined to the distant past; Abelard’s treatment in Trujillo’s twentieth century prison conjures visions from a manmade hell: “Only been inside a week but already he looked frightful. His eyes were blackened; his hands and neck covered in bruises and his torn lip had swollen monstrously, was the color of the meat inside your eye. The night before, he had been interrogated by the guards, and they had beaten him mercilessly with leather truncheons; one of his testicles would be permanently shriveled from the blows” (Oscar Wao 241). Contemporary reports of prisoner abuse in U.S. military detention centers around the world evoke images that are equally disturbing, challenging the capacities of ordinary language for articulation. Nor are such horrors limited to the institutional practice of torturing subalterns who fail to cooperate or choose to resist. Degrading living conditions imposed by extreme poverty create indescribable misery for countless disenfranchised human beings. In Diaz’s short story “No Face,” Ysrael’s nightmares serve as an especially terrifying testimony to this fact, easily comparable to Chamoiseau’s portrait of a slave being ground to pulp in the sugar mill: “On some nights he opens his eyes and the pig has come back. Always huge and pale. Its hooves peg his chest down and he can smell the curdled bananas on its breath. Blunt teeth rip a strip from under his eye and the muscle revealed is delicious, like lechosa. He turns his head to save one side of his face; in some dreams he saves the right side and in some his left but in the worst ones he cannot turn his head; its mouth is like a pothole and nothing can escape it. When he awakens he’s screaming as the blood braids down his neck; he’s bitten his tongue and it swells and he cannot sleep again until he tells himself to be a man” (157-158).
David Stannard points out that the mass slaughter carried out by the conquistadors in the Caribbean in the course of their frenzied accumulation of private wealth is by no means just a matter of the distant past; capitalist exploitation continues its inexorable compulsion for creating wanton social havoc: “the genocide in the Americas, and in other places where the world’s indigenous peoples survive, has never really ceased. As recently as 1986, the Commission on Human Rights of the Organization of American States observed that 40,000 people had simply ‘disappeared’ in Guatemala during the preceding fifteen years. Another 100,000 had been openly murdered. That is the equivalent, in the United States, of more than 4,000,000 people slaughtered or removed under official government decree.” These indigenous people, then as now, had to be exterminated because their physical presence interfered with the expansion of business enterprise; the methods may be modern, but the motives -- as well as the victims -- remain very much the same: “Almost all those dead and disappeared were Indians, direct descendents . . . of the Mayas, creators of one of the most splendid civilizations that this earth has ever seen. Today, as five centuries ago, people are being tortured and slaughtered, their homes and villages bombed and razed . . . The murder and destruction continue, with the aid and assistance of the United States . . . many of the detailed accounts from contemporary observers read much like those recorded by the conquistadors’ chroniclers nearly 500 years earlier.” U.S. corporate interests insisted on and enabled local government policies by which “more than 1,000,000 of Guatemala’s approximately 4,000,000 natives were being displaced by the deliberate burning and wasting of their ancestral lands,” in order to make room for further so-called economic progress. The twin process of economic exploitation and political oppression, although more carefully disguised, is essentially identical within the borders of the United States as well, in “reservations and urban slums of North America, where more sophisticated indirect government violence has precisely the same effect” (xiii-xiv).
Michelle Cliff observes that slavery was just a particularly brazen and flagrant manifestation of the brutality that is typical of the world-wide program of human exploitation that is intrinsic to capitalist ideology and practice: “Slavery was not an aberration -- it was an extreme. Consider the tea plantations of Ceylon and China. The coffee plantations of Sumatra and Colombia. The tobacco plantations of Pakistan and the Philippines. The mills of Lowell. Manchester. Leeds. Marseilles. The mines of Wales. Alsasace-Lorraine. The railroads of the Union-Pacific. Cape-to-Cairo. All worked by captive labor. . . . The enslavement of Black people -- African peoples -- with its procession of naked and chained human beings, whipping of human beings, rape of human beings -- made other forms of employment in the upkeep of western civilization seem pale. So slavery in-fact -- which was distasteful to some coffee-drinkers and tea-drinkers, who might have read about these things or saw them illustrated in newspapers . . . slavery in-fact was abolished, and the freedom which followed on abolition turned into veiled slavery, the model of the rest of the western world.”
Thus it is that Yunior’s father is forced to labor on despite a severely injured back in “Negocios,” and Ramon in “Otravida, Otravez” lives in a state of constant dread, haunted by thoughts of ending up like the man he recommended for the job and who fell to his death on the factory floor. Beli works herself beyond human endurance despite being seriously ill with cancer: “trying to keep a second job, for the first time since her operation. It wasn’t working out. She was coming home exhausted” (62). Nevertheless, she is condemned to remain in bondage to an economic system that recognizes no rights except those that promote private profits. Lola observes ruefully: “On the last minute of the last day my mother would be at work. She would be at work when the missiles were in the air” (67). Such hardship is hardly the consequence of some vague, mysterious, supernatural fuku; if a curse is involved, it is manmade, and therefore ought to be amenable to a human counter spell.
Lola’s allusion to nuclear Armageddon emphasizes the ultimately destructive force of the capitalist agenda, which accepts no limits to its all-consuming appetites, recognizes no moral constraints, and sustains itself solely by means of terror and extreme violence. David Stannard compares the violent invasion of European imperialism into the New World to the consequences of nuclear devastation, referring to the level of destruction as defying comprehension: “Just twenty-one years after Columbus’s first landing in the Caribbean . . . Hispaniola was effectively desolate; nearly 8,000,000 people . . . had been killed by violence, disease, and despair. . . . what happened on Hispaniola was the equivalent of more than fifty Hiroshimas. And Hispaniola was only the beginning. . . . the very effort to describe the disaster’s overwhelming magnitude has tended to obliterate both the writer’s and the reader’s sense of the truly horrific human element.”
As Stannard poignantly observes, the enormity of the human catastrophe precipitated by the heartless avarice of the conquistadors challenges even our capacity for imagination. This blood spattered record is a crucial part of the terrible void in Western history that governing elites contrive to keep carefully concealed, but that a creative artist like Junot Diaz strives courageously to reveal, for only an honest appraisal of the awful injustices that have occurred, as well as those that continue to transpire, can enable humanity to come to terms with these terrible realities, and create the opportunity at last for us to begin to heal. As a fiction writer, Diaz finds himself forced to rely on horror and science fiction to convey a story that could not possibly be communicated in any other way.
Eduardo Galeano, writing in 1971, employed the same comparison to nuclear war that Stannard uses to describe the widespread devastation caused by extreme poverty throughout Central and South America during the early stages of the second half of the twentieth century, when neoliberal doctrine was just beginning to bite even deeper into the region’s socio-political processes, in order to facilitate extraction of ever larger shares of Latin America’s enormous natural resources -- which transnational corporate elites adamantly insist must be made available for their exclusive benefit, rather than for enhancing quality of life for local populations. According to Galeano, “The human murder by poverty in Latin America is secret; every year, without making a sound, three Hiroshima bombs explode over communities that have become accustomed to suffering with clenched teeth. The systematic violence is not apparent but is real and constantly increasing: its holocausts are not made known in the sensational press but in Food and Agricultural statistics.” The ongoing slaughter of innocents must be kept disguised, because such crimes are clearly impossible to justify.
Nuclear weapons provide the ultimate means of exercising economic control through global terror. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is replete with references to actual as well as potential nuclear contamination, devastation, and ultimate holocaust. The social catastrophe precipitated by predatory capitalism is likewise associated with natural disasters, as well as the Man with No Face -- the emblem of pitiless, impersonal death. On Beli’s ride back to Bali after she is left stranded by the Gangster, “they passed through one of those godforsaken blisters of a community that frequently afflict the arteries between major cities, sad assemblages of shacks that seem to have been deposited in situ by a hurricane or other such calamity. . . . a man sitting in a rocking chair in front of one of the hovels had no face and he waved to her as she passed” (135). The bleakness of intensifying poverty and the spreading poison of pollution are described in terms of a cancer linked to atomic attack: “In those days the cities hadn’t yet metastasized into kaiju, menacing one another with smoky, teeming tendrils of shanties” (145-146). When Beli finally stirs from her nearly fatal beating in the cane field, she awakens to a dirge, “a grade of grief unlike any she’d encountered before . . . a cacophony of wails that seemed to have torn free from the cracked soul of humanity itself. Like a funeral song for the entire planet” (54).
It is by now a well-established scientific certainty that energy corporations’ runaway obsession with ever increasing profits, regardless of the inevitable environmental consequences, assures ongoing weather related and other ecological calamities that will seriously degrade quality of life on Earth, and may even threaten the long term survival of the human species. Similar blind compulsions for endless profit on the part of arms and weapons manufacturers, primarily those in the United States, guarantee a permanent state of global warfare, and steer the world on a collision course toward nuclear Armageddon. Eighty percent of the human population is now considered irrelevant to the corporate agenda for wealth accumulation, and has therefore been effectively consigned to slow, agonizing extinction.
It is hardly surprising that Junot Diaz refers to contemporary neoliberal economic practices as “the cannibal stage” of capitalism, “the zombie stage of capitalism where entire nations are being rendered through alchemy into not-quite-alive.” Diaz is attempting to open the global community’s eyes, through his interviews, essays, and fiction, to the fact that humanity is fast approaching what may well be a terminal stage in its history: “where is this all leading? . . . We need the revelations that come from our apocalypses -- and never so much as we do now. Without this knowledge how can we ever hope to take responsibility for the social practices that bring on our disasters? And how can we ever hope to take responsibility for the collective response that will be needed to alleviate the misery? . . . We must stare into the ruins -- bravely, resolutely -- and we must see. And then we must act. Our very lives depend on it” (50).
When Frodo, Sam, Merry, and Pippin return to the Shire at the end of the third volume of The Lord of the Rings, they find that Saruman’s cronies have been hard at work while they were away. Sam immediately identifies the system of corporate-style exploitation these thugs have set up as “worse than Mordor,” to which Frodo promptly replies, “Yes, this is Mordor. Just one of its works” (994). Although Saruman warns, “I have already done much that you will find it hard to mend or undo in your lives,” and threatens a fuku of his own -- “Whoever strikes me shall be accursed” (995) -- Sam and company quickly organize the community, relying on the efficacy of grassroots democracy, and begin the laborious process of establishing social justice and restoring a healthier balance with Mother Nature -- assisted in this arduous task by “thousands of willing hands of all ages” (999). The fortuitous outcome that these Hobbits engender serves as an obvious model for the kind of collective awakening and restorative response that Diaz seems to envision for planet Earth in our time, although happy endings are far easier to find in fantasy than to realize in actual life.
Daniel Bautista argues that The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is a far more pessimistic narrative than Tolkien’s trilogy: “Largely eschewing its more heroic elements, Diaz borrows almost exclusively from the dark and monstrous aspects of Tolkien’s world . . . [there is an] absence of allusions to more hopeful, idealistic, or Utopian aspects of Tolkien’s texts . . . Diaz does not draw on the sense of wonder or redemption that Tolkien sometimes offers . . . Yunior’s sf and fantasy allusions mostly serve to reveal a fallen world where the marvelous either no longer exists or where what remains of it has been forced into the service of evil” (46). Yunior is quite blunt in pointing out the crucial discrepancy between his narrative and Tolkien’s tale of adventurous Hobbits: “you know what kind of world we live in. It ain’t no fucking Middle-earth” (194); Yunior maintains, moreover, that Sauron is not quite as formidable an opponent as Trujillo: “At the end of The Return of the King, Sauron’s evil was taken by ‘a great wind’ and neatly ‘blown away,’ with no lasting consequences to our heroes; but Trujillo was too powerful, too toxic a radiation to be dispelled so easily. Even after his death his evil lingered” (256), primarily because he was just an agent for the corporate Mordor that keeps steadily increasing in power to this day.
Yet Yunior’s allusion to Sauron’s final decline is misleading, for at the very outset of the trilogy, Gandalf grimly reminds his listeners: “Always after a defeat and a respite, the shadow takes another shape and grows again.” Sauron, apparently, can be temporarily overcome, but he cannot be permanently destroyed. The struggle against ruthless greed and deadly violence goes on and on, for Tolkien as it does for Diaz. This is why Oscar highlights only one section in the final chapter of “A Stronger Loving World,” -- “circled one panel three times in the same emphatic pen he used to write his last letters home” -- the one which conveys soberly: “Nothing ever ends” (331). In his essay on the Haitian earthquake, Junot Diaz admits to a sense of weary discouragement, edged with guarded resignation: “Will we, despite all our limitations and cruelties, really heed our ruin and pull ourselves out of our descent into apocalypse? Truth be told, I’m not very optimistic. I mean, just look at us. No, I’m not optimistic -- but that doesn’t mean I don’t have hope” (50). Oscar realizes that he has no chance of surviving long enough to form an enduring relationship with Ybon, but he defies death anyway and ends up encountering “The beauty! The beauty!” nonetheless. There is indeed much that is hopeful, idealistic, and even Utopian, not to mention genuinely heroic in what Oscar accomplishes in the end, particularly in the example he leaves for others, for if there is to be any promise of change for the better in human affairs, it surely must begin within each individual. The challenge of inner transformation is especially crucial in Yunior’s case; Yunior’s problem is that in certain ways he resembles Trujillo, and therefore he too embodies the fuku, and inadvertently transmits its evil effects: “what [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. . . . the person telling them the story is Trujillo with a different mask. All the stuff that Trujillo believed in, Yunior practices in one form or another. . . . his sexual politics are fucking nightmarish.”
Yunior is a narcissist who considers himself superior to others; he boasts about his physical prowess, and bullies homosexuals to advertize his exceptional virility -- although he is not above hypocritically condescending to befriend Oscar when he receives an unfavorable number in the campus housing lottery: “I actually did it. Move in with him. In fucking Demarest. Home of all the weirdos and losers and freaks and fem-bots. Me, a guy who could bench 340 pounds, who used to call Demarest Homo Hall like it was nothing. Who never met a little white artist freak he didn’t want to slap around” (170). Another reason Yunior suddenly decides to be nice to Oscar is that he hopes it might help him score sexually with Lola; yet he is too self-involved to concentrate on Oscar for very long: “Despite my promises to Lola to watch out, those first couple weeks I didn’t have much to do with him. I mean, what can I say? I was busy. What state school player isn’t? I had my job and the gym and my boys and my novia and of course I had my slutties” (172).
When Suriyan decides to give him another chance after she catches him cheating, Yunior arrogantly concludes that he must be irresistible: “Dios mio! Some niggers couldn’t have gotten ass on Judgment Day: me, I couldn’t not get ass, even when I tried” (196). So he just continues his reckless, philandering ways, anxious for an opportunity to add Lola to his steadily lengthening check list of sexual conquests: “it was December. My Indian girl, Lily, was waiting for me back on College Ave., and so was Suriyan. But I wasn’t thinking about either of them. I was thinking about the one time I’d seen Lola that year.” Lola, however, proves to be more of a challenge than the self-styled lady killer can handle, because she demands a level of commitment that Yunior is not prepared to make, despite the unique attraction he feels for her: “Of all the chicks I’d run up on ever, Lola was the one I’d never gotten a handle on. So why did I feel like she was the one who knew me best? . . . I thought about my own fears of actually being good, because Lola wasn’t Suriyan; with her I’d have to be someone I’d never tried to be.” Failing Lola’s test of personal integrity, however, turns out to be a defeat that Yunior will forever regret: “Why is this the face I can’t seem to forget, even now, after all these years?” (198-199).
Junot Diaz explains to Katherine Miranda that “Yunior is haunted by Lola because he knew that if he had revealed himself to her, she would have loved him and accepted him, and he couldn’t do it” (37-38). Yunior rationalizes his inability to remain faithful to only one relationship, claiming that his chronic philandering derives from both his basic biology and his ethnic background -- “you don’t know Dominican men” (175) -- simultaneously making the lame excuse that he is just following prescribed social practice: “At college, you’re not supposed to care about anything -- you’re just supposed to fuck around” (168). He fails to recognize the depth and sincerity of Lola’s affection, even after she aborts the child they could have had together when she discovers that he is still chasing other women.
T.S. Miller contends that Yunior dictates the two sections of the novel that seem to be narrated by Lola: “I understand Yunior as the sole controlling intelligence of the text, and thus I read ‘Wildwood,’ the chapter ostensibly told in Lola’s voice, as mediated through him as well . . . it is as if, in an attempt to understand them, Yunior allows his female characters to speak in their own voices, yet cannot fully surrender control of the narrative” (102). Yet Miller provides no convincing textual evidence that Yunior actually influences Lola’s account. Since Junot Diaz is obviously the author who creates Yunior as the narrator, it is just as possible that he also creates Lola as the sole narrator of the two chapters that he writes from her perspective -- the second of which has no title, appears at the beginning of Part II of the novel, and is only six pages long (205-210). It can be argued that both of these sections actually represent Lola’s personal text, Lola’s lost book, a possibility that is somehow absent from the critical discussion, and yet could and perhaps should be included alongside consideration of Abelard and Oscar’s missing manuscripts, Maria Montez’s third volume, and the blank page of Balaguer’s memoir, as well.
In both of Lola’s sections, she is clearly directly addressing someone, and that someone is obviously Yunior. Right after relating her mother’s hurried admission, “Just know that I would die for you,” Lola interrupts her narrative abruptly by interjecting: “But that’s not what I wanted to tell you. It’s about that crazy bruja feeling that started this whole mess” (72), as if she is recounting the story of her past life to a cherished lover and soul mate. The idea that Lola addresses her account to Yunior is even more strongly suggested in the second, shorter section, which opens with an expression of disappointment and betrayal: “Of course I tried once more. It was even stupider than the first time . . . Abuela announced it was time for me to return to Patterson . . . I couldn’t believe what she was saying. It felt like the deepest of treacheries to me. I wouldn’t feel like that again until I broke up with you” (205). Lola undoubtedly felt that after a lifetime’s search she had finally found love she could count on with Yunior, for she adds at the end of this section, “It was only when I got on the plane that I started crying. I know this sounds ridiculous but I don’t think I really stopped until I met you” (210).
Lola’s narrative is quite literary throughout; she switches tenses from past to present and then back again. At the beginning of “Wildwood,” the text changes to italics after just one sentence, and for the next three pages reads as if Lola is talking to herself. It appears that Lola is writing after her final breakup with Yunior, after her marriage to another man and the birth of her daughter: “Now that I have become a mother myself” (208). Lola also reflects on her reasons for writing, which also apply to Yunior and to Oscar -- and to Junot Diaz, and to us as readers, as well: “if these years have taught me anything it is this: you can never run away. Not ever. The only way out is in. And that’s what I guess these stories are all about” (209). Lucia Suarez observes that in recent literature of the Dominican diaspora, including the work of Nelly Rosario and Viriato Sencion, along with Junot Diaz, “the process of writing, for the authors, and reading, for us, actualizes the possibility of mourning.” Confronting past trauma, speaking into the silence produced by persistent denial of individual and collective pain, makes it possible for “authors [to] expose the ways violence, past and present, bleeds into people’s lives . . . stories of survival and narrative restructuring of horrors may be the only route to reconciliation and reconstruction of personal and national memory and integrity.”
Lola’s writing -- whether in the form of a long letter that she actually sends to Yunior, or a “missing” text is not certain -- seems to represent an attempt to create a space for healing of the kind that Lucia Suarez describes, a means of understanding and accepting what has transpired in Lola’s on-again, off-again love affair with Yunior, a way for her to recover from her profound sense of loss and betrayal. Like her brother Oscar, Lola also imagines her writing as a means of rescuing a beleaguered world that is hovering on the edge of nuclear apocalypse: “I would sit in the sand dressed all in black and try to write in my journal, which I was sure would form the foundation for a utopian society after we blew ourselves into radioactive kibble” (65). Oscar considers his writing -- which Yunior describes as “The thing that carried him” (186) -- to be a vehicle for personal recovery and rehabilitation, a zafa for the family curse, as well as a counter spell for the prevailing misery of humankind. Oscar writes on every one of his final days, producing “almost three hundred pages if his letters are to be believed” (320), telling Lola, “This contains everything . . . I think you will need. You’ll understand when you read my conclusions;” his missing manuscript purportedly contains “the cure to what ails us . . . The Cosmo DNA” (333). The fact that Oscar’s manuscript gets lost in transit implies that other people will have to write an account of their own conclusions -- including Yunior, and eventually maybe Isis as well. The “cure to what ails us” will have to be rearticulated over and over again, as long as there are human beings left alive to tell the story of their personal encounter with, and struggle against the fuku.
Junot Diaz describes his novel “as a really interesting choose-your-own-adventure book at the level of signification,” and insists that it is crucial for us to ponder the intention behind Yunior’s narration: “one of the questions that a reader has to ask themselves is: Why is Yunior telling this particular story? . . . his unspoken motivations . . . are at the heart of the novel and can easily be missed.” It would seem that a large part of Yunior’s drive to tell this story is his need to mourn the loss of Lola; years after their final separation, and Lola’s marriage to another man -- as well as his to another woman -- and the birth of Isis, Yunior remains still focused on Lola and on his lingering regrets: “I wish I could say it worked out, that Oscar’s death brought us together. I was just too much the mess.” He appears to have begun to take responsibility for his inconsiderate behavior and hurtful conduct, and to be developing a sense of heightened self-awareness, recalling the events that led to their final breakup: “One day she called, asked me where I’d been the night before, and when I didn’t have a good excuse, she said, Good-bye, Yunior, please take good care of yourself, and for about a year I scromfed strange girls and alternated between Fuck You Lola and these incredibly narcissistic hopes of reconciliation that I did nothing to achieve” (324).
Lola, after all, is far more than what Miller describes as just another of Yunior’s “female characters,” since Lola is the one woman he genuinely loves, the one he cannot forget, the one whose loss he never ceases to regret; Lola, along with her brother and mother, remains at the center of Yunior’s concerns throughout the novel. Richard Patteson maintains that Yunior feels compelled to tell the story of his relationship with members of the de Leon family because that is the only way he can find meaning as he confronts the fact of his own mortality: “For Yunior, the text represents . . . life; the book he writes is an effort to fill the blank left by Oscar’s death” (16). Yunior is haunted by recurrent dreams of Oscar where “Dude is holding up a book, waving for me to take a closer look.” Like Lola, Yunior wants to escape, yet soon realizes “the only way out is in”: “I want to run from him, and for a long time that’s what I do [just as Oscar ran from the sound of Lola’s and Beli’s screams in his recurrent dreams about the cane field beating]. It takes me a while before I notice that Oscar’s hands are seamless and the book’s pages are blank. And that behind his mask his eyes are smiling. Zafa. Sometimes, though, I look up at him and he has no face and I wake up screaming” (325).
Oscar’s hands are seamless because the story of his life is complete; it is now Yunior’s turn to write his story, create a zafa of his own, just as Oscar did while sacrificing his life to achieve union with Ybon. Patteson pointedly observes, “the man without a face . . . is closely associated with the frightening implications of blankness and erasure” (16), along with pitiless, impersonal death. Yunior’s narrative serves as a means for ensuring his own personal -- one might even argue, his spiritual -- survival, as well as for keeping the inspiring story of Oscar’s redemptive sacrifice alive, along with the tale of Abelard’s courage, Beli’s perseverance, and the love that endures between him and Lola through his connection to Isis: “Even now as I write these words I wonder if this book ain’t a zafa of sorts. My very own counterspell” (7).
Whether or not Yunior changes in the end from the self-centered, self-serving hedonist he had previously been, Diaz tells Katherine Miranda, is “a very good question the reader has to decide . . . I can’t” (37), yet the text presents a strong case that just such a positive transformation does, in fact, occur, due in part to Yunior’s genuine remorse over losing Lola, but also because of the illumination he experiences from contemplating Oscar’s selfless example. Diaz contends that “in Oscar, Yunior sees something that Yunior’s never had. Oscar is a million things that are fucked up, but he’s one thing that is really quite beautiful, really quite luminous, and it’s that Oscar’s always Oscar. He has an authentic self, no matter how . . . fragmented . . . He’s always who he is. Yunior has only masks. . . . Oscar’s always vulnerable, he’s always revealing himself.”
Diaz elaborates on this point further in his conversation with Joe Fassler: “Yunior has a fascination with Oscar because Oscar permits himself, despite the fact that he has no hope in succeeding, to be utterly vulnerable to the possibility of love. Oscar consistently thrusts himself, places himself, openly, in the hands of other people. In the hands of the women that he thinks he loves and who always reject him. Yunior is fascinated by this because he himself is never able to take off any of the armor, or any of the masks, that a person has to completely take off to expose themselves to the vulnerability of love.” By the conclusion of his narrative, Yunior appears to have learned the lesson that Oscar was trying to convey all along, as when Oscar asks Yunior why he persists in cheating on Lola, and counsels him: “Maybe you should try to find out” (313). Yunior seems to have begun to settle down, by the closing pages, to have finally dropped the multiple masks he always had to wear as a compulsive philanderer, and to open his heart at last to the possibility of an enduring, monogamous relationship with just one woman: “I have a wife I adore and who adores me” (327). In his new life, Yunior is also contributing to the community through teaching and coaching at a nearby community college. He has created a special place in his affections for Lola’s daughter Isis, as well, who he treats as if she were his own, and whom he evokes with the New Testament allusion, “Behold the girl,” the precious child who “Could have been my daughter if I’d been smart” (329).
Daynali Flores-Rodriguez refers to the often cited footnote on page ninety-seven, where Diaz (or is it Yunior?) describes the relationship between dictators and writers: “Rushdie claims that tyrants and scribblers are natural antagonists, but I think that’s too simple; it lets writers off pretty easy. Dictators in my opinion just know competition when they see it. Same with writers. Like, after all, recognizes like.” Flores-Rodriquez at first seems to presume that this characterization is Yunior’s, concluding, “Yunior criticizes the self-ascribed importance that authors who write about dictatorships assign themselves, and instead poses both dictators and scribblers as competitors, based on the likeness of their objectives. They both want to shape the psyches of those around them.” She then points to the complexity of the novel’s characters as showing that The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao rises above this manipulative tendency. Simultaneously, Flores-Rodriguez re-ascribes authorial agency to Junot Diaz, as if the writer and his narrator are, in fact, interchangeable, while arguing that Diaz’s novel likewise transcends the usual moral dichotomies associated with issues of social justice: “By embracing the contradictory nature of his characters, Junot Diaz effectively opens up a third space in the theorization of power in Caribbean literature; he goes beyond the traditional roles of oppressors and oppressed;” in so doing, Diaz “demands from . . . readers an effort to go beyond superficial interpretations of the Caribbean” (97).
From Flores-Rodriguez’s perspective, binaries such as oppressor and oppressed must be regarded as superficial because the real life issues they raise are actually far too complicated: “Experiences of oppression are not meant to be justified or given ontological meaning (as certain dictator novels often attempt) but should be addressed and acknowledged to revoke their hold of Caribbean discourse. Reality will always be more complex than fiction” (104). Flores-Rodriguez presumes that just because, in response to frequently asked questions about the possible correlation between his writing and personal background, Junot Diaz casually refers to authors as people “who basically make their living off of lies,” therefore he must be “rejecting claims to any particular or unique understanding of the Dominican Republic or the Caribbean;” Flores-Rodriguez further contends that the issue of credibility in the novel “is not important because he [Diaz] is lying altogether” (100). This claim is rather astonishing, given Junot Diaz’s explicit comments elsewhere about his strong sense of personal commitment and ultimate purpose as a writer: “I haven’t abandoned the hope that books, as another piece of art, can transform a society or that they can help bring about or participate in a change within a society for better, for more social justice. . . . my work certainly falls within the tradition of writing that is concerned with issues of repression, of social justice, of tyranny,” which is to say, with issues of oppressors and the oppressed. “I always thought writing as truthfully as possible about a period of tyranny, a period of dictatorship, about people who have survived great repression . . . would help people be more human, and by extension of course, would help the cause of peace.”
Lucia Suarez observes that “Dominican literature has traditionally ignored the violence and strife the country continues to experience. Instead it has focused on romantic, myth-making stories. This is substantiated by the position taken by authors like Julia Alvarez. . . . at a book tour presentation at Duke University in 1998, Alvarez flatly stated that she was not interested in reviewing violence through her work . . . Junot Diaz confronts violence . . . head-on. . . . it is at this pivotal moment of exposure that a new literary tradition is born” (7-8). Suarez argues that the literary works of this new tradition speak loudly and clearly to issues of social justice, of oppressors and the oppressed, and thus “highlight human hope and resilience . . . they fight for human rights and envision citizenship for all the people of the world” (9). Junot Diaz confirms his clear, resolute commitment to social justice in his conversation with Katherine Miranda, implicitly invoking the innate moral grammar that John Mikhail describes, and that supports the universal ethic that Kwame Anthony Appiah insists is essential for postcolonial studies; as Diaz puts it, in his characteristically emphatic, street-wise phrasing, “we’re worthy of all the things human beings should be worthy of: justice, and fuckin’ fairness and peace and well-being.”
Daynali Flores-Rodriguez’s deconstruction of the binary opposition between oppressor and oppressed ignores the crucial empirical fact that an increasingly tiny and enormously wealthy minority of the world’s population now controls and exploits the vast majority of the planet’s resources, and that it is enabled in doing so solely by means of brutalizing national police forces, along with internationally domineering military machines. Nuclear weapons threatening instantaneous erasure of vast swaths of humanity remain poised to strike as the ultimate instrument of oligarchic terror. The obvious symbolic correlation between Mordor’s deadly winged ringwraiths and real life B-1 Stealth bombers, along with remotely controlled, silent drones, and thousands of intercontinental ballistic missiles positioned on hair trigger alert, creates a pall of imminent doom that envelopes the entire globe. The ultra-wealthy classes appear ready to destroy Life itself in their insanely obsessive, compulsive greed for limitless riches. Humankind’s long cherished dream of achieving social justice and functional democracy seems to have crashed and burned, with masses of the world’s people now entrapped and repressed by a tyrannical plutocracy.
Academic speculation about a “third space for theorization” with respect to historic as well as ongoing savage injustices disregards the desperate screams of the tortured, the hopeless wails of the underpaid wage-enslaved, the despairing cries of countless human beings needlessly dying of starvation and easily treatable illness. As Arif Dirlik has warned, the insidious danger underlying overemphasis on “Theory” lies in the fact that it appears to be “designed to avoid making sense of the current crisis” (353). Dirlik regards postcolonial theory that focuses exclusively on complexity and hybridity as seductively “appealing because it disguises the power relations that shape a seemingly shapeless world and contributes to a conceptualization of that world that both consolidates and subverts possibilities of resistance. . . . simultaneous repudiation of structure and affirmation of the local in problems of oppression and liberation . . . have mystified the ways in which totalizing structures persist in the midst of apparent disintegration and fluidity. They have rendered into problems of subjectivity and epistemology concrete and material problems of the everyday world” (355-356).
Failing to account for lived human suffering is precisely David Hirsch’s objection with regard to the emergence of deconstruction in Europe following World War II; when categories of good and evil are reduced to matters of semantics, moral relativism is the inevitable result. If the distinction between oppressor and oppressed is obscured, it becomes impossible even to discuss, much less strive for social justice. When the European Holocaust cannot be held up for unambiguous scrutiny and moral judgment, then further and perhaps even worse holocausts are unavoidable. One of the profoundest tragedies unfolding in the contemporary world -- and one of the gravest current threats to world peace -- is the shameful treatment of Palestinians by the former victims of Nazi terror, as the latter persist in appealing to their own past trauma while continuing to inflict needless suffering on subaltern Others.
Simon Gikandi relates how F.R. Leavis “created a grammar” that articulated “a generalized moral condition” for all peoples of the world, based on principles expressed in the great works of English literature. According to Gikandi, Leavis conceived of English language and English culture as being “integral to a certain moral vision,” one founded on values that are “uniform, inherent” in all human beings, and that remain “unaffected by local circumstances or histories” (627-628). It is reasonable to assume that these values would include widely recognized human virtues such as courage, compassion, kindness, generosity, and selfless sacrifice, which seem to be universal values that are shared equally across all cultures and historical periods. Leavis’s idea is compelling, except that he makes the crucial error of associating this universal moral code exclusively with one particular language and one individual culture, surely for purely chauvinistic reasons. Yet Leavis’s underlying, implicit idea of a universal moral grammar makes a great deal of sense, and corresponds well with the precepts articulated in the UN Declaration of Human Rights, Kwame Anthony Appiah’s call for a universal ethic, and what John Mikhail and other researchers are currently discovering about the uniform, inborn moral intuitions that inform all human beings.
Junot Diaz follows in the tradition of literary artists who articulate such universal values, and who dedicate their literary efforts, in various cultures and languages, to the cause of urging respect for basic human rights. As Diaz has maintained repeatedly in numerous interviews, literature can help people become more fully human, enhance awareness of our common humanity, and inspire a sense of enduring fellowship and solidarity. Literature can promote the highly desirable goals of global democracy, social justice, and world peace; one could well argue that these goals are not only desirable, their realization is essential for ensuring human survival. The shared human values and ethical principles implicit in these goals contains the essence of what Oscar means when he tells Lola she does not realize “all that is at stake,” as he willingly sacrifices his life for the sake of love, consciously following in the footsteps of the “the first intellectual who made the word become flesh” (39).
Literary critics enjoy a unique privilege as intellectuals, working with language while analyzing and interpreting literature, which contains a timeless treasure trove of intuitive understanding and ineffable wisdom. Yet literary critics need to guard against self-exaltation, choosing abstract theorization at the expense of recognizing the responsibility that comes with their privilege -- the duty of furthering the human values that literature embodies and represents. Like Arif Dirlik, David Hirsch, Sandra Cox, and many others, Ngugi warns against a tendency in the contemporary academy to “shy away from engagement with words like freedom, liberation, social justice, peace, and nuclear disarmament and to retreat into modern scholasticism where splitting hairs about form takes precedence over content” (39). The preponderance of critical commentary on The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao to date, unfortunately, seems to reflect just such a tendency, insofar as many critics prefer to emphasize how the text supposedly “deconstructs” and “undermines” itself, leaving what Diaz describes as the “lessons of the novel” somehow ambiguous and uncertain. To the extent that there may be validity to such arguments on a strictly theoretical level, these issues might be interesting to consider, but such abstract speculation should not distract from close attention to the stirring claims about human rights and social justice, as well as the grave warnings about serious threats to continuing life on this planet, that Junot Diaz’s fiction urgently and obviously strives to convey.
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.