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Diversity Among Immigrant Experiences in The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

Last updated on February 27th, 2016 at 04:09 am

By Jacob Kelly


Immigrants to the United States of America are often thought of as a monolith, when in reality, they are a vastly heterogeneous group. All immigrants leave their native lands for their own unique and specific reasons. Some immigrants are overwhelmed with joy to arrive in a new country, and others are miserable. These differences in immigrant feelings were highly apparent during the time of Trujillo’s Regime in the Dominican Republican. Many Dominicans immigrated to the United States to escape the dictator’s reign. The older generation tended to be happier about leaving the country, as they fully understood the hell they were escaping from. The younger generation, however, felt rather nostalgic for their native land, as their best childhood memories were all in this country, and they had never seen the extent of the dictatorship over the country’s well being. Being Dominican himself, Junot Díaz fully understands this concept and has experienced it first hand in his own family. Díaz’s novel, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, realistically depicts the diversity of experiences of immigrants in the United States as well as the diversity of their feelings towards their native land, particularly in the case of Dominican immigrants.

The narrative structure of the novel lends itself to directly address the diversity of experiences had by Dominican immigrants in the United States. The novel is written in singular character-centric chapters, in which the stories of different members from a family of immigrants are told. The narrator writes that the experience of Oscar, one of the novel’s protagonists, is vastly different from those of his sister or his mother (Díaz 23). Díaz chose to represent a family of such different personalities in order to create a microcosm for all Dominican immigrants. However, he also creates several strong parallels in the experiences of the family members to show that while their stories are not interchangeable, they do share a common conflict. Díaz imself asks readers, “Isn’t storytelling ... the desire to put everything about the world in your power?” (Patteson 1), and the narrative structure of his novel is the evidence that makes the answer to that question a yes. In his style of storytelling, Díaz presents the reader with a wide range of personalities and emotions in order to express the idea that immigrants are complicated, interesting people with unique life experiences that can be compared but never considered the same, despite the fact that they all come from the same world. Dr. Richard Patteson takes this answer further in his critical essay, stating that “Diaz knows well that dictators in the real world can be highly accomplished storytellers” (2). Patteson expands on the purpose of Esperanza narrative structure, arguing that not only does it allow for the various family members to tell their individual stories, but also to represent the world created by dictator Trujillo under his regime. The novel, while a work of fiction, contains several excerpts detailing the history of Trujillo’s regime, discussing both the political and social repercussions of the dictatorship. In addition to demonstrating the diversity of experiences Dominican immigrants have in the United States, Patteson asserts that the narrative structure is also showing the reader the diversity of feelings Dominican citizens have towards Trujillo, depending on their class and gender. Dr. Fremio Sepulveda expands on this point, writing that “Yunior’s [the narrator’s] writing of the trauma that prompted the migration of the Cabral family underscores the yet unheard voice of the family’s matriarch who serves as a haunting reminder within the novel, a voice that escapes the authoritarian practices of Yunior’s narrative” (17). What Sepulveda is arguing here is that where a dictator demands silence from his people, demanding that they all obey his words and never question, Díaz writes his novel with several, unique voices that often contradict each other in order to show that the Dominican people cannot be forced into one being. Using Yunior, the novel’s narrator, as a symbol for Trujillo himself, Díaz is challenging authoritarian ideals and instead representing a world of indivudualism. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao certainly utilizes narrative structure to delve into this topic in such a multifaceted way that it creates the opportunity for significant discourse regarding immigration and the lives of immigrants.

In addition to the narrative structure, Díaz’s writing style throughout the novel further shows the diversity amongst immigrant experiences in the inclusion of Spanish in specific passages of the text. The incorporation of Spanish is the novel, which can be read in both the dialogue and the general prose, is far from random, and is used specifically to convey each character’s relationship with her culture. In an emotional scene in the novel, Díaz writes:

Do you feel that? she asks in her too-familiar raspy voice. At first all you feel is the heat of her and the density of the tissue, like a bread that never stopped rising. She kneads your fingers into her. You’re as close as you’ve ever been and your breathing is what you hear. Don’t you feel that? She turns toward you. Coño, muchacha, stop looking at me and feel. I feel it, you say, too loudly. Lo siento. (53).

This brief moment between mother and daughter is perhaps one of the most significant in the entire novel as far the use of language. The passage begins with the imagery of baking bread, something very traditional in many Dominican households. The inclusion of Spanish in the latter half of the passage furthers this tradition, but its inclusion is not random. The words coño and muchacha are words with strong connotations, words that do not carry the same emotional weight when translated. This can be most clearly exemplified with the phrase lo siento. The term is commonly translated to “I’m sorry” in English, but when translated literally, it means, “I feel it.” When Lola feels the lump in her mother’s breast, she is simultaneously telling her that she does feel it and that she is sorry for the pain she is going through. If this were a scene between Lola and one of her American friends, the language would have been very different, and Spanish certainly would not have been used. However, the scene is written partly in Spanish in order to remind the reader of the family’s roots and how they carry their culture with them. It can also be seen that Spanish is used more frequently to describe events describing characters of the older generation, who lived in the Dominican Republic for longer. The chapters focusing on Beli, the mother, are prime examples of this. “Throughout the novel, Yunior [the narrator] repeatedly refers to Minas en blanco—blank pages in the history of a society, a family, or an individual. Beli’s horrific experiences through the age of nine constitute one example—her “very own pagina en blanco” (78)” (Patteson 11). Patteson extends Díaz’s initial inclusion of Spanish to include Dominican and Latin American concepts, such as the blank pages in history. By reading the novel through a purely American lens, this concept is lost, but when looked at as a Dominican-American piece of writing, it’s meaning becomes exponentially greater. Another prime example of this purposeful placement of Spanish in the text is the motif of fukú throughout the novel. The concept refers to a certain kind of curse or bad luck that seems to follow Oscar and his family, and while the term is explained to a certain extent, it is never truly translated. The phrase remains in Spanish because it is a Latin American belief and concept. The narrator says, “no matter what you believe, fukú believes in you” (Díaz 5) and this is a truth that only applies to Dominican and other Latin American peoples. By not translating the word, it is an act of preserving Domincan culture in America. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is a story of immigrant experiences, and in order to fully comprehend these experiences, the text must be analyzed dualistically through both a North American and a South American lens.

While the narrative structure and writing style of the novel are, of course, very significant in the weaving of a narrative of diverse immigrant experiences and feelings, the inclusion of actual history in the novel is most impactful in establishing this. Patteson, in particular, is a big advocate of this argument, and he explains:

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is at least three novels in one: the story of Oscar; a tale of immigration to America against a back-drop of tyranny (which Din invites readers to see as a manifestation of the mythic trauma experienced by the New World since 1492); and a novel about writing and its power to construct and shape an alternative reality. (Patteson 4).
In a dictatorship, there is only room for one voice to be heard. In the case of Trujillo’s regime, that voice was the voice of Trujillo. In his novel, Díaz creates somewhat of an extended metaphor between the influence of the dictatorship and the expectations of immigrant experiences. People always think of immigrants as having one universal experience, and that they all share the same thoughts and feelings, much like in a dictatorship. However, by writing about these unique characters with different experiences and feelings from one another, Díaz is not only commenting on the nature of immigrant experiences, but also commenting on the nature of dictatorship. Though a people may live in fear of and obedience to a dictator, that does not mean they think the same way he does. Dr. Fremio Sepulveda furthers this explanation in his critical essay, writing as follows:
Diaz’s novel eschews the conventional immigrant narrative tropes of upward mobility and assimilation for a discontinuous storyline consisting of episodes that alternate between the Dominican Republic during El Trujillo’s rule and the modern-day lives of the Cabral family in New Jersey. (4).
Once again, the reader is shown that the characters presented are not what many people imagine immigrants to be like. The complexity in each character’s relationship with their native country is beyond fascinating, especially when the contrasts between the relationships are looked at. For Beli, for instance, the Dominican Republic where she faced extreme abuse and torture throughout her life, leaving the country behind with literal scars on her back. For her daughter, Lola, however, the Dominican Republic is where she goes to escape from the hell she considers her life in America to be, and it is in her native land that she finds peace. Sepulveda takes this analysis one step further, explaining that Beli’s children, “Unaware of the traumatic history that has profoundly altered the life of their mother and transplanted them into to the United States . . . inevitably suffer the transmission of a trauma that unites them all” (5). While each family member struggles in their own unique way in America, they all face trauma nevertheless. Sepulveda is pointing out here that the extreme abuse Beli faced in her youth has forced her into somewhat of a cycle of abuse with her children, and she is almost thrusting her horrific experiences onto them. This can also be tied back to Díaz’s motif of dictatorship and abuses of power throughout the novel, in that Beli, knowing or not, is trying to silence the voices of her children in the same way that Trujillo tried to silence an entire nation.

Literature has a long history of being used as a tool of defiance against unfair authority. This was particularly true in the case of dictatorships, where nearly all forms of expression and individualism were forbidden. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, despite being a work of fiction, is an example of this rebellion against authority in that it directly challenges the preconceived notions many people have about the lives of immigrants in the United States. The characters represented in Díaz’s novel all have their own unique experiences as Dominican immigrants and survivors of Trujillo’s regime, as well as their own complicated relationships with their native country.

Works Cited

Díaz, Junot. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. New York: Riverhead, 2007. Print.
Patteson, Richard. “Textual territory and narrative power in Junot Diaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.” ARIEL 42.3-4 (2011): 5+. Literature Resource Center. Web. 3 Nov. 2015.
Sepulveda, Fremio. “Coding the immigrant experience: race, gender and the figure of the dictator in Junot Diaz’s Oscar Wao.” Journal of Caribbean Literatures 7.2 (2013): 15+. Literature Resource Center. Web. 4 Nov. 2015.