Sometimes, a book intersects so perfectly with one’s life that it almost feels like it was meant to be. So it was with me and Junot Diaz’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Brief Wondrous Life Of Oscar Wao.
I began reading the book last week in the midst of several on-going conversations I’ve been having on privilege and its complex role in societal relations. The parallels solidified even further last weekend when I attended Voices 2016, a women’s writing workshop organised by the Penang Women’s Development Corporation (PWDC), where a lot of time was spent discussing both gender issues and the role of privilege within them.
We were encouraged to create art and literature through an “intersectional lens”, which foregrounds the interconnectedness of various social categorisations (such as race, gender, class, etc) and how they overlap to create systems of privilege or disadvantage.
With these thoughts in mind, Oscar Wao took on a whole new dimension for me.
Diaz’s novel is an absorbing piece of writing in itself. Drawing together geek fandom, cultural history, and personal narratives with energetic and naturalistic prose, he tells not just the story of an immigrant Dominican family in New Jersey, but also the story of their homeland – particularly the Dominican Republic’s (DR) bloody history under the dictatorial regime of Rafael Trujillo. And while Oscar is at the centre of this tale, his story is inevitably bound up with those of his sister Lola and mother Beli, too.
Diaz styles the entire story as that of a fuku, or curse, that plagues Oscar’s family, resulting in inevitable disaster and darkness for all of them. The author cleverly ties this supernatural element with DR’s history and the almost mythical presence of Trujillo.
This fuku attached to Oscar’s family, however, can also be viewed metaphorically as representing the various intersecting lack of privilege faced by each character. The complex net of factors that traps our characters is only fully revealed later in the novel, as Diaz begins with Oscar and moves farther and farther back in time till we get to Beli’s birth.
As we see how Beli’s gender, ethnicity, and lack of access – not to mention her traumatic personal experiences – shape her behaviour and life choices, it also becomes starkly apparent how these will then go on to shape her children’s lives.
Diaz does not turn his characters into tropes, however; they are rich, fully-realised people who are sometimes surprising, and sometimes depressingly predictable. They are, however, products of a continuing chain of societal inequalities – the fuku marks a specific point in time that changed the privileges of one family, but they are one piece of a much larger picture.
The metaphor could be extended slightly further, too. Diaz also talks about zafa, a counter-spell that may ward off the difficulties caused by the fuku. Telling Oscar’s story, the author says, is a form of zafa.
This, too, was something we discussed at length at the Voices 2016 workshop: the importance of creating a space for stories, specifically stories that give voice to those who often remain unheard. Diaz’s idea of stories as zafa against the fuku of social injustice, of people’s narratives being one way to acknowledge and address the world’s entrenched inequalities, is one that I’ve fallen in love with.
Sharmilla Ganesan is reading her way through the titles in 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die. Join the conversation at facebook.com/BeBookedOut or Tweet @SharmillaG.
Booked Out will now appear every first Sunday of the month.