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Junot Diaz's 2007 novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, which portrays a naive yet likable protagonist navigating the struggles of life as an immigrant, is regarded as one of the best works of Dominican American literature. The novel tells the story of Oscar de León, nicknamed Oscar Wao—an allusion to famous writer Oscar Wilde. Diaz chronicles Oscar's life both as an immigrant in New Jersey and in his native Dominican Republic under a ruthless dictator. An unlikely hero, Oscar is portrayed as an overweight, nerdy adolescent who desperately searches for love despite his inability to charm women.
Diaz wrote The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao to showcase multiple angles of the Latino experience, comparing and contrasting the hardships encountered in the United States and the Dominican Republic. Diaz's writing style mimics this duality, as he writes with terminology of the urban United States, as well as Spanish slang, all set within the framework of Oscar's love for fantasy and science fiction. This unique writing style attracted the attention of critics, leading to The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao being awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2008 and declared the best novel of the 21st century in 2015.
The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao was heavily influenced by the author's personal experiences from childhood. Diaz's family moved to the United States from the Dominican Republic when he was six years old, and Diaz grew up in New Jersey just like Oscar. Urban New Jersey provides the bleak, industrial backdrop for much of the novel, and Diaz has noted that his childhood there was just as rough as Oscar's. He explained, "I'll always be an immigrant boy, poor as hell, living in New Jersey next to a rotting, burning landfill."
Diaz filled the novel with allusions to famous works of fantasy and sci-fi literature to reflect Oscar and Yunior's passion for these genres. As the narrator, Yunior often makes references to franchises such as Dungeons and Dragons, Marvel Comics, and Planet of the Apes, using these fictional tales as analogies to understand real-world events. Perhaps J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings series is mentioned most frequently, as the Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo is compared to the series' antagonist, Sauron. Due to his seemingly omniscient levels of surveillance, Trujillo is referred to as "the eye" several times in the novel—a reference to Sauron's fiery all-seeing eye from The Lord of the Rings.
Diaz has included Yunior in a number of his works, including his 1996 collection Drown, in which Yunior narrates five of the 10 short stories. Yunior also appears as a narrator in Diaz's more recent collection, This Is How You Lose Her, published in 2012. In an interview Diaz explained that he viewed Yunior as a characterized version of himself, which is why Yunior often plays the role of narrator in Diaz's writing. Diaz explained:
I guess he's the most productive alter-ego I've ever created. Yunior's such a screw up and such a blockhead and such a dumbass, he allows me to explore a lot of themes that I enjoy and that I'm interested in.
In line with the novel's wide array of fantasy and sci-fi allusions, Diaz explained that each of Oscar's family members is based on a character from the Fantastic Four superhero franchise. Oscar himself is representative of The Thing; his sister, Lola, is the Human Torch; his mother, Belicia, is the Invisible Woman; and Oscar's grandfather Abelhard is Mr. Fantastic. When asked about Yunior's role in relation to the Fantastic Four, Diaz explained that this was a bit more ambiguous, noting:
We know he takes on the role of the Watcher throughout, but that's one of his masks. There is someone else. The clues are in the novel, and once you find them it will help you decide whether Yunior's motives for telling the tale are positive, negative, [or] mixed.
Diaz made an unusual decision to include extensive footnotes throughout the novel—an enigmatic choice for a work of fiction. The footnotes discuss everything from fantasy franchises to political events. However, some critics have complained that they drag the reader's focus away from the main narrative. Diaz defended his annotations, explaining:
The footnotes are there for a number of reasons; primarily, to create a double narrative. The footnotes, which are in the lower frequencies, challenge the main text, which is the higher narrative. The footnotes are like the voice of the jester, contesting the proclamations of the king. In a book that's all about the dangers of dictatorship, the dangers of the single voice—this felt like a smart move to me.
Diaz has received praise for his incorporation of slang in The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, combining vernacular from the Dominican Republic and New Jersey—and even inventing his own words and phrases at times. Critics have noted the peculiarities of this combination of slang, such as the descriptions of girls as "especially Ave Maria" and a "hood hottie Pura." Although some readers may not know the meaning of certain phrases that appear in the novel, the New York Times lauded Diaz's use of slang, noting:
The slangy, kinetic energy of his prose prov[es] to be a remarkably effective tool for capturing the absurdities of the human condition.
Diaz took 11 years after publishing his first collection, Drown, in 1996, before completing his next project, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. Near the time of the novel's publication, Diaz explained that he had been suffering from a decade-long case of writer's block. Diaz said that after his initial success with Drown, he was extremely disillusioned by the writing profession, calling it the "perfect storm of insecurity and madness and pressure." He explained:
I had this romantic belief that once I was published, all we were going to do was sit around and talk about the books we loved ... But what ended up happening was this whole apparatus—talking about who got which advance, sniping at writers. I'm already the worst writer I know, if you divide productivity into ability.
In addition to his work as an author, Diaz has been heavily invested in activism on behalf of undocumented immigrants in the United States. Diaz has a background in education, working as a professor of comparative media studies and writing at MIT. In addition, Diaz has served on the board of advisers for Freedom University, a Georgia-based university that provides tuition-free education to undocumented students. Freedom University was founded in 2011 in response to a Georgia state bill that prohibited undocumented students from attending Georgia's top public universities.
Throughout The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, Diaz stresses the importance of the fukú curse that plagues Oscar's family line. The curse is blamed for many of the hardships Oscar endures both in New Jersey and the Dominican Republic. Diaz makes it clear that the dictator Rafael Trujillo is a living manifestation of the fukú. The author has also stated that the roots of the curse trace back to European colonialism, when the arrival of colonists on the island of Hispaniola allegedly unleashed it on the world. Diaz explained fukú as, "generally a curse or a doom of some kind; specifically the Curse and the Doom of the New World."
Diaz portrays Rafael Trujillo as an amoral megalomaniac, constantly burdening his own people through surveillance, intimidation, and violence. The real Trujillo, who had control of the Dominican Republic from 1930–61, was just as notoriously coldblooded as Diaz's fictional portrayal. Trujillo's regime was most widely criticized for conducting and covering up a massacre of at least 20,000 Haitians in 1937, as well as attempting to assassinate the Venezuelan President Romulo Betancourt in 1960. Trujillo was also infamous for the murder of the Mirabal sisters—three Dominican political dissenters whom he had executed in a sugar cane field (much like Oscar) in 1960.