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Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (Diaz)

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao
Junot Diaz, 2007
Penguin Group USA
352 pp.
ISBN-13: 9781594483295


Summary 
Winner, 2008 National Book Critics Circle Award
Winner, 2008 Pulitizer Prize


This is the long-awaited first novel from one of the most original and memorable writers working today.

Things have never been easy for Oscar, a sweet but disastrously overweight, lovesick Dominican ghetto nerd. From his home in New Jersey, where he lives with his old-world mother and rebellious sister, Oscar dreams of becoming the Dominican J. R. R. Tolkien and, most of all, of finding love. But he may never get what he wants, thanks to the fukú – the curse that has haunted the Oscar's family for generations, dooming them to prison, torture, tragic accidents, and, above all, ill-starred love. Oscar, still waiting for his first kiss, is just its most recent victim.

Diaz immerses us in the tumultuous life of Oscar and the history of the family at large, rendering with genuine warmth and dazzling energy, humor, and insight the Dominican–American experience, and, ultimately, the endless human capacity to persevere in the face of heartbreak and loss. A true literary triumph, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao confirms Junot Diaz as one of the best and most exciting voices of our time. (From the publisher.)



Author Bio 
Birth—December 31, 1968
Where—Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic
Reared—Parlin, New Jersey, USA
Education—B.A., Rugters; M.F.A., Cornell
Awards—Eugene McDermott Award, Guggenheim Fellowship,
  National Endowment of the Arts Fellowship, PEN/Malamud
  Award, , Rome Prize from American Academy of Arts and
  Sciences, National Book Critics Circle Award
Currently—New York, New York and Boston, Massachusetts


Junot Díaz was born in Villa Juana, a barrio in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic. He was the third child in a family of five. Throughout most of his early childhood he lived with his mother and grandparents while his father worked in the United States. In December, 1974, at the age of six, Díaz immigrated to Parlin, New Jersey, where he was re-united with his father.

He attended Kean College in Union, New Jersey for one year before transferring and ultimately completing his BA at Rutgers College in 1992, majoring in English; there he was involved in a creative-writing living-learning residence hall and in various student organizations and was exposed to the authors who would motivate him into becoming a writer: Toni Morrison and Sandra Cisneros. He worked his way through college: delivering pool tables, washing dishes, pumping gas and working at Raritan River Steel.

After graduating from Rutgers he was employed at Rutgers University Press as an editorial assistant. He earned his MFA from Cornell University in Ithaca, New York in 1995, where he wrote most of his first collection. Diaz has said he was stunned when he received an acceptance letter from Cornell because he had not applied there. Apparently his then-girlfriend applied on his behalf.

Díaz is active in Dominican community and teaches creative writing at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and is also the fiction editor for the Boston Review. He is a founding member of the Voices of Writing Workshop, a writing workshop focused on writers of color.

His fiction has appeared in The New Yorker magazine which listed him as one of the 20 top writers for the 21st century. He has also been published in Story, Paris Review, and in the anthologies Best American Short Stories four times (1996, 1997, 1999, 2000), and African Voices. He is best known for his two major works: the short story collection Drown (1996) and the novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (2007). Both were published to critical acclaim.

He has received a Eugene McDermott Award, a fellowship from the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation, a Lila Acheson Wallace Readers Digest Award, the 2002 Pen/Malamud Award, the 2003 US-Japan Creative Artist Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, a fellowship at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University and the Rome Prize from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. He won the 2007 Sargant First Novel Prize and was selected as one of the 39 most important Latin American writers under the age of 39 by the Bogotá Book Capital of World and the Hay Festival. In September of 2007, Miramax acquired the rights for a film adaptation of The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.

The stories in Drown focus on the teenage narrator's impoverished, fatherless youth in the Dominican Republic and his struggle adapting to his new life in New Jersey. Reviews were generally strong but not without numerous complaints.

The arrival of his novel (The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao) in 2007 prompted a minor re-appraisal of Diaz's earlier work. His first book "Drown" was now being widely recognized as an important landmark in contemporary literature—ten years after publication—even by critics who had either entirely ignored the book or had given it poor reviews.

Díaz's first novel, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao was released in September 2007. (An excerpt from the novel had appeared previously in The New Yorker's 2007 Summer Fiction issue.) Writing in Time magazine critic Lev Grossman said that Díaz's novel was...

so astoundingly great that in a fall crowded with heavyweights—Richard Russo, Philip Roth—Díaz is a good bet to run away with the field. You could call The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao the saga of an immigrant family, but that wouldn't really be fair. It's an immigrant-family saga for people who don't read immigrant-family sagas. The family in question emigrated from the Dominican Republic and consists of a mother, a son and a daughter—the father having done a runner some years earlier.

The Brief Wondrous life of Oscar Wao was awarded the Sargent First Novel Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award for Best Novel of 2007. The novel was selected by Time and New York Magazine as the best novel of 2007. St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Los Angeles Times, Village Voice, Christian Science Monitor, New Statesman, Washington Post and Publishers Weekly also placed the novel on their Best of 2007 lists. A poll by National Book Critics Circle ranked The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao as the most recommended novel by their members.

His 2012 This Is How You Lose Her is a collection of nine short stories unified by a central character, Yunior, the narrator of several stories in Drown. The stories follow hardheaded Yunior, falling in out of relationships as he yearns for love. The book has earned Junot high praise.


About his own work and artistic outlook Diaz offered these insights...

Place was never something I took for granted, not when I had two geographies in my heart. I take special pleasure in naming things as well as I can, since all I was taught as a kid was to give things false names. Or to give them no name at all. I find these public/private discussions repressive whether they're being generated from within our community or without. How in the world can anyone form an authentic self when there are so many damn rules about how one should act in the world? Us writers, we're just throwing words up into the wind, hoping that they will carry, and someone, somewhere, sometime, will have a use for them. (Biography from Wikipedia.)



Book Reviews
Junot Diaz's The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is a wondrous, not-so-brief first novel that is so original it can only be described as Mario Vargas Llosa meets "Star Trek" meets David Foster Wallace meets Kanye West. It is funny, street-smart and keenly observed, and it unfolds from a comic portrait of a second-generation Dominican geek into a harrowing meditation on public and private history and the burdens of familial history. An extraordinarily vibrant book that's fueled by adrenaline-powered prose, it's confidently steered through several decades of history by a madcap, magpie voice that's equally at home talking about Tolkien and Trujillo, anime movies and ancient Dominican curses, sexual shenanigans at Rutgers University and secret police raids in Santo Domingo…It is Mr. Diaz's achievement in this galvanic novel that he's fashioned both a big picture window that opens out on the sorrows of Dominican history, and a small, intimate window that reveals one family's life and loves. In doing so, he's written a book that decisively establishes him as one of contemporary fiction's most distinctive and irresistible new voices.
Michiko Kakutani - New York Times


In The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, Diaz, the author of a book of sexy, diamond-sharp stories called Drown, shows impressive high-low dexterity, flashing his geek credentials, his street wisdom and his literary learning with equal panache.... Diaz's novel also has a wild, capacious spirit, making it feel much larger than it is. Within its relatively compact span, [it] contains an unruly multitude of styles and genres. The tale of Oscar's coming-of-age is in some ways the book's thinnest layer, a young-adult melodrama draped over a multigenerational immigrant family chronicle that dabbles in tropical magic realism, punk-rock feminism, hip-hop machismo, post-postmodern pyrotechnics and enough polymorphous multiculturalism to fill up an Introduction to Cultural Studies syllabus. Holding all this together—just barely, but in the end effectively—is a voice that is profane, lyrical, learned and tireless, a riot of accents and idioms coexisting within a single personality.
A.O. Scott - New York Times Book Review


Weirdly wonderful …Oscar clearly is not intended to function as a hero in the classical sense. Is he meant primarily to symbolize the tangled significance of desire, exile and homecoming? Or is he a 307-lb. warning that only slim guys get the girls? Are we to wring from his ample flesh more of that anguished diaspora stuff? Could be, but I find sufficient meaning in the sheer joy of absorbing Diaz's sentences, each rolled out with all the nerdy, wordy flair of an audacious imagination and a vocabulary to match…Diaz pulls it off with...eggheaded urban eloquence.... Geek swagger, baby. Get used to it.
Jabari Asim - Washington Post


Díaz's remarkable debut novel tells the story of a lonely outsider with zest rather than pathos. Oscar grows up in a Dominican neighborhood in Paterson, NJ, as an overweight, homely lover of sf and fantasy. Reading such books and trying to emulate them in his own writing provide Oscar's only pleasure. What he really wants is love, but his romantic overtures are constantly rejected. The author balances Oscar's story with glances at the history of the Dominican Republic, focusing on the Rafael Trujillo dictatorship and its effect on Oscar's family. Díaz masterfully shifts between Oscar and his sister, mother, and grandfather to give this intimate character study an epic scale, showing that an individual life is the product of family history. Jonathan Davis's sensitive reading captures the romantic quest of the hero and the tragedy of life under Trujillo, and Staci Snell ably reads the alternating chapters dealing with Oscar's sister and mother. Also included is Drown, a collection of stories by Díaz. Highly recommended for all collections.
Michael Adams - Library Journal


A rich, impassioned vision of the Dominican Republic and its diaspora, filtered through the destiny of a single family. After a noted debut volume of short stories (Drown, 1996), Diaz pens a first novel that bursts alive in an ironic, confiding, exuberant voice. Its wider focus is an indictment of the terrible Trujillo regime and its aftermath, but the approach is oblique, traced backwards via the children (Oscar and Lola) of a larger-than-life but ruined Dominican matriarch, Beli. In earthy, streetwise, Spanish-interlaced prose, Diaz links overweight, nerdy fantasist Oscar, his combative, majestic sister and their once Amazonian mother to the island of their ancestry. There, an aunt, La Inca, with strange, possibly supernatural powers, heals and saves Beli after her involvement with one of Trujillo's minor henchman, who was married to the dictator's sister. Beli, at age14, had naively hoped this affair would lead to marriage and family, but instead her pregnancy incurred a near-fatal beating, after which she fled to New Jersey to a life of drudgery, single parenting and illness. By placing sad, lovelorn, virginal Oscar at the book's heart, Diaz softens the horrors visited on his antecedents, which began when Trujillo cast his predatory eye on wealthy Abelard Cabral's beautiful daughter. Was the heap of catastrophes that ensued fuku (accursed fate), Diaz asks repeatedly, and can there be counter-balancing zafa (blessing)? The story comes full circle with Oscar's death in Santo Domingo's fateful cornfields, himself the victim of a post-Trujillo petty tyrant, but it's redeemed by the power of love. Despite a less sure-footed conclusion, Diaz's reverse family saga, crossed with withering political satire, makes for a compelling, sex-fueled, 21st-century tragi-comedy with a magical twist.
Kirkus Reviews



Discussion Questions 
1. Throughout the novel, Spanish words and phrases appear unaccompanied by their English translations. What is the effect of this seamless blending of Spanish and English? How would the novel have been different if Díaz had stopped to provide English translations at every turn? Why does Díaz not italicize the Spanish words (the way foreign words are usually italicized in English-language text)?

2. The book centers on the story of Oscar and his family—and yet the majority of the book is narrated by Yunior, who is not part of the family, and only plays a relatively minor role in the events of the story. Yunior even calls himself “The Watcher,” underscoring his outsider status in the story. What is the effect of having a relative outsider tell the story of Oscar and his family, rather than having someone in the family tell it? And why do you think Díaz waits for so long at the beginning of the book to reveal who the narrator is?

3. Díaz, in the voice of the narrator, often employs footnotes to explain the history or context of a certain passage or sentence in the main text. Why do you think he chose to convey historical facts and anecdotes in footnote form? How would the novel have read differently if the content of the footnotes had been integrated into the main text? What if the footnotes (and the information in them) had been eliminated altogether?

4. In many ways, Yunior and Oscar are polar opposites. While Yunior can get as many women as he wants, he seems to have little capacity for fidelity or true love. Oscar, by contrast, holds love above all else—and yet cannot find a girlfriend no matter how hard he tries. Is it fair to say that Yunior is Oscar’s foil—underscoring everything Oscar is not—and vice versa? Or are they actually more alike than they seem on the surface?

5. The narrator says “Dominicans are Caribbean and therefore have an extraordinary tolerance for extreme phenomena. How else could we have survived what we survived?” (p. 149). What does he mean by that? Could Oscar’s obsession with science fiction and the “speculative genres” be seen as a kind of extension of his ancestors’ belief in “extreme phenomena”? Was that his method of coping?

6. Yunior characterizes himself as a super macho, womanizing jock-type—and yet in narrating the book, his writing is riddled with reference to nerdy topics like the Fantastic Four and Lord of the Rings. In other words, there seems to be a schism between Yunior the character and Yunior the writer. Why do you think that is? What could Díaz be trying to say by making Yunior’s character so seemingly contradictory?

7. For Oscar, his obsession with fantasy and science fiction becomes isolating, separating him from his peers so much so that he almost cannot communicate with them—as if he speaks a different language (and at one point he actually speaks in Elvish). How are other characters in the book—for instance, Belicia growing up in the Dominican Republic, or Abelard under the dictatorship of Trujillo, similarly isolated? And how are their forms of isolation different?

8. We know from the start that Oscar is destined to die in the course of the book—the title suggests as much, and there are references to his death throughout the book (“Mister. Later [Lola would] want to put that on his gravestone but no one would let her, not even me.” (p. 36)). Why do you think Díaz chose to reveal this from the start? How does Díaz manage to create suspense and hold the reader’s attention even though we already know the final outcome for Oscar? Did it actually make the book more suspenseful, knowing that Oscar was going to die?

10. In one of the footnotes the narrator posits that writers and dictators are not simply natural antagonists, as Salman Rushdie has said, but are actually in competition with one another because they are essentially in the same business (p. 97). What does he mean by that? How can a writer be a kind of dictator? Is the telling of a story somehow inherently tyrannical? Do you think Díaz actually believes that he is in some way comparable to Trujillo? If so, does Díaz try to avoid or subvert that in any way?

11. The author, the primary narrator, and the protagonist of the book are all male, but some of the strongest characters and voices in the book (La Inca, Belicia, Lola) are female. Who do you think makes the strongest, boldest decisions in the book? Given the machismo and swagger of the narrative voice, how does the author express the strength of the female characters? Do you think there is an intentional comment in the contrast between that masculine voice and the strong female characters?

12. There are a few chapters in the book in which Lola takes over the narration and tells her story in her own words. Why do you think it is important to the novel to let Lola have a chance to speak for herself? Do you think Díaz is as successful in creating a female narrative voice as he is the male one?

13. How much of her own story do you think Belicia shared with her children? How much do you think Belicia knew about her father Abelard’s story?

14. The image of a mongoose with golden eyes and the a man without a face appear at critical moments and to various characters throughout the book. What do these images represent? Why do you think Díaz chose these images in particular? When they do appear, do you think you are supposed to take them literally? For instance, did you believe that a mongoose appeared to Belicia and spoke to her? Did she believe it?

15. While Oscar’s story is central to the novel, the book is not told in his voice, and there are many chapters in which Oscar does not figure at all, and others in which he only plays a fairly minor role. Who do you consider the true protagonist of the novel? Oscar? Yunior? Belicia? The entire de Leon and Cabral family? The fukú?

16. Oscar is very far from the traditional model of a “hero.” Other characters in the book are more traditionally heroic, making bold decisions on behalf of others to protect them—for instance, La Inca rescuing young Belicia, or Abelard trying to protect his daughters. In the end, do you think Oscar is heroic or foolish? And are those other characters—La Inca, Abelard—more or less heroic than Oscar?

17. During the course of the book, many of the characters try to teach Oscar many things—especially Yunior, who tries to teach him how to lose weight, how to attract women, how to behave in social situations. Do any characters not try to teach Oscar anything, and just accept him as who he is? How much does Oscar actually learn from anyone? And in the end, what does Oscar teach Yunior, and the other characters if anything?
(Questions issued by publisher.)

Also read the interview with Diaz, in which he talks about Brief Wondrous Life, on the Penguin Publishing Group website.

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