“…Lift up your eyes upon
The day breaking for you.
Give birth again
To the dream.
Women, children, men,
Take it into the palms of your hands.
Mold it into the shape of your most
Private need. Sculpt it into
The image of your most public self.
Lift up your hearts.
Each new hour holds new chances
For new beginnings.
Do not be wedded forever
To fear, yoked eternally…”
— On The Pulse Of The Morning, Maya Angelou
Activist and author Chimamanda Ngnozi Adichie once said that “the single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.” To public high school students who are stuck in an English curriculum that caters to predominantly white, ableist, heterosexual ideologies which conveys only incomplete, single stories: there is another way to do literature.
The problem is that there is a severe imbalance between the two types of texts that appear in English curriculum today— mirror books and window books. Mirror books are those which “reflect back to readers portions of their identities, cultures, or experiences,” allow them to resonate with the situation and the characters, and explore his or her own nature through relationship with the text. Window books provide a lens through which readers can perceive other cultures and people and ways of life that they have not experienced and cultivate a deeper comprehension and appreciation for them.
“When children cannot find themselves reflected in
the books they read, or when the images they see are
distorted, negative, or laughable, they learn a powerful
lesson about how they are devalued in the society of
which they are a part” (Bishop, 1990b, p. 557).
Too often, mirror books are rooted in assumptive whiteness and reflects only the experiences of the abled, white student— leaving students of color, students of vast religious backgrounds, students of LGBTQ+ identity, and students with physical and mental disabilities ultimately unrepresented and un-reflected in the texts they read.
Junot Diaz, the author of The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, is one of the many authors that seeks to narrow the gap between window and mirror books for students by utilizing his Dominican heritage and non-white experience to reflect it in his works for young adults. Diaz understands all too well the inevitable pressures that immigrants face as people of color in the midst of an anglo-saxon ideological society while maintaining obligations to a native culture in the home. In The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, Diaz mirrors these pressures for kids like him and creates a multicultural window for those who are not.
“If you didn’t grow up like I did then you don’t know, and if you don’t know it’s probably better you don’t judge.” (Diaz, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, pg. 55)
These words address the audience in its privilege, compliments of Junot Diaz’s narrator Yunior. In the text, the author utilizes this cynical, teenage Dominican American male to relay the stories of several characters— especially the experiences of first generation Dominican American Oscar De Leon and the dichotomy he faces between his life in pre-dominantly white America and his cultural roots from the Dominican Republic. Oscar is a nerdy and introverted “muchacho gordo” with a knack for eloquently weaving fantastical stories about heroes and gladiators and superhuman beings. Because his nature causes him to isolate himself within the bounds of his computer games and his narratives, Oscar finds himself double-bound by the expectations of the two vastly different cultures he’s immersed in:
“You really want to know what being an X-Man feels like? Just be a smart bookish boy of color in a contemporary U.S. ghetto. Mamma mia! Like having bat wings or a pair of tentacles growing out of your chest.” (Diaz, pg. 22)
On the one hand, Oscar’s intelligence and talent is marred by the perception of his race, separating him from white culture where his inclination toward literary achievement would have been praised. On the other hand, the boy’s lack of sexual encounters and suave and his general slovenliness causes him to be blatantly ridiculed by his family and his community who undermine his identity as a “real Dominicano”.
Aside from Oscar, Yunior presents the other characters in vignette- reminiscent documentations and follows each character’s perspective generation by generation as the De Leon family immigrates to New York, travels back into the political unrest of Santo Domingo, and returns back to a home in America. Like Oscar, each member of the family struggles with the unique background and cultural pressures they face from American and Dominican society. Among these, Diaz creates substantial emphasis on the gender role expectations.
In order to be perceived as an authentic Dominican man, it is expected that strength communicated through violence and sexual activity and providing for the family is a way of life. This stereotype is exemplified in the many boyfriends of main female characters— who often maintain multiple sexual partners, objectify women based on their physic and sensuality, and engage in casual beatings and normalized humiliation of less-masculine members. The audience witnesses this even in Yunior and his biases against Oscar for not living up to the macho standard of true masculinity and the way he also objectifies women in his descriptive commentary. All the while, these men are still oppressed by the socio-economic hardships and internalized racism they experience as brown-skinned, bilingual, and as stereotyped gangsters and criminals.
For women, their worth resides in their cultural glorification as a sex symbol— which degrades the darker their skin tone and the older and less fertile they become. From the time they start puberty, the women in the stories are conditioned to know their importance and only power as sexual beings, which should be flaunted and wielded in order to find a male provider. Beli, Oscar’s mother, comes to know this as she hits puberty and discovers the “concreteness of her desirability which was, in its own way, Power” (Diaz, pp. 94) And even so, as a subculture in intercity New York, these women are subject to rape and violence from their own and from the white males who, if only for a moment, may fetishize their vivacious curves and forget the dark pigment of their skin. If they do not submit to this feminine expectation, they must find protection in other ways by completely abandoning sexuality for hyper-aggression. Oscar’s sister Lola is an example of this:
“Lola, was a lot more practical. Now that her crazy years were over— what Dominican girl doesn’t have those?— she’d turned into one of those tough Jersey Dominicanas, a long-distance runner who drove her own car, had her own checkbook, called men bitches, and would eat a fat cat in front of you without a speck of verguenza. When she was in fourth grade, she’d been attacked by an older acquaintance, and this was common knowledge throughout the family…and surviving that urikan of pain, judgement, and bochinche had made her tougher than adamantine. Recently she’d cut her hair short—flipping out her mother yet again—partially I think because when she’d been little her family had let it grow down past her ass, a source of pride, something I’m sure her attacker noticed and admired.” (Diaz, pp. 25)
Though Junot is very concerned with sharing the stories of individuals, he also provides a skillful historical backbone which effects the Dominican population as a collective. At the foundation of all of the De Leon family tales is the looming shadow of Dictator/President Rafael Trujillo. In his reign of terror and destruction from 1930-1961, Trujillo created a regime of censorship and communist ideology among the Dominican people. His totalitarianism was highlighted by his abuse of puppet-leaders, the National Army, and his own Secret Police who exercised complete control over subjects and slaughtered on command. Each character in the novel has a personal relationship with the toxic control over behavior and social mobility of Trujillo’s reign. This is seen especially in Beli’s story as a young women before traveling to the United States:
“No amount of wishful thinking was changing the cold hard fact that she was a teenage girl living in the Dominican Republic of Rafael Leonidas Trujillo Molina, the Dictatingest Dictator who ever Dictated. This was a country, a society, that had been designed to be virtually escape-proof…Part of the generation reaching consciousness in a society that lacked any. The generation that despite the consensus that declared change impossible hankered for change all the same” (Diaz, pp. 80-81).
Diaz recounts much of this historical context in his footnotes, where his narrator Yunior’s scynnical voice is alive and well. The bitterly sarcastic youth describes the “El Jefe” Trujillo as someone who “came to control nearly every aspect of the DR’s political, cultural social, and economic life through a potent (and familiar) mixture of violence, intimidation, massacre, rape, co-optation, and terror; treated the country like it was a plantation and he was the master” (Diaz, pg. 2). Historically, Trujillo was not unaccustomed to murder in mass amounts either. Arguably, his greatest atrocity was his massacre of the innocent Haitian citizens living in the DR in October 1937 after the Haitian government executed several of his secret intelligence agents. In his retaliation, he wiped out approximately 20,000 Haitian men, women, and children. Even after his assassination in May 1961, the memory of the dictator still struck crippling fear into the hearts of the Dominican people— so much so that many still believe his ghost curses the families of defiers, bringing them bad luck (or “fuku” as those in the book would say) for years to come. And this is presented so blatantly in the stories Yunior tells. As depicted by several of the characters in the Diaz’s vignettes, many were brainwashed by power and fear into supporting Trujillo, and those who defied his rule were either tortured into submission or seldom seen again. This is illustrated in the brutal mutilation of Beli when she is found out by the Secret Police to be pregnant with the love child of “The Gangster”– the brother in law of Trujillo himself. Only by her strong will and a suspected divine intervention did Beli live through the beating. And never did she dare to cross to cross El Jefe again.
Junot Diaz’s piece The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is valuable, has been necessitated, by the lack of multicultural understanding and representation in young adult literature. More marginalized students need to see themselves reflected in books— must be able to see the very real things they struggled with from their own cultures, from their own family dynamics, from their own experiences with forced assimilation and cultural disconnect. It is also crucial that children from the largely represented cultures are given the opportunity to examine the hardships of their peers through the windows stories provide in this way as well. Diaz knows this intimately. In one interview regarding the Pulitzer Prize he won for the tale he tells about the De Leon Family, Diaz states:
“I try to battle the forces that seek to “other” people of color and promote white supremacy. But I also have no interest in being a “writer,” either, shorn from all my connections and communities. I’m a Dominican writer, a writer of African descent, and whether or not anyone else wants to admit it, I know also that Stephen King and Jonathan Franzen are white writers. The problem isn’t in labeling writers by their color or their ethnic group; the problem is that one group organizes things so that everyone else gets these labels but not it.”
In accordance with this, his book seeks to “resist the singularity of perspective that is often used to establish authority” and promote power that is already existent within literature and within greater society.
We must stand arm in arm with authors like Diaz and the stories they have to share— to be multiculturally inclusive in the world of writers and the worlds they create through text. The single-story narrative, the rationalized tokenism, the blatant absence of faces in the books that look like the students who read them is something we can no longer tolerate. This is why we read stories like The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. Because it makes a difference. Because it has to.