Junot Diaz: The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

Although I was never an overweight Dominican teenage boy growing up in New Jersey, I was in fact a nerdy bookish Slovak-American teenage girl growing up in New Jersey. It was easy for me to identify with Oscar; after all, all immigrant cultures in the United States are the same when you get down to it– food that is unrecognizable to the few American visitors who dare to cross the threshold into seemingly passport-necessary territory (but not), table cloths from decades past covered in squeaky sticky vinyl plastic for protection that seems to melt in the New Jersey sweltering summer humidity and heat, and that constant pervasive feeling of differentness, of separateness, even after years of being in the new country. Conversations of the old country shape an ethnic family’s daily routine in the United States; in fact, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is one of those frame narratives. Flashbacks and footnotes throughout the story weave in details of Oscar’s family’s experiences in Trujillo-era Dominican Republic. Similarly, my Slovak family’s stories of the “old country” inevitably shaped the way the family perceived its experience in the new country. Like Oscar’s family, my family was always obviously different from those straight-up American families who eat apple pie and hamburgers and, when asked of their ethnicity back in the old days, wrinkle their foreheads and finally, after a long time, offer that they “were once British or German, I guess.” Oscar and I were different growing up, in that we could exactly put our finger on where our family had come from, and how recently!

As if there weren’t enough similarities between Oscar and me, that is, being a dork growing up, and living in a family that clung fiercely to traditions of past decades, Oscar is obsessed with books and writing; in fact, his life’s dream is to be a famous writer. Anyone who knows me well knows that this is also one of the bullet-points on my bucket list. As an only child, I spent most of my childhood reading when there was no friend there to play games with, and around age 8/9 I whipped up a book series (4 or 5 books, of course I don’t have them anymore) of a Jurassic Park inspired dinosaurs-collide-with humans adventure series, followed by a 4 or 5 book series (also unrecoverable) that had been inspired by a computer game I used to play where one had to fly a space ship into underground mines on far flung planets and blow the place up. (The game was Descent; it was really a classic.) Oscar would have dug that one.

I recently described to a reader of my blog the way I feel when I read and write. She was inquiring after advice on how to center oneself in preparation for a writing session. She must have been surprised by my response when I suggested that one should not center oneself. I see reading and writing as very active and stimulating physical processes. I can hardly stay still during either activity, and when I am reading or writing something very good, my breathing quickens, and I get all red in the face. The same goes for Oscar:

“The only thing that came close was how he felt about his books; only the combined love he had for everything he’d read and everything he hoped to write[…]“

For me, a fun wild night out would actually be an invigorating wild night in with a book or with a blank computer screen begging to be filled with my words, insightful or not. I have always insisted that writing is an art form. One must certainly learn the basic mechanics from an experienced teacher, which I have had the fortune to do, but after a certain point, it just takes off like a breathing autonomonous creature, and I have hardly any control over it. It really is an organic process. Writing runs away with me, and I always feel good doing it. I imagine Junot Diaz the author feels the same way. After all, he is the one who penned the beautiful quote above depicting a bibliophile’s love affair with reading and writing. I hope Diaz keeps turning out books; when I read his autobiographically-infused stories, I can think of nothing other of his book until I am finished reading it, and then I continue thinking about what I have read for a long time thereafter.

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