Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

"Your Own Goddamn Idiom": Junot Diaz's Translingualism in the Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

"Your Own Goddamn Idiom": Junot Diaz's Translingualism in the Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

Article excerpt

They say it came first from Africa, carried in the screams of the enslaved; that it was the death bane of the Tainos, uttered just as one world perished and another began; that it was a demon drawn into Creation through the nightmare door that was cracked open in the Antilles. Fuku americanus, or more colloquially, fuku--generally a curse or a doom of some kind; specifically the Curse and the Doom of the New World. Also called the fuku of the Admiral because the Admiral was both its midwife and one of its greatest European victims; despite "discovering" the New World the Admiral died miserable and syphilitic, hearing (dique) divine voices. In Santo Domingo, the Land He Loved Best (what Oscar, at the end, would call the Ground Zero of the New World), the Admiral's very name has become synonymous with both kinds of fuku, little and large; to say his name aloud or even to hear it is to invite calamity on the heads of you and yours. No matter what its name or provenance, it is believed that the arrival of the Europeans on Hispaniola unleashed the fuku on the world, and we've all been in the shit ever since.                                                Junot Diaz, Oscar Wao 1 

This is how it begins, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, Junot Diaz's first novel and the American National Book Critics Circle Award and Pulitzer Prize winner of 2008. It is a beginning full of beginnings--the beginning of slavery and the New World, of genocide and conquest, of Oscar Wao's biography. But it is also full of endings: the end of the indigenous Taino at the hands of Columbus's troops; of Columbus ("the Admiral") himself, disgraced and crazy as he lay dying; of Oscar Wao, whose chronicle this is but whose death ("at the end") is foretold here; and the end of the Manhattan skyline that Oscar and his never-to-be-girlfriend watch, several pages later, from the Jersey shore, in a time before Ground Zero was Ground Zero and homeland insecurity had not been invented yet. (1)

Pregnant with portent, then, this beginning boldly and beautifully rewrites the history of the Western hemisphere in three doom-laden sentences. These are sentences for Europe's crimes: its corruption of Africa and America, Ground Zero indeed, or terra nullius as the Europeans conceived of it, which was also paradise--Columbus writing in his letter of the first voyage that "Espanola is a marvel," more beautiful than Tenerife and "filled with trees of a thousand kinds and tall, and they seem to touch the sky" (33). Like olden-day skyscrapers, perhaps, these trees are, like golden-days Manhattan before 9/11, or like the "wordscrapers" Oscar and his n-t-b create as he courts her, unaware that she is his never-to-be (36). Espanola, of course, is Hispaniola, is Haiti of tragic past and present, but it is also the Dominican Republic, where Oscar Wao and his author hail from. Before Columbus "discovers" it in the novel as part of the Antilles on page one, the island has already been explored in the novel's epigraph, which cites Derek Walcott's epic poem The Schooner Flight. Its narrator Shabine "had a sound colonial education" but an even sounder memory, back to "when these slums of empire were paradise." Espanola as Utopia and dystopia, then, is no-place or this-nightmare-place.

Walcott's naming of the melange that is Caribbean identity, post Caliban's colonial education, is perfect as an introduction to The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, whose narrator, name of Yunior, speaks to us in a translingual mix of sci-fi, Spanish, Elvish, and English, as well as other languages and registers too numerous to mention and too heterogeneous to identify. (2) Richard Patteson insists therefore that the polyphony of Diaz's narrative voice makes this novel a quintessentially Caribbean one, "in which multiple linguistic and cultural origins combine with an imperative to mutate" (18). True as this is, to try and pin Wao down in such a geo-literary way is to miss--precisely--the fluidity and the translingual, transnational reach of Yunior's voice, which connects the Caribbean with the growing diaspora of Latin@s in the United States and whose Spanish/English bilingualism renders it truly a voice of the Americas, plural. …

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