Diaz’s Examination Of Culture: Clashes And Identities
Diaz’s Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is a combination of cultural experiences and influences that are as rich and imaginative as the stories the book contains. Within the main character, Oscar, lies the power to both transcend definition of culture and become victim or prey of a specific culture’s stereotypes and norms. Oscar is an obese, alienated person within his own culture, but he is drawn out of his personal problems and violent existence within the Dominican dictatorship through his love of escapist literature and stories. Oscar even refers to himself as a “victim of fuku americanus,” or the “Curse of the New World.” (Diaz, 2007). This is an integral idea within the novel and helps to shape the cultural struggles that are contained within it.
Throughout this entire voyage through Oscar’s life, author Diaz explores the mixture of cultures, languages, and ideas that has shaped his own life. This is to say that the book, as it explores the horrendous, violent stories of Oscar and his family, is as much a reflection of the author’s willingness to accept a mixed cultural existence as it is an opportunity to recount the viciousness and atrocious nature of the Dominican’s dictator, Trujillo. History, as Diaz explains and as the reader learns, is more alive than one may think, given the influence it still has on people today.
The collision of culture is best described or embodied by Diaz’s ability to narrate Oscar’s story as a sort of fulfillment of a blank space of page. Diaz calls this the “pagina blanco” or “blank page” (Diaz, 2007). This space is filled with not just one culture, but many as they conflict and swirl to create a new sort of physical and social dialogue within each character and amongst their interactions. This is to say that the cultural vacuum that is created as a result of Oscar’s multi-cultural upbringing is as important to the story and the literary dialogue as the stories themselves. This idea that space is often filled by something that is not well defined, or a combination of sorts is a central idea for Diaz.
The clash of cultures brings out both the best and worst in people and civilizations. Oscar’s own existence, as violent and full of turmoil as it is, is shaped by the actions of cultures and figured both living and dead. This is to say that his existence has been shaped by the colonial actions of Europeans long since dead, just as much as it is shaped quite rapidly and violently by the dictator of his own home country. Oscar’s own inner turmoil is mirrored in the cultural collisions that take place where he and other characters begin to ask questions about cultural identity and definition. The mixture and clash of cultures that ensues is an element all of its own existence, though it has bits and pieces of outside cultural influence mixed in.
Oscar embodies the antithesis of Dominican culture and ideals. In this way, a cultural clash at the most basic level is evident. Each level or element of cultural clash is defined by a story, or an inner examination of what it means to be a specific culture or to feel the influence of other cultures that passed long ago. Author Diaz refers to this cultural vacuum, and impending clash of values and experiences by stating, “And he’s (Chinua Achebe) talking about how a lot of African writers were tentative about using English, but at the same time he realized he couldn’t use the English that other writers were using — he needed to take English and make it African, make it his own. And he has this quote from the London Observer from 1964, from James Baldwin, where he talked about how the English language reflected none of his experience, but if he learned to imitate it, he could make it bear the burden of his experience. And I was wondering, how conscious was your attempt to make English your own, to make it bear the burden of Dominican American experience? Was that a gradual process or did it occur naturally?” (Celayo & Shook, 2008). These questions are posed here in a rhetorical manner, but the clash of cultures and the influence of other cultural actions, sometimes hundreds of years past cannot be ignored. These questions are also partially answered within the characters’ interactions and personal reflections. The author begins to take a much focused look at culture, history, and identity, encouraging the reader to do the same in a very personal manner. In this way, Diaz enforces the idea that as cultures clash, new mixtures, both positive and negative will result. However, all of these mixtures are affected by the specific gravities of their history, whether an individual accepts it or not.
Many of the book’s characters undergo transformations as a result of cultural clashes. Oscar’s sister, Lola, examines her own horrible relationship with their mother in one chapter. This helps to outline and justify her moving to the U.S. And away from the strife at home and in her country in the first place. So Diaz is not only using cultural motifs to help expose and eventually resolve conflict, but generational and familial ones as well.
Diaz’s book is also an examination of cultures clashing one the widest scale. Throughout history cultures and actions have influenced others hundreds of years later. This is certainly the case with Oscar and his family, as the actions of Europeans trying to colonize the Caribbean hundreds of years ago, and the creation of political and dictatorial power vacuums, is at the forefront of much of the struggle within the book (Celayo & Shook, 2008). “But Oscar Wao is more than a bildungsroman; it’s an honest and poignant narrative that looks at the overbearing weight of history as it influences generations and generations of Americans, who often don’t realize the impact it has on them.” (Celayo & Shook, 2008). This is to say that people often do not realize the impact that history still has on them, on their culture, on their own personal stories and perspectives. Here Diaz is creating a sort of dialogue between both culture and history and the individual. In this way, people can begin to realize the ways in which history is still influencing them today, in their everyday decisions and stories.
Diaz also tries to makes sense of the world and of the characters’ struggles through non-American vehicles of description and understanding. This is to say that Oscar’s life and unfortunate end are perceived through the eyes of a non-white, non-American in a way where languages, cultures, traditions, and experiences all come together to help give his life and language definition and meaning (Celayo & Shook, 2008). Diaz accomplishes this by referring to, quite extensively; many different cultural phenomenons’s and works of literature and art. Stephen King novels and comic books help Oscar to understand and relay his experiences to the reader, just as Diaz’s life has been impacted and partially defined through American and non-American popular culture and cultural relics.
In writing about language as a vehicle for division as well as union, Diaz states, “And I think of that, in a sense, in the same way it happens for anyone who’s attempting to use language in an artistic enterprise, the same way that we use language to forge a reality among our youthful friends — we’re going to attempt to use it to try to particularize that experience, because there’s no exchange rate of language-to-experience that ever holds steady. Every experience of every moment seems to require some new way of saying it, and every artist seems to provoke an attempt to say something that might even be mundane, say, in an original way. So that’s a long way of saying that to begin with, we’re in that, we’re in this mechanism, that language is already plastic in ways that I think are exceptional, that are far better and far more fungible than anyone would like to give it credit for.” (Celayo & Shook, 2008). This is another form of cultural clashing, one that is evident in every immigrant, every person who moves away from their homeland and home culture.
The book’s footnotes could become an entire novel themselves, and actually help guide the reader through the clash of culture and history that the book is steeped in. Author Diaz writes in one of these footnotes, “Oh, you’re surprised; you didn’t know this about Dominican history? Just wait till your kids don’t know about the United States and Iraq. But I wonder, you’ve said the average Dominican doesn’t know — a twenty-something Dominican — probably doesn’t know that much about Trujillo or anything that’s happened, but it seems, at least in your writing, like there’s this weight of Dominican history, even if the specifics are unknown. Maybe it’s characteristic of the immigrant community, but they have this sort of inherent toughness. Do you see that?” (Diaz, 2007, 47). This is a very intelligent, pertinent way of showing the audience that culture and history are relevant to the person who experiences them, and that people who come after the observer will undoubtedly have a different perspective and take on history. Nonetheless, these people who come after will also be influenced by the events of today. That is one of Diaz’s main points in the novel, and one that he goes out of his way to stress.
Within these cultural clashes comes the “flipping” of viewpoints and conversations. As Diaz himself talks about in (Telkha TV, 2011), he is trying to give more volume to the conversation by taking the book in one direction with Oscar and the flipping directions and focusing on the women in the book. Just as he talks about what it means to be American and grow up in a place like the U.S. And then flips to talking about the Dominican Republic and the cultural identity and experiences that come with this land specifically (Telkha TV, 2011). The Author enjoys this constant turning or refocusing and the book helps to explore the many sides of one argument, of one viewpoint. This is true within the U.S. culture as well as the Dominican culture. This flipping is also reminiscent of another theme that resurfaces in Diaz’s book, time and time again. This is the theme of different perspectives yielding different approaches, and that there is no one way to look at or understand the world that surrounds everyone.
Diaz’s powerful and super-focused examination of history is contrasted with characters that are ill-suited to become cultural icons or archetypes themselves. This, in a way, is a commentary on the shifting nature of culture and how cultural identities, or the lack thereof, can create something totally unique when mixed together under the right circumstances. Diaz tells the tale of a family under the violent rule of Trujillo, and the cultural and personal struggles that are often influenced by decisions and actions that took place long ago. Such is the commentary of the author, who himself grew up in a multicultural environment, and who used cultural icons from many different place to help construct a new, hybrid cultural identity within the cultural chaos.
Celayo, Armando & Shook, David. “In Darkness We Meet: A Conversation with Junot Diaz.”
Molossus, May 11, 2008. Accessed online May 9, 2011 at: http://www.molossus.co/fiction/in-darkness-we-meet-a-conversation-with-junot-diaz-test/.
Diaz, Juniot. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. Riverhead: New York, NY. 2007.
Tehelka TV. “In Conversation with Juniot Diaz.” Santo Domingo: Dominican Republic, March