"Your own goddamn idiom": Junot Diaz's translingualism in The Brief Wondrous life of Oscar Wao.
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. (3)
Bharati Mukherjee accordingly identifies Diaz, together with other immigrant writers like Edwidge Danticat and Gary Shteyngart, as exemplars of American "literature ofnew arrival," for whom "English is not the mothertongue and who have no intention of wilfully erasing their premigration linguistic and historical inheritance" (683, 681). By contrast with immigrant writers of a century ago, who "were grateful to the US for asylum and opportunities for self-betterment" and who desired "assimilation into America... for their US-born offspring," Mukherjee argues, the writing of these new immigrants "embraces broken narratives of disrupted lives, proliferating plots, outsize characters... the fierce urgency of obscure history [and] the language fusion (Spanglish)" (683). (4) In the analysis of Diaz's translingualism that follows, I shall highlight two of the characteristics she identifies in this "literature of new arrival": what she calls "bilingual" narrative discourse--which, in Oscar Wao, is a complex hybrid of English, Spanish, and interjected words and phrases from artificial fantasy languages--and inherited trauma from the native country, which is imported into the US. These features of Diaz's novel are, as we shall see, intimately bound up with each other, because the "broken narrative of disrupted lives" Mukherjee writes about accurately describes the brief wondrous life of Oscar Wao as rendered in Yunior's language-fusing voice--"obscure history," "proliferating plot," "outsize character" and all.
"(dique)": Translingualism and Transnationalism in the Literature of New Arrival
The brief and wondrous life of Oscar Wao is told at breakneck speed in what appears to be an oral discourse, consisting in part of youth in-speak peppered with popular cultural references to fantasy and sci-fi ("Sauron's evil"), of American hip-hop expressions ("dude," "homeboy"), of allusions to the Western canon ("House Atreus"), and of Spanish slang derived from the speech of Puerto Rican, Dominican, Cuban, and South American Americans ("It's all true, plataneros") (156,152,155). (5) Yunior narrates the life of his friend as Nick Carraway tells Gatsby's story, out of fascination, intrigued as he is by the wondrousness of Wao's commitment to fantasy and appalled as he also is by the tragic brevity of Oscar's existence on planet earth. Lived under the long and dark historical shadow of the Dominican Republic's most notorious dictator, Rafael Trujillo (1930-1961), this life is told in a highly fragmented way. As Yunior begins to realize just how much his friend's unhappy story is interwoven with that of his mother, Beli, and grandfather, Abelard, both of whom suffered under Trujillo, he discovers that his own hyper-sexual masculinity may have played a part in determining Oscar's awful end, which makes the telling of it also an act of contrition. (6)
Yunior's discourse is complex and variegated because these are no American-ordinary lives. He echoes Oscar's view of Dominican identity and the almost unimaginable fusion of reality and fantasy that happens under the arbitrary yet absolute rule of a dictator: "who more scifi than us?" (21). In order to render the ridiculous and preposterous as the real, Yunior's narration thus needs the numerous historical ("the world-famous Mirabal sisters") and intertextual ("the brief wondrous life of Oscar Wao," for starters) references Diaz endows him with. (7) He combines such readerly references, furthermore, with high and low cultural registers, standard and slang locutions, and creates new ones in the process. Often, such a creative neword fuses English with Spanish, as in "if the procurement of ass had been any more central to the Trujillato the regime would have been the world's first culocracy" (217), "culocracy" highlighting the fantastical but also highly sexualized nature of El Jefe's ("The Chief," Trujillo's) power. (8)
At other times a single word, strategically placed by Diaz whilst sounding like a perfectly natural interjection on Yunior's part, can bring a world of cultural difference into the dominant English of Wao's narrative discourse. Take, for example, "(dique)" in the opening extract above, which is instructive on the first page of a Dominican American novel: look it up in the dictionary and you find "dike." This can make some kind of sense in the context of Columbus's landing and the question of what or who could possibly have held back the tide of European "discovery," but in the sentence where it occurs, amid "hearing divine voices," it makes no sense at all. Look further therefore, and find that the online Urban Dictionary gives "Dominican slang for 'supposedly' or 'so they say,'" and that sounds right here. Whilst "fuku" may be a Diaz invention of obvious American English-gone-global derivation, the modest (in brackets) presence of "dique," if my theory that it comes from the French "on dit que" is correct, introduces from the beginning a word of Haitian creole heritage into Dominican American writing. (9)
This is significant, since much of the novel's representation of Dominican racial politics revolves around the "taint" of blackness that is conspicuously displaced onto Haitians and used as a race-and-class slur. In the familiar hierarchy of skin tone that is often called the pigmentocracy of the region, Haitians occupy the bottom rung. Oscar's sister Lola, for example, riles her mother in a restaurant in the Zona Colonial, where the waiters look down on them as outsiders, by telling her "they probably think you're Haitian," to which Beli's retort is "la unica haitiana acqui eres tii, mi amor" ("the only Haitian here is you, darling" ). (10) "(dique)" thus obliquely does cultural and political work at the level of the novel's translingual discourse that its narrative belies, but cannot quite undo.
And what "taints" people also "taints" language: as V. N. Voloshinov wrote, "a word is the purest and most sensitive medium of social intercourse," so that "the word functions as an essential ingredient accompanying all ideological creativity whatsoever" (14-15)." An understanding of all language as rooted in the social, and specifically in human interaction, enables us to think of Diaz's decision to have Yunior interject "(dique)" into his opening statement about the fuku that reportedly fucked up Oscar Wao's life, in a very particular way: as linguistic material that imports not just an alien shape and sound, but more importantly an ideological charge from another culture into the English textual environment. In so doing, Diaz makes a political intervention, in that he declares by implication his solidarity with Haiti and Haitian(s) in the very act of telling his Dominican trauma story and with that tiny word. This is striking because, as the linguist John Lipski observes, "Dominicans are reluctant to admit any influence," yet "popular Dominican Spanish contains demonstrable Haitian traces," just as--we might add--Dominican people contain demonstrable traces of Haitian races too (n.p.). (12)
Fear of contamination of standard languages by their colonially-produced Creoles and fear of miscegenation have historically been intertwined, of course, and current US anxieties that hegemonic American English is threatened by the Spanish of new immigrants are a direct legacy of such nineteenth-century fetishization of purity. Diaz's insertion of "(dique)" into his English sentence therefore does not just signal caution to the reader, warning her and him of the speculative, hearsay nature of the story they are about to read--this is important, but for that purpose he could have used "(so they say)." (13) Diaz's daring is that the translingual word "(dique)" introduces language-mixing, creolisation and with it miscegenation as a fundamental feature of his literary discourse, one that Anglo readers have to come to terms with if they really want to read him.
This takes work, the kind of work that immigrants have to do as they learn the language of their new world. (14) Diaz himself has said about this in interview that, having learnt English as an immigrant child, "there's English acquisition and then there's English acquisition, that there is this almost endless array of vernaculars that you have to pick up," not just expressions or accents but also the lingo of sports, TV, popular music, or "comic books, fantasy, and science fiction [which] are like a very vibrant, alive, and very American language" (Diaz, Shook, and Celayo 14). In Diaz's narrative discourse and Yunior's voice, the American vernacular of references to comics, sci-fi, and fantasy holds equal status with standard English, with high-cultural intertextuality and with Spanish words and phrases, which bring what Lori Ween has called a "Latin feel" to the texture of his prose that does not, however, become "an essentializing notion that allows the market to categorize and define a type of writing" (129). (15) Rather, it does the opposite: in combination, conjugation, and cohabitation these languages and registers become an idiolect, or as Diaz typically puts it, bluntly and clearly: "your own goddamn idiom. You just create this entire language, and in some ways it holds you together" (Diaz, Shook, and Celayo 14).
Diaz's "own goddamn idiom" is so densely layered, so original and obtrusive as to remind of Toni Morrison's dictum that "the most valuable point of entry into the question of cultural (or racial) distinction, the one most fraught, is its language--its unpoliced, seditious, confrontational, manipulative, inventive, disruptive, masked and unmasking language" ("Unspeakable Things" 11). Morrison is an important ghost in the machine of "creating a language that can hold us together" in Oscar Wao, and here she draws particular attention to the political nature of certain kinds of culturally and/or racially marked vernaculars that, in their "taintedness," can stage a revolution in poetic language too. (16) Diaz's prose in Wao shakes up hierarchies and forces you to look at words and worlds a different way: "(dique)" and other Haitian words (like "restavek") implicitly critique Dominican disavowal of blackness and the racial division (mapped onto class) of two nations sharing the same island that comes with it. His "own goddamn idiom" therefore is not just a vehicle for his political agenda, but the very substance of it.
And so, if Diaz does create a revolution in the poetics of immigrant writing, then perhaps Jose David Saldivar's bold statement that with the publication of Wao "American literature changed forever" may be less overstated than it at first appears ("Junot Diaz: a Symposium" 17). (17) In his first collection of short stories, Drown, Diaz had used Spanish and youth-speak liberally, but advisedly--that is, ethnographically, much like European immigrants of the early twentieth century let their native language wander into their English sentences occasionally, when describing life in the old country. (18) As a result, Drown is much easier on the monolingual eye, the more so as its appended glossary caters to the implied Anglo reader's desire for semantic transparency. (19) This Is How You Lose Her, Diaz's latest book, similarly accommodates that reader, as Yunior's voice now appears to have settled down in a dominant English permitting only the occasional Spanish incursion. No such compromises are made in Oscar Wao, and this is what makes up its newness, its daring, and its challenge to the reader to keep up or give up. To see how analysis of the text's fabric--even at the micro-level of a single letter--can take us from translingual practice to trauma and hence back to Mukherjee's "literature of new arrival," we need to return to the novel's opening paragraph. We then find that it is Yunior's "todologos" itself that enacts the novel's "seditious, confrontational... masking and unmasking" political message (214). (20)
"broken lives, disrupted narratives": The Importation of Trauma
Yunior wants to explain nothing less than how the U of Utopia--etymologically no-place, but a paradisiacal good place in Thomas More's euphonic naming of it as a fictional island in the Atlantic--became the U of the tMilles ("until we can go to America / until the US rescues us") or of "this with-country" (as Beli calls the Dominican Republic elsewhere) and how it morphed into a dystopia, from Columbus onwards, where violence and terror reign (259, 128). Along the way, Diaz shows how Rafael Trujillo's dictatorship and American involvement in the Caribbean make for today's Dominicans becoming new Americans, fleeing and having fled, themselves the offspring of Europeans and of slaves. (21) These slaves' screams on page one, first sentence, announced the coming of the New World and are heard in Oscar Wao's family's saga still, as each generation falls victim to the terror and violence of Trujillo's henchmen and their own bravely misguided defiance of it, all in the name of love. Just as Beli is nearly beaten to death ("like she was a slave") in a cane field and traumatized for life by Trujillo's thugs, so also is Oscar first savagely assaulted and in the end shot by Trujillo's indirect heirs (147). These are the heavies set on him by "el capitan," member of the secret police and lover of Ybon, a prostitute whom Oscar has fallen in love with. Something as ostensibly personal as love therefore is, in both cases, deeply political because the patriarchal, heterosexist, and misogynistic ethos of the dictatorship seeps down into private life and turns it toxic. Oscar dies in a place where "the smell of the ripening cane was unforgettable," which olfactory memory takes us back to Beli's beating, slavery, and the fuku that "first came from Africa" (320). (22) Because US complicity with DR barbarity is a time-honored tradition, Oscar's status as a US citizen makes no difference at all: "the embassy didn't help and neither did the government"; there can be no US rescue in the face of a history of invasion (in 1917, as Yunior reminds us) and a present of restless, ongoing migrancy (323).
That the US is no safe haven or refuge for any Dominican platanero/a is clear throughout and part of Diaz's revision of the old European immigrant saga. Somewhere in between Beli's near-fatal beating that sends her in exile to "Nueba Yol" and Oscar's demise in the cane field, his eight-year-old sister Lola is sexually abused by a stranger back in New Jersey, but finds no solace at home. Instead Beli routinely beats her, repeating the violence she herself had been helplessly subjected to in her youth. She has a "scar as vast and inconsolable as a sea" on her back to remind us of both her childhood as a "criada" (or virtual slave) in the DR and her similarity to Sethe, the escaped slave mother in Morrison's Beloved (51). Since to discipline and punish is all the mothering she knows how to do, Beli eventually sends Lola back to the "wH-country" where the cycle of violence began. "And that is how I ended up in Santo Domingo," Lola later explains to Yunior (70).
Diaz's families, relationships, and individuals are riven and scarred and, in Beli's case, also silenced by trauma, so that Yunior's task in piecing this family saga together is an exercise of imagination ("who more scifi than us?") as much as documentation. (23) Trauma incapacitates conscious memory but activates its unconscious power, so that Beli's DR history, as Yunior describes it, "got slopped into those containers in which governments store nuclear waste, triple-sealed by industrial lasers and deposited in the dark, uncharted trenches of her soul" (258). Lola voices the havoc that dictatorship wreaks on the souls of its citizens: "Ten million Trujillos is all we are," she says to Yunior after Oscar's death, swearing "that she would never return to that terrible country" (324). And so, much as Yunior tries to keep control of this narrative, there can be--as he repeatedly warns us--no complete or reliable remembering in The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, only construction and reconstruction, with several paginas en bianco that can never be filled in, not with all the words in the world. Lola knows, and shows him, that broken relationships, thwarted lives, vanishing menfolk, and abusive parenting are but new ways of living out the Dominican trauma--call it fuku--of her parents and grandparents: "if these years have taught me anything it is this: you can never run away. Not ever. The only way out is in" (209).
"The only way out is in" is an admonishment to confront the past, which is never left behind but always remains part of the immigrant's baggage. Trauma is, as Israel Zangwill knew and demonstrated in that supposedly most assimilationist icon of "old immigrant" writing, The Melting Pot (1907), not left behind in the Russia of Tsarist pogroms either but imported to the United States, along with the samovar and the siddur (the Hebrew prayer book). But if this is a point of resemblance between the literature of "new arrival" and that of the "old immigrants," it is only apparently so: The Melting Pot plays itself out entirely on American soil, and if it addresses imported trauma as one of its themes, it is a minor one, serving mainly to highlight how the United States provides refuge from such trauma. Not so in The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, where the US offers no escape; "the only way out is in" forces the reader to grapple with the novel's "unpoliced, seditious, confrontational, manipulative, inventive, disruptive, masked and unmasking language" as a means of processing, working-through its nightmarish twentieth-century Dominican subject matter that makes itself felt in the United States and into the twenty-first. Such working-through has no redemptive function, however; it is, rather, an act of remembering and revealing what Ramon Saldivar describes as "the relentless beatings, rapes, murders, tortures, and other lesser cruelties and gleeful sadisms perpetrated in the names of (say) love, ethics, rights, justice or freedom" under any dictatorship--Trujillo's massacre of Haitians in 1937 is an example (595).
Geoffrey Hartman has written that "as a specific literary endeavor trauma study explores the relation of words and wounds" (259), and I am suggesting that Diaz does the same in The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. In Dominican history he does not have to look far: that same massacre which was Trujillo's most determined effort at ethnic cleansing reputedly (dique) hinged on a single word: whoever could not pronounce "perejil" in the Dominican way (that is, with a Spanish rolling R instead of the French/Creole guttural one) was killed. (24) Or take the words "lo siento" in the intensely painful-to-read passage where Beli, "her bra slung about her waist like a torn sail" examines her breasts and asks Lola, "Don't you feel that... Coho, muchacha, stop looking at me and feel," whereupon her daughter duly feels and says "Lo siento" (53). (25) Poignant here is Beli's brash injunction ("for fuck's sake, girl") for Lola to feel, not the breastful of motherly love but the lump that spells cancer, and more so the daughter's response ("I feel it") that is also "I'm sorry," both contained in the Spanish "lo siento." The cancer in Beli's breast, erstwhile so magnificent a breast "only a pornographer or a comic-book artist could have designed [it]... with a clear conscience," evokes the cancer that eats away at the Utopia, cornucopia of the Antilles, "the fresh, green breast of the new world" Fitzgerald wrote about at the end of The Great Gatsby (92).
In addressing ("the only way out is in") massacre at the national and cancer at the personal level of intertwined histories, Diaz not only suggests that "the Spanish conquest has disrupted the Edenic society instead of creating one," as Emily Shifflette writes, but he also inscribes the trauma (the wound) of both at the material level of the word (10). His originality comes into view if we compare it to Edwidge Danticat's prose, which deals with similar traumatic histories and likewise brutalized people, but in a much more conventional style--that is, in Standard English with a few words of Creole thrown in that are almost always translated. (26) Diaz's writing is so powerful and so original not because of what is being told (much of that, Hemingway-like, goes under the surface) but by virtue of how it is done, with the Spanish and the fantasy and sci-fi references and the high-literary intertextuality all forming part of the linguistic texture of the novel that resonates, reverberates even, with other stories, histories, and meanings, like some kind of textual unconscious yet to be discovered. Critics like Daniel Bautista, Tim Lanzendorfer, T. S. Miller, and A. O. Scott furthermore convincingly argue that allusions and references to fantasy, comic books, and science fiction in Diaz's novel are by no means ignorable add-ons, but function as a third language besides English and Spanish, resonating with denotative and connotative meanings. Lanzendorfer goes so far as to suggest that the novel's fantasy references are "more subversive" than the presence of Spanish is to those who do not know it, and that without knowledge of the popular cultural references Diaz so liberally endows Yunior's narration with, we probably are not "really getting it" (136).
Mere awareness of what those references refer to however is not enough, since reading Wao is not a simple exercise in decoding, but really one of interpretation, as perusal of The Annotated Guide to the Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, compiled online by a person or persons unknown called "Kim," demonstrates. In an introduction to the resource "Kim" explains how reading the novel "was extremely slow going since I needed my laptop nearby the entire time, with Wikipedia, Google, and Google translate open... unless I wanted to miss out on half of the story," which occasioned the idea of a web-based commentary (n.p.). "Kim" does not tell us whether the information this Wikipedia-like, crowd-sourced attempt at exegesis provides really enables a better understanding of Wao's narrative, but the many contributors' comments to the Annotated Oscar Wao suggest that Diaz has a distinctive fan base of fantasy, sci-fi, and comics lovers, who enthusiastically shine their light on the text's many occlusions. The Annotated Guide to the Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao connects you to a community of readers who are only too glad to share their specialist knowledge ("Oscar Wao is all about embracing your inner geek, right?" "Kim" asks rhetorically), so you quickly realize you are not alone in grappling with Diaz's translingualism and multifarious references (many of which do not even announce themselves as such in the text). (27)
Despite containing a great deal of information to elucidate the novel's many buried references ("Anacaona was a Taino queen"; "Robotech is an 85-episode adaptation of three different anime television series"), the guide's ultimate usefulness in really helping us understand Wao's translingual dimensions and their radical semantic implications is doubtful. Knowing what "jojote" means does not improve my reading all that much; in fact, I have already forgotten its translation, though not the word itself nor its derogatory function, which prompted me to look it up in the first place. And this--retention of the "foreign" word, its look, its sound, its feel in the mouth as I, an Anglo speaker, nearly choke trying to pronounce it--is surely the point of Diaz's multilingual, multicultural, omnivorous writing. Really reading translingual literature means letting the words do their own thing; translation will not do. And neither will explication suffice: that "Darkseid" refers to "a fictional character that appears in comic books published by DC Comics" is one thing, but such a point of information becomes meaningful only when read creatively, with eyes and ears open to the look and sound of that word (Wao 5). If we adopt Reed Way Dasenbrock's useful distinction between intelligibility (translation, denotation) and meaningfulness (signification, resonance), then "Darkseid" becomes interesting, as it rhymes and chimes with the dark side of the history of the Americas that Diaz is excavating here, in his examination of the Trujillo dictatorship and other forces of terror, stretching all the way back to Columbus. Furthermore, as T. S. Miller writes, "the real significance lies in Diaz's juxtaposition of sf with other discourses"; you can find allusions to Melville's Bartleby side by side with Asimov and will have to think of the ramifications of them appearing together when figuring out what it all might mean (94). Reading Junot Diaz, the mind boggles.
And this, too, fits in with the notion of trauma writing. Aitor Ibarrola-Armendariz refers to real-life trauma when she identifies the "sluggishness and unawareness with which... catastrophes enter the consciousness of those afflicted"; she highlights Diaz's responsibility in not just appeasing "the ghosts that still haunt... the Dominican diaspora" but also "making readers in faraway nations... learn to empathize with and to transform their perception of their 'traumatized condition' through art" (145). If, as we saw above, this is not a redemptive function of the text but rather a political, consciousness-raising one, it has--like the online annotated guide to the novel--a democratic effect: because Diaz, as Rune Graulund writes, "implements a politics of exclusion, actively forcing his readers to accept that parts of his text will likely remain indecipherable to them," he paradoxically achieves a kind of /nclusion at the same time (34). His wide and diverse range of allusion flatters many readers, from self-identified sci-fi nerds to literature buffs through to young Latin@s and readers in other parts of the world, who recognize the parallels between Nazi and Stasi, Tonton Macoutes and SIM. (28)
The New Immigration and Diaz's "goddamn idiom"
If we now return to Mukherjee's "literature of new arrival" and its departure from the conventions of immigrant American literature of old, we can see that in its insistence on transnational continuities (rather than new beginnings), the importation and re-enactment of trauma (rather than leaving sorrow behind), and the need to confront the troublesome history of the old country (rather than to adapt to the new) The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is a tale of a new kind of "new" Americans. Part of their newness is that they insist they were always already Americans (pace Columbus)--even if not previously resident in the United States. Mukherjee's question, "how exactly does the immigrant absolutely renounce her earlier self, her fidelity to family history and language 'without any mental reservation of purpose of evasion?'" as the oath of naturalization demands, is of no concern to Diaz and his characters: they simply refuse any such renunciation (681). In a further departure from the old literature of American immigration, they do not believe that the US provides any kind of refuge from suffering either and they see no scope or hope for fulfilment of some exceptionalist dream.
As if echoing Mukherjee's own novel of new arrival, Jasmine, in which the US border is no barrier against transnational violence, in The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao torturers live side by side with the refugees who tried to escape them, and they are as welcome in the US as is their victims' cheap labor. Of the Capitan, who is well-versed in all kinds of torture and the agent of Oscar's demise, Yunior writes: "I know this guy well. He has family in Queens and every Christmas he brings his cousins bottles of Johnnie Walker Black." Oscar's protest that he is an American citizen and therefore has rights is, as we saw earlier, futile: the Capitan simply counters that he is an American citizen too, with Yunior adding, to highlight the bitter irony of this fact, "Motherfucker even had first world teeth" (295). Any illusion that Dominicans migrate to the US for safety or a better life is shattered in Diaz's representation of the process. It is violence and poverty ("the mind boggling poverty," four times repeated on page 277) that drive Dominicans to the US--and pull them back again: "the only way out," after all, "is in."
There are real-life corollaries to this back-and-forth movement and the refusal to renounce native allegiance. With the 1965 Hart-Celler Immigration Reform Act and the re-election of Joaquin Balaguer's right wing regime in the Dominican Republic a year later, governments of both countries "saw emigration as a way to dissipate threatening political tensions, i.e. to get rid of dissidents and to eliminate an excess of unneeded unskilled workers," Flores writes (11). Furthermore, Jose Itzigsohn and Carlos Dore-Cabral observe in their study of Dominicans in the US that they "certainly hold on strongly to their national identity" and "socialize mainly with other Dominicans," just as Yunior and his friends do in Wao (243, 233). Young people of the second generation do show their transculturation in that they "adopt the hip-hop style of African-American and Puerto-Rican youngsters," yet the percentage of Dominicans who are naturalized and have become US citizens by choice is low, the sociologists write (240, 233). New communications technologies, affordable air travel, and the proximity of the Caribbean enable frequent virtual contact between the two countries as well as regular visits, so that Dominican American lives and identities are far more transnational than were those of the immigrants of old. (29)
All this--real-life transnational migration and its representation in Diaz's work--is therefore a far cry from the American immigration of a century ago. Its literature was primarily concerned with the differences between Old and New worlds, the exigencies of learning English and adapting to the American way of life, and was in important respects a response to the Americanization movement's fervent demand that immigrants be made over into bona fide Americans in the shortest time possible. (30) The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao inverts all tropes of immigrant literature as we know or might imagine it; it has no sentimentality or nostalgia for the homeland, nor does it enthuse about American education or curry favor with its readers by relating the difficulties of migrant existence. Instead of embracing or being deeply disillusioned with it, Diaz's narrative radically decenters the United States: much of the narrative is set in the DR, whereas life in New Jersey is taken for granted and represented as normal, or even mundane.
Again, a single word of Diaz's forging, "Domo," encapsulates all this: clearly its look and sound evoke the Dominican Republic, but morphologically there is an echo of "home" (from the Latin "domus") too (180). Yunior refers to Oscar with this term, yet the home of the "homeboy" of its meaning is surely the United States. "Domo" thus collapses both meanings into a single word, signifying "Dominican American, like me." This is important to note because "Domo" occurs with reference to Oscar in the very passage that explains how Wao got his weird name: "Who the hell, I ask you, had ever met a Domo like him?... I couldn't believe how much he looked like that fat homo Oscar Wilde, and I told him so... Melvin said, Oscar Wao, quien es Oscar Wao, and that was it, all of us started calling him that... And the tragedy? After a couple of weeks, dude started answering to it" (180).
Much is compacted into these lines, too much to unravel here--certainly with regard to the oppressive definition of Dominican masculinity that helps to determine Oscar Wao's unhappy demise. Remember Mukherjee's mention of "outsize characters" as one of the characteristics of the "literature of new arrival"; here we see how the overweight Oscar de Leon, renowned for his nerdy knowledge of all things fantasy and sci-fi, but also for his excessively, eccentrically formal speech ("she is orchidaceous," "/ am lacking in pulchritude"), gains the nickname Oscar Wilde, Hispanically pronounced "Wao," and becomes the butt of a homophobic, translingual aural joke (35, 176). Oscar's Dominican masculinity, already questionable since he is still a virgin at this point, is further put in doubt here: his use of elaborate, Latinate language feminizes him, so that "Domo" comes to rhyme with "homo" in this passage. (31)
In drawing such ostensibly wild and random transhistorical and trans-atlantic, transcultural parallels as these, which point us to Wilde or Fitzgerald's Gatsby as easily as to H. P. Lovecraft or Stephen King, Toni Morrison or Marvel Comics, Diaz's newness comes to the fore: Yunior's narrative voice is unlike any other and the language that voice forges out of disparate parts is by turns hilarious, mordantly sarcastic, poetic ("she had her gloves in one hand like a crumpled bouquet"), or crude ("Did he ever thumb her clit?"), but always startling in its jarring disjunction and eye-hooking originality (37, 40). Far from wanting to prove his American credentials, as the immigrant writers of the twentieth century tended to do, Diaz is interested in making connections across cultures and across the world. His implied reader, who is a Spanish/English bilingual devoted to Tolkien, Alan Moore, and Fantastic Four, yet also on familiar terms with Beloved, the American Modernists, and the longueurs of "those nightmare eight-a.m. MLA panels" is new, so new that s/he may not even fully exist yet (299). His English, mixed-up registers and all, is new and his Spanish is new and the combination, apparently effortlessly transposed from speech into writing, is nothing like you have ever read before. It makes for a potent literary language, like Zora Neale Hurston's, or that of Mark Twain before her and Salinger since. But with this difference: the narrative voice is translingual, yet no concessions are made to the monolingual reader. Add to this a minimalist approach to punctuation, so that dialogue and narrative discourse dike-lessly (dique) flow into each other, in the same way that Spanish and English appear undifferentiated, fontwise, on the page, and you have a recipe for highly unlikely success. That the unlikely happened all the same is--paradoxically--due, I think, to Diaz's uncompromising stance on his creative practice and on the kinds of readers he wants to reach. These, he has said in interview, are people like his friends, who "are not interested in Heidegger":
I feel I'm not... a native informer. I don't explain cultural things, with italics or with exclamation or with side bars or asides. I was aggressive about that because... so many Latinos and black writers... are writing to white audiences.... If you are not writing to your own people, I'm disturbed about what that says about your relationship to the community you are in one way or another indebted to. You are only there to loot them of ideas, and words, and images so that you can coon them to the dominant group. (Diaz, Cespedes,and Torres-Saillant 903, 900)
That final phrase, in which the "looting" of ideas and the "cooning" of them to an implicitly white public are indicative, again, of Diaz's subject position as a person of color, highlights his awareness of the exploitative power-relations that have blighted earlier African American and "ethnic" writers in cultural production and reception. Lourdes Torres has described Diaz's writing as "gratifying the bilingual reader" because he refuses to tag his Spanish words as foreign, leaves them untranslated, and often uses the kind of slang that is not easily translatable and cannot be found in a dictionary anyway (83). If she is right in observing that "when reading texts by cultural others, mainstream readers expect to gain access to other worlds, not to be made aware of their limitations" (82), then cultural outsiders like me should (presumably) feel affronted by The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. Yunior's narration reminds us of our ignorance on every other page and takes no prisoners when it comes to pointing that out and rubbing it in ("For those of you who missed your mandatory two seconds of Dominican history..." ). Distancing or even alienating your readers is not normally a stratagem for success, yet Diaz has a canny explanation for the perverse logic of the literary marketplace: "They're so happy to claim me as literature because it makes them all look better. They don't want to relegate me to areas of ethnic studies.... The suggestion seems to be 'You're one of us now.'... They want me mainstream" (Diaz, Cespedes, and Torres-Saillant 905). Astute as this may be, and much as Diaz likes to attribute his success to luck rather than talent, the idea that the liberal establishment is merely out to flatter itself by being so "inclusive" and so signed up to "diversity" as to reward--what Rune Graulund calls--"the rhetorical punches and kicks served to the reader" with prize after award after glowing review underplays the impact Oscar Wao in particular has had on how we read--and may well write in future (46). Like Morrison's Beloved, it sets its own standard for how it wants to be read, making demands on, but not intimidating the reader. Whatever the literary signification of all the popular and elite intertextual references may be, their cultural effect is one of levelling: you can consider yourself just as much an expert reader of The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao if you can cite chapter and verse from The Lord of the Rings or Watchmen as you can if you "get" Diaz's submerged homage to Toni Morrison, as "Kim"'s online annotated guide demonstrates. And so the bilingual Spanish/English reader is at an advantage, the popular culture reader on familiar territory, and the literary reader, likewise, has privileged entry to the text: nobody is completely excluded whilst everyone still has to do some work.
This makes of Oscar Wao a tale of transnational and translingual migration that blows all the cherished myths of American identity--from dream to self-invention to bootstrap mobility--to smithereens. And it does this through its language, its "unpoliced, seditious, inventive, disruptive..." et cetera textual practice that connects everything with anything and everybody with another, regardless of creed, color, or previous condition of servitude or migration status. None of the usual cliches about "immigrant" or "ethnic" or, yes, even "multicultural" writing pertain here because The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is less about narrative than about style--style not as in no-substance style, but as in medium-is-message style, stripping literariness (whatever that is) down to its linguistic and therefore (pace Voloshinov) social base, which is language as the material of political and cultural signification. As Geoffrey Hartman explains of his earlier wound/word nexus: "style means distressing the word, disturbing its sound-shape and semantic stability, marking it individually, even if the result is not only a remarkably rich verbal texture, but also a not always resolvable ambiguity or plurisignificance" (260).
We may therefore conclude that from the linguistic composition of Yunior's narration all else follows, so that politics in this novel is articulated not just, in Jose David Saldivar's words, "as an aesthetic practice" but crucially as a translingual aesthetic practice that works with the distressed word, the ambiguity, the plurisignificance of languages-in-contact (Junot Diaz: a Symposium 18). Diaz's textual politics of occlusion thus converge seamlessly with the revisionist, fuku-ed up history of the Americas he presents in the opening scene of The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, beginning with Columbus "hearing divine voices"--but ending with Yunior's mixed-up, messed-up, and all-too-human one.
UNIVERSITY OF SUSSEX
(1) See Amy Kaplan for astute reflection on the political meanings of these by now well-worn phrases.
(2) The term "translingual" is contested and its meanings vary among literary scholars and theorists of creative writing. This is a matter of how much work the "trans-" in "translingualism" has to do, whether it means "across" (as in "transference") or "in-between" (as in "transit") and whether the direction of travel is one- or both ways. Steven Kellman's "translingualism" holds all of these possibilities and can refer to texts written in an author's non-native language, in two languages, or in a mix of languages. Because this definition does not distinguish between monolingual texts on one hand, and bi- or multilingual ones on the other, I avoided using the term "translingualism" in my study of immigrant literature, Wanderwords. I argued there that someone writing in English as a second language produces a monolingual text in much the same way as someone writing in English as a native language does, although of course we can choose to read such writing "translingually," in Kellman's sense, with an awareness of it being non-native to the author. Literature in two or more languages however raises very different issues for the writer as well as for reading and criticism, so that further terminological differentiation is needed to distinguish between various bi- or multilingual textual practices. To this end I used "interlingual" for linguistic fusion (as in Spanglish) and "heterolingual" to describe the incidental appearance of words in other languages ("wanderwords") in English texts.
To complicate matters further, theorists of creative writing use "translingualism" to describe a "cross-language approach to teaching writing" (Trimbur 219). More specifically, they see it as a new paradigm referring to a linguistic practice that combines two or more languages "as a resource [my emphasis] for producing meaning in writing, speaking, reading, and listening," in which the possibility of error (as measured against a standard of correct language use) is suspended (Horner et al. 303-04; see for this usage also Canagarajah). Because this definition does not get caught up in the terminological confusion and proliferation outlined above, in that it pertains solely to how we valorize writing in more languages than one, I follow Horner et al.'s formulation in this essay and take "a translingual approach" to Diaz's multilingual writing in asking "not whether its language is standard, but what [Diaz is] doing with language[s] and why" (304-05). In other words, I am interested here not in caiques or other modes of "error," but in the creative conflicts and convergences that his languages-in-contact produce.
(3) "Transnationalism" is no less contested a term than translingualism is; for opposing positions see for example Schiller and Waldinger. I use it here to characterize Diaz's representation of the back-and-forth, dynamic relation of migrations between the United States and the Dominican Republic.
(4) Mukherjee here uncritically adopts the standard, exceptionalist but historiographically outdated view of European immigrants of the turn of the twentieth century enthusiastically assimilating to the US and the American way of life; for a critique of this account, see for example Jacobson, Special Sorrows and Roots Too, and Lauret.
(5) Rune Graulund provides an insightful analysis of the effect of this rhetorical direct address to the reader.
(6) Several critics have speculated on Yunior's motivation for telling Oscar's life story. Richard Patteson for example suggests that Yunior "wants to save his own soul" (15); Emily Shifflette argues that Yunior seeks to represent his friend's life as "wondrous" in order to "atone for his complicity in Oscar's death" (4). To my mind, by far the best critical analysis of Yunior's motivation is Elena Machado Saez's "Dictating Desire, Dictating Diaspora," which posits that he himself is the real, if underlying, subject of the narrative.
(7) The novel's title plays on that of Hemingway's short story "The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber," on Fray Bartolome' de las Casas's Brevisima Relation de la Destruction de las Indias (A Brief History of the Destruction of the Indies), and on the name of Oscar Wilde; the Mirabal sisters are both historical and intertextual: they were involved in the resistance to Trujillo, figure in Mario Vargas Llosa's The Feast of the Goat, and loom large in Julia Alvarez's In the Time of the Butterflies (1994).
(8) "Neword" is a neologism of my making. Daniel Bautista writes that Diaz creates "a tricky but impressive hybrid form" to capture what Monica Hanna calls "the almost unbelievable nature of the historical reality of the Dominican Republic" (Bautista 52; Hanna 503).
(9) Critical opinion varies as to whether "fuku" is a neologism. Jose David Saldivar thinks Diaz invented it, as do I, but Ashley Kunsa, pace Michele Wucker, quite persuasively relates it to "el fucu de Colon" (the curse of Columbus) "thought to come from languages spoken in Togo, Nigeria, and Sierra Leone" and thus hailing directly from Africa, as in Oscar Wao's opening sentence (Saldivar, "Conjectures" 125; Kunsa 222 n.6). Dixa Ramirez by contrast writes that we "cannot be sure of the word's provenance, but Olliz Boyd also connects it to fufu,fufu, and juju," widely used in the Americas to reference magic (393). To add to the confusion, Diaz himself mentions, in an interview with Edwidge Danticat, a book-length poem by Yevgeny Yevtushenko entitled Fuku!, which was reportedly inspired by a visit to the Dominican Republic (Danticat, "Junot Diaz" 90). Any which way, I think the most important resonance is with "fuck(ed) UP," which is why I describe it as a neologism inspired by American English.
'"Ashley Kunsa adds to this that Beli's retort uses the disparaging term "Haitian" here less in the literal sense of dark skin but in the metaphorical one of "acting Haitian" (217).
(11) Italics original. Voloshinov's importance for the theory of what I have elsewhere called "wander-words" or "heterolinguality" in English-language texts is further developed in Wanderwords.
(12) On race in the Dominican Republic in relation to Haiti and Diaz's work see Jose Itzigsohn and Carlos Dore-Cabral; Kunsa; Ramirez; Shifflette; and especially Torres-Saillant.
(13) Many critics and Diaz himself, who is a prodigious commentator on his own work, have observed how interjections such as this, as well as footnotes and metatextual remarks on the process of writing Oscar's biography, are designed to unsettle the authority of Yunior's narrative voice. See for example the comparison of writers with dictators in Oscar Wao in footnote 11 (96-97) and critics Patteson and Saez. See also Jay and the Diaz interview with Meghan O'Rourke.
(14) I find it surprising therefore that Michiko Kakutani, the New York Times critic, wrote of Who's language that it is "a sort of streetwise brand of Spanglish that even the most monolingual reader can easily inhale."
(15) Graulund echoes this in saying that "all of these registers are deemed of equal importance" (35).
(16) Morrisonian references hark back to Beloved and include a description of La Inca as "her own best thing"; a baby "staging a comeback"; and--rather more crudely, in relation to Beli's rage--"if there had been a baby nearby she would have thrown that too" (74,252,115).
(17) In the introduction to Junot Diaz and the Decolonial Imagination, a collection of critical essays derived from the Stanford Diaz symposium, editors Hanna, Harford Vargas, and Saldivar explain that this statement echoed Irving Howe's judgement of Richard Wright's Native Son, indicating a similar seismic shift in the landscape of American literature (n.6, 27).
'"For examples of such ethnographic heterolinguality, see Lauret.
(19) The title of the Spanish translation of Drown is Los Boys, which might have been the English title too, since it is much more effective in rendering the bilingual, bicultural world of Dominican American youth and has the added aural association with "lost boys."
(20) "Todologos" is a fusion of Spanish "todo(s)" (all) and Greek "logos" (word), unexplained and untranslated in the novel. 1 use it here to denote Diaz's omnivorous linguistic appetite, what we might also punningly call his "glottony."
(21) Torres-Saillant writes about the US seeking formal recognition of the Dominican new republic from its inception in 1844, in order to "prevent 'the further spread of negro influence in the West Indies'" in the words of Secretary of State John C. Calhoun (127).
(22) A kind of slavery, Yunior reveals, still exists in the "criadas" and "restaveks" he sees on his visits home, house servants who are bought and sold for room and board (253).
(23) Yunior's narration is underwritten by lengthy footnotes but also shot through with metatextual references to writing, reconstruction, storytelling, audio recording, gaps, silences, "paginas en bianco," and even an invitation to the reader to "start the laugh track any time you want" (171). See also Hanna and O'Rourke as well as Sundaram on this issue.
(24) The word "perejil" however is not foregrounded in the text, but buried in a footnote on page 225.
(25) Italics original; this is Lola's narration, in the second person: "Ifeel it, you say, too loudly, ho siento."
(26) See for example Danticat, The Dew Breaker, which is about the terror of the Tonton Macoutes.
(27) This is quite new and rare in the study of contemporary literature and the commentary's coverage is extensive: it runs to no fewer than sixty-seven pages.
(28) The secret service of the GDR (German Democratic Republic, or the former East Germany), Haiti, and the Dominican Republic under Trujillo respectively (Servicio Inteligencia Militar).
(25) Diaz mentions visiting "regularly" himself in "Writers and Artists Speaking" (59).
(30) A classic of this "old immigrant" writing is, for example, Mary Antin's The Promised Land. For an examination of the tropes of the genre see Werner Sollors's excellent introduction to the Penguin edition and Lauret's reading of The Promised Land in Wanderwords (67-94).
(31) Oscar is redeemed for the cause of hypersexualized Dominican masculinity by his relationship with the prostitute Ybon, which costs him his life at the end of the novel.
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|Publication:||Studies in the Novel|
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