If you have heard of The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz, you may have wondered, as I did, what kind of name Wao is. Here’s the story behind it.
One year in college Oscar (real name de León) decides to dress up for Halloween as Doctor Who. This is not a move calculated to impress his Dominican acquaintances; even our narrator, his friend Yunior, who is himself a closeted nerd and could probably tell us which avatar of the Doctor Oscar is impersonating) has to distance himself to maintain street cred with his macho buddies, Ted Haggard maintaining his gay-bashing cred. In Oscar’s place (and I was once, as a nerdy dateless student, uncomfortably close to Oscar’s place, though I was not obese and my cultural environment was less crushingly hostile)…in Oscar’s place, I would have chosen not to make a spectacle of myself, but Oscar has a kind of courage or stupidity that keep him from hiding who he is, whatever the cost. So the Dominican Doctor Who it is.
When he and his posse run into Oscar, Yunior tells Oscar he looks like “that fat homo Oscar Wilde,” to which one of his buddies (not an English major like Yunior) responds, “Quién es Oscar Wao?” The mocking nickname stuck, and even Oscar came to use it–actually, it occurs to me that the two Oscars share a willingness to risk bringing out other people’s nastiest qualities that is heroic and ultimately tragic, though Wao hever had anything like the success with the ladies or the gentlemen that the original had.
Here is an excerpt from the New Yorker that gives the flavor of the book:
As you see, Yunior is something of an equal-opportunity mocker, who doesn’t just cast a cold eye on Oscar but on the people who call him a mariconcito and his sister a jota for cutting her hair short (homophobe though he himself is), on brutal irresponsible dudes and the women who keep going back to them, even on himself and us, whom he suspects of having missed our “mandatory two seconds of Dominican history.”
But for whom are even two seconds of Dominican history mandatory? Certainly not for most North Americans. I found myself fascinated by the question of who Díaz is talking to, since his chatty, slangy tone suggests that we share his culture, that we will remember when people were dancing the perrito and will know how hot the girls of Weehawken are or what a guagua is. This isn’t just asking for a knowledge of Spanish, since guagua = bus is, so far as I know, Caribbean dialect, and the same word in Chile means a baby (I chose this example because I actualy knew the word; I’m sure a hundred other Dominican words went right by me).
And the allusions aren’t restricted to Dominican stuff, or Dominican-American stuff, because Yunior is a closet nerd who shares Oscar’s world of fantasy and science fiction. At one point Yunior says that Oscar had “Harold Lauder fantasies” about a woman. Lauder is a character in Stephen King’s The Stand, maybe the fifteenth-most-important character in that book a troubled fat kid who ends up having a rather kinky affair with an older woman who (o mistake!) is the destined bride of Randall Flagg the Dark Man. As Yunior says after scornfully telling us that Oscar’s dorm-room door bore the inscription “Speak friend and enter” in Elvish, don’t ask me how I know this. (The Lauder reference is even more apt than this description implies, in ways that it would be spoiling to specify.)
And speaking of Elvish, the presiding genius of Yunior’s geekosphere is Tolkien. A discussion of the death of Trujillo (evil Dominican dictator) naturally leads to a comparison with the defeat of Sauron. A mid-level goon in Trujillo’s employ is not a Ring-Wraith, but he ain’t no fuckin’ orc either. You get the idea. And keep in mind, Wao comes before the LOTR movies, so these references are aimed at those who read the books, a much more selective and fringey group than the movie audience (I, for example, had never read Tolkien, not being much into the whole sword-and-sorcery dungeons-and-dragons thing despite being a student of medieval languages).
A novel targeted at readers with a command of Dominican slang and an encyclopedic knowledge of fantasy and SF would presumably have some trouble finding a publisher, but of course Díaz didn’t really write such a book. You don’t have to know what a ring-wraith is to get the joke, and most of the Spanish is either simple enough for those who paid any attention at all in Spanish class (yes, I know that’s a small minority) to understand, or embedded in a context that allows us to guess. One interesting example concerns the massacre in which, as Yunior says, Trujillo ordered or persuaded Dominicans to “perejil” thousands of Haitians and Haitian-Dominicans. Anybody can figure out that perejil here means murder, and in fact a knowledge of Spanish will get you nowhere, since it’s just the word for parsley. So far as I know, Díaz has invented the use of perejil as a verb–the basis for it is that, as in the Biblical story of the shibboleth, suspected persons were asked to say “perejil,” and if they could not pronounce it correctly (the Haitian Creole for parsley is pesi), they were killed. If this seems like an absurdly obscure reference, though, consider that it is central to Edwidge Danticat’s The Farming of Bones, a novel written in English that was a book-club type bestseller. So really, this incident is quite accessible, as events in the history of Hispaniola go.
Díaz’s achievement in making us feel as though we were successfully puzzling out at least two alien cultures is evident if you compare it to the floundering and estrangement of an encounter with genuine foreignness. If you can remember reading pretty much anything medieval or Japanese, or thinking you spoke a language and then trying to follow a conversation in a local dialect, or sitting with fanatics discussing their favorite fashion designers or cricketers, you will know what I mean. Come to think of it, Wao creates its own cultural world embodied in a unique language, giving a kind of pleasure that is sufficiently like the pleasure of other linguistically-rich original worlds (such as Tolkien’s) that it would probably make Yunior proud and uncomfortable.