Sunday, November 7, 2010

Oscar Wao and Diaspora

Pretty much from the introduction onward, we know that Oscar Wao is a tale of DR diaspora, but I think this novel becomes even more interesting when we take note of the other cultures that Junot Díaz has infused into the book, notably Indian diaspora.

In the book, one of Oscar’s best childhood friends Alok, or Al, is Indian. Though there is only one mention of his ethnicity in the entire book, I’d like to think having Al be Indian was a conscious decision by Díaz as a means to represent the ethnic makeup of New Jersey, since NJ has the third highest Indian population in the US, trailing only behind California and NY. Edison (where Rutgers is located) is 17.5% Indian (the highest of any city in the nation), while Paterson has a rapidly growing Bangladeshi population (consequently Alok is a Bengali name, so it’s definitely fitting). I think including that little tidbit of information about Al’s ethnicity is a nod to the heavy presence and influence of Indians in NJ, and a way to remind readers that while Oscar Wao centers primarily around Dominicans, there is definitely a presence of other ethnicities and that New Jersey is much more heterogeneous than just the Latino, or more specifically, Dominican, population described in the book.

Additionally, Dí
az makes a Hinduism-based sexual innuendo, describing Jack Pujolses’s penis as a “Shiva-sized lingam, a destroyer of worlds” (99). Though I think it’s a bit sacrilegious to be using a god’s name in this context, Díaz is alluding to the somewhat phallic shape of the Shiva lingam, which is “an aniconic representation of the Hindu deity Shiva used for worship” (thanks Wikipedia); he also alludes here to the god Shiva being known as the Destroyer.

Oscar also describes Ana Obreg
ón, the girl from his SAT classes, as a “peculiar combination of badmash and little girl” (34) – here, badmash is a reference to the Hindi word for ‘hooligan.’ I didn’t even notice this one until I read about it online. Additionally, Yunior describes several Indian girls (i.e. Suriyan – I think this is supposed to refer to the Hindu Sun god, Surya/Suryan), that he has dated.

az has also slipped in references to Indian culture not just in Oscar Wao, but in interviews as well. In one interview (, he states, “[Yunior] started talking and suddenly I had not only the narrator but this complicated relationship between the teller of the tale and the subject of the tale. The image I had was of Vyasa and Ganesha: one dictating the story, the other one writing. A great image because the book’s ‘god’ is the one doing the scribbling and the lowly monk is the one dictating, and that’s not what you normally see in literature.” Here, Vyasa and Ganesha are figures in Hindu mythology, where the sage Vyasa asked Ganesha to transcribe the entire Mahabharata (an Indian epic) as Vyasa dictated it to him - this then becomes paralleled with Yunior serving as a scribe for Oscar’s story.

Seeing these Indian references in a book that was supposed to be about Dominicans in the US I think is really a testimony to the way this real-life mixing of diaspora affects not only political and economic landscape, but seeps into the realm of art as well. These references are generally subtle, just a word or name here and there that don’t necessarily come off as explicitly Indian, unless you’re already familiar with the terms. I think this subtle weaving of other cultures (there’s also the Chinese character Juan Then in Belí
’s story) really shows how this variety of cultures present in any one community each influence the way we experience our own culture. And I think it’s even cooler that while Díaz doesn’t explicitly mention Vyasa/Ganesha anywhere in the story, the actual process of creation itself for this novel was influenced by Indian culture to the point that the basic structure of the novel is based off Hindu mythology, again showing how the presence of other cultures really might influence how we might interpret our own. So while Oscar Wao is definitely largely Latino-centric, I really like that Díaz found a way to incorporate other cultures into both the creation of the novel and the final product itself.


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  2. I find it interesting how you picked up the subtle references to a variety of cultural influences, such as Indian culture and Hindu mythology, instead of only using Latin@-centric phrases. I think that it is also important to look at how Diaz juxtaposes the Spanish phrases in his English-language novel as we analyze how Diaz uses culture as a reference and context for the novel. While Diaz often provides lengthy footnotes to give the reader a brief history of the Dominican Republic and it’s not-so-famous dictator, I wondered why Diaz did not do the same for Spanish words and in the case of your blog post, for other cultural references such as Indian words like Shiva or “badmash.” Diaz does not even italicize the Spanish words, suggesting that they are NOT foreign to his story or to his readers. I did not stop to look up what the words mean (although I should have), but I tried to put the words into the context of the story and created my own translation. Maybe it would have been helpful if Diaz put in an English translation to these Spanish words using a footnote, but this may have taken away from the story’s focus on (re)learning your history, and instead would have focused on learning your present environment and its language(s).
    This fluid narrative of English, Spanish, and as you pointed out, Indian references produces a linguistic millennial “accent” to the story. In other words, it sounds like the voices and conversations you would hear in the busy city of New York or LA or San Francisco. Diaz recreates the common instances where you might have a conversation with a stranger, co-worker, or friend from another ethnic group and you don’t always understand the meaning of their words, the symbols or historical figures they refer to, or the language that they use. What do you do at those times? Do you nod politely and keep talking (i.e. keep reading)? Do you stop the conversation (or stop reading) and ask more questions? The author will interrupt the story when he wants to provide a footnote about a historical event, or clarify his own point of view. The rest of the novel he leaves up to you. Perhaps he suggests, that we should know these words already and if we do not, then we might be living in a sci-fi world where speaking English only is enough to understand your surroundings.