Saturday, June 6, 2009

brief wondrous life of oscar wao

I finally finished this and I'm grateful that i did. I guess i was fortunate enough to be in college during the 'great' 90's boom of Latino fiction where "Mambo Kings Sing Songs of Love", "The House On Mango Street" and "How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accent" reigned as champions of some sort of supposed new era of the Latino rise in American literary culture. In pure demographics, I think it achieved that feat, but as a literary rise, I think it came short. Here are my reasons...

For one, the one critique was that the market had a stronger role in the shaping of this 'rise' than the movement itself did, focusing mostly on female writers (Julia Alvarez, Cristina Garcia, Sandra Cisneros, etc.) with the occasional droplets of male voice. This overrepresentation of attention to female writers reminds me of how most of us get through in major mass market media... where females are the first 'presenters' of culture to mainstream TV, film, and Literature. (Rita Moreno, Charo, Eva Morales, J-Lo, Shakira, Selena, etc.). Juxtapose this with a "(white) man" dominated publishing market... letting 'the fellaz' in would be somewhat threatening? I do not think this is exclusive to Latinos as you can see the biggest stars for other identity groups seem to be again overrepresented by females.

The other issue is the idea that most of these books' subject matter focused on the negotiation and admission to assimilation/acculturation in a linear/dichotomous view of a US Latino identity, where each of these books have their protagonists resolve their issues on a scale between US and Latino culture. As a result, most of the work felt like we got defeated, eventually, by gringo culture... that we had to find a resolution on how these cosmic forces of immigration, language, exploitation, and racism have affected us. It felt like we were quite defenseless to the forces around us.

My final gripe with the works of the past, which now extends to what I see as the genesis of Latino literature "Down these mean streets" is the use of language. For some reason, I felt very proud that these authors used 'our words' in the mostly English texts. Yet, it felt soooo much like sprinkles of authenticity, a 'lets teach these gringos some Spanish words' approach, I kept asking myself that most of the words written in Spanish could of been kept in English and not lose any value. I do know there were some words here and there that couldn't be translated, but for the most part... I felt we were tokenizing our words... we kept the English syntax and grammar 'standard' and 'proper' and threw the Spanish (mostly colloquial, street, or slang... in comparison to proper English) words in for some spicy flavor to show we are Caliente!!!

See... doesn't that sound cheesy right about now????

But now we have this!! And what a glorious piece of writing it is. I have not seen so many hyper-specific references to all our inter and intra-cultures as much as this book. I've never felt more comfortable with the use of Spanish, the complexity of how our culture is presented, and the use of Sci-fi, Hip Hop, Street, codes and contexts removes the dichotomous and tokenized feel of previous Latino based literature as we see a multpllicity of cultures shaped not just by race or history, but by interests, SES, popular culture, and so forth. The book's scope covers various themes and subgenres of literature which allows 2nd gen Latinos (like myself) to feel the immigrant experience and not be outside of it, as we see multiple entry points of the United States between characters. It resonates legacy, cultural fantasy, cultural code switching and all who we are used with such ease.

Its this disregard of traditional barriers of navigation, the ease of code-switching between subgenres and subcultures is what makes the book wonderful. I remember seeing B-Boy Latinos who didn't dress like Black B-Boys. I see Reggaeton as a removed version of "Rudeboy culture' which Hip Hop was to Dancehall in the 80's. I remember seeing the occasion Indian or Puerto Rican Goth in the clubs. I also remember seeing the highly acculturated Latino who lives with the most down family. These ruffles present the complexity of our people as complex hybrids of hybrids... a truer expression of Latinidades. Intra-differences among family and friends, alongside parallels between generational differences shows a circular motion, where we progress as a wheel moving forward, yet returning to common themes and elements over and over again.

In other words, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao carries themes from the 90's era pop Latino 'movement' but its enhanced to such a degree of complexity that tells them all to sit down.

NY Times Review here

Him here...


DC_Nativo said...

Right on target! I finished this book about 3 weeks ago, and I simply loved it! Struggled with it at one point, but so glad I finished it!

You hit the nail on the head in terms of the authenticity of the use of Spanish throughout the book. I remember reading some of the books you mentioned in Spanish class and felt the same way, add a word or two in Spanish, like people add Adobo to give their rice a Latin taste. Junot's use of Spanglish seemed authentically NJ Dominican.

I also found the footnotes to be educational and provided necessary and interesting background. Not being Dominican, I would not have appreciated the stories without the history lesson.

hugonajera said...

I think the balance of Diaz being SUPER-specific resonates with each of our Latinidades as we each have our own interpretation of what our Latinidad is defined by. The irony is that his act of being specific is a generalizable technique... such a refreshing piece of writing!