Month: February 2018

Impressions of The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

bwlow

So today, after a two-month-long romp with Junot Díaz’s novel, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, I finally finished it. I am left with more questions than answers. For example, why did Díaz choose to write the novel the way he did? The lengths of some sections are curiously long, others curiously short, and I wonder if the emphasis or lack thereof are significant (they probably are, and I am left with the task of finding the answers for myself. That may actually be the point).

It is a curious novel, to be sure (“curious” in this context signifies “mysterious” and “peculiar”). I do love that Díaz chooses to begin the novel with fukú and zafa. It gives the entire novel that lovely magical-realism feel that I am so enamored of, à la Isabel Allende and Gabriel Garcia Marquez. I might say the resemblance ends there as far as the genre goes…I could argue Díaz does it in his own way. I also love his frequent footnotes, which are so long at times it feels as though I am reading two novels for the length of one. The act of physically separating the history of the Dominican Republic by footnote gives the novel a duality that isn’t usually present in narratives. One gets a sense of how much is going on politically in the macro-environment of the country, even while the main course of the book focuses on the trials and triumphs of one family, the De Leons. One could, in theory, choose to completely ignore the footnotes if they wanted to, and it would be a completely different novel. Being a complete dork, this was not the route I took.

There is a lot I love about Díaz’s insane descriptions of the Trujillo-era Dominican Republic (and subsequent Balaguer-ruled D.R. as well). Admittedly, I did not know much about the DR before I picked up this book, but Díaz makes Trujillo sound so scary, I fear retaliation from him even though he’s been dead for 60 years. This dude sounds like a classic fascist (no freedom of speech, violence against anyone who speaks against him) with the added perk of misogyny (rape, stalking, being a general asshole). It’s fascinating how Díaz connects this all-powerful dictator with the De Leon’s (Belicia’s affair with The Gangster, who was one of the Trujillo sisters’ husband). It makes the DR feel like a small place. Even orphan girls are just 6 degrees from the ruler of the country.

The novel felt oddly elastic sometimes with regard to what was easy to read and what wasn’t (perhaps this is because it took me 2 months to read, but perhaps there is more to it). Personally, “The Three Heartbreaks of Belicia Cabral” was one of the hardest sections to get through. Belicia is one of the most difficult characters for me to relate to, and I wonder if that’s just my feelings or if Díaz wrote about her that way on purpose. Young Belicia seems hard-headed and illogical in ways that seem to compliment her future son’s illogical passiveness. As a teen, she is belligerent to La Inca, the one person who really has her back, and seems to take the Aries approach to falling in love: be an asshole to people you have a crush on. It’s hard to watch her fawn over The Gangster, someone who is obviously so bad for her, and then brag to her friend Dorcas about how good he is to her. After she miscarries, it’s difficult for me to feel anything other than pity for her.

This is not unlike the pity I feel for Yunior, though for completely different reasons. Díaz does a great job of portraying Yunior as the fuckboy of the century. Yunior comes off like one of those dense dudes who only cares about the gym and screwing girls, until something actually serious and meaningful happens in his life. It’s interesting that he is the narrator and that he doesn’t appear until mid-novel or so, and the book is a manifestation of this sort of awakening he has after Oscar’s death–about how the experiences he has gone through have meaning, that the people in his life had meaning. After the events that happen, he seems to have the hindsight to wish he could change things, but he also seems surprisingly accepting of himself, explaining that he did in fact love Lola, but knowing he doesn’t deserve her nor could he give her what she really wants.

I love Díaz’s tone throughout the novel, the mixing of both Spanish and English throughout the story. He speaks in a familiar way (perhaps to me), that way of immigrants, which involves hilarious exaggerations, sarcasm, crassness. Perhaps one of my favorite lines in the novel is when Lola is crying over the death of Max. On the plane, “When the woman in front turned around and said: Tell that girl of yours to be quiet, [Belicia] said, Tell that culo of yours to stop stinking” (210). I swear, the first time I read that sentence, I put the book down and guffawed for a whole minute. Admittedly, old Belicia is also a much more compelling character in my opinion than young Belicia.

The run-ins with death are also compelling, not least because of the symbols. When Belicia is caught by Trujillo’s goons, and when Oscar tries to commit suicide, a golden mongoose appears for both of them. The mongoose is said to be a symbol of courage and protection, so it makes sense to me that it appears when these two are at their lowest point, and in need of guidance (both literally and physically. Both need to find physical safety and also to not succumb to the spirit world). The faceless man also appears any time a character is about to have a near-death experience. I didn’t feel like looking up this symbol because honestly, sometimes it’s more fun to leave it up to the imagination, or to try to interpret it myself, which I will attempt to do here. There’s something about the facelessness that suggests two things to me: a fucked system in which people can disappear without a trace, or becoming so much a part of a group (dead or alive) that faces don’t matter (this is an idea that’s kind of toyed with in Code Geass, no?). Both kind of apply. During the Trujillato (and arguably afterwards as well), humans lose some of their humanity. In the chapter about Abelard, we learn how people could be handed over to the government by their own friends. Disappearing is not unusual in the Trujillato, nor is losing things like one’s identity or sense of self, which is symbolized by the faceless man. The self-effacing aspect of national identity is kind of the other side of the same coin. To be able to do the sorts of things the Trujillato needed regular citizens to do, turn their backs on friends, snitch on one another, people had to forget the things that connected them to other people. The faceless man could also be a symbol of that dehumanization process.

Compared to the rest of the novel (these gruesome near-deaths and this tumultuous family history), Oscar’s death is very quiet, almost anticlimactic. It’s almost as though there was a degree of inevitability to it. I would even argue Díaz does this on purpose. I suspect that actually, Oscar had planned to die. Earlier in the novel, his suicide attempt fails, but we know that Oscar is not doing well. He isn’t happy. So instead of continuing to live in New Jersey and suffer, he plans to die for something he believes in–his love for Ybon. Arguably, his last days aren’t so bad, if Yunior’s account is to be believed. He finally gets to spend time with Ybon alone, he finally has sex. I would argue he knows he is going to die for it.

I think the last thing Oscar says is actually really deep and resonant. Díaz writes, “He told them that what they were doing was wrong, that they were going to take a great love out of the world” (321). If you think about it, it’s a pathetic thing to die for. Oscar dies because he has the feel-feels for a ho with a fucking mean boyfriend. That’s, like, really not what you want to see on your kid’s gravestone. But the meaning he gives it is so noble. It is wrong, killing someone who loves another person, so arguably, murder is always wrong. But you know, who is to say that one person’s love is any greater or less than any other person’s? Who is to say that Oscar’s affair with a taken woman is not as valid as any other person’s love? Oscar seems to intuitively know this. He seems to know that to break people’s connections with each other is cruel, to separate them by death is a crime. I think we need more Oscars in this world, at a time when institutions are hell-bent on deporting people, building walls, making it hard for the poor to live, and making sure military-grade weapons are easy to come by. I think an Oscar would know how sad that all is, and would at least have the words to help us name the problem.

Advertisements

Ode to the First Woman I ever Loved

20180123_164448

Credits: Leonie Barkakati. Swollen River, Montague, MA

I guess the ugly truth I know now is that nobody, not even women, cares about women who love other women. I don’t even have to look too hard to find the apathy. Literally everyone I have come out to so far has responded with “I don’t care”. It has not occurred to them to congratulate me on finding a good person, the best person I have had a relationship with so far. It has not occurred to them to tell me they are happy for me. It has not occurred to them that this is what I really want.

I guess I ought to have expected nothing more.

I guess, more for my own sake more than for anyone else’s, I have wanted to write about the first woman I ever fell in love with for quite a while. I can’t quite explain the reasoning. My brain has been rather foggy these days, either with seasonal depression or just with bad food. I think on one hand, it’s about proving something. I think people in my life suspect I am going through a “phase,” like all the other ones they have seen Leonie go through over the years. I guess they think I will soon see the error of my ways and yield to other people to make decisions for me, like I have so many times in the past.

On the other,…and that’s the thing, I don’t know. I waited ten years to come out properly, but I knew I was queer when I was 15 years old. And I guess I can start my story there.

For the sake of privacy, I have changed her name, but the first girl I ever loved was Wendy Chau, who I met when I was a freshman in high school. She was a year older than me. We knew each other from the Speech and Debate team and from the newspaper staff.

I knew I admired her, but it was a different admiration than the people I usually used the word “admire” for.

I think queerness was this question that I knew, but I refused to ask myself. I knew it was an inconvenient time for me to have these feelings, and although I had never seen anything overtly violent, I knew it was dangerous for me to be queer. No one ever suspected it about me, never brought it up or asked directly, so the only person who could ask me was myself.

I put it off for a long time, the asking of the question. But my fondness for Wendy grew every day. I liked her very much. She was wildly intelligent, but not arrogant, unlike many of our peers. She was a brilliant math student, debater, musician, and writer, and everyone had great confidence in her ability to teach. I think I liked how silly she could be. She would laugh at things I said and call me ridiculous in jest, but I took such pride in being able to make her laugh. I liked that I was close enough to her that she let herself be vulnerable sometimes. She once told me I ought to do things that make me happy, not things I felt needed to be done out of obligation. I have held on to that thought ever since.

It amuses me somewhat that nobody figured it out the entire time that I loved her. I talked about Wendy all the time, tried to make every conversation about her somehow, how much I admired her, how smart she was, how kind. I suspect most people just didn’t think I could be queer. They thought I was an innocent little Indian girl who does everything mommy tells her to do. I guess that’s not what queers look like.

One year, we went with the newspaper staff to a conference in St. Petersburg across the bay. On the first night, at dinner, she was wearing a shade of pink lipstick that I don’t think I have stopped thinking about since the day I saw her wear it. I wanted to kiss her, though I never acted on the impulse, and finally the question had to be asked. Was I in love with her, a girl? And the answer was yes, I most undoubtedly was.

I was surprised, shocked even, that that was the answer. I did not think I was capable of loving women, had never considered the possibility that queer was a word that could apply to me. There was no gay-straight alliance at our high school (I don’t think there is even now), and the only queer person I knew was a gay white guy who hung out with one of my friends.

I thought I should detach myself from her. Who knew how Wendy would feel about me if she ever found out? I didn’t want to know. I knew keeping my distance would keep my heart safe.

I never told her. I watched her give a truly magnificent speech as the valedictorian of her class. Her last interp performance at the Speech and Debate banquet my junior year was also excellent, and one I will always remember. She was a good friend and a kind person, and I have remembered her that way.

I thought perhaps that was some quirk of being in high school, some flaw in my system which went away after Wendy graduated. My hope was short-lived. Not even two years later, I fell in love with another woman, one who had a boyfriend so I wouldn’t act on the feelings with her either. I’d get to grad school in Massachusetts and fall in love again.

I am queer, whether or not I like that about myself, whether or not I think it is good. I remember telling this to a co-counselor of mine the other day, that it’s not something anyone would choose. Statistics for queer people of color are abysmal. (I can’t find any links at the moment, but honestly, read a book, they’re not hard to find.) They apparently can’t keep jobs, can’t get housing, can’t access healthcare or education, and are at high risk for mental health illnesses. I don’t think anyone looks at a life like that and says, yes! That sounds like a wonderful way to live!

And here I am, giving testimony that I have, in fact, been this way for a very long time. Life has not been peaceful since this process started, but the thought that pacifies me somewhat is that I have not done anything wrong. It is not wrong for me to love someone who was assigned female at birth. Our love story is as beautiful as any epic ever written, even if no one will celebrate it with us. We are not doing anything wrong.