The R(ead)sling List: Junot Diaz Edition

By Emma Soberano

soberano17@grinnell.edu

Years ago, “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao” (Junot Diaz, 2007) changed my life. I know, this is a lot of pressure to stack onto a book right off the bat, but I’m not saying this to build you up for an inevitable let-down. I’m saying this because, if you’re a nerdy biracial writer (like me), or someone who has ever felt at odds with your surroundings (like me), you should read this book. And if you aren’t? Read it anyway, because Junot Diaz will be on campus on Feb. 13.

Oscar Wao is a book with a lot going on. Though the story purports to be about Oscar – a fat, geeky Dominican-American Jersey romantic and outcast, it encompasses so much more. Woven into Oscar’s tale are the stories of his potentially-cursed family, the novel’s mystery narrator, and the Dominican Republic during and after El Trujillato (the 30-year reign of dictator Rafael Trujillo). In addition, Diaz manages to squeeze in nerd-culture references galore and a whole variety of dialects, slang and cuss words. But despite all of this, “Oscar Wao” is not a dense read. Instead, it clips along at a comfortably quick pace, aided largely by the familiar and lively narrative style.

As far as driving questions go, this novel seems fairly straightforward: will Oscar ever get laid? With his pre-acknowledged brief life, family curse, uncool super-nerd status, unfortunate appearance and oversized romantic expectations all stacked against him, the answer seems to be no. But, as ‘Oscar Wao” tells us, not all is what it appears. This is, after all, a novel in which prayers are answered (but at great cost), magical mongooses save willful young women and seemingly ordinary sisters feel the tingle of magic coursing through their veins. In fact, Diaz’s characters repeatedly make us question the validity of appearances – the novel centers largely on themes of biculturalism, racial presentation and gender norms – and resists strict Latinx traditions in continually surprising and, at times, heart-wrenching ways. Much can be said, for example, of Diaz’s pushback against stereotypical Dominican (and more broadly, Latino) hyper masculinity; it is immediately obvious how Oscar struggles to navigate these gendered expectations. Yet some of the most compelling and dynamic characters are Oscar’s mother and sister, both of whose stories interrupt and complicate Oscar’s own. The ways in which they each play into and fight back against feminine tropes is as absorbing as Oscar’s tale, though their narratives take up less space within the book’s pages.

Ultimately, I find “Oscar Wao” as absorbing today as I did five years ago; this is a refreshing take on the weight of family history, what it means to be caught between two cultures and the twisting road to self-respect.

I won’t go so far as to say that the wine I chose to accompany this novel, Guenoc 2015 Petite Sirah, changed my life, but in it I did find a surprisingly satisfying red (a difficult feat for a recently-converted white wine lover). This is an incredibly silky California wine, with a dark rich color to match its velvety weight in your mouth. It has tannins that will make your gums and the center of your tongue feel dry, but they are incorporated well and balanced by the jammy, almost dessert-like, flavor. Though the label advertises blueberries, blackberries and raspberries, I also felt fig and cocoa notes were rather forward, which made this wine taste as indulgent as Diaz’s writing reads.

I was hoping that this wine would serve forth a bit more complexity, to match “Oscar Wao’s” depth, and I found that it was not quite as peppery as others of its variety, an attribute which could have made for a better pairing with Diaz’s eclectic narration. It was, however, pure comfort which balanced well with the novel’s enormity.

Wine: Guernoc 2015 Petit Sirah, $8 at McNally’s.

Alcohol-Free Alternative: Hot cocoa with whipped cream. Make it with almond milk for added nuttiness.


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