Junot Diaz’s novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, published in 2007, is an entertaining and profound novel that deals with themes of oppression, identity and pressures on the Dominican male in a diaspora community. Diaz uses the characters of Oscar and Yunior to address some of the issues around the quest to become a desired, respected, masculine person through conforming to the heteronormative codes of the society in which you live. Through this, alternate desires that Oscar and Yunior may have for one another are, in the Dominican world, unacceptable.
Homophobia is a real issue, not only in the Caribbean, but in other parts of the world, like Russia, where recent laws ban children from being exposed to any gay ‘propaganda’. This has been criticised on the basis of persecution of the LGBT community. Also, some Jamaican reggae artists, such as Elephant Man and Bounty Killer have used homophobic lyrics in their songs, such as ‘burn batty man’, which encourage listeners and fans to attack and kill homosexual men. Instances of homophobia like the ones I mention above are just a few of the reasons why homosexual men and women all over the world suppress their sexualities, in order to comply with society’s heteronormative expectations of them.
This is true in the novel, as Oscar is constantly teased for his inability to find a sexual partner of the opposite sex, no matter how hard he tries. In fact, the name ‘Oscar Wao’ derives from Oscar being labelled ‘Oscar Wilde’, after the writer – a label obviously intended to insult Oscar and denote him as a homosexual, as Wilde himself was gay. Oscar even begins to answer to this name, indicating his tolerance of the bullying and perhaps even his acceptance of whom they deem him to be.
Diaz highlights some of the requirements of a compliant Dominican male:
‘Anywhere else his triple-zero batting average with the ladies might have passed without comment, but this is a Dominican kid we’re talking about, in a Dominican family: dude was supposed to have Atomic Level G, was supposed to be pulling in the bitches with both hands. Everybody noticed his lack of game and because they were Dominican everybody talked about it’ (Diaz, 2007: 24).
This quotation from the novel highlights many problems with being a Dominican man and the pressure on young men to adhere to societal expectations of them. ‘Atomic Level G’ is, in other words, a way of saying that a Dominican man should ideally be masculine, stylish, cool and respected by his peers. Additionally, and most importantly, they should be having lots of sex. The pressures that Oscar faces in the novel as an overweight, comic book and sci-fi nerd (or geek, take your pick!) means that he does not fit into the community in which he lives, due to not adhering to the heteronormativity that the society depends on in order to function.
On the other hand, Oscar’s roommate Yunior is, on the surface, the perfect role model of a young, Dominican man. He has lots of sex with women and does not condone Oscar’s ‘homosexual’ behaviour, even taking part in teasing him with his friends. As Elena Machado Sáez writes, ‘Yunior sees Oscar as imprisoned by excess sentimentality’ – Yunior recognises the weakness of Oscar’s sentimentality, which, in the Dominican diaspora community, is linked to homosexuality. In addition, Sáez claims, ‘Yunior is tortured by his dependence upon sex to authenticate himself’ (Saez, 2011). This perfectly sums up the problem with the pressures of heteronormativity, as Yunior uses sex as a tool to validate his position in the community and hide any trace of sentimentality or ‘homosexual’ behaviour that he might otherwise display.
In short, these characters are influenced and shaped by the Dominican diaspora and the pressures of sexual and societal self-authentication in different ways. Oscar is overly sentimental and is deemed homosexual for his failure to find a woman to have sex with. On the contrary, Yunior sleeps around and is overly masculine in order to conceal any desires or behaviour that does not comply with Dominican principles. Oscar and Yunior are good friends and genuinely care for each other. However, in a society based on the principle of heteronormativity, there is no possibility of full acceptance of any sexual relationship or romantic attachment between the two, despite the signs of affection shown on both sides. Despite coming a long way in terms of tackling homophobia and heteronormative codes, this novel presents this issue of sexual inequality in a world where homophobia is rife and prejudices still exist.
Conor Donegan – English Literature and German student at the University of Reading.
• Diaz, J. (2007). The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. London: Faber and Faber.
• Sáez, E.M. (2011). ‘Dictating Desire, Dictating Diaspora: Junot Díaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao as Foundational Romance’. Contemporary Literature. 52 (3), 522-555.
For an eye-opening video on homophobic attitudes in Russia related to the Olympics, check out this video: http://www.pinknews.co.uk/2014/02/12/video-gang-violence-gay-couple-depicted-new-olympic-sport/
A clip from Stephen Fry’s documentary series Out There, where a Ugandan lesbian discusses the issue of ‘corrective’ rape: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p01jbr5v
An activist report from 2008 Public Media Campaign against homophobic lyrics: http://www.caribbeanhomophobias.org/surinamemenunited