Saturday, June 21, 2008
The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao
One of my birthday gifts from Dave this year was a book called The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, by Junot Díaz. It's about a Dominican boy living in New Jersey. Oscar is fat and nerdy, much to the dismay and bafflement of his family and peers. He is obsessed with girls, but doesn't have the rap that other Dominican boys have. Instead of learning to dance merengue, he's immersed in role-playing games and reading and writing science fiction. As a child he was the life of the party, always dancing, cracking jokes, and flirting with older girls, but then...then he got fat, and it all went downhill from there.
This book pulled me in for various reasons, one of them being that the author throws in words and phrases in Spanish and doesn't feel like he needs to translate them all. I don't know that I would call it Spanglish, but for an English-language novel, it comes close. I thought that was brave of him, to assume that non-Spanish speakers would still be interested in the story even though some of the narrative is in another language. I can definitely attest to being very comfortable with swinging from one language to the other even within the same sentence, so it was fun to read a book written in a language that's similar to my own brain's. But more than anything I was drawn in by Oscar himself - a misfit in his own culture.
He's expected fit certain Dominican molds: be a ladykiller, be in at least decent shape, be more interested in a social life than in shutting himself in his room to read sci-fi. The bigger he gets, the more shy he becomes around girls, the more looks of derision he gets, the harder it becomes to be less of a hermit. He wants to be the Dominican guy that others expect him to be, but it just isn't him.
It reminds me of my own teenage years. As a child I also liked to entertain others, in my case by making up stories and songs on the spot, and regaling my audience with my creations. As I got older, I became more introverted. I didn't feel like I fit in at all with others my age (and I won't claim to be an anomaly, I know many teens feel the same way). I wasn't overweight like Oscar, but I wasn't bikini material either -- not an easy thing when you live on a Caribbean island. I was a huge reader and would also hole myself up in my room, although my preferred books were more along the line of The Count of Montecristo and Notre Dame of Paris. The more I holed myself up, the harder it was to be like so many of the girls I knew: outgoing, comfortable flirting with boys, easy to make friends. The few times I hit the nighttime scene in Old San Juan, I felt like I stuck out like a sore thumb. And of course, that kind of thing is a self-fulfilling prophecy: the more you think you stick out, the more you appear to others to be uncomfortable.
Going away to college, in New York no less, was my way of breaking out of the environment that I felt was forcing me into a vicious cycle. Oscar, too, found a certain level of freedom with a change of scenery. For me it was going from the Caribbean to New York, for him it was going from New Jersey to the Caribbean. Years later, reading this book, I felt for Oscar because it's so hard to wonder how it is that you turned out so different from everyone around you. And it made me think about just how deeply your culture shapes your expectations of yourself and of others. Are either of those sets of expectations always accurate? Probably not. I probably thought I was more awkward than I really was, and I probably thought none of the other girls my age had any insecurities at all, which is highly unlikely. But when you're in the thick of it, it's hard to see that.
When I was living in Florida, I had an African-American coworker who sat right next to me. She once asked me what I had studied in college, and I told her I majored in art history. We talked a little bit about that, and she said, "Sometimes I would like to go to a museum or a gallery, but all of my friends would look at me like I was crazy. I'm supposed to want to go to a club." I was surprised to hear her be so blunt about what her own peers expected of her, and given how headstrong and independent she was, that she'd agree to comply with those expectations. But being a part of your community is a strong motivator. I could see where she was coming from.
To this day, I'm not the most outgoing person. It can take me a while to warm up to unfamiliar social situations, although I find that I am able to warm up to them and lose my insecurities after a while, which is very different from how I was before. I want to be able to be okay when meeting new people. What's an even bigger change is that I recognize that I'm kind of nerdy, and that's the person these new people will be meeting, which used to make me uncomfortable. But now, I'm pretty okay with that.