Winston Churchill once said, “History will be kind to me, for I intend to write it.”
Granted, he was referring to actions that would be remembered over a long period of time and not the literal writing of history books, but that doesn’t make the statement any less relevant for those who wish to approach it in the more literal sense. Many make the fallacious assumption that history books contain objective accounts of what happened in the past and forget to factor in that history books, like any other piece of writing, are subjected to editing and need to meet certain criteria in order to be published. This leaves little room for nuances or reflection on the truthfulness of what is written, and because these events occurred in the past, readers of history books have no means of double-checking the facts they’re being taught. History books, therefore, might as well just have been fiction. There are many books that play with this fluid relationship between fact and fiction – there’s an entire literary genre called historical fiction – and in different ways seek to enrich their readers’ understanding of an era or a historical event. One such book is Junot Díaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao whose unconventional, multi-layered narrative style and believable character enables readers of different backgrounds to understand the slice of Dominican history that was the Trujillo regime.
The novel’s primary narrative is not presented in chronological order, but if it were, it would follow a Dominican family’s development from the 1940s and well into the 1990s. It tells the story of how a respected doctor’s unintentional falling out with the Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo has affected the dynamic of the rest of his family for decades to come, to the point where his New Jersey born grandson, Oscar – spoiler alert! – eventually dies. The lack of chronology – the novel skips back and forth between the narrator’s present, Oscar’s youth, Oscar’s mother, Beli’s youth, and the time before Beli was even born – adds many layers to the story and serves to make a point: in retelling history, it’s almost important not to skip between episodes and events from different periods because there is usually more than one cause. Take for example the First World War. The assassination of Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo may have been the straw that broke the camel’s back, but the war would never have taken place if tensions between the major European powers hadn’t already existed. The difference here is that whereas history books need to adhere to strict conventions in order to get published, fictional works are encouraged to play with techniques in order to create suspense and keep the readers engaged.
This is not to suggest that all characters and events described in the novel are real. Rather, it is to point out that fictional works have advantages that history books could learn from and that allow readers to reflect on the way history is written. Díaz’s novel is not traditionally considered historical fiction but effectively navigates the same grey zone between fact and fiction that historical novels do, albeit in a slightly different way.
The historical element of The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is written almost as a second, separate narrative and is mostly present through the book’s many footnotes. From the onset of the novel, it becomes evident that the purpose of the footnotes is to help “those of you who missed your mandatory two seconds of Dominican history” (2) understand what’s going on. They relay the information that would either be too boring or too complicated, since Trujillo and his henchmen were actual people, to embed into the primary narrative about Oscar de León and his family. Díaz, through his narrator, is – probably correctly – assuming that the readers are not well acquainted with Dominican culture or history. The footnotes, much like their textbook counterparts, serve to bring everyone on the same page, which allows readers to understand the historical references throughout the novel without having to look the information up elsewhere. In other words, the implementation of footnotes in this work of fiction takes away the need for background information and makes the book accessible to a broader audience by not limiting it to those who understand Dominican culture and history.
Another thing that makes the historical events and information more easily accessible to a non-Dominican audience is their close connection to the fictional characters the audience cares about. Because the protagonist, the nerdy American-Dominican Oscar, is simultaneously frustratingly pathetic and an unfortunate underdog, readers are drawn into his story, through which they learn to care about his sister and become curious as to what has made their mother so unaffectionate. This combination of sympathy and desire to know more is what drives the narrative forward. Since the historical events and people the narrator highlights are of relevance to the characters, by extension, they also become relevant to the readers. Just like many successful works of historical fiction, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao “[focuses] a rich, human lens on a sometimes abstract topic” (Beck et al 546) and allows readers to feel connected to the historical events they are learning about as they immerse themselves in the fictional universe. That is, because readers tend to form emotional attachment to well-rounded fictional characters, they actually care about the historical events that influence them and enthusiastically interpret that information. The human aspect of fiction is one that history books don’t share, but one that nevertheless makes history engaging and relevant to a wider audience regardless of social, cultural, or ethnical differences.
Junot Díaz is not the only author who successfully makes historical events relevant to readers of fiction, nor is he the only one who does so within the setting of the former Spanish West Indies. Two other examples are Make Your Home Among Strangers by Jennine Capó Crucet and Voodoo Eyes by Nick Stone.
Crucet’s novel follows the teenager, Lizet, who is the first in her Cuban-American family to go to a prestigious college outside of Miami where she’s grown up. While she’s away, a little boy named Ariel Hernandez becomes the media’s center of attention; he’s lost his mother at sea on an illegal boat trip from Cuba to Florida, and the courts now have to decide whether he gets to remain in America or is sent back to Cuba where his father lives. Lizet’s mother becomes deeply involved in the fight for the boy’s right to stay in America, and this has a profound influence on Lizet, who is already struggling as one of very few minority students at the college she’s attending. Ariel Hernandez’s story is based on a true one, namely that of Elián González, and the novel highlights the relevance of the 1999 custody debate as well as its influence on the Cuban community in America. Readers get to share Lizet’s annoyance and embarrassment with her mother’s actions and to suffer with her as she struggles to make sense of her own identity in the midst of the political chaos. In short, they get to understand the complexity of the issue by seeing it through someone else’s eyes.
The relationship to history in Stone’s case is no less obvious; in Voodoo Eyes, private detective Max Mingus investigates the death of two of his former colleagues, and the trail seems to end at a radical who has been presumed dead after she fled to Cuba. In addition to an action-packed and suspenseful plot, the novel reflects on the Castro regime in Cuba – particularly on Castro’s granting of political asylum to American criminals. Once again, the historical and political issues are relayed to readers through the sympathetic, proactive, and brave main character who’s lost his friends to someone who was allowed to walk free by the leader of a neighboring nation.
One feature that makes The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao unique is that not only does it manage to make historical figures and events interesting, it also forces readers to think about the creation and writing of history itself. The footnotes are crucial to this argument.
Traditionally, footnotes are meant to be factually accurate and provide mostly objective extra information. Díaz’s footnotes do something completely different: they dip into the realm of metafiction. Metafiction is a “self-conscious” form of writing that draws attention to the fact that it is fiction in one way or another, and according to Philpot, the genre “explores [fiction as a cultural product], challenging readers to question their assumptions about stories, storytelling, and representations of reality” (144). Essentially, it plays with rules and conventions and highlights that they are still just parts of fiction. For example, in the main text of The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, the narrator states,
“When the family talks about it [fukú, accumulated bad luck passed on through generations] – which is like never – they always begin in the same place” (211).
In the corresponding footnote, he then reveals,
“There are other beginnings certainly, better ones, to be sure […] but if this is the beginning that the de Leóns chose for themselves, then who am I to question their historiography?” (11)
What is happening here can be boiled down to this: a fictional author adds a supposedly factual remark on the validity of a fictional family’s historiography. This might be done to lend the narrator some authority and credibility, but it serves another function, too: it gets readers thinking about the nature of footnotes and whether they are really completely objective and factual.
The same, then, goes for historical fact in this novel. Since the historical layer of narration in the novel is found primarily in the footnotes, and the footnotes themselves spark consideration of what is fact and what is fictional or someone’s personal opinion, the two eventually merge. If readers trust the narrator despite his subjectivity, they’re likely to trust the historical evidence presented in the novel, but if the opposite is the case, they may just interpret it as fictional as well.
This final point feeds nicely into the Churchill quote mentioned earlier. History is always written by someone, and it is impossible to completely factor out ideological frameworks and societal as well as personal influences in any text. Textbooks are written with a purpose and for a specific audience and adhere to certain conventions that fiction doesn’t. Ironically, fiction often does a better job at making history relevant to readers through its characters and other narrative techniques, and it allows for a broader audience. Díaz’s novel is a unique hybrid of genres, including historical fiction and metafiction, that is likely to be eye-opening and educational to anyone who reads it regardless of their social, cultural, and ethnic background. As such, it would serve as a powerful foundation for teaching not only Dominican history but also a number of other highly relevant topics to today’s readers such as immigration, integration, and family dysfunction. In other words, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao could be a new tool to spark a debate about past events in a multicultural setting and in an increasingly globalized world, learning to understand different cultures and peoples is of the utmost importance.
Beck, Cathy et al. “Historical Fiction: Teaching Tool or Literary Device?” Language Arts, vol. 77, no. 6, 2000, pp. 546-555. ProQuest, search-proquest-com.vu-nl.idm.oclc.org/docview/196857035/fulltext/2FC9581904F04950PQ/1?accountid=10978. Accessed 15 Nov. 2017.
Crucet, Jennine C. Make Your Home Among Strangers. Picador, 2015.
Díaz, Junot. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. Faber and Faber, 2008.
Pereira, Sydney. “Elián González, Now 23, Says He Would Like to Reconcile with His Miami Relatives.” Miami Herald, 24 Aug. 2017, www.miamiherald.com/news/local/community/miami-dade/little-havana/article169254877.html. Accessed 18 Dec. 2017.
Philpot, Don K. “Children’s Metafiction, Readers, and Reading: Building Thematic Models of Narrative Comprehension.” Children’s Literature in Education, vol. 36, no. 2, 2005, pp. 141-159. Springer, doi: 10.1007/s10583-005-3502-9.
Stone, Nick. Voodoo Eyes. Sphere, 2011.
Stone, Nick. “Writing Voodoo Eyes.” Nick Stone, www.nickstone.co.uk/makingofbook3. Accessed 18 Dec. 2017.