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  • Dictating a Zafa: The Power of Narrative Form in Junot Díaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao
  • Jennifer Harford Vargas (bio)

Reflecting creatively in 1967 on the production of his novel El señor presidente (1946), Miguel Ángel Asturias creates an imaginary scenario in which the dictator declares to Asturias that he, not the novelist, is the real author of the novel because “toda dictadura es siempre una novela” (“every dictatorship is always a novel”; 470).1 With this self-authorizing claim, the dictator wrests power from the author by declaring himself the supreme meaning-maker. While the dictator—or, more accurately, the dictatorship—trumps the novelist in Asturias’s text, a footnote in Junot Díaz’s novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (2007) expounds: “Rushdie claims that tyrants and scribblers are natural antagonists, but I think that’s too simple; it lets writers off pretty easy. Dictators, in my opinion, just know competition when they see it. Same with writers. Like, after all, recognizes like” (97n11). Much as Asturias’s dictator sees the novelist as his competitor, Díaz’s footnote recognizes the slippery similarities between dictators and writers: they are narrative makers and narrative controllers. Both the dictator and the novelist create metanarratives and produce meaning. They are fabulous inventors who can make the unbelievable believable. They both also control subjects and exercise their authority through words to dictate their subjects’ or characters’ actions and thoughts.2

Establishing a similitude between writers and dictators, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao grapples with how to circumnavigate authoritarianism—that is, the precarious link among authorship, authority, and authoritarianism. The novel plays on the tensions between the two definitions of dictate: on the one hand, to order or command authoritatively and absolutely and, on the other hand, to speak aloud words that are to be written down or transcribed. There are two types of competing dictators at the center of The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao: the political dictator (Rafael Trujillo) who rules over the subjects of his regime and the narrative dictator (Yunior) who retrospectively recounts the novel’s events. As the primary narrator and storyteller, Yunior loosely functions as a dictator in both senses because he controls and orders representation and [End Page 8] because he collects, writes down, and reshapes a plethora of oral stories that have been recounted to him.

Through the novel, Yunior chronicles the life of Oscar de León, an obese Dominican American growing up as a social outcast in New Jersey from the mid-1970s to the mid-1990s. Oscar is obsessed with women and with what he calls the “more speculative genres” (43), meaning science fiction, fantasy, and comic books. The book’s middle sections center on the lives of Oscar’s mother Hypatía Belicia Cabral (“Beli”) and his grandfather Abelard Cabral in the Dominican Republic under the dictatorship of Trujillo (1930–61). Yunior pieces together Abelard’s, Beli’s, and Oscar’s lives through oral interviews, historical research, snooping in Oscar’s journals, and a bit of imaginative re-creation. In doing so, he recounts the family’s sufferings under a transgenerational cycle of violence: Abelard is imprisoned and tortured, purportedly for refusing to hand over his beautiful eldest daughter for Trujillo’s sexual pleasure; Beli is beaten nearly to death in a cane field for having an affair with the Gangster, the husband of Trujillo’s sister; and Oscar is killed in a cane field for having an affair with the girlfriend of the capitán, a policeman in a post-dictatorship Dominican Republic.

Yunior opens the book’s prologue by providing an origin story for the cursed fate of the de León-Cabral family:

They say it came first from Africa, carried in the screams of the enslaved; that it was the death bane of the Tainos, uttered just as one world perished and another began; that it was a demon drawn into Creation through the nightmare door that was cracked open in the Antilles. Fukú americanus, or more colloquially, fukú—generally a curse or a doom of some kind; specifically the Curse and the Doom of the...


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