Wednesday, April 22, 2009

The World of Oscar Wao--the Dominican Republic

The question is this: Choose a country or region and tell us a little bit about it, including, of course, an author or two who hail from there, and you can add a link to your response here.

The question was inspired by my listening to The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, which takes place in the U.S., but both the author and his characters are of Dominican descent. As I said in the initial post, my lack of knowledge was interfering with my enjoyment of the book. So, I did a little digging and here's what I found out:

The Dominican Republic shares the island of Hispaniola with Haiti. It was inhabited before being "discovered" by Christopher Columbus, but unfortunately the native Taino population was completely wiped out by disease and slavery. The Spanish (and the French, in what would become Haiti) then brought thousands of African slaves to replace some of the 400,000 natives who had died. The Dominican Republic gained independence from Spain in 1864.

Here it is, just south and a little east of Florida, U.S.A.:

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-Junot Diaz (pictured at right) educates Oscar Wao readers a bit about former leader Trujillo at the beginning of the book. [I had mixed feelings about this--on the one hand, I should know this stuff. On the other hand, the book is long and it is fiction, where I prefer to have relevant background info dropped in where it fits with the characters and plot. I wanted the story to get going. I'm halfway through the book now and I'm still not sure the story has quite started. I think it has.]

But I was talking about President Trujillo. He was this horrible, power-hungry guy who ruled the D.R. for 30 years. Lonely Planet says, "Though he was himself partly black, Trujillo was deeply racist and xenophobic,"--you know, I'd say ordering 20,000 Haitians "exterminated" takes racism to a psychotic level, but maybe that's just me.

As for my initial question of what the characters might look like, you can see from the photos along the side that Dominicans are as varied as Americans in appearance. They are, from top to bottom: Junot Diaz, author of The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao and Drown, Julia Alvarez, author of How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents, and Sammy Sosa, one of the all-time nicest pro baseball players ever. Even at the height of his career, he never failed to blow kisses to his mom whenever he was caught on camera.o

I added a Dominican American song to the soundtrack in my sidebar. Here's Donde Estan Esos Amigos, by Chaval.


  1. Yes! I know where it is! I enjoyed this novel, though the narrator annoyed me sometimes with his serious sex addiction.

  2. I often do background research, too, but I haven't thought to post it. Thanks, this will be helpful when I get to the book!

  3. Lenore, yes, the narrator can be quite annoying. I still haven't decided if I love him or hate him!

    Dawn, I hope so. Every time I read a book about another part of the world I'm astounded by all I don't know.

  4. Now I am slightly embarassed by my post after reading this, very nice. The Dominican Republic was eliminated in the first round of the Word Baseball Classic this year by Netherlands. I am pretty sure b/c of this, Dominicans around the world were razed by their Puerto Rican friends.

  5. Doret, I'll join you.

    I learned about Trujillo reading Edwidge Danticat's novel, The Farming of Bones and Julia Alavarez's, In Time of The Butterflies.

    I didn't know anything about either country before reading the works and when I read Ali's comments, it dawned on me that knowing nothing about the countries didn't trip me up. Then I wondered if I was missing something because I didn't know the countries' history or culture.

  6. Doret, beat out by the Netherlands? Sheesh, I'll razz them for that, too! Didn't even know they knew how to play, in Europe.

    Susan, maybe it wasn't the background info that tripped me up. Even after all that, I'm still having a hard time connecting with the characters. Diaz is hilarious, though.

  7. I felt that the Oscar Wao book was like a snowball down a mountain - the farther into it you get, the faster you read and the more riveting, exciting it is! I learned a lot about DR in this book - loved the footnotes.

  8. Hi Ali, I'm glad you're enjoying Oscar Wao. I've already complained about some of my issues with the novel (similar to Lenore's previous comment) in a previous CORA Roll Call post, but I can't dispute the quality of the writing and the rich cultural history Diaz incorporates into his work.

  9. LOVED this book. But there's nothing I can add to the discussion that hasn't already been said. The footnotes about Dominican history were so enlightening. Really learned a lot about the country's very storied history.

  10. Ali I have been wanting to read this one for a while. Thanks for the heads up on the background info. I knew a bit about the Dominican Republic because I have had a couple of students from there, but did not know a lot. Great post. :-)