The immigrant experience, it’s been noted, is no longer what it once was. When immigrants who came to the United States in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries left their homelands, they left them forever. There were no telephone calls, no trips home for Christmas. Family was left behind, and so, for good or ill, was history. Emotional ties may have remained strong, and conflicts and allegiances may have carried over into the new neighborhoods, but what happened in the Old Country, and even what had happened, usually had little practical significance. The New World was a new start.
Things are different in the jet age. Now you can go home again, and the trail of immigration has become a two-way street. Assimilation is less certain, involvement with the homeland more intimate and more fraught. Even after a generation or more, families can remain suspended between two places, two languages and the claims of two discordant histories. All this is especially true of immigrants from the Caribbean basin, whose lands are so close, and whose status and plans are so often unclear. Two further circumstances distinguish these arrivals from others, be they Asians now or Europeans a century ago. First, their Old Country was already the New World, their existence there the legacy of prior displacements. Second, they come to the United States already having had historical business with it. The past they’re no longer leaving behind when they get to America has already been scarred by America itself.
This new experience is calling forth a new literature. Junot Díaz’s work is not, like earlier immigrant writing, about the confused but inexorable process of becoming less and less what you were and more and more American. It’s about remaining what you were and the suspicion, or hope, that you’ll never become American. It’s about how Nueva York is less a new start than another chapter in the same old story.
Díaz made his debut eleven years ago with the highly acclaimed short story collection Drown. The pieces in Drown are brilliantly crafted, and so is the volume as a whole. It starts with three stories that take us from childhood in the Dominican campo to late adolescence in the slums of North Jersey, the path followed by Díaz himself. But then the trajectory doubles back: back to Santo Domingo (as Díaz refers to his homeland), back to childhood, back to everything we thought we’d left behind. And so it goes, back and forth, again and again. At the end of the book, we’re still waiting to get off the island.
Now Díaz returns with a novel that reorchestrates this idea of an inescapable history on a grand scale. One of Drown‘s strengths was the tight focus of its vignettes and the limited horizon of its narrator-protagonists’ understandings, the poignancy generated by the sense that these doomed Dominican kids were oblivious to the larger circumstances that determined their choices and chances. Now Díaz places their world in its widest possible historical context. That’s why The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao begins not with its title character, a nerdy Dominican boy growing up in North Jersey in the 1980s and ’90s, but with African slaves; exterminated natives; “dictator-for-life Rafael Leónidas Trujillo Molina,” “also known as El Jefe, the Failed Cattle Thief, and Fuckface,” who ruled the country from 1930 to 1961; and the Italian explorer who planted his first colony on Hispaniola in 1492, and whom the book refers to–so inauspicious in Santo Domingo is the utterance of his name–as “the Admiral.” The white man’s advent, the narrator tells us, released a demon into the world: Fukú americanus, “the Curse and the Doom of the New World.” It is this fukú that drives the story, exerting its power on both the national and personal scale: on the Admiral himself; on America and JFK; on Trujillo’s enemies, who include Oscar’s grandfather; on El Jefe himself; and at last on poor Oscar, all the way up in New Jersey.