Study Guide

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao What's Up With the Epigraph?

By Junot Díaz

What's Up With the Epigraph?

One for the Money

If one epigraph is cool, two epigraphs are inarguably cooler. And since Diaz loves to juxtapose popular culture and high culture, as well as "old world" and "new world" identities, the two epigraphs that begin this book sort of say it all. The first one goes like this:

"Of what import are brief, nameless lives . . . to Galactus??" Fantastic Four, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, (Vol. I, No. 49, April 1966)

For starters, it might help to know who Galactus is. Here goes: Galactus is a character in the Marvel Comics universe. Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, the creators of Galactus, say that they drew on the Bible and Greek myths for this character.

They wanted to create a super-villain—someone bigger and more powerful than a sniveling mad scientist. So, they modeled Galactus on the demi-gods and dudes like Zeus. The sole survivor of the pre-Big Bang universe, Galactus is an extremely powerful (and very feared) being who feeds off of living planets' energy.

What does this have to do with Wao? Díaz writes a lot about the blank pages of history in this novel, especially the blank pages of Dominican history. We think he aims to fill in those blank pages with his book. Díaz's point might be this: someone like Oscar Wao might not matter much to Galactus (or any other all-powerful, organizing force), but he sure as heck matters to me as a novelist.

And because I'm such a fine novelist, Díaz seems to boast, I will make Oscar Wao matter to my readers. For what it's worth, we think he pulls it off.

Two for the Show

Then, there's the second epigraph:

Christ have mercy on all sleeping things!
From that dog rotting down Wrightson Road
to when I was a dog on these streets;
if loving these islands must be my load.
out of corruption my soul takes wings,
But they had started to poison my soul
with their big house, big car, big time bohbohl,
coolie, n*****, Syrian and French Creole,
so I leave it for them and their carnival –
I taking a sea bath, I gone down the road.
I know these islands from Monos to Nassau,
a rusty head sailor with sea-green eyes
that they nickname Shabine, the patois for
any red n*****, and I, Shabine, saw
when these slums of empire was paradise.
I'm just a red n***** who love the sea,
I had a sound colonial education,
I have Dutch, n*****, and English in me,
and either I'm nobody, or I'm a nation.

— "The Schooner Flight", Derek Walcott

Díaz takes this excerpt from a much longer poem called "The Schooner Flight". In this poem, a sailor named Shabine travels from some unnamed Caribbean island to the Dominican Republic (what Oscar likes to call the DR). We think the poem highlights how tons of folks emigrate from the DR, and how tons of folks return to it each year. See, Oscar and his family are just a few among many.

Notice, too, how Shabine both celebrates and distances himself from the Caribbean in this excerpt. He calls the islands "paradise" but also admits that he wants to leave. This sounds a lot like the characters in Wao. To say the least, they have pretty complex relationships with their homeland. If our boy Oscar were in a relationship with the DR on Facebook, we know he'd say, "it's complicated."

The last two lines of this second epigraph pick up on the multicultural themes in the novel. Shabine isn't just white or Caribbean. He says instead: "I have Dutch, n*****, and English in me." Like Oscar and other characters in the book, Shabine identifies with multiple heritages. He's kind of like a one-man melting pot, you know?

Plus, like Shabine, Oscar (and the other main characters) flip-flip between two contradictory identities in Wao: "nobody" and the DR. How can a person be both anonymous and represent an entire nation? Allow us to explain.

When you're a racial or ethnic minority in the U.S., you are sometimes invisible—unrecognized by dominant institutuions and cultures—and sometimes tokenized—turned into a representation of your whole home country, because you're one of the only people we sheltered Americans know from that country. Díaz says it once, but he'll say it twice, no, he'll say it a thousand times in a thousand ways in this book: bein' an immigrant ain't easy.

Neither, as it turns out, is analyzing this book's epigraphs. We're not done yet.

A Bigger Evil than Galactus?

Wao's also got an epigraph right before Section II. That little ditty goes like this:

Men are not indispensable. But Trujillo is irreplaceable. For Trujillo is not a man. He is... a cosmic force.... Those who try to compare him to ordinary contemporaries are mistaken. He belongs to...the category of those born to a special destiny.
— La Nación

A cosmic force, eh? Maybe Trujillo is just the real-life incarnation of Galactus after all. Okay, in all seriousness, this quote may make not make much sense before you read Section II. But it'll whack you upside the head with its importance after you're done.

Trujillo becomes, by the end of the novel, an ever-present force of evil. We know that sounds a little superstitious, but it's true. He's more like an evil spirit that hovers over the characters, casting his long evil-y shadow over their lives, than a mere political dictator.

So, yeah. Trujillo is not a historical man. He can't be killed or replaced. He's something much bigger, and much scarier, than that.

We'd also like to note that this epigraph comes from a newspaper, La Nación. We'd like to call that newspaper out for sensationalism, but Wao makes us think that this description of Trujillo's wickedness is pretty darn accurate. (For more on Trujillo's special powers, check out our Themes section on "The Supernatural.")