Study Guide

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao Identity

By Junot Díaz

Identity

Chapter 1

[Oscar] [c]ould write in Elvish, could speak Chakobsa, could differentiate between a Slan, a Dorsai, and a Lensman in acute detail, knew more about the Marvel Universe than Stan Lee, and was a role-playing game fanatic. (If only he'd been good at videogames it would have been a slam dunk but despite owning an Atari and an Intellivision he didn't have the reflexes for it.) Perhaps if like me he'd been able to hide his otakuness maybe s*** would have been easier for him, but he couldn't. (1.1.2.3)

"Otaku" is a Japanese term. It refers to people with obsessive interests, especially anime and video games. What's interesting here is that Yunior, our narrator, says that he's able to hide his nerdiness. Wait. Yunior is a nerd? Yep. He is. But he's sneaky about it, unlike Oscar. So Oscar's real flaw, in Yunior's mind, is not the nerdiness itself; it's Oscar's complete lack of pretenses.

What is clear is that being a reader/fanboy (for lack of a better term) helped him get through the rough days of his youth, but it also made him stick out in the mean streets of Paterson even more than he already did. (1.1.2.3)

Oscar's nerd identity is not just a problem; it's also a kind of solution to his loneliness. His role-playing games and fantasy novels provide an escape from the cruelty of other kids. However, they also further mark him as someone to pick on. We guess nerdiness can throw a guy into a pretty vicious cycle.

You really want to know what being an X-Man feels like? Just be a smart bookish boy of color in a contemporary U.S. ghetto. Mamma mia! Like having bat wings or a pair of tentacles growing out of your chest. (1.1.2.3)

Díaz points out the oddness (and originality) of Oscar's character. Usually white kids are nerdy; white kids like comic books and fantasy novels. But Oscar is a kid of color who likes this nerdy stuff. So he doesn't really belong anywhere, the poor guy.

Dude wore his nerdiness like a Jedi wore his light saber or a Lensman her lens. Couldn't have passed for Normal if he'd wanted to. (1.1.2.3)

Our narrator makes the point that Oscar's nerd identity is out there for everyone to see. While Yunior hides his nerdy tendencies, Oscar wears his on his sleeve, all loud and proud and stuff. This undoubtedly makes life harder for Oscar.

Chapter 2

A punk chick. That's what I became. A Siouxsie and the Banshees-loving punk chick. The puertorican kids on the block couldn't stop laughing when they saw my hair, they called me Blacula, and the morenos, they didn't know what to say: they just called me devil-b****. Yo, devil-b****, yo, yo! (1.2.1.13)

Just like Oscar, Lola has a complicated identity. She's a punk chick who listens to Siouxsie and the Banshees. But she's also Dominican. What's a Dominican kid doing listening to British punk rock? The Puerto Rican kids don't know what to do with her; neither do the morenos—the dark-skinned Dominicans.

So much has changed these last months, in my head, my heart. Rosío has me dressing up like a "real Dominican girl." She's the one who fixed my hair and who helps me with my makeup, and sometimes when I see myself in mirrors I don't even know who I am anymore. (1.2.1.89)

Wao is, in some ways, a novel about change. Characters shift national identities, from Dominican to Dominican-American. They also shift life stages, from childhood to adolescence to adulthood. Here, Lola copes with these two kinds of shifts in identity at the same time. She rediscovers her Dominican roots in Santo Domingo, while also beginning to see herself as a woman. Heavy.

Chapter 6

After his initial homecoming week, after he'd been taken to a bunch of sights by his cousins, after he'd gotten somewhat used to the scorching weather and the surprise of waking up to the roosters and being called Huáscar by everybody (that was his Dominican name, something else he'd forgotten), after he refused to succumb to that whisper that all long-term immigrants carry inside themselves, the whisper that says You do not belong [...]. (2.6.5.1)

Oscar is both American and Dominican—and this, of course, makes visiting the Dominican Republic uncomfortable. Does he belong? Or is he a foreigner?

Knocked Lola for a loop when I said I'd do it, but it almost killed her dead when I actually did it. Move in with him. In f***ing Demarest. Home of all the weirdos and losers and freaks and fem-bots. Me, a guy who could bench 340 pounds, who used to call Demarest Homo Hall like it was nothing. Who never met a little white artist freak he didn't want to smack around. Put in my application for the writing section and by the beginning of September, there we were, me and Oscar. Together. (2.4.1.12)

Brace yourselves: we're going to reference Shakespeare's Hamlet. Do you rememberwhen Gertrude says, "the lady doth protest too much"?. The idea is that if you say something too forcefully, people may think you have something to hide. That's the case with Yunior here. He wants us to think he's not a nerd. He wants us to think that he's a tough guy who can bench-press 340 pounds. (And maybe he can bench that much. Who are we to say?) But Yunior flashes his nerd credentials often enough in the novel for us to know that he's at least 40% nerd. Looks like Yunior "doth protest too much."

Halloween he made the mistake of dressing up as Doctor Who, was real proud of his outfit too. When I saw him on Easton, with two other writing-section clowns, I couldn't believe how much he looked like that fat homo Oscar Wilde, and I told him so. You look just like him, which was bad news for Oscar, because Melvin said, Oscar Wao, quién es Oscar Wao [who is Oscar Wao], and that was it, all of us started calling him that: Hey, Wao, what you doing? Wao, you want to get your feet off my chair?

And the tragedy? After a couple of weeks dude started answering to it. (2.4.1.88-2.4.1.89)

There's certainly a lot to talk about in this passage. But we just want to point out that Oscar starts answering to the nickname Yunior and his pals give him. Sometimes, when other people tack an identity on you, you become that person—whether you like it or not.

Behold the girl: the beautiful muchachita [girl]: Lola's daughter. Dark and blindingly fast: in her great-grandmother La Inca's words: una jurona [savage animal]. Could have been my daughter if I'd been smart, if I'd been ––––––––. Makes her no less precious. She climbs trees, she rubs her butt against doorjambs, she practices malapalabras [bad words] when she thinks nobody is listening. Speaks Spanish and English. (afterword.2)

For all our fancy talk about the race, gender, and national identities, there's also a simpler identity that characters struggle with in this book: being part of a family. Of course, the novel is more complicated and farther reaching than the de León family, but they still serve as the focus of Wao. Here, the narrator lovingly describes the next generation of de Leóns.