Nobody’s Nation, the case of Junot Díaz  (1)

Rita De Maeseneer

University of Antwerp


The readers of The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao will easily trace the source of my title to Junot Díaz’s novel. The term “Nobody’s Nation” appears in its second epigraph, which is an excerpt from “The Schooner Flight” by Derek Walcott ending in the well-known verses: “I’m just a red nigger who love the sea,/ I had a sound colonial education,/ I have Dutch, nigger, and English in me,/ and either I’m nobody, or I’m a nation” (Díaz The Brief 4). In an interview Díaz explains that the concept of a nation is very problematic in the Caribbean: “This myth that nations exist, they have to work overtime in the Caribbean, where you have so many elements, so many mixtures, so much hybridity. But I think more importantly, a nation that erases individuals is no nation” (Ellison 3). Díaz’s statement fits well with his novel, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, which interweaves this Caribbean hybridity in genre, contents, intertextualities and styles, while bringing to life the invisibilized individuals: the obese nerd Oscar and his family.

In this article, the aim is to reflect on nation in relation to one of its most obvious expressions, the so-called national literatures. Homi Bhabha and other thinkers argued that a national identity is a geopolitical construct built on concepts as national literature: a nation is a narration. In Junot Díaz’s case, this concept is put into question. He is generally considered as representative of the US-literature. It is the way he is marketed; the way he is massively studied by scholars, often in a context of ethnic, cross cultural or multicultural literature as a Dominican-American or Latin@ writer. One of the most obvious signs of Díaz’s inclusion in US-literature is that he won the prestigious Pulitzer Prize in 2008, because the official website states that this award is “for distinguished fiction by an American author, preferably dealing with American life” (my emphasis). Even being a migrant writer –as it was the case of Cuban-American 1990 Pulitzer winner, Oscar Hijuelos–, the emphasis is on the mainland. However, it is less known in the United States that Díaz is also claimed by Dominican and even Latin American literatures as one of their own. After addressing this issue of appropriation ‘from the South’, I will argue that his work enables us to reconsider such concepts as national, supranational, transnational and postnational literatures in a global context. In order to corroborate this hypothesis, I will demonstrate how Díaz (more than other Latin@ writers) questions in his work the geographical, linguistic and cultural aspects, the three pillars of any traditional definition of a nation. (2) This will lead to contend that Díaz’s work is more than an example of transnational or postnational literatures. In his work he puts into practice the Glissantian idea of Tout-Monde aiming at globalness (mondialité) in contrast to globalization (mondialisation).

First of all, I will address the issue concerning why Díaz is considered not only a US-writer, but also a Dominican and even Latin American author. Generally speaking, Dominican literature is composed by texts written in Spanish, because language is still a decisive criterion for including a book into a nation’s cultural capital. Similarly to their Cuban and Puerto Rican counterparts, Dominicans from the island were first quite reluctant to consider Anglophone writers from Dominican origin in diaspora as a part of the Dominican literature. The best known example is Aída Cartagena Portalatín’s critique when she addressed Julia Álvarez during a conference organized in Santo Domingo at the beginning of the nineties with the following words: “Eso parece mentira que una dominicana se ponga a escribir en inglés. Vuelve a tu país, vuelve a tu idioma. Tú eres dominicana. (“It doesn’t seem possible that a Dominican should write in English. Get back to your country, to your language. You are a Dominican”)” (in Álvarez 821). Álvarez replied in her text entitled “Doña Aída, with your permission”. She insisted on her hybridity and argued that she was a Dominican in an untraditional way.

Nonetheless, whereas Cuban and Puerto Rican literatures have incorporated very moderately some Anglophone literature from their respective diasporas in recent years, the Dominican Republic seems to be more open to this kind of texts. It can be explained by the more recent migratory movement from Quisqueya (since the seventies) in comparison to the two other islands and by the cultural politics of the Dominican Republic. Until the nineties, there was no significant presence of literature written in English by Dominicans in the diaspora. Since then, Dominican-American narrative prose became a kind of emerging literature. Julia Álvarez and Junot Díaz were internationally acclaimed and also other writers, such as Loida Maritza Pérez, Angie Cruz or Nelly Rosario, were widely read and translated. Moreover, since 1994, Dominicans in diaspora can keep their Dominican nationality and the same year the Department of Culture of the Dominican Republic established its representation in New York, the so-called ‘Comisionado Dominicano de Cultura en los Estados Unidos’. Although official support is no guarantee for the promotion of diaspora culture as a whole and personal initiatives have more impact (Daisy Cocco de Filippis from Hostos Community College or Silvio Torres-Saillant from Syracuse University [3]), it favored a slow (and selective) opening from above towards the diaspora. In the twenty first century, the authorities of the Dominican Republic began to celebrate the successful diasporic authors who write in English. Viajeros del rocío. 25 narradores de la diáspora (2008), a publication of the Editora Nacional de la República Dominicana, edited by a Dominican residing in New York, Rubén Sánchez Féliz, contains fragments in Spanish written by Dominicans who live in the United States (e.g. Rey Andújar) and also translations of writers such as Junot Díaz. Dominican-American writers are also successful on the island, especially their works partly situated in Quisqueya that show a higher level of Dominicanness (Figueroa, Johnson). They are even considered as Dominican writers (and read in translations). Junot Díaz, for example, was invited by the Department of Culture to participate in a celebration in 2008 (after his Pulitzer award) during the Feria del Libro in Santo Domingo. The Dominican Congress even declared him cultural ambassador of the Dominican Republic in the world. Junot Díaz is very aware of the manipulation by the Dominican authorities who want to use this kind of “cultural remittance” in Flores’s sense of the term (4): “Elite structures try to ‘manage’ the diaspora in the DR but they can’t block us completely, no more than the U.S. can build a Wall around itself” (in Miranda 26). This official recuperation can be explained by an essentialist desire to construct a kind of literary Dominicanness. In a more malicious way, it can be interpreted as a means by the government to fill the vacuum caused by authors from the island hardly known outside of it. (5)

These official circumstances enhance the concept of Dominican literature making diaspora literature in English less ‘suspicious’ as part of Dominican national literature. It is possible to speak of “Quisqueya: la República extended”, alluding to the title of a special issue of the journal Sargasso (2008-2009). We can observe the same tendency in scholarly works, where authors from both parts are discussed. In Narratives of Migration and Displacements in Dominican Literature (2012) by Danny Méndez, it is striking that the scholar maintains the demonym in his title, analyzing work by Pedro Henríquez Ureña, but also by Junot Díaz, Josefina Báez, Loida Maritza Pérez.

At a Latin American level, Díaz is also considered as a Dominican/Latin American writer. In Bogotá 39, a cultural event that took place in Cartagena de Indias in 2007 with the participation of the best 39 Latin American writers younger than 39, Junot Díaz represented his country or, more precisely, his homeland was designated as Santo Domingo. In El insomnio de Bolívar (2009) Jorge Volpi states that Latin American literature as we have known it since the boom, does not exist anymore. He criticizes what he calls Latin American nationalism. There persist only ruins of Latin America and an atomization has taken place. Even language is not decisive anymore. It is the reason why Volpi classifies Junot Díaz as a “Latin American author in the United States” (El insomnio 205; my translation), together with Daniel Alarcón, of Peruvian origin. In a talk in 2011 in Berlin, where Volpi repeats the majority of his ideas, he proposes for Junot Díaz’s work the term of Hispanic narrative in America (NHA):

(…) where Hispanic doesn’t refer to the language of the writer (which sometimes is English), but to the imaginary filiation. At the beginning of the twenty first century, NHA doesn’t respond anymore to the tradition of the Latin American literature as canonized with the boom, it responds to other traditions, although with special emphasis on the Anglo-Saxon literature (or, rather, on the dictates of the international literary market). The twenty first century marks the end of the old and bitter controversy between national and universal literatures that swept through Latin America over the course of two centuries. But with the globalization it weren’t the cosmopolitans who gained, but the international market. (“Archipiélagos” 274; my translation)


All these factual elements lead to the problematization of Díaz’s position in relation to nations (US, DR) and supra-nations (Latin America). In order to expound on this issue, I will therefore analyze how Díaz’s work subverts the fundamental pillars of a nation. His treatment of geographical, linguistic and cultural issues (limited to the literary references) will be discussed. For methodological reasons I separate these three areas in a somewhat artificial manner.

Geographically speaking, Díaz’s characters go back and forth between the United States (Paterson in New Jersey), New York, Boston, Rhode Island and Miami) and the Dominican Republic. The consequence of this perpetuum mobile is that there are constant transnational negotiations in Díaz’s books and that the borders of the Dominican nation are questioned. In the short story “Nilda” from This is How you Lose Her, we read: “She was Dominican, from here, (…)” (Díaz This is 29), that is, the United States. It seems like a variation on the well-known verse by the Nuyorican poet, nicknamed Mariposa: “No nací en Puerto Rico, Puerto Rico nació en mí” (I wasn’t born in Puerto Rico, Puerto Rico was born in me”) from “Ode to a DiaspoRícan”. Or I could also quote the famous sentence from La guagua aérea by Luis Rafael Sánchez, when his alter ego asks a woman where she comes from. She answers that she is from Puerto Rico and then specifies: “From New York” (Sánchez 21). Another example of geographical blurring is taken from “The Cheater’s Guide to Love”. Yunior, who is a kind of alter ego of Junot Díaz, evokes his love affairs, for example with a Dominican woman he meets in Boston and whose conversations almost always start with “In Santo Domingo”. Yunior notices: “At the end of the semester she returns home. My home, not your home, she says tetchily. She’s always trying to prove you’re not Dominican. If I’m not Dominican then no one is, you shoot back, but she laughs at that. Say it in Spanish, she challenges and of course you can’t” (Díaz This is 193).

In an interview, Díaz explains: “(…) Diaspora allowed us multiple understandings. You could no longer have that illusion of a consolidated país. I mean, there is no real place called Santo Domingo” (in Lantigua-Williams 202). Thus, the concept of nation is separated completely from a fixed territorial vindication. Moreover, Díaz proceeds to deconstruct one of the most popular tropes in migrant, ethnic minority and Latin@ literature: home. This notion often implies an idealization of the place of origin and a negative, apocalyptic view of the place of arrival (Nyman), but in Díaz’s work it is not the case. Even in Díaz’s first collection of short stories, home is very problematic. The last name of the two brothers Yunior and Rafa is “de las Casas”, and this is more than a little ironic. Méndez comments that “in each of the stories the sense of unity and cohesion that we have come to associate with this term [Casas] is constantly put to the test” (125). As a result, we see a deep questioning not only of the idea of a fixed nation, but also of home. Because of the geographical blurring, the book appeals to readers from here and there, and perhaps from everywhere.

Linguistically speaking, Díaz’s books are written in a very particular kind of English. He introduces many words and sentences in Dominican Spanish. But he does more than tropicalizing (Aparicio) the text with local fruits or idiosyncratic concepts. Unlike many mainstream Latin@ writers he does not systematically use mechanisms like translations, footnotes, a glossary, circumlocutions or italics to underscore the otherness. When he introduces an explanation, it is often a parody, for example when he explains the Dominican word “pariguayo” in a footnote in The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao:

The pejorative parigüayo [sic], Watchers agree, is a corruption of the English neologism “party watcher.” The word came into common usage during the First American occupation of the DR, which ran from 1916 to 1924. (You didn’t know we were occupied twice in the twentieth century? Don’t worry, when you have kids they won’t know the U.S. occupied Iraq neither.) During the First Occupation it was reported that members of the American Occupying Forces would often attend Dominican parties but instead of joining in the fun the Outlanders would simply stand at the edge of dances and watch. Which of course must have seemed like the craziest thing in the world. Who goes to a party to watch? Thereafter, the Marines were parigüayos –a word that in contemporary usage describes anybody who stands outside and watches while other people scoop up the girls. The Kid who don’t dance, who ain’t got game, who lets people clown him– he’s the parigüayo. (The Brief 19-20: note 5)


The footnote apparatus is generally used for other purposes, namely to introduce the so-called ‘correct’ historical background to the DR and to subvert the authority of the narrator. Díaz resists the domestication of ethnic voices by dominant Anglo-American culture and chooses a poetics of non-translation, which Chi’en calls “assertive non translation” (209). Díaz constantly plays with inter- and intra-clausal code switching and he writes with ‘errors’ caused by his oral use of Dominican Spanish. In The Brief Wondrous life of Oscar Wao, tío Rudolfo gives Oscar an intensive sex education course: “Listen, palomo: you have to grab a muchacha, y metéselo. That will take care of everything. Start with a fea. Coje that fea y metéselo! Tío Rudolfo had four kids with three different women so the nigger was without doubt the family’s resident metéselo expert” (The Brief 24). We can see in this example that Díaz inevitably creates a certain couleur locale, insisting on the idiosyncratic machismo. Díaz becomes a “translator of ethnicity” to a certain extent (Sollors 250), a “native informer” (Céspedes 900), but he destroys the clichés, in this case the machismo-topic, by means of irony and humor.

In addition to this, the interlingual (bilingual) game is even more complicated due to the intralingual strategies. Díaz uses ghetto talk, African-American English, slang of the drug world and of the hip hop scene. In order to enhance the linguistic variety, the novel contains plenty of references to the sci-fi world and nerd talk. The narrator Yunior gives the following definition of Oscar:

Could 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.… Perhaps if like me he’d been able to hide his otakuness maybe shit would have been easier for him, but he couldn’t. 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. (The Brief 21)


Moreover, Díaz includes virtuous wordplays and neologisms. For example, when Yunior, this tremendous Latin lover, says to his peers: “Players: never never never fuck with a bitch named Awilda. Because when she awildas out on your ass you’ll know pain for real” (The Brief 175). In this way, his creative linguistic endeavors are not only about code-switching, and are not restricted to “Dreaming in Spanglish” (Scott s.p.) or “Estados Unidos tiene pesadillas en español” (Lago s.p.), to quote the titles of two reviews. Díaz’s aggressive linguistic play leads to the creation of an “interlingual space” (6) or a third space, as Homi Bhabha describes it. His method is very different from the formula “I think in Spanish/I write in English”, which was the first verse of “my graduation speech” by foundational Nuyorican poet Tato Laviera. Díaz shifts constantly from one language to another, and sometimes the two languages run simultaneously. To a certain extent, he applies what Walter Mignolo calls a bilanguaging epistemics (250-277), an epistemics that criticizes both the imposition of English and the use of Dominican Spanish as an expression of nationalism. Unlike many Latin@ writers, Díaz does not adopt a nostalgic attitude of bliss and blues towards the mother tongue. It is not a struggle with Tongue Ties, to quote the title of an important essay by Gustavo Pérez-Firmat. It is significant that Díaz’s collection of short stories, Drown, contains as an epigraph an excerpt from the book of poems Bilingual Blues by this Cuban-American writer: “The fact that I/am writing to you/in English/already falsifies what I/ wanted to tell you./My subject: /how to explain to you that I/don’t belong to English/though I belong nowhere else” (Drown s.p.). It is noteworthy that Díaz relegates these words to the paratext, and does not introduce this issue in the short stories themselves. Méndez is correct to point out that this epigraph is a kind of defense of a nowhere language, that is at the same time an everywhere language:

The problem posed by Pérez-Firmat’s quote is not the language per se that the stories are written in, but rather the relation of language to social spaces-the relation signified by the term belonging, which begins in the communicative channel. If every speech act implies an act of belonging, those who belong nowhere –or to a number of places– face a crisis of identity whenever they speak, because the language they speak in is, evidently, nowhere language. Or everywhere language, a language made up of pieces of other languages –in short, creole. (125)


So we have to deal with an unruly multitude of languages and registers. The consequence is that we cannot easily determine which audience the book is addressed to. This is compounded by the switch in narratees. The narrator does not address a fixed ‘you’ – at various points, ‘you’ could refer to Dominican-Americans, Dominicans, Latin lovers, and even to members of the university world. When the narrator describes the case of the Basque Professor Galíndez, for example, who was kidnapped and tortured after writing a critical thesis about Trujillo’s dictatorship, we find the following remark: “[L]egend has it when he came out of his chloroform nap he [Galíndez] found himself naked, dangling from his feet over a cauldron of boiling oil, El Jefe standing nearby with a copy of the offending dissertation in hand. (And you thought your committee was rough.)” (The Brief 97, footnote 11). We see that the readers are consciously being multiplied and made more diverse in order to reach heterogeneous audiences.

Besides the geographical and linguistic ambiguities, Díaz’s work is also related to a myriad of literary-cultural worlds. I will comment only on his novel and limit my reflections to the intertextual approach, the study of literary references, distinguishing between generic and specific intertextuality: the former consists of a dialogue with subgenres, while the latter is based on a quotation from one particular text.

First of all, I will address the generic intertextuality, the dialogue with subgenres. I propose to comment on the relation with only four subgenres, two of them common to Latin@ writers and two of them more related to Latin American literature: the Bildungsroman, the family saga, magical realism and the novel of dictatorship. I am aware of the fact that there are other important subgenres more directly related to the US-culture (ghetto literature, hip hop discourse, African-American literature, and the omnipresent science fiction), but these four examples will be sufficient to show that the novel can be read in various contexts and that all classifications can be subject to discussion. I insist deliberately more on the Latin American and Dominican relationships, often neglected by scholars who discuss Díaz’s work and are not familiar with the Latin American background.

First, it is clear that the book can be read as a Bildungsroman, because it is about Oscar’s coming of age. The novel evokes the life of an obese kid, a nerd who wants to fall in love, but is ultimately murdered. It doesn’t have a happy ending and Oscar doesn’t really go through the maturing process typical of the traditional coming of age novels (Hardin). In fact, the novel is more like a parody of a Bildungsroman. Moreover, the book does not concentrate on the (sexual) development of just one person, Oscar. Some chapters of the book are dedicated to his mother’s, sister’s and grandfather’s stories.

Second, by focusing on three generations of a single family, Díaz seems to give in to the family saga, which is very popular among Latin@ writers. Often, sometimes overtly sentimental family stories evoke the homeland in a kind of affective transnationalism. Díaz doesn’t fall in the trap of opposing progress to backwardness, the cold and violent world of drugs and crime to the tropical paradise. He criticizes those kinds of novels and says that they are written for white audiences. Although he uses the same framework of three generations, he distances himself clearly from the family saga in sepia color by adopting a harsh and ironic tone and by presenting only fragments, which prevents the reader from reconstructing the family’s chronology in its entirety. His story is full of gaps and silences. Unlike many ethnic minority writers, Díaz does not present his story as an authentic autobiographical one, although he draws extensively from his own experience creating the narrator Yunior. The fact that the narrator is unreliable does not help the credibility of the family story. Moreover, not all the chapters are told by the same narrator and neither do they have the same perspective.

A third subgenre or approach with which Díaz engages has to do with a cliché often applied to Latin American literature: magical realism or the real marvelous (which are not the same, but often confused). This genre is even alluded to in the title, in the word “wondrous”, and especially in its Spanish translation maravillosa. Moreover, the opening lines of the novel  describe the fukú, a magic curse that weighs on the whole family and on all Dominicans. Many reviewers have associated the book with the clichéd concept of magical realism, which is still considered to be the format for Latin American literature even almost fifty years after the publication in 1967 of One Hundred Years of Solitude by García Márquez (Pollack 350-353). In “A postmodern platano’s Trujillo: Junot Díaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, more Macondo than McOndo” López-Calvo argues that Díaz is effectively indebted to magical realism, as symbolized by the exoticism of Macondo, the name of the village where One Hundred Years of Solitude is set, in contrast to the counter-movement of the mid-nineties McOndo, which places the emphasis on an urban, postmodern world and popular culture:

And, indeed, the tropical exoticism, the hyper-violence and sensualism, the cult of Third-World underdevelopment, the incorporation of superstitions, mythical legends and popular folklore, the typical “special effects” of magical realism (where “magical” or illogical elements appear in apparently normal circumstances and characters accept them instead of questioning them) are all there. (n.p.)


What López-Calvo apparently fails to pick up on, is the irony with which all these stereotypes are treated. The presence of the fukú, and other strange apparitions like the mongoose and the faceless men in Oscar’s nightmares, cannot really be assimilated into the magical salvation of Mackandal in The Kingdom of this World by the Cuban author Alejo Carpentier or to the marvelous flight of the yellow butterflies in García Márquez’s book. Junot Díaz is also very aware that there are some remnants of magical realism. He states that his book “was an attempt to put Macondo and McOndo on the same page (…), why can’t we have ‘em both simultaneously?” (Anonymous s.p.). Besides, the magical dimension is also deeply influenced by the sci-fi world and its magic words, such as “shazam” (Captain Marvel) or “kimota” (Marvelman).

Finally, we have the text’s dialogue with historical novels about Trujillo’s dictatorship. The novel of dictatorship is one of the most successful subgenres in recent Dominican literature. Nonetheless, many Dominican authors do not rise above the merely superficial story value and often present a very ideological approach to Trujillo’s dictatorship, or they are sheer epigones of the big dictatorship novels as The Autumn of the Patriarch by García Márquez (De Maeseneer Seis ensayos). By including references to Trujillo’s atrocities in the fragments about Oscar’s mother’s and grandfather’s past, Díaz engages in an oblique way with the many novels written in the Dominican Republic during the last two decades. In a very straightforward way, namely through direct quotations of the title and/or author, he gives his opinion on two books that made Trujillo’s dictatorship famous worldwide. These are In the Time of the Butterflies, a novel about the Mirabal sisters’s resistance and their absurd death in a supposed accident towards the end of Trujillo’s regime, which was written by Julia Álvarez, and La fiesta del Chivo by Hispanic-Peruvian Nobel prizewinner Mario Vargas Llosa. In The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, Junot Díaz is clearly aware of the authority that emanates from these two novels on Trujillo. At the same time, however, he distances himself from them by means of irony. For example, he makes a reference to álvarez’s In the Time of the Butterflies in order to contrast Oscar’s mother’s marginalization at school –because she is black– with Miranda Mirabal’s compassion for poor black students: “It wasn’t like In the Time of the Butterflies, where a kindly Mirabal Sister7 [footnote in the original text] steps up and befriends the poor scholarship student. No Miranda here: everybody shunned her” (The Brief 83). The narrator openly criticizes Vargas Llosa’s supposed originality concerning Trujillo’s preference for young virgins: “Let’s be honest, though. The rap about The Girl Trujillo Wanted is a pretty common one on the island.29 [footnote in the original text] (...). So common that Mario Vargas Llosa didn’t have to do much except open his mouth to sift it out of the air. There’s one of these bellaco tales in almost everybody’s hometown” (The Brief 244). Díaz has commented in various interviews that those two famous novels perpetuate the myths surrounding Trujillo, whereas his own goal is to demystify the dictator. He succeeds in doing this by means of humor, calling Trujillo “Fuck Face” or “The Failed Cattle Thief” for example, and not the more common Chapita or Chivo; by relativization, as shown in the remark on Vargas Llosa; and by putting things into a world perspective, by saying, for example, that Trujillo was Mobutu before Mobutu was Mobutu (De Maeseneer Seis ensayos 97-122). All these strategies are almost absent in Dominican and foreign fictionalization of Trujillo’s dictatorship.

In terms of what I called specific intertextuality, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao contains an amazing number of references, ranging from Miller (Sexus) to Tolkien (The Lord of the Rings), and from Cervantes to Herbert (Dune) or Stephen King. It is not surprising that there is an annotated version of Oscar Wao online and that in the New York Times the reviewer states: “Mario Vargas Llosa meets “Star Trek” meets David Foster Wallace meets Kanye West” (Kakutani s.p.). To generalize, we could say that Díaz mixes high and low culture, or if preferred, the visual culture of young people and the lettered culture of the older generation.

On the one hand, we find a multitude of references to sci-fi, children’s books and comics (and their film versions). The first epigraph, for example, is a quotation from the comic by Jack Kirby, Fantastic Four: “Of what importance are brief, nameless lives …to Galactus [the World-Devourer in Fantastic Four, a sort of Trujillo]? Dune by Frank Herbert is another mandatory reference. When Abelard is to be imprisoned, the narrator observes: “He tried to remain calm –fear, as Dune teaches us, is the mindkiller– but he could not help himself” (The Brief 238). Abelard is compared to Dune’s protagonist Bene Gesserit, whose litany against fear goes as follows: “I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain” (wikiquote s.p.). Trujillo’s regime is compared to a “Caribbean Mordor” (The Brief 226), the land of Shadow or the Black Land in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. Díaz explains the presence of sci-fi by arguing that this world is a stronger expression of terror than any dictatorship (Trejo).

On the other hand, he also includes a number of references to canonical works considered to be high culture, largely from Anglo-American literature. When Beli is compared to captain Ahab for her tenacity in seducing the white boy Jack Pujols, there is a non-marked quote of Melville’s multicultural novel avant-la-lettre, Moby Dick, where the persecuted white whale is replaced by the boy: “And of all these things the albino boy [whale] was the symbol. Wonder ye then at the fiery hunt?” (The Brief 95). And the end of Oscar Wao “The beauty! The beauty!” is an inversion of Conrad’s “The horror! The horror!”, the end of Heart of Darkness.

As Díaz combines high and low literature and multiplies the range of associations, our horizon of expectations is constantly questioned and destabilized. Similarly to what happens at the linguistic level, we as readers are often unable to grasp all the literary references. Díaz does not want the individual reader to have access to everything: “The reader experience will, for each reader, present a series of unintelligible moments” (in Weich s.p.). He stated that the ideal way to read this book is to come together and exchange impressions and associations. At the same time, this proliferation of references allows us to connect a single fact or expression to a variety of literary-cultural fields. It would be interesting to explain this remark by commenting on the leitmotiv of the man with no face and on the title of the novel.

Regarding the faceless man, who is also present in some of the short stories of Drown, Bautista links this figure to Freudian theories and the popular culture of the luchadores (wrestling men), while Garland Mahler relates it to the fukú. Cowart associates the character with The Elephant Man and with a short story by Salinger. Junot Díaz himself mentions a film called Zardoz as a source of inspiration, which is related to another film, The Wizard of Oz, where faceless men appear frequently. He also emphasizes the link to the baká, a figure from Dominican folklore that lacks a face, “a shape-shifter that has no original form” (Díaz in Miranda 37).

Turning now to the title of the book, this is also very eloquent in terms of the multitude of the associations. The protagonist’s nickname is explained in the text as a Hispanic deformation of obese writer Oscar Wilde’s name. The word “brief” reminds us of the Brevísima relación de la destrucción de las Indias by Spanish friar Bartolomé de las Casas, who is mentioned in one of the footnotes (Díaz The Brief 244 note 29). As I have already said, “wondrous” has to do with the magical dimension of the book, be it magical realism or sci-fi magic. And finally, in a conversation with Danticat, Díaz revealed that the whole title plays on a short story about machismo, adultery and death that occurs on a safari in Africa. It is called “The short happy life of Francis Macomber” and was written by Hemingway, a writer very attracted to the Caribbean (Cuba) and of crucial importance to modern North-American prose. So, from the title onwards, bridges are built between various continents and traditions, and it is difficult to favor just one interpretation, because Díaz negotiates differences in an unstable process.

It is clear that these approaches lead to the creation of mobile mappings, translingual and transcultural literatures and that the rigid definition of nation cannot be maintained. Junot Díaz is and is not a US Latin@ writer, he is and is not a Dominican writer, he is and is not a Latin American writer. For this reason he designates himself in various ways in his interviews: Dominican, domo, Do Yo (Dominican York), Jersey Dominican, African-Dominican and even we multiples…. I agree with scholars such as Paul Jay who consider Díaz as an example of the transnational turn, interpreted as a literature that discusses issues of globalization (in a cultural and economic sense). Díaz could also be related to the postnational writer, characterized by boundarylessness that reflects a cosmopolitan vision (Castany Prado; García Méndez). As Junot Díaz quotes Glissant in his novel and in various interviews, he is perhaps more akin to this Caribbean thinker’s theories. Díaz represents what Glissant calls globalness, the awareness of living in a global space containing a multiplicity of languages, cultures, and peoples. Globalness is the translation of mondialité in contrast to globalization, mondialisation, the economic interpretation of neoliberal discourse, a form of finance capitalism intent on acquiring a global space and market for its operations and leading to homogeneity. Globalness has all to do with Glissant’s concept of Tout-Monde. In an interview with Ralph Ludwig, Glissant explains:

The Tout Monde is a vertiginous movement that changes perpetually –relating to each other– cultures, people, individuals, notions, aesthethics, sensibilities, etc. It’s that whirl… Because when a world vision is presented, it is an a priori that gives the world an axis and an aim. The Tout-Monde, is the vision of a world without axis and aim, only with the idea of the swirling proliferation, necessary and irrepressible, of all these contacts, of all these changes, of all these exchanges. (10; my translation)


In my analysis I have attempted to demonstrate that Díaz’s writings challenge the very idea of a nation, because his work navigates between territories, cultures and languages and can reach multiple audiences. Díaz belongs to Nobody’s Nation in a Tout-Monde mode. That is the way in which I interpret the starting point of my essay: “and either I’m nobody, or I’m a nation”. Díaz is like Walcott’s Shabine, the mulatto seaman who is on drift in the Caribbean Sea. Junot Díaz/Shabine contributes to the dissemiNation engaging in dialogues between nations, communities and languages. But perhaps the only important thing to remember is that he succeeds in doing this using his imagi-nation. (7)




 (1).This essay is part of the research project on “Canon in the Hispanic Caribbean, Chile and Argentina” funded by FWO (Research Foundation-Flanders, Belgium).  I wish to thank Gustavo Guerrero who gave me the original idea for this essay and I am very grateful to Elzbieta Sklodowska for her support and revision of the English text. 


(2). Kellas defines the nation as follows: “A nation is a group of people who feel themselves to be a community bound together by ties of history, culture, and common ancestry. Nations have ‘objective’ characteristics which may include a territory, a language, a religion, or common descent (though not all of these are always present), and ‘subjective’ characteristics, essentially a people’s awareness of its nationality and affection for it” (2).


(3). Torres-Saillant refers to a demonization of those (intellectuals) who live in the diaspora in El retorno de las yolas (1999). He mentions also the lack of support of the authorities of the island when he organized a conference (in Santo Domingo and in Nueva York). The talks of this conference were collected in Desde la orilla. Hacia una nacionalidad sin desalojos (2004).


(4). Flores defines “cultural remittances” as follows: “the ensemble of ideas, values, and expressive forms introduced into societies of origin by remigrants and their families as they return “home”, sometimes for the first time, for temporary visits or permanent re-settlement, and as transmitted through the increasingly pervasive means of telecommunications” (4).


(5). Due to a lack of space I am not able to comment on the cultural politics of the Dominican Republic, characterized by string pulling (amiguismo) and a rather traditional view on literature.


(6). Carmen Haydée Rivera explains: “The interlingual space becomes a space of transculturation where a new language is created that borrows from both Spanish and English and is not reducible to either. The monolingual reader might see the practice as a mere code-switching because of the lexical shift, but the reader who is fluent in both English and Spanish recognizes the ‘continual kinetic interplay’” (108).


(7). I rely on the first sentence of the third part of Schooner Flight, “I had no nation now but imagination”, a reference to an individual imagined community. Walcott explained that his nation is imagination: “I am simply saying that I have no nation but an imagination, the artist is left out of the nation and therefore his recourse is to an imaginary nation which is his nation, his imagination. So by disaffection, he has become an artist” (in Breslin 200).


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