Dynamic Cultures and Intricate Minds

Caroline Shriver

Dual-identity Americans struggle to define themselves, understand their native cultures, and find community and language to express their realities. In the context of this struggle, authors Junot Díaz’ The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao and Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior express how identity struggle and a sense of cultural limbo generate an ongoing trauma. Díaz’ and Kingston’s dynamic cultural identities compel them to use stylistic innovations to express their reality. They challenge the conventional forms of novel and memoir by using both fictional and nonfictional elements to illustrate their characters’ journey toward understanding their identities. In Oscar Wao, Díaz writes in Spanglish (a mixture of English and Spanish) to explore the lives of a transgenerational Dominican American family struggling to cope with their past and discover their individuality. The principle narrator, Yunior, is a Dominican-American college playboy who serves as an alter ego for Díaz. Yunior explores intimate relationships with various characters, but focuses his narration on Oscar Cabral, who attempts to balance the trauma of past generations with his own identity struggle. In her memoir, The Woman Warrior, Kingston recalls her life as a second-generation Chinese-American immigrant growing up with her mother in California. Kingston’s memoir uses fictional elements that highlight her struggle to discover her identity and purpose, despite the societal restrictions of gender and race. By integrating historical, personal, and political details through fictional and nonfictional elements, these authors illustrate their traumatic cultural experiences.

From the start of the novel, Díaz highlights Oscar’s struggles against Dominican-American cultural expectations about gender and sexuality to find his own identity and purpose. Yunior writes that Oscar “never had much luck with the females, how very un-Dominican of him” (11). Late in his life, when Oscar finally does sleep with a woman in the Dominican Republic, his uncle is “thrilled” because Oscar is no longer a “pájaro,” or a bird, a derogatory term often used to describe a homosexual. Oscar is not respected in Dominican culture before sleeping with a woman; he is a gay “palomo,” a loser who can’t get girls, because he lacked the charisma and sexuality expected of a Dominican male. Although Oscar lives in America, he feels diminished by the Dominican expectations of manhood and doubts his purpose and identity.

By weaving in historical context, Díaz describes how Dominican culture provokes such expectations of gender and sexuality on males because they is rooted in the ideals of Rafael Trujillo’s reign of terror (1930-1961). In “The Sweet Balance of Dominican-American Identity: Diasporic Imaginary, Gender and Politics in Junot Díaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao,” Oscar Montero highlights how the Trujillo regime creates an “alienating” culture and environment under which Oscar must attempt to balance his “transient identity” (4). According to Díaz, the seemingly supernatural Trujillo was a mixture of “violence and…rape” who “treated the country like it was a plantation and he was the master” (2). As Montero notes, Trujillo created a kind of hyper-masculinity and enforced it upon Dominican culture, generating a monolithic ideal of manliness. Thus, Oscar faces the constant challenge of staying true to himself while balancing his American and Dominican identities, especially the pressure of being a macho Dominican man

Just as Díaz highlights how Oscar’s struggle stems from his dynamic cultural background, Kingston sheds light on her own identity crises from the moment she attempts to socialize and find a purpose within her community. In the section, “A Song for a Barbarian Reed Pipe,” Kingston illustrates how she felt torn between two cultures. Kingston highlights that a Chinese woman’s voice is “strong and bossy,” but “we American-Chinese girls” had to “whisper” in order to come across as “American-feminine” (172). She shows how she would avoid making herself “American-pretty” as a young girl because it would attract all of the boys, not just the Chinese ones. Instead she chooses to be Chinese pretty, to be “sisterl[y], dignified and honorable” (12). The American-Chinese girl embodies a separate culture that, according to Kingston, is not considered beautiful in its own right. Rather, the American-Chinese girl is forced to shift between American and Chinese cultures, depending on circumstance. As a young girl trying to fit in, Kingston is unable to find her purpose and identity as American-Chinese because she is marked as outsider by both cultures. Without a coherent identity, without the ability to convey her full self in either community, Kingston forces herself into silence. She was forced to find another way to communicate her full, biracial self because her dynamic identity made her feel silenced, compelling her to write unconventionally.

 Kingston further highlights this sense of being silenced both by her background and by American Culture. She explains that, as a child, when the drugstore made a wrong delivery to her family’s laundry shop, her mother felt it was a curse. Her mother forced Kingston to go to the drugstore to demand candy to lift the curse. The druggist gives her candy, thinking she is a beggar. Although Kingston’s mother thought she was teaching the druggist a lesson, Kingston knows that the druggist “did not understand” (171). Rather, she tells herself to “be cute and small” because “no one hurts the cute and small” (170). Unable to express her Chinese culture to Americans like the druggist, and unable to express her American culture to Chinese people like her mother, Kingston falls between the two. She silences herself and makes herself small rather than growing into her own identity. In Malani Schueller’s, “Questioning Race and Gender Definitions: Dialogic Subversions in The Woman Warrior,” Shueller highlights how Kingston’s transient, ever-changing identity generates a “racial silence” (421). Schueller adds that female immigrants like Kingston, as part of the most oppressed social class, face an ultimate silence that generates an incoherent concept of “unity” and “universality” (422). Kingston suffers an overall inability to find a place for herself in any one culture and, therefore, is unable to identify herself at all. This traumatic identity confusion leads Kingston to write, and through writing, to experience “the therapeutic balm of words” (Gilmore 7). She ultimately finds that in order to tell the story of her biracial and confused identity, she must use unconventional writing strategies.

Both Kingston and Díaz experience life as others in response to the dual cultural experience and constantly shifting identities. In “Knowing and Unknowing Transnational Latino Lives in Teacher Education: At the Intersection of Educational Research and the Latino Humanities,” Sofia Vellenas sheds light on a study about young Guatemalan American women who experience “two cultures, two ways of being” producing “multiple realities” and multiple ways of “communicating with the world” (133). Although Villenas focuses on Latin American identity, she illustrates a universal identity struggle for immigrants. She also highlights how difficult it is for a biracial individual to understand his or her identity. If the young person is unable to connect with both of her “[cultural] identities” and find “transnational solidarity,” she will be unable to understand her whole identity (134). Leigh Gilmore argues that in order understand and connect to one’s identity, one must write. The writer must assemble “theories of the self and self-representation; of personal identity” in relation to community (12). Although Gilmore speaks specifically about the self in autobiography, her theories parallel Junot Díaz’ and Maxine Hong Kingston’s experiences of writing to explore the self.

In Oscar Wao, Díaz expresses the idea of “cultural identity” and “multiple realities” by using “code switching” (transitioning between English and Spanish) (Villenas 133-4; Cresci 2013). In incorporating sporadic bits of Spanish throughout his book, Díaz illustrates the constant linguistic and cultural shifting that his character’s experience. Writing in the Buenos Aires Review, Díaz says that as a bicultural individual, he does not have any one natural language, which generates a “constant state of translation.” It would be impossible to explain his reality, and the reality of the biracial characters in his book such as Oscar, without “code switching” (Cresci 2013). Díaz and Oscar are raised with two languages and, therefore, require two languages to express their reality. Díaz also argues that there have been “ancient somatic tensions between English and Spanish,” paralleling the tensions Oscar feels between the many aspects of his identity (Cresci 2013). English and Spanish have a “somatic” divide, a divide that is physically palpable, a divide that stretches beyond just language to split the core identity of those in-between the two cultures.

In Oscar Wao, the tension between the two cultures is labeled a curse, a Fuku, that began when Columbus discovered America. It is a tension that Dominican-Americans live everyday (Díaz 1). Built on two languages and cultures, Oscar’s identity is a battle between Spanish and English, Dominican and American. As Villenas states, this linguistic and cultural divide generates an “imbalance of power” between the two cultures, which becomes a constant source of confusion and “pain” (133). Díaz does not write in Spanglish simply to captivate his reader; he writes in Spanglish because it is his only way to explain Yunior’s and Oscar’s streams of consciousness, defined by a constant inner battle between two cultures, two languages, and two identities.

Kingston highlights a similar inner battle between cultures that generates “multiple realities” by occasionally translating English into Chinese, but more often by describing the separation between Chinese and American lifestyle (Villenas 134). Kingston illustrates this battle between cultures in her experience with the word “I.” Kingston writes that in Chinese, one of the female words for “I” also means “slave,” underscoring how Chinese culture tried to “break the women with their own tongues” (47). As Kingston struggles to find her identity, she is not only caught between two cultures, but also between two languages. For Kingston, even the word “I” can take a multitude of different forms. Is she a slave, a Chinese woman, or an American woman? Malani Schueller points out that, for Kingston, “American life is logical, concrete, free, and guarantees individual happiness,” whereas “Chinese life is illogical, superstition-ridden, constricted by social roles, and weighted down by community pressures” (429). For Kingston, America is also concrete. In America, “I” is the self. However, in China, “I” is made up of a multitude of different possibilities, many of which are implemented “by community pressures” (492). The Chinese “I” triggers uncertainty for Kingston generates an inner battle over which “I” she is and will be.

 Kingston’s identity confusion grows more intricate when she later reverses this idea of America as concrete and China as mysterious. She notes that, at times American culture can appear mysterious and confusing and Chinese culture concrete, depending upon which aspect of her identity views the situation. Kingston uses ghosts to reveal the tension between the concrete and the mysterious. For example, Kingston’s mother, Brave Orchard, calls Americans “ghosts,” saying “teacher ghost, scientist ghost,” and “doctor ghost” (101). The “ghost” people work at a different pace; their time goes by faster. For Orchard, the ghost people’s way of life is strange and different from the Chinese way of life. While at times Kingston differs from her mother, associating herself with American life, she occasionally finds herself on her mother’s side, a Chinese woman looking in on a culture very different from her own. Schueller writes that the use of ghosts is a “defamiliarization” in terms of the readers “self concept.” By “defamiliari[zing]” the reader, she places the reader in the shoes of someone who questions what is familiar and normal, and whether she is an insider or outsider (430). In defamiliarizing concepts such as ghosts, Kingston shows how her sense of community constantly shifts, creating multiple different realities and identities that compel her to write unconventionally.

 Flowing seamlessly between factual and mystical stories, both Díaz and Kingston blend styles that speak to their unconventional identities. In Reality Hunger, David Shields asks the question: does “the pursuit of dramatic effects enhance the truth or bend it?” (79). While dramatic effects are often associated with fiction and untruth, in the context of Kingston and Díaz’s dynamic identities they appear to be the only path to a truthful portrayal of their realities. When Kingston imagines herself as Fa Mu Lan, a mythical woman warrior from her mother’s stories who starves under the watch of the two old people, she watches the “centuries pass in [a] moment because suddenly [she] understands time, which is spinning and fixed like the north star” (27). Although this is depicted as an imaginary experience, it sheds light on Kingston’s inner consciousness. A conventional memoir that depicts the facts of Kingston’s life might seem as though it could expose Kingston’s reality. However, in describing her imagination, Kingston reveals how dynamic trauma-ridden her senses of culture and identity are. Kingston uses fantasy and drama to enhance readers’ understanding of the real experiences that compose her life.

 Likewise, Díaz mixes seemingly real experiences with mystical fantastical experiences to reveal the colorful intricacies of characters’ realities. Beli sees a mongoose with “golden eyes,” just as Oscar later sees a similar creature and experiences “déjà vu” (147, 298). Although both characters’ experiences have imaginary aspects — including a mongoose, a lovely singing voice, and a man with no face — they seem to tie into a greater truth that could not be expressed in a conventional form. Just as Kingston could not express her reality using a fully factual narrative, Díaz could not express his reality without writing a novel with fantastical effects.

Although Díaz and Kingston label their books differently, both authors use stylistic innovations in order to fully portray their fluid identities. Faced with the constant trauma of feeling as though they do not fit in, Díaz and Kingston express themselves through writing in order to better understand their own identities and to share their experiences. Assembling pieces of their everyday pains and joys together with imaginary elements, cultural histories, and mythologies, these authors succeed in creating multicultural mosaics.

Works Cited

Cresci, Karen, “Junot Dìaz: ‘We Exist in a Constant State of Translation. We Just Don’t Like It.’” The Buenos Aires Review. 04 May. 2013. Web. 20 Apr. 2016.

Díaz, Junot. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. New York: Riverhead Books, 2007. Print.

Gilmore, Leigh. The Limits of Autobiography: Trauma and Testimony. Ithica: Cornell University Press, 2001. Print.

Kingston, Maxine Hong. The Woman Warrior. New York: Vintage Books, 1989. Print.

Montero, Oscar. “In The Sweet Balance of Dominican-American Identity: Diasporic Imaginary, Gender, and Politics in Junot Díaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.” MA Thesis. (2007). Unpublished mater thesis. University of Barcelona.

Schueller, Malini. “Questioning Race and Gender Definitions: Dialogic Subversions in The Woman Warrior.” Criticism 31.4 (1989): 421–437. Print.

Shields, David. Reality Hunger. New York: Random House, 2010. Print.

Villenas, Sofía. “Knowing and Unknowing Transnational Latino Lives in Teacher Education: At the Intersection of Educational Research and the Latino Humanities.” The High School Journal 92.4 (2009): 129–136. Print.