Here There Be Mongooses
Mapping Fantasy onto Reality in Junot Diaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life Of Oscar Wao
Open almost any fantasy novel, from the timeless and massive The Lord Of The Rings trilogy to more lighthearted fare such as the Discworld series, and you’ll be confronted, with a map. In a text where so much of the action is happening in a landscape foreign to us, these maps serve a vitally important purpose. For one, they ground us in the worlds we’ll be spending the next few hours in, allowing us to understand just how much these worlds differ from our own, what kind of fantasy we’re reading. For another, they familiarize us, ever so slightly and superficially, with the lore of the land we’ll be exploring. Finally, maps give one a sense of the scale of the novel being read, to understand the feats accomplished. What does it mean for us that Eragon travels from Carvahall to Farthen Dur, after all unless we can see that to do so he must cross the entire length of the empire he lives in? Maps let us understand the titanic nature of these stories that quite often sweep up whole families, countries, and even divine and infernal powers in their wake. They show us just what we’re getting ourselves into.
What, though, are we supposed to do when the fantasy is overlaid on the real world, as it is in Junot Diaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life Of Oscar Wao? The novel employs the language of fantasy and science fiction as its third language to investigate the saga of the Cabral family, and exploring it can offer just as rich an engagement of the novel as can exploring its frequent and powerful uses of Spanish or footnootes. Further, the novel shares the titanic scale of any fantasy, engaging with family histories, dictatorial regimes, and even mythical travelers of the universe. However, much of the fantastic elements of the book are left just as stubbornly unclarified as its Spanish, forcing us to clarify it ourselves if we wish to truly understand the power of the references he’s unleashing. If we are to feel the power of Diaz’s interwoven, we must map it for ourselves.
My project aims to do just that, to literally map the unreal elements of Oscar Wao on to the real ones. I plan to create three digital maps, one for each of the real-world locales in which the story takes place: The Dominican Republic, New Jersey, and Rutgers university. These maps will be constructed in the same way a map in a fantasy book might be, layering elements of the stories Diaz mentions over the very real places he describes. The maps will be a syncretic celebration both of the masterful way Diaz weaves fantasy into real places in order to create the sense of a real world made unreal by intense cruelty, and of the sheer power of the fantastical worlds that can sometimes help explain our own so well.
There are three main goals of this project. The first is simply appreciative. By mapping all of diverse references visually, I’ll gain and hopefully be able to share a sense of wonder at the sheer volume of references and imagery Diaz employs. His command of fantasy is just as impressive as his command of English, and it’s worth taking time to appreciate his ability.
The second major goal of this project is to provide a robust companion to the novel itself. The maps could serve as a resource for under. Given that the maps will be digital, they can be made interactive, allowing those engaged with them to explore the rich references to fantasy and science fiction Diaz makes and understand their emotional effect.
Finally, the maps will hopefully give a sense of the grandeur of Diaz’s novel. Given that it’s narrated in the first person and so close to its main characters, it can be easy to lose sight of just how broad the novel is. However, by drawing attention to the fact that it spans the lifetimes of three generations of a family, criss-crosses two countries, and engaging deeply with everything from the power of the Trujillato to the laws of the universe itself, I hope to give people a better understanding of just how massive the novel’s project is.
The maps will be digital, in order to allow the kind of engagement that’s uniquely possible on a computer. They will consist of maps rendered in the same style fantasy maps are, with images of the fantasy Diaz references layered atop the real depiction. For example, considering that Diaz uses the eye of Sauron more than once to describe the spy network of Trujillo, the city of Santo Domingo could have an image of the eye layered over it. Elements such as this would be intractable, allowing people to read quotes referencing the fantasy in the novel, as well as multimedia related to the source material to help them understand the emotion Diaz is using fantasy to convey. The eye of Sauron, for example, would include Diaz’s quotes as well as some form Tolkein himself in the Lord Of The Rings saga explaining the sheer terror and omnipresence the eye invokes. Fantastical characters, such as the man without a face or the mongoose, will also appear on the maps.
Much like the book, there will be elements of the maps that are explained, while other will go unexplained. In particular, much of the history of the Dominican Republic will be hinted at but left for users to explore. The border of the Dominican Republic with Haiti, for example could be labelled “El Terreno Perejil,” in reference to the Perejil massacre, but not explained, forcing those who wish to understand the reference to take a quick detour from their experience of the story, much as the book’s footnotes do. In essence, then, some of the information in the map will be “footnoted” in ways only a digital platform, where Google is close at hand, could allow. Furthermore, the presence of online translation tools would allow me to label a good deal of the map in Spanish without providing English equivalents, allowing me emulate the effect that Diaz captures in refusing to translate his own Spanish.
If possible, the maps will also be animated, in order to allow people to experience the story of the Cabral family as it traversed the Dominican Republic, New Jersey, and Rutgers. The animation will travel chronologically through the family’s history instead of through Diaz’s narration, both to convey a better understanding of how the narrative is interwoven with Dominican history as well as an appreciation of the tangled tale Diaz tells.
Maps In Fantasy
There are a few basic characteristics of maps in Fantasy novels. They’re usually every bit as functional as normal maps are, and generally give a thorough overview of the geography of the region, although most are also drawn in black and white. Furthermore, they always operate in the language of the novel, with no clarification of their own terms for readers. They are meant to be used as a companion to the novel, not as a holistic introduction to its world. However, they will also mark important locations such as states, cities, landmarks, and objects particularly important to the plot. Some are more stylized, imbuing the land they represent with a rich feeling of myth and legend, while others simply lay out the land they introduce us to as a fact of life, no more romanticized than we might expect a map of New York to be. Most importantly, though, they all give a sense of the grandeur of the story being told.
These considerations inform what I intend to emulate fantastical maps, and where I intend to deviate from them. I will, for example, maintain most of the appearance of fantasy maps, keeping the black and white color scheme and the geographical accuracy. However, because I intend for these maps to be a robust companion to the book, there will be more details and explanation included in my maps. I will also choose to follow the style of more ornate fantastical maps, given that Diaz himself is making a choice to imbue the real world with the fantastical imagery. Finally, I will also strive to make the story being mapped feel as grand as it truly is.
Fantasy In Oscar Wao
It’s widely acknowledged in critical circles that the language of fantasy is crucial to Diaz’s project in Oscar Wao. In an article published in the scholarly journal MELUS, Tim Lazendorfer claims “the novel offers a sweeping reinterpretation of Caribbean history in a way that is completely intelligible only if one understands the relevance of its primary fantasy intertext.” Another article published in the American Literary History online review series argues that “Historical fantasy works as the rhetorical engine that drives the narrative of The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.” An engagement with the novel, in other words, must engage with its fantasy.
However, aside from artistic renderings of characters, motifs, and scenes, there have been very few creative treatments of the fantasy in Oscar Wao. Furthermore, the only mapping that has been done of the text interacts mostly with the plot or the journeys of the characters in the story, and focuses little on the land they navigate. However, Diaz is very careful to give us the story of that land and imbue it with just as much fantasy as he does the lives of his characters. This, I believe, is central to his project, to present the impact of Trujillo’s regime on the country itself as the kind of evil that can only be understood through the lens of the unreal.
There are a variety of existing programs that allow for the creative use of maps, including StoryMaps, StoryMap JS, VisualEyes, and Oddyset, many of which have distinctly different focuses and capabilities. Given that no maps of the Dominican Republic in the style of fantasy novels can be found online, and that no accessible program allows me to strip away the layers of existing maps, it would be convenient to choose a program that allows me to upload my own images. However, a potential workaround for this involves layering the images in a different program before uploading to a mapping one. Furthermore, the program must allow for layering of images, so that I can map the fantasy of Diaz’s world over the reality of it. Finally, the ideal program would be flexible, allowing users to either interact with the map on their own or follow the path of the Cabral family through time.
With this in mind I chose to use the platform StoryMap JS. Unlike any of the other programs, it allows me to upload images of my own in order to create the maps, making it ideally suited to my project. It also has the flexibility required to allow users to either engage with the map freestyle or follow the Cabral family through time, unlike Oydssey or VisualEyes. Finally, the platform allows me to incorporate various kinds of media to help enhance the experience of the maps. Using StoryMap JS will, hopefully, allow me to create a rich experience in which users can dive deep into the rich interweaving of fantasy and reality that gives Diaz’s text so much of its magic.
Díaz, Junot. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. London: Faber, 2009. Print.
Lazendorf, Tim. “The Marvelous History of The Dominican Republic in Junot Diaz’s The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.” Multi-Ethnic Literature of The United States 28.2 (2013): 127-42. Web.
Saldívar, Ramon. “Historical Fantasy, Speculative Realism, and Postrace Aesthetics in Contemporary American Fiction.” American Literary History 23.3 (2011): 574-99. Web
Tolkien, J. R. R. The Fellowship of the Ring: Being the First Part of The Lord of the Rings. Boston: Mariner /Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012. Print.
Tolkien, J. R. R. The Return of the King. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014. Print.
Tolkien, J. R. R. The Two Towers: Being the Second Part of the Lord of the Rings. London: HarperCollins, 2014. Print.