Alex’s reflections

Alejandro Tafur

Here, There Be Mongooses:

Mapping Fantasy Onto Reality in Junot Diaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao Introduction

If one is looking for a “thesis statement” of sorts in Junot Diaz’s pulitzer-winning The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, one can find it in the first full chapter, where he says of the Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo that “his power was terminal in ways that few historians or writers have ever captured or, I would argue, imagined” (Diaz 2). This is what Diaz tries to do in the pages of his novel, in part by imbuing the Trujillo regime with the emotional power of fantastical imagery, and I believe that this tactic is successful. However, this success is somewhat dependent on a reader’s familiarity of the cannon with which Diaz is working. After all, to know that Santo Domingo is like Mordor, to know that the Diaz himself feels a kinship with Uatu The Watcher, are meaningless if one doesn’t feel the horror of the former and the sheer loneliness of the latter. Understanding the emotional resonance of the book, in other words, requires a rich understanding of the dizzying array of intertexts it has, an understanding the Diaz himself honed through years of passionate reading. This project aimed to provide a resource for those who haven’t been nurtured by the same sources Diaz was. By collecting and explaining his references as well as attempting to give a sense of the emotional impact that lay behind them, it was meant to allow readers of all backgrounds a way into this rich third language of the text, helping them understand the tremendous emotional power of his work better. Diaz wields fantasy, science fiction, and pop culture with every bit of adroitness he does English, and if one doesn’t 1 understand just how he does so, a huge amount of the emotional impact of the novel is lost. This project intended to expand that impact to all. Accomplishments1 Using the online program Storymap JS, I was able to collect Diaz’s wealth of references into a format that was both easy to understand and deeply engaging. By creating a digital map of the Dominican Republic populated by visual representations of those references, the project provided an engaging way for those interested in exploring the text by learning more about its intertexts. Choosing evocative or visually arresting images from the franchises referenced, fantastical imagery created by Diaz himself, or human history such as the helm of the witch-king of Angmar, the man without a face, or the gates of Auschwitz, served to further pull viewers into the map, making them want to explore the significance behind each image. This digital map also allowed viewers to see just how vast the story is that Diaz tells us, reaching into every corner of the country. Furthermore, by utilizing the ability to add multimedia to the maps that Storymap JS provided me with, I was able to give viewers of the map a robust understanding of the emotional valence behind each reference. By pulling together Diaz’s own quote referencing the other work of fantasy as well as quotes within that work of fantasy that serve to qualify that reference, the entry for each representation on the map was able to explain just how powerful an emotional impact it can have. However, many of these franchises, such as The Lord of The Rings and Marvel Comics, also have rich visual traditions that further illuminate the emotional power behind the references. Collecting images and videos from these franchises allowed me to provide The project can be found here: 1 here-there-be-mongooses/index.html 2 an even deeper understanding of the emotional significance of each image that Diaz conjures up, in turn allowing a viewer to truly understand the fear or anger or awe that the references are meant to convey. Finally, the map also spurs viewers on to do their own research and discovery about the Dominican Republic themselves. When referencing certain aspects of Dominican history, such as the perejil massacre or the existence of death camps such as Nigüa and El Pozo Nagua, the map either encourages users to do their own investigation or points them to similar atrocities occurring in their own time. What little text exists on the map is entirely written in Spanish, which could also spur interested users on to investigate translations and the like. Doing so mirrors the novel’s own tone, encouraging readers who don’t know what real-world moments Diaz is referencing to find out more. In short, this project was able to collect a variety of the references Diaz makes to other works and present them in an engaging way while also and encouraging users to explore the world depicted on their own further. Challenges/Shortcomings One of the greatest challenges facing me in creating this project was the question of whether to include only Diaz’s references to already existing fantasy worlds such as those to Lord of The Rings or Marvel, or to add his own fantastical inventions and references to realworld events as well. The novel, after all, is just as much a work of magical realism as any other genre, including within its pages a talking black Mongoose, a man with no face, and various discussions of supernatural forces such as Zafa and Fukú. There were also moments in the text in which Diaz discussed moments in Dominican history, such as the perejil massacre or the killing 3 of the Mirabal sisters, that felt incredibly salient to any map of the Dominican Republic. Should moments like these be referenced on the map, or should it retain its more narrow focus? Paradoxically, however, the more I explored the moments of magical realism that seemed uniquely Diaz’s, the more I discovered possible influences for them. Mongooses have long been thought by a great many cultures to have magical powers, and myths abound that describe them as fierce protectors. The specter of a man with no face also has a long history first appearing in a Mexican horror film. It’s impossible to say whether or not Diaz had these inspirations in mind when populating his novel, but it does raise the possibility that even the more magical realist elements in the text might be inspired by the works or other writers, and forces us to consider the idea that Diaz’s creations, even if they are entirely original, might have an ideological history behind them that’s incredibly rich. In the end, I chose to make the map an amalgam of the references Diaz makes to other works of fantasy, his own creations, and his recounting of Dominican history. References to the perejil massacre and the killing of the Mirabal sisters were included on the map as fantastical references of my own design, with exhortations to the user to do their own research on the events, thus echoing what I believe Diaz himself does in the novel, urging us to discover for ourselves what these historical moments could have meant by simply referencing the perejil massacre over and over with no explanation. As for Diaz’s own magical-realist creations, I included them on the map with references to what might have potentially inspired the ideas. However, I’m still unsure as to whether doing this takes the map too far away from being a faithful rendering of Diaz’s references. 4 Another prominent challenge facing me in making this map was the question of how to balance individual exploration of with guided understanding. One one hand, the question was easy to answer. I’d decided from my first moments working on the project that it was to be a companion to the book, not a way to retell its story, and thus should function more like a map, prioritizing allowing users of the map to investigate at their own pace and in whichever order they chose. On a practical level, this meant choosing to eliminate features of the map that served to guide viewers down a specific rout, such as the lines connecting points that denoted a single, clear journey. However, while Storymap JS allows for self-guided exploration by presenting the map as a collection of points that can all be seen from the title slide, it also forces the map creator to make choices about how viewers will experience the map. After all, the program presents each point added to the map as a slide in a slideshow, and the program will allow any users to experience the map by simply clicking through these slides, thus making the possibility of a completely creator-guided experience of the map very real, and returning incredible importance to the ordering of these slides. Furthermore, there were elements of the map that felt like they needed to be introduced before others to facilitate user understanding. For example, a viewer attempting to view the entry on Bisonó, the home city of one of Trujillo’s right hand men, could easily be confused about some of the references or information framing Diaz’s portrayal here. Thus, some creator control of just how the map is experienced was both required by the program and beneficial to the project itself. To resolve this issue, I chose to place certain slides toward the beginning of the presentation, where they were more likely to be viewed before users of the map started clicking 5 around on their own, while also presenting the map less as a journey and more of a collection of points, to be visited as the map’s user saw fit. As already mentioned, lines connecting places on the map that would denote a journey were removed, while the slide for Santo Domingo was moved very close to the map’s first slide. Indeed, it was only proceeded by a slide on the project’s title, which served as an introduction to the world itself as well as an invitation to explore it one one’s own. In spite of this solution, though, I still believe the fact that those experiencing the map could completely give themselves over to the program, one caused largely by the software in use. In an ideal world, the map would have forced viewers to view the slide for Santo Domingo before anything else, but then allowed them complete freedom to investigate any other points in the order and manner they saw fit. Another challenge was the question of whether to imitate Diaz’s style or not on the text that I myself would have to write for the project. I already knew that I wanted to write certain elements of the map, such as the exhortation to research events like the perejil massacre as well as the captions of the multimedia, myself. However, the question of exactly what style these portions of the map should take bothered me. I tried out a variety of tones, and in the end settled on the idea that I should write these sections in either my own voice or Diaz’s, each choice with its benefits and problems. On the one hand, imitating Diaz’s style could easily be seen as appropriative, given that his voice is so unique and, like that of all authors, founded on his personal experiences. To write with his voice, to act as if I were him, could easily run the risk of appropriating an experience that wasn’t mine. On the other, though, style imitations are valuable exercises that help a student understand how a writer creates certain effects and creates their 6 unique tone. Furthermore, imitating his style would give the map a more cohesive feel, no single part sticking out as definitively out of step with the rest of the content. In the end, I chose to imitate Diaz’s style to give the whole project a cohesive feel while being careful to signal that these ideas were my own. By carefully citing every single line I took from Diaz himself, I believe I was able to draw a clear distinction between my imitations and his writing. I also made an attempt to use his tone respectfully, ascribing no ideas to him that weren’t his own by mimicking the content of the captions and exhortations on statements made in the novel. However, it’s possible that, despite all the effort I went through to ensure this does not happen, that the map has crossed the line from appreciation into appropriation, which would be a true shortcoming. A final challenge was the question of how much of the story to include. Given that the map includes references to fantasy texts both when discussing the Trujillato itself and when discussing the way it impacted the Cabral family specifically, some of the references are easier to grasp then others without having the book actually open next to you. Some of the references to the family’s story could feel confusingly isolated if presented in the map, with the little context it includes. However, not placing these references in the map would be to ignore important parts of Diaz’s project. The challenge here was to find a way to construct the map such that confusion would be alleviated while including two very different groups of intertextual references. In the end, I chose to group the two families of references, with the references related to the history of the Dominican Republic and Trujillo regime coming first, followed by references to the story of the Cabral family. Furthermore, the very first quote in the first slide dealing with references related to the Cabral family makes it clear that the transition is being made from the 7 story of the Dominican Republic to that of Abelard Cabral, so that viewers can more easily grasp the references. However, I think the map suffers a bit from a lack of clarity as to whether it’s meant to illuminate the history of the Dominican Republic or the story of the Cabral family. On one hand, this is alright, given that the book was never intended to function as an introduction to the story of the novel, merely as its companion, and that the novel intertwines both histories. On the other, though, this could potentially lead to confusion among users who haven’t studied the book as much as I have in preparation for this project, and perhaps can’t remember where certain references arise. Second Thoughts Looking at the project in retrospect, there are a few things that perhaps should have been done differently. The map, for one, while clean, suffered from my own lack or artistic ability and need to trace out any images that were to appear. A collaboration with an artist who could have made the map more visually appealing while allowing me to create original images perhaps better suited to the map in the first place. Furthermore, I would have populated the map more fully, to give a better sense of the way Diaz works in references to creatures like Balrogs and Orcs that moved through the Dominican Republic. I chose to focus on the major players in the story and in Dominican history, but even the less noticeable references lent their weight to the atmosphere I believe Diaz was attempting to create, one of the real world made unreal by cruelty. More than anything else, though, I would have chosen to restrict the project’s focus in order to produce a better final result. Initially, I intended to make separate maps for The Dominican Republic, New Jersey, and Rutgers university, in order to plot out references through the entirety of the novel. However, in trying to make this diversity of maps I realized both that 8 the majority of the references cropped up in the sections that dealt with the Dominican Republic’s history of the Cabral family story, and that creating three separate maps, with the vast amount of references to sort through, would take far too long to complete by the project deadline while achieving any reasonable standard of quality. This forced me to focus my attention on the map of the Dominican Republic, which I think led to a far more impressive and meaningful final result. It also, though, meant that I had sunk a large amount of time into attempting to construct two maps that I was no longer using, which in turn meant that the map presented here is slightly less robust than it would be if I had simply , and there are some entries that could well stand to be added. On a more positive note, this problem could be easily could easily rectified with more time to work on the project, and is one of multiple improvements planned for the project. Future Plans There are plenty of plans for the project moving forward. For one, I intend to make the map more vibrant or colorful, with more of the Island’s features added, as well as populating it with an even greater number of references than it currently contains. After all, if this project is to truly serve as a robust companion to the novel, it should help elucidate all of its references, no matter how small they might be or what precisely they might be referencing. Most excitingly, however, the way the software allowed me to caption images in the map could allow for the layering of multiple maps in a single project, simply by adding their separate URLs into the caption of the image. In this scenario, the captions on certain images could actually be links to other maps, creating a nested effect in which one could dive as deeply as they liked into the world that Diaz creates. After all, the references that Diaz involves illuminate more than just the history of the Dominican Republic. They Discuss Beli’s school days, Juniors experiences in 9 college, and, of course, Oscar’s upbringing. These uses of fantasy intertexts deserve to be explored just as much as the ones I’ve covered, and definitely could be. The sheer labor involved prevented me from doing so in this iteration of the project, but with more time to perfect the undertaking such a thing could indeed be possible. Separate maps could include one of the school in Baní that Beli attended that would be nested inside the current map’s entry for Baní, as well as one for New Jersey, where Oscar grew up, that would in turn include a nested entry for Rutgers university, where his relationship with Junior unfolded. This single map was never intended to be the be-all and end-all of this project, nor will it be. When completed, this endeavor it will not just be a map but a network of maps, stretching across the entirety of the novel’s tale. It will accompany not just the story of the Cabral family that unfolded in the Dominican Republic, but its story throughout the entirety of the family’s history, up to and including the end of the life of Oscar Wao. It would serve to open the entire book up, in all its profound beauty and emotional impact, to even those who are completely unversed in the fantasy that lends so much impact to it. These maps could help the work of a great author reach even more people. Isn’t that exactly what it deserves? 10 Works Cited In Both Map and Write-Up Díaz, Junot. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. London: Faber, 2009. Print. Grullón, Juan Isidro Jimenez. Una Gestapo En América: (Vida, Tortura, AgoniÌa Y Muerte De Presos PoliÌticos Bajo La TiraniÌa De Trujillo). Santo Domingo: Sociedad Dominicana De BiblioÌfilos, 2003. Print. 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. 11

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