Pat Killian: Childhood and Trauma in What is the What and Oscar Wao

Pat Killian

ENGL 346

December 12, 2013

Childhood and Trauma in Stories of Immigration

A Comparison of What is the What and The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

Contemporary authors Dave Eggers and Junot Díaz explore the neocolonial reach of American influence over the Third World through the stories of children who grow up with its consequences. Their respective novels What is the What and The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao deal with the suffering of very young characters caught up in (inter-)national conflict. Staring hard at their subjects, the novels pose a difficult question: how much trauma can the young mind take? It is not a question with a happy answer. It is at least clear that whatever blame the child assigns does not reach the end of the chain. Whether it appears as guns, bombs, an oil rig, or its own absence, the heavy hand of American interest always carries the weight of History. Converted to the local currency of Sudan or the Dominican Republic, the actions of the United States have an almost infinite ability to amaze, along with which comes nearly as large a capacity for contradiction. That the government of Sudan murdered southern citizens so that Chevron might drill for oil on their land has no bearing, as Achak Deng expresses, on the fact that “this country did not have an obligation to resettle four thousand young men living in a camp in Kenya” (Eggers 182). That US forces occupied the DR to install a dictator, assassinated him, and relaunched the occupation does not dissuade waves of Dominicans from flooding to Nueva York. The man seated next to her on the plane will lean over to Belicia Cabral, teeth and child kicked from her by the secret police of that US-backed regime, to whisper as the city approaches, “Senorita, this is not something you’ll want to miss” (Díaz 165). However direct the US’s involvement, these novels attest, it remains abstract to the afflicted. Witness the immigrant, running toward the fire.

Beli and Achak emigrate to America destitute of inheritance. The destruction of their homes, families, and ways of life begins with the pater familias and proceeds to completion. Materially, they have next to nothing, and the jobs available to them promise little improvement. Beli and Achak accept these conditions. As First Wave immigrants, what they carry and what carries them through all hardship and deprivation is the indelible mark of invention. Their act of immigration replaces what they have lost with something novel. Here is the legacy of trauma: as Achak tells his fellow Lost Boys, “No one has been tried as we have been tried, and now this is our reward, whether it be heaven or something less than that” (532). It becomes marvelous to continue to exist, and as much as they have suffered, their brush with History, their participation in it, imbues both lives with continuous significance. Achak’s story ends here, in his present, as he waits and abides in hope. A central project of Oscar Wao is the exploration of what comes next. See Beli’s son, Oscar de Leon: grossly overweight, impossibly sedentary, dreaming of calamity to alter the bleakness of his life. A generation removed from disaster, his life pointedly lacks the historical charge of his mother’s, of Achak’s. Born in America, he has none of their distance, a key component of their exceptionality. Continued existence in suburban New Jersey is the worst kind of curse. As bad as his future looks, Oscar’s solution to that malaise is troubling. Shut out from the worlds of Dominican sensuality, sexuality, and masculinity, Oscar seeks a sense of identity by returning to his parents’ oppression. He is free from the trauma, the uncertainty, of his mother’s childhood, and he willingly and naively re-enters the horror, as if beginning an adventure. Oscar Wao answers What is the What’s tempered optimism with this vision of inward collapse. Immigrating unencumbered by inheritance, the First Generation runs the risk of bequeathing to its progeny a cultural identity founded in trauma.

 

Ghost Story

Beginning in 1983, the Second Sudanese Civil War claimed nearly two million lives and displaced tens of thousands from south Sudan. Almost 20,000 of these refugees were unaccompanied minors, predominantly boys. Achak Deng was among these boys who walked first to west Ethiopia and then, driven out of that country, to northern Kenya, where they lived in Kakuma Refugee Camp with nearly 100,000 other refugees from across Africa. Kakuma still stands today. The Sudanese conflict pitted the Muslim government, seated in north Sudan in the city of Khartoum, against a rebel army composed of the southern Dinka and other tribes, discontent with Khartoum’s domineering and abusive administration of the ethnically and culturally distinct South. The conflict as he describes it in his narrative is marked by disorder. While the Sudan People’s Liberation Army skirmishes government forces and demands the people’s allegiance and support, raids by northern horsemen, armed by the government with automatic weapons, decimate the people and resources of Dinkaland. Achak’s first teacher and mentor, Dut Majok, describes Khartoum’s strategy as “draining a pond to catch a fish”: “They are draining the pond in which the rebels might be born or supported. They are ruining Dinkaland so that no rebels can ever rise again from this region” (134). For the southern citizens, there is no recourse from harm. Declining involvement with the rebellion incurs the wrath of the SPLA without securing any mercy from the northern militias. Achak, walking through the desert, meets with violence from every direction.

The dictatorship of Rafael Leónidas Trujillo Molina over the Dominican Republic exercises a similar violence against its own people. As the narrator Yunior explains, Trujillo “treated the country like it was a plantation and he was the master” (2, footnote 1); his crimes include “violence, intimidation, massacre, rape, co-optation, and terror.” As for a motivation behind his rule, Yunior finds none but self-perpetuation. Racial politics are prevalent but besides the notable exception of the Haitian and Haitian-Dominican massacres of 1937 (and really even then), racial distinctions in the DR are so muddled that prejudice tends to operate as a sliding function of pigmentation. Religion in the Trujillo era is a non-factor: the Church, Yunior tells us, is on his payroll, and besides, the national slogan is “Dios y Trujillo” (3, f. 1). While Trujillo drives the development of modern infrastructure in the state, he establishes through nepotism and cronyism an oligarchy of sycophants. The country plunges into dramatic social stratification and stagnation (consider the campos, Outer Azua). Perhaps the most confounding aspect of Trujillo’s entire reign is the Dominican people’s participation in it. Trujillo so controls access to advancement and prestige, and holds such absolute power of execution, that the people at large turn on each other to stay in good favor. As Yunior reports, “It wasn’t just Mr. Friday the Thirteenth you had to worry about, either, it was the whole Chivato Nation he helped spawn… It was widely believed that at any one time between forty-two and eighty-seven percent of the Dominican population was on the Secret Police’s payroll” (225-6). When Beli’s father, Abelard, is thrown in jail, it is his neighbor and best friend who acts as witness against him. Like in south Sudan, there is no binary measure of good and evil, not even an amoral measure of ally and enemy. Violence comes from all sides.

When they first encounter life-threatening violence, both Beli and Achak are less than ten years old. The scale of events contributing to their pain is vastly beyond their understanding and experience; like the blind men and the elephant, they start from what is immediate. The novels take interest in the formative potential of this stage of childhood and the psychological repercussions of the sudden introduction of extreme violence. Aiming to inhabit and replicate his younger perspective, Achak unfolds his understanding as it developed, through Dut’s lessons and as his own experience with death grew. (What is the What is nothing if not a book of witness: like the plays that Achak puts on with the Napata Drama Group, the book stages situations for the audience’s education.) Yunior’s narrative in Oscar Wao assumes and seeks to demonstrate that decisions are atomic, radiating through lives and generations. The paradigm that emerges in both books is between rational and non-rational understandings of calamity. While childhood is a fecund source of superstition, both Beli and Achak seek alternate paths to stability.

A boy with little education, Achak fixes upon disparities of physical strength to explain the suffering around him. When an SPLA soldier strikes his father, Achak has his first experience of intentional violence. “[The soldier] threw a great sweeping punch and my father crumpled to the ground, landing next to me,” he recalls (67), the natural esteem and elevation in which he holds his father visually eliminated. The confusion that Achak enters about masculinity, and the shame he feels, are primal, though he understands his emotions only vaguely.  He remembers of his father’s subsequent arrest that “[he] was wearing a long pink shirt and his exhausted sandals while [the soldiers] wore thick canvas uniforms, sturdy boots with heavy black heels. That day, I was ashamed of my father, and I was angry” (80). War makes acute his boyhood, and as he becomes emaciated from walking his shame at his own body grows. At a village where no raids have taken place, Achak cannot face the well-fed boys who live there. “I was ashamed anew that we had not fought better against the Arabs,” he thinks. “Perhaps…the Arabs had ravaged only the towns where the men were the weakest” (126). The war takes shape in the boy’s mind as a contest of manhood, with uniforms, helicopters, and the AK-47 as new symbols of masculinity. There can be nothing, by this metric, but absolute victory or defeat: to die is to be the lesser man.

All the boys’ attraction to the SPLA stems from the simplicity of this distinction, that it is good to be strong and bad to be weak. When Dut informs Achak and his friend Deng that Dinka soldiers have the same guns as the Arab raiders, Achak says “Deng laughed a giddy laugh and I smiled and felt proud” (132). The SPLA is inclusive of the boys (read: recruits heavily), and to the boys’ delight the soldiers call them jaysh al-ahmar, “Red Army.” What the rebel movement offers to the boys’ imaginations is the chance to kill in turn, to make a servant of Death. The boys fear that the Dinka are doomed to die, and the Red Army shows that they too can be strong.

Two factors dismantle this hyper-masculine conception of violence in Achak’s mind: the indifference of death to any category of restraint and the vision, promoted by Dut, of an educated Sudan. The hope born from the SPLA’s weapons unravels quickly as the boys walk and collapses completely with the death of William K. Achak’s doubts about the nature of dying grow with the death count:

Death took boys every day, and in a familiar way: quickly and decisively… I began to wonder if they were all the same, if there was any reason one of the boys would be taken by death while another would not. I began to expect it any moment. But there were things the dead boys might have done to aid their demise. Perhaps they had eaten the wrong leaves. Perhaps they were lazy. Perhaps they were not as strong as me, not as fast. It was possible that it was not random, that God was taking the weak from the group. Perhaps only the strongest were meant to make it to Ethiopia; there was only enough Ethiopia for the best of the boys. (198)

Achak clings to the shame of dying, but his grip is loosening. With the passing of William K, he lets go. Achak says that William K’s presence reminds him that he lived before this period of suffering, and he reports his friend’s death (from exhaustion, starvation) as a moment of epiphany. “It was a broken world, I knew then, that would allow a boy such as me to bury a boy such as William K” (219). What Achak releases is the fear that death results naturally from a person’s character. From a combination of his experience and his own intense feelings of vulnerability, he knows that the death around him is not inevitable. His own continued life is proof that not all the weak will die.

Complementing this hard-won assurance is Dut’s insistence on the benefits of education. With Dut’s encouragement, Achak begins to realize that if the Dinka are not doomed to die, it follows that their position can be somehow improved. Dut tells them that the Arabs outsmarted the Dinka and tricked them into being one nation under northern rule. As they walk, Dut tells the boys, “In Ethiopia, there will be schools, the best schools we’ve ever had. There will be the greatest teachers of Sudan and Ethiopia, and you will be educated. You will be prepared for a new era, when never again will we be outwitted by Khartoum” (194). The vision is implausibly optimistic, but Achak accepts the premise. Throughout the narrative, he is forthcoming about his distaste for physical altercation. He is sure that military activity is not a particular strength of the Dinka (he says they are “built with poor engineering” (24)), and of himself he comments, “There were so many aggressive young boys at Pinyudo, but I have never had this aggression in my blood” (323). What he sees as a more plausible path to the Dinka’s salvation is education. In this respect there is, he feels certain, potential for real change. There is in his narrative a litany of adults whose misconceptions serve to highlight the irony of Achak’s education. (The hand of the narrator is heavy here.) At the outset, an elder tells him that the Arabs have been possessed by animal spirits and that God is using these lion-men to punish the Dinka. (Dut’s response: “And you believed this?” (129)) When Achak inquires about the white man at Pinyudo, an elder woman tells him, “The white men are born knowing all things” (282). More fantastically, a priest tells him, “[White men] are fragile, their skin burning in the sun, because they are closer to the status of angels” (282).

The episodes point in equal measure to Achak’s newfound worldliness and the possibility that he, like the Dinka before him, might never have attained it. In this sense, Achak allows himself to become a product of his traumatic childhood. Trauma breeds in him the need for explanation, for context, and at his young age there is still time to be educated. He embraces Dut’s vision for a “new era” of Sudan, one free of the limitations of fear and ignorance.

To the great disappointment of her aunt, Beli’s terrible burning inspires in the girl no similar call to arms. La Inca, a cousin of Beli’s father, presents the girl with as glorious a picture of education as Dut does Achak. She imagines that Beli can restore her father’s house, destroyed by Trujillo and ill fortune, by raising herself to the level of his famous intellect. “Remember, your father was a doctor, a doctor, and your mother was a nurse, a nurse” is the refrain by which La Inca tries to inspire in Beli the pride and ambition to undo her family’s calamity (81). La Inca’s motivations are, in equal parts, guilt and love: guilt that she did not rescue Beli before her burning and a loving, obstinate resolve that Beli deserves what was taken from her. La Inca’s plans are hampered by the fact that the same resolve does not arise in Beli. Whereas trauma inspires in Achak a profound sense of change, Beli refuses to allow her trauma to inspire new direction in her life. Rather than embrace the family legacy La Inca foists upon her or even turn to that favorite Dominican explanation, the fukú narrative of inevitable doom, the young girl puts the incident from her mind. She categorically refuses to speak about the time she spent as a criada. As Yunior reports, “[T]hat entire chapter of her life got slopped into those containers in which governments store nuclear waste, triple-sealed by industrial lasers and deposited in the dark, unchartered trenches of her soul” (258). Gone is the fulcrum by which La Inca tries to move her to action. By refusing the trauma an active role in her life, Beli defuses the emotional charge of her father’s ruination. As Yunior says, “La Inca expected Beli to be the last best hope of her decimated family…but what did she know about her family except the stories she was told ad nauseam? And, ultimately, what did she care?” (81). Education has no part in Beli’s program for the future. She has no interest in her own, and she does not care to contribute to others’. Achak’s narrative carries the understanding that it will open the reader’s eyes to the world just as his eyes were open by Dut’s lessons. When she decides to lock away her trauma, Beli passes on the chance to play a similar role. In a way, this decision is a manifestation of the oath she makes when she is expelled from preparatory school (La Inca’s dreams crushed): “I will not serve” (103). Beli cares only about looking out for herself. She does not repackage her suffering into something sharable. Along with whatever emotional damage she sustained in her Lost Years, she tosses out her empathy. When her daughter, Lola, is sexually assaulted at the age of eight, what does Beli do? Lola: “[S]he told me to shut my mouth and stop crying” (56-57).

Beli’s strict refusal to process her trauma may not seem especially rational, but in the context of the Dominican Republic it makes a certain amount of sense. What Beli is reacting to is the impossibility of retribution in the era of Trujillo. Herein lies a point of departure between her story and Achak’s. In Achak’s Sudan, morality is far from binary, but certain divisions do exist. Achak is very upfront about the involvement of many of the Lost Boys with the SPLA. The army, even with its trail of cruelty, rape, and murder, had been an avoidable part of all of their lives, to an extent. While he knows many child soldiers in Sudan and later in America, neither Achak himself nor Achor Achor nor even Moses actually participates in combat. No character ever kills a government soldier or an Arab. Within the Dinka, there is an age gap that separates the boys from the rebellion, however muddled the line. Regarding the war, there is a much greater part of aggression foisted on the government (Muslim) forces than on the South Sudanese. It is never in question that the North and South are distinct. Achak believes in Southern independence, commenting, “There is pride there now, and all the doubts we’ve had about the SPLA, and all the suffering they caused, have been largely forgiven. If the south achieves freedom it is through their efforts, however muddled“ (49). This opinion, that the South’s cause is unconditionally righteous, is evident in Dut’s first explanation of the country’s structure (the novel’s in situ history lesson): “[The British] knew it was wrong to have the country as one unified Sudan. They knew we were anything but unified, could never be such a thing“ (193). Achak’s narrative operates on the premise that ethnic divisions have some degree of legitimacy, most clear in regards to national determination. Achak does not pass racial judgments, but he implicitly condemns the political imposition of one culture upon another. The presence of this moral guidepost can be felt in the Lost Boys’ attitudes toward the Sudan from afar. It is well known, for example, that Manute Bol used his NBA salary to support the SPLA during the boys’ time as refugees; yet Bol is without qualification a hero of the Dinka. John Garang appears again in their lives to little acclaim, surely, but also without controversy. The proscription of child soldiers, the summary executions: that these are crimes Achak does not contest, but he is able to live in peace with their perpetrators because they do not fall along his division of right and wrong. (Toward the condemnation of the North, it does not hurt that Khartoum expands its terror to Darfur, nor that President Bashir spends millions of dollars on a yacht.)

This concept of a moral metric, by which justice can at least theoretically be meted out, is absent from Beli’s Dominican Republic. There is, of course, no legal recourse of any sort; Trujillo’s personal will is law. As discussed, there are no boundaries between friend and enemy among the people. There are, Yunior admits, those who resist Trujillo, but what is simply not present in the DR is any sense that injustices will be met with punishment. Trujillo is murdered, and “the Demon” Balaguer takes his place. Most of Trujillo’s top henchmen live without harassment in Europe after his death. But why consider these devils: after her mother’s death, Beli’s remaining family allows her to be sold into slavery and abused for nearly a decade. La Inca rescues her, but the people who burned her live in impunity. Whether she really processes it or not, Beli’s decision not to complain is shrewd, as is the advice she gives Lola to that effect, cruel as it is. Lola, after all, takes her mother’s advice: “[W]ithin a year, I couldn’t have told you what that neighbor looked like, or even his name” (57). If there is one lesson that Dominican history teaches, it is that one is better off saving her breath. Amid the multitude of unanswered  Dominican prayers, it is not irrational of Beli to unburden herself from the traumatic.

The experience of puberty provides an interesting counterpoint to Achak and Beli’s early exposure to violence. For both characters, the explosion of sexuality into their young lives is nearly as transformative as a brush with history. Beli’s amnesia about her pain does not eliminate the great void of love in her childhood, and the possibilities for romantic love that puberty makes available to her come without restraint of reason. After the “Summer of Her Secondary Sex Characteristics” (91), Beli’s romantic affairs have no contact with reality. As Yunior says (though Beli would probably resist the classification), “[S]he, the daughter of the Fall, recipient of its heaviest radiations, loved atomically” (126). Desperate for a life of her own, she imagines that her romances will lead inevitably to marriage and children. Caught en flagrante at school with Jack Pujols, Beli – “as stubborn as the Laws of the Universe themselves” (102) – rejects all punishment for the act on the grounds not that Jack plans to marry her. (He, of course, says nothing of the sort.) After Beli’s relationship with the Gangster, husband of Trujillo’s own sister, leaves her half-dead in a canefield and having to flee the country, the girl holds out hope that she will see her lover at the airport: “[F]or an irrational moment, she thought he would emerge from the cockpit, in a clean-pressed captain’s uniform-I tricked you, didn’t I?” (164). For the once deeply neglected young girl, the power of her body to win her affection is intoxicating. With as much force as she keeps her burning out of her life, Beli embraces the great physical change of puberty and chases down all its consequences. Achak recounts what a respite his hormones afforded in Pinyudo: about the four sisters placed in his class at school, he recalls, “There was suffering, I thought, and then there was light… I was placed in Pinyudo, it was clear now, to meet these magnificent girls, and the fact that there were four of them meant that God intended to make up for all the misfortune in my life” (300). The biological process becomes entwined for both characters in their suffering and the needs born from their trauma, but it remains the same recognizable human experience: the first inklings of adulthood.

Kingdom Come

Leaving Kakuma for America, Achak believes he is pursuing a new way to be Sudanese. Because the civil war has destroyed Dinkaland and its resources, it is unclear that a traditional life is even possible. By the Dinka creation myth, the cow is God’s most perfect creation, a gift which promises prosperity to the man who recognizes its merits. Its complement is the What, which God does not define but offers to the Dinka to test his appreciation of the cattle. Cattle are the Dinka’s cultural patrimony, “our dowries and our legacies, the measure of our men,” as Dut says (133). When the civil war wipes out the cattle of southern Sudan, it brings into question what remains for the Dinka to make a life of, economically or culturally. The elders disapprove of the plan to relocate the refugee generation to America, warning against the loss of leadership and cultural continuity. Achak’s vision of life in America is something of a compromise on this point.  He derives his motivation to emigrate from within the Dinka cultural paradigm: he chooses to chase the What. Achak issues this charge to his fellow refugees on the eve of their flight to America and calls them all men. “We’re men,” he says. “Now we can stand and decide. This is our chance to choose our own unknown” (531). By seeking new horizons, in their travels and their education, the Dinka can still lay claim to a form of patrimony. Delivering this charge, Achak feels “electric,” and even on his darkest days in America the What inspires in him this same sensation.

The challenges of immigration to the First Wave Sudanese are in many ways like a protracted adolescence. The frame of Achak’s narrative considers this frustration, the time after the glow of change fades. Achak waits on a series of forces beyond his control, unable to inspire in any American a measure of equitable treatment. The appropriateness of the moniker “the Lost Boys” is not lost on him; often he doubts his own competency and that of his Sudanese peers. At one point he thinks, “Are we the future of Sudan? This seems unlikely” (236). Achak is confronted by the difficulty of the task he has set himself. He gets to the point with an admission: “I am tired of needing help. I need help in Atlanta, I needed help in Ethiopia and Kakuma, and I am tired of it” (355). The pursuit of the What should be a claim to adulthood, just like the cattle, but it is difficult for Achak not to see the endless questions before him as a continuation of his boyhood, that awful vulnerability he felt when the forces of history descended on his village. Many of Achak’s problems would be solved if he let go of Sudan, if he let go of the dream of attending college and returning to his home a successful man.

This weight of affliction is balanced by the inspiration that Achak draws from his personal history. To forfeit being Sudanese, especially as an immigrant, would be to surrender a treasure. The simple miracle that Achak is still alive forms a halo over the simplest objects in his life. He says of the appliances in his apartment, “To look at them, to use them daily, provoked in me a shudder – a strange but genuine physical expression of gratitude” (5). From this same emotion stems his urge to fill every room he enters with a story from Sudan. In a humanist sense, he is remarkable for the depth of emotion and experience that is his. On a trip to Nairobi, his young love Tabitha challenges him not to identify with his heritage: “You’re a soul whose human form happened to take that of a boy from Sudan. But you’re not tied to that, Val. You’re not just a Sudanese boy. You don’t have to accept these limitations” (464). In answer to this challenge and to many of Achak’s immigrant woes, the novel presents itself. When read it achieves Achak’s goal of sharing his story, and when sold it proves that there is literal value in being Sudanese in America.

A second-generation immigrant, Oscar de Leon has no access to the sense of invention that sustains Achak through being a poor minority in America. The Dominican-Americans of Oscar Wao cling to their Old World identity even more tightly than Achak does his Sudanese heritage. For Oscar, lacking in good looks, this is the beginning of unhappiness. As Yunior explains, Oscar has little chance against the standards of Dominican masculinity: “Our hero was not one of those Dominican cats everybody’s always going on about – he wasn’t no home-run hitter or a fly bachatero, not a playboy with a million hots on his jock” (11). Oscar finds no sympathy with Dominican women, either, all of whom seem to prefer to date “thin,” “arrogant,” and abusive men. What is Dominican in him only highlights how much is not. As Oscar reaches the end of high school, he finds himself trapped in what might be called the ultimate loss of Dominican patrimony: virginity. Above all, Oscar’s flaws are personal. He refuses to help himself – to lose weight, to work on his social skills – despite the admonishments of his family and friends. Oscar describes himself as “allergic to diligence” (25), a plainly self-defeating distinction. Yet it must be said that his Dominican heritage throws his prospects in New Jersey into damning relief. His mother has a burn across her back about which she never speaks; his aunt tells him that their family is cursed; and he moves from home to college and back, shut out from the Dominican experience in every way.

By embracing the fukú narrative, Oscar seeks inclusion in the history that compels the Dominican lives around him. Fukú offers the kind of drama Oscar has only experienced in his post-apocalyptic daydreams. (At the time of his death, the two things Oscar is writing are a family history and Space Opera.) Unlike his mother and the other First Wavers, Oscar knows no childhood violence, no painful alteration of the deep structures of his mind. By involving himself in the family curse, he is able to join the plot of “cosmic” events, or at least a national history of trauma. In turn, fukú asks nothing of him. The curse of Trujillo, Yunior explains, is all-explanatory, and its doom absolute: “[N]o matter how many turns and digressions this shit might take, it always – and I mean always – get its man” (5).  Fukú is like a slow, free ride. Oscar can be as lethargic as ever, ignore all the warning signs of impending unhappiness once again, because his hands are now tied by fukú. After his attempted suicide, Oscar becomes depressed about the lowered expectations of what his life will amount to: those were “[t]he days he lay in bed and thought about his mother fixing him his plate the rest of his life, what he’d heard her say to his tío the other day when she thought he wasn’t around, I don’t care, I’m just glad he’s here” (268-9). A child of comfort, Oscar can find no grace in survival alone. In the comparison between him and his family here is his missing piece, that spark of exceptionality to light up the little things in his life. Inviting the doom of a Third World dictator is Oscar’s attempt, in a sense, to become Dominican.

The great failure of Oscar’s implosion is its consequences for others of his generation, especially his sister, Lola. Even as a child, Lola dreams of the world beyond New Jersey, that second coming of Santo Domingo. “I wanted the life that I used to see when I watched Big Blue Marble as a kid, the life that drove me to make pen pals and to take atlases home from school,” she explains (55). Lola dreams of a similar future as Tabitha in What is the What, one where her heritage is not restrictive. Achak needs his Sudanese identity in order to establish himself in America; so established, Lola is free to take the next step, into international citizenship. As Lola prepares for world travel, Oscar’s journey into the Dominican past pulls her back as well. Oscar’s stake in the Dominican Republic is a false kind of patrimony. Those who live through trauma know that there are ways to heal. Oscar’s obsession with a culture of doom misunderstands the legacy of immigration.

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