Beyond the Book: Background information when reading The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

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The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

A Novel

by Junot Diaz

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz
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  • First Published:
    Sep 2007, 352 pages
    Paperback:
    Sep 2008, 352 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Lucia Silva

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Beyond the Book

Print Review

As much the tale of a teenage misfit as it is the story of the Dominican Diaspora in the United States, The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is filled with references to the Dominican Republic, and in particular to the ruler whose profile defined the country in the twentieth century - Rafael Leonidas Trujillo, the "Dictatingest Dictator who ever Dictated". (J.D.)

A Short History of the Dominican Republic

The Dominican Republic occupies two-thirds of the island of Hispaniola, which it shares with Haiti (map). Claimed by Christopher Columbus in 1492, Hispaniola became a springboard for Spanish conquest of the Caribbean and the American mainland. In 1697, Spain recognized French dominion over the western third of the island, which became Haiti in 1804. The remainder of the island sought to gain its own independence in 1821, but was conquered and ruled by the Haitians for 22 years. It finally attained independence as the Dominican Republic in 1844. In 1861, the Dominicans voluntarily returned to the Spanish Empire, but two years later they launched a war that restored independence in 1865.

A legacy of unsettled, mostly non-representative rule followed, capped by the dictatorship of Rafael Leonidas Trujillo from 1930-61, who used violence and intimidation as his primary means of political persuasion. While the island benefited from a lucrative sugar trade with the United States, Trujillo established his legacy as a thug, a racist and a murderer.

He was one of a handful of Latin American heads of state to welcome Jewish émigrés fleeing Nazi persecution with the intent of "whitening" the Dominican populous (read, removing the stain of indigenous and African blood). Perhaps the quintessential moment of his rule came in 1937 when, under the pretext of a political dispute, he ordered the massacre of thousands of Haitians to promote the island's racial purity.

Trujillo ruled the Island for three decades alternating periods of nominal democracy with blatant authoritarianism. Along the way he enriched himself tremendously, treating the DR's natural resources and state-owned enterprises as personal assets. Trujillo joined in a mutually protective alliance with arguably the only twentieth century Caribbean ruler more infamous than himself, Haiti's Francois Duvalier (aka Papa Doc).

On May 30, 1961, Trujillo was assassinated by a group of Dominican militants armed and aided by the CIA. Kennedy and his advisors had become concerned that Trujillo's repression would cause another Cuban revolution.

Today, The Dominican Republic has a population of a little over 9 million, of which Haitians are the largest foreign minority. About half the population live in rural areas. Tourism and transport account for almost 2/3rds of GDP. A further quarter comes from sugar refining, pharmaceuticals, cement, light manufacturing and construction; the remainder from agriculture. It enjoys a per capita GDP of $3,247, almost twice that of neighboring Haiti ($1,800), but a fraction of the USA ($43,000).

Also of Interest: Edwidge Danticat's Brother, I'm Dying, which is reviewed below.

Article by Lucia Silva

This article was originally published in October 2007, and has been updated for the September 2008 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.

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