by Latoya Peterson
*Note – Spoilers and lengthy.*
My mother would never win any awards, believe me. You could call her an absentee parent: if she wasn’t at work she was sleeping and when she was around it seemed all she did was scream and hit. As kids, me and Oscar were more scared of our mother than we were of the dark or el cuco. She would hit us anywhere, in front of anyone, always free with the chanclas and the correa, but now with her cancer there’s not much she can do anymore. The last time she tried to whale on me it was because of my hair, but instead of cringing or running I punched her hand. It was a reflex more than anything, but once it happened, I knew I couldn’t take it back, not ever, and so I just kept my fist clenched, waiting for whatever came next, for her to attack me with her teeth like she did to this one lady in the Pathmark. But she just stood there shaking, in her stupid wig and her stupid bata, with two large foam prostheses in her bra, the smell of burning wig all around us. I almost felt sorry for her. This is how you treat your mother? she cried.
And if I could have I would have broken the entire length of my life across her face, but instead I screamed back, And this is how you treat your daughter?
Things had been bad between us all year. How could they not have been? She was my Old World Dominican mother and I was her only daughter, the one she had raised up herself with the help of nobody, which meant it was her duty to keep me crushed under her heel. I was fourteen and desperate for my own patch of world that had nothing to do with her. 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. The life that existed beyond Paterson, beyond my family, beyond Spanish. As soon as she became sick I saw my chance, and I’m not going to pretend or apologize; I saw my chance and eventually, I took it.
If you didn’t grow up like I did then you don’t know, and if you don’t know then it’s probably better you don’t judge.
You don’t know the hold our mothers have on us, even the ones that are never around – especially the ones that are never around. What it’s like to be the perfect Dominican daughter, which is just a nice way of saying a perfect Dominican slave. You don’t know what it’s like to grow up with a mother who never said a positive thing in her life, not about her children or the world, who was always suspicious, always tearing you down and splitting your dreams straight down the seams. When my first pen pal, Tomoko, stopped writing me after three letters, she was the one who laughed: You think someone’s going to lose life writing to you? Of course, I cried; I was eight and I had already planned that Tomoko and her family would adopt me. My mother of course saw clean into the marrow of those dreams and laughed. I wouldn’t write to you either, she said. She was that kind of mother: who makes you doubt yourself, who would wipe you out if you let her. But I’m not going to pretend either. For a long time I believed her. I was a fea, and I was worthless, I was an idiota.
—The Wildwood, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao
My eyes drank in every word of Wildwood, the second chapter in Junot Díaz’s novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. On the plane from Baltimore to Austin, the narrative gripped me solidly by the throat, turning a casual curiosity about Oscar into a desperate longing to hear more from his sister Lola.
When the plane touched down, my sweatshirt was crunchy with the salt from shed tears and I had run through six napkins while the story unfolded. I grabbed my bags, and called my boyfriend who had been badgering me about reading the novel for some months now.
“Why didn’t you mention Lola?” I asked.
“Who? Oscar’s sister? Why is that…oh.” His voice suddenly bloomed with recognition and we sat in silence for a few seconds.
In all the reviews I have read about the novel since I finished the final page, the character of Lola is generally a footnote. Described as a beautiful girl, or a troubled girl, or Oscar’s sister, the strength of her narrative and her story seem overshadowed by the book’s focus – obviously, Oscar – or by the story of her mother, Belicia, the beautiful prieta who seemed forged partially from the steel intended to break her into submission. And yet, to me, Lola’s story was the most compelling, reflecting back in stark focus so many emotions, trials and ideas that were intimately familiar to me and the other girls I knew growing up.
Some seem confused at why Lola’s story was included or why things were so hypersexualized, but to me, it was so painfully true to life that I had to catch my breath after reading. Others have raised approximately half of the question, which is wondering why the female characters reflected on their bodies so often. The blogger over at Asking the Wrong Questions writes:
[C]ontinuing unabated through all these upheavals, a deep-seated racism that runs the gamut from the valorization of light skin to anti-Haitian genocides, and a misogyny that permeates every aspect of Dominican life.
If, that is, misogyny is even the right word. To hate women, after all, one must first acknowledge their personhood, if not their right to express it. In Díaz’s Dominican Republic, and in the immigrant neighborhoods in which Oscar, Lola and Yunior grow up, women are things, objects of desire, whose worth is measured solely by their attractiveness to men. And they all buy into it. The internalized racism on display in the novel is scary (Oscar’s dark-skinned mother is self-conscious of her skin color, and as a girl will only date light-skinned boys), but not nearly as terrifying as the internalized misogyny that every single female character–even the indefatigable Lola–drinks down with her mother’s milk. Oscar, fat and unattractive, at least survives his childhood, but when a neighborhood girl is similarly afflicted, she goes crazy with self-hatred. Nearly every female character in the novel has a boyfriend who slaps her around, and to whom she goes back again and again. Not a single one of them seems to consider that she doesn’t need a man in her life.
That blogger and I may have been reading the same book, but there is a chasm of cultural ideas and nuance that fall here, shading Diaz’s words and leaving us on different shores of understanding.
Damn, where do I even start?
Growing up young and brown, I cannot think of a time post puberty when your skin color wasn’t reflected upon, at least in passing. One hopes it becomes something we grow to love about ourselves and come to embrace – however, it can become a measure of worth and the perceptions of others have a strong hand in shaping that reality. One of my cousins realized early on that light skin was to be praised, and spent the rest of her days at the pool covering up with a beach towel so her skin would not tan. I escaped hearing much commentary about my mid-brown skin tone (not light enough to be tagged with “red boned,” “yellow,” or “light skinned” not dark enough to be called “midnight,” “darkie,” or “blackie”) but you start hearing the same refrains over and over again, sinking into a place underneath your skin, when you wonder why light skinned automatically translates into “more beautiful” and dark skinned automatically translates into “less beautiful” you never really get an answer. There are so many words used in Oscar Wao to describe skin color (morena, indio, prieta, mulatta, black) that I find it strange that the ranking systems so clearly pointed out in the book are re-interpreted as “being conscious” of one’s color.
In Oscar Wao – like in life – skin color references are cultural shorthand for other things. In the chapter surrounding Belicia’s (Oscar and Lola’s mother) life, her tone is used in multiple ways.
The first to mark her as different and possibly cursed – her parents did not share her coloring and Belicia being born dark was seen as a bad omen.
The second was to reinforce the contempt shown to those who are brown skinned. Light skin is associated with both desirability and class status and there are multiple scenes that take pains to show how she was treated, in spite of her great physical beauty, because of her tone.
The third was to demonstrate how this system plays out, even today, where straighter hair, lighter skin,and keener features is envied and still desired, and it is still common practice to point out desirable and undesirable features and to catch hell for what you have that others may envy and to catch more hell for features you have that don’t conform to set standards of beauty.
This is why, in a later passage, Lola notes ” I never caused trouble, even when the morenas used to come after me with scissors because of my straight-straight hair.”
And this is why my best friend in the world carries a lot of scars from being deemed too pretty, too different. She caught so much shit in school from other girls for possessing features that other girls found desirable.
“You think you’re special because you have long hair/light skin/green eyes? Do you bitch?”
On the flip side, taunts about not conforming to the ideal are often just as harsh. I had another darker skinned friend who told me that Biggie’s line “black and ugly as ever” was shouted at her on a few different occasions, prompted by the simple act of walking down the street.
Dismissing these complicated navigation of beauty ideal and cultural manifestation of those ideals as simply “internalized racism” reminded me of why I can sometimes be wary of the application of anti racist terms. Throwing light skin privilege in with the genocide of the Haitians also had me scratching my head as to how one small term can encompass all the issues involved with both of those situations, things that Diaz takes great pains to parse out in the book. It also drives me nuts that these things were tagged as “internalized racism” when there are some extremely powerful outside forces dedicated to maintaining these types of hierarchies. Yes, there are those in our communities of color that take it upon themselves to maintain these fucked up standards, but let’s not act like these issues materialized out of thin air.
Hell, even Wei – “the Chinese girl whose father owned the largest pulpería in the country” and besieged by racist remarks herself – felt the need to tell Belicia:
You black, she said, fingering Beli’s thin forearm. Black-black.
Moving on to the issue of internalized sexism, I have to run back to Asking the Wrong Questions and tackle the sexism assertions line by line:
In Díaz’s Dominican Republic, and in the immigrant neighborhoods in which Oscar, Lola and Yunior grow up, women are things, objects of desire, whose worth is measured solely by their attractiveness to men.
So, this only happens in the DR and immigrant neighborhoods? Can they pass this memo around to other men?
And they all buy into it. The internalized racism on display in the novel is scary (Oscar’s dark-skinned mother is self-conscious of her skin color, and as a girl will only date light-skinned boys), but not nearly as terrifying as the internalized misogyny that every single female character–even the indefatigable Lola–drinks down with her mother’s milk.
Thanks for ranking racism and sexism, and for never even thinking that the two could possibly complicate each other. For example, a lot of women of color have been othered by these rigid eurocentric standards of beauty and start to adopt the type of hyper-conformity that borders on performance. If women – of all races and backgrounds – are informed that the key to self-worth is being found attractive by a man (and not a man of their choice, any man at all that gazes upon them) and at the same time women of certain races are told that they are out of the bounds of attractiveness of various reasons, it only stands to reason that some of us will go above and beyond to ensure conformity and try to capture some semblance of the ever-out-of-reach ideal.
Oscar, fat and unattractive, at least survives his childhood, but when a neighborhood girl is similarly afflicted, she goes crazy with self-hatred.
Hmm, and Olga couldn’t possible serve the purpose of illuminating that disparity?
Nearly every female character in the novel has a boyfriend who slaps her around, and to whom she goes back again and again.
And this is still a major problem in our communities. That hasn’t changed.
Not a single one of them seems to consider that she doesn’t need a man in her life.
This was my head desk moment. This was the point where I felt like the gulf of experience was a bit too big to hope to bridge.
I must have been reading a different book.
Because in the book I read – as in life – the men in each of these women’s lives were not central figures. There are men, yes, and Oscar is the unifying force in the narrative, but the people Belicia and Lola were involved with were not the point unto themselves. The men stood for the method of escape. With the exception of The Gangster and Yunior, all the men in the book that Lola and Belicia were involved with were ways to get the hell out.
Lola’s boyfriend Aldo is the method to escape her mother. Sure, she loved him. Kind of. But reading through the lines, the catalyst for her leaving with Aldo was that he asked to her to come live with him. Sex was part of the travel cost. As I have written before, a guy is the easiest way to escape a fucked up family life.
But this easily overlooked difference belies the true genius in Oscar Wao. It isn’t just a documenting a fictionalized account of the things that happen in our real life communities. The book shines in how Diaz fills in what would normally be an outline, and shows us the after. Or more appropriately, how Diaz demonstrates how there ain’t no happily ever after. There are just choices and consequences. Lola runs away, with a guy, and promptly finds that this man is not the answer to her problems:
It was like the stupidest thing I ever did. I was miserable. And so bored. But of course I wouldn’t admit it. I had run away, so I was happy! Happy!
Notice how Lola did not say, I had left to be with Aldo. The man is the method.
I kept waiting to run into my family posting up flyers of me on the boardwalk, my mom, the tallest blackest chestiest thing in sight, Oscar looking like the brown blob, my tía Rubelka, maybe even my tío if they could get him off the heroin long enough, but the closest I came to any of that was some flyers someone had put up for a cat they lost. That’s white people for you. They lose a cat and it’s an all points bulletin, but we Dominicans, we lose a daughter and we might not even cancel our appointment at the salon.
No where in her hopes is a point where Aldo starts treating her like a queen. You know why? Because her leaving home wasn’t about him, specifically. He was just the one who happened along at the right time to be the catalyst.
Belicia didn’t fare much better.
In Belicia’s chapter (The Three Heartbreaks of Belicia Cabral), she spends the beginning of her story pining for Jack Pujols. The blogger at Asking the Wrong Questions attributes this to:
(Oscar’s dark-skinned mother is self-conscious of her skin color, and as a girl will only date light-skinned boys).
I didn’t see that at all in the text. Belicia is forced to be conscious of her skin color – society will not allow her to forget. And Belicia does not like Jack because he’s happens to be light skinned. Most of the students at her tony prep school are fair skinned with light eyes, a function of structural racism, a reflection of a system that bestowed wealth and opportunity on those who are light and scorns those who are dark. She goes for Jack because he is the best – the best looking guy in school, the one from the wealthiest family, the one all the girls want – not simply because of his coloring.
And Jack was -at the time – the best ticket out.
The man is the method.
So, if the man is the method, how does one get the man?
Let’s go back to some of the graphic language in OW that gets it smacked with the sexist label.
Beli is unable to catch the eye of Jack at school, and despairs for a bit. Until, one transformative summer:
Where before, Beli had been a gangly ibis of a girl, pretty in a typical sort of way, by summer’s end she’d become a mujerón total, acquiring that body of hers, that body that made her famous in Baní. Her dead parents genes on some Roman Polanski shit; like the older sister she had never met, Beli was transformed almost overnight into an underage stunner, and if Trujillo had not been on his last erections he would have probably gunned for her like he’d been rumored to have gunned for her poor dead sister. For the record, that summer our girl caught a cuerpazo so berserk that only a pornographer or a comic-book artist could have designed it with a clear conscience. […]
If Beli had been a normal girl, being the neighborhood’s most prominent tetúa might have pushed her into shyness, might have even depressed the shit out of her. And at first Beli had both of these reactions, and also the feeling that gets delivered to you by the bucket free during adolescence: Shame. Sharam. Vergüenza. […]
For the first month, that is. Gradually, Beli began to see beyond the catcalls and the Dios mío asesina and the y ese tetatorio and the que pechonalidad to the hidden mechanisms that drove those comments. One day on the way back from the bakery, La Inca muttering at her side about the day’s receipts, it dawned on Beli: Men liked her! Not only did they like her, they liked her a fucking lot. […]
Beli, who’d been waiting for something exactly like her body her whole life, was sent over the moon by what she now knew. By the undeniable concreteness of her desirability which was, in its own way, Power. Like the accidental discovery of the One Ring. Like stumbling into wizard Shazam’s cave or finding the crashed ship of the Green Lantern! Hypatía Belicia Cabral finally had power and a true sense of self. Started pinching her shoulders back, wearing the tightest clothes she had. Dios mío, La Inca said every time the girl headed out. Why would God give you that burden in this country of all places!
Telling Beli not to flaunt those curves would have been like asking the persecuted fat kid not to use his recently discovered mutant abilities. With great power comes great responsibility…bullshit. Our girl ran into the future that her new body represented and never ever looked back.
Beli, a person who lamented in the book about how she was bored with her life, that she longed for something else, but her mental skills weren’t quite up to par. She wasn’t the smartest. So what was left to her? Her work ethic was one. But there was something else, this thing that she never requested, never asked for, and yet was here. And at her disposal.
Notice how Diaz described it:
By the undeniable concreteness of her desirability which was, in its own way, Power.
In its own way, Power.
Not just Power.
Because this type of power never comes without a price. It is a very common experience to be forced to quickly understand that you have suddenly shifted from being at the mercy of adults to holding this double edged sword of sexuality. And the choices Beli makes later are based on her using her appearance to substitute for the benefits she would have achieved if she was not limited by her skin tone, gender, and upbringing. There is the idea that women need to use every tool at their disposal to get ahead, that because life is so fierce and unforgiving, you have to work with what you have, whatever it may be, and make whatever trades you need to make.
And Beli looked at her present, looked at her tool kit, thought about what she wanted and made her decisions accordingly.
This may not be right.
This may not be moral.
But it’s real.
(To be continued in part two.)