Tagged: diaspora

27. Reading: The brief wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

Junot Díaz’s The brief wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (Faber and Faber, 2008) is an absolutely intriguing work of art. Maybe your first ever novel with footnotes, written in an exquisitely sassy Spanglish and so full of allusions that it made me wonder whether it is actually translatable. (There are, as far as I could see, at least 13 translations, among them Portuguese, German, Turkish, Japanese, Czech and Croatian, so yeah, apparently it is.) It’s a nonchalant ride not only through the “brief wondrous” life of Oscar, The Nerd, but also an introductory course to the history of the Dominican Republic during the 20th century, and easily the densest book I’ve read (at least) this year.

Now I am sure that had I read some more sci-fi novels (or comics, or anything considered part of that genre), I would most likely have understood more of the references to superheroes, villains, and plot lines with which the novel is splattered. There’s also some obvious salutations to magical realism. For reasons (The Nerd), the only thing this book lacks is a real (meaning: successful) romance, but also there really is neither time nor space for it given all the other things that have to be told about Dominican history, the family curse, and life in the diaspora.

How did I come across the book?

I don’t really remember, even though I do remember having heard of it. I do remember, however, that the story didn’t strike me as particularly interesting, and not even having read This is how you lose her last year convinced me. So what did? Maybe the Pulitzer, the fact that I have a thing for Caribbean authors, and that I got the used copy for peanuts, really.

When and where did I read it?

During the first two weeks of fieldwork. Definitely helped with the re-entry, even though I was often tempted to simply keep reading instead of going outside.

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3. Reading: The Vulnerable Observer

The Vulnerable Observer by Ruth Behar (1996, Beacon Press) is a mixture of memoir and diasporic ethnography, or maybe more precisely one that crosses borders, both geographically and in genre. The collection of six essays covers a remarkable range of topics: memory, trauma, death rites, classism, racism, feminism, and, most importantly, lessons on how to write and become a good observer. An observer that is touched and committed, and who has no fear of being moved by the stories she comes to know and engage in. Half of the essays have already been published elsewhere, however, especially the one giving the book its title is already another classic on anthropological practice and writing. I was also especially touched by the invisible border that divides the life of two women in My Mexican Friend Marta Who Lives across the Border from Me in Detroit, and the longtime traumatizing effect a childhood injury can have on ones life in The Girl in the Cast. The last one, Anthropology That Breaks Your Heart, is a plea for an anthropology that engages and embraces feeling, while at the same time defending another classic in anthropological writing on affect, namely Renato Rosaldo’s Grief and a Headhunter’s Rage.

How did I come across the book?

I’ve known the title for years, and always wanted to read it at some point. Now that I am preparing a seminar for undergraduate students, I could finally get it done. I’m still not sure which of the essays will go into the syllabus, because many offer possibilities on discussing the ways affect works in anthropology.

When and where did I read it?

At work, for work. I read each essay on its own, so it’s been six days in total. One could possibly make it in one session, but since the stories are deeply moving, I preferred to take it slow – you’ve been warned.

The programmatic final of the book can indeed be taken as a poignant summary:

Call it sentimental, call it Victorian and nineteenth century, but I say that anthropology that doesn’t break your heart just isn’t worth doing anymore. (p. 177)