"The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao" by Junot Díaz. How Does the Language Used Reflect the Transcultural Identity of the Characters?
Hausarbeit (Hauptseminar) 2016 16 Seiten
Table of Contents
2. Theoretical Background
2.1. What is 'Identity'?
2.2. What is a 'Transcultural Identity'?
2.3. The Relationship Between Language and Identity
3. Language in The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao
3.1. English and Spanish
3.2. The Strategies of Code-Switching
3.3. Different Registers: Nerdspeak and Academic English
The novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, which was written by Junot Díaz and published in 2007, is a book that is striking in several ways. For example, despite its title it is not a book solely about Oscar's life but rather the story of three generations and the events are not narrated in chronological order. Other aspects include magical realism and an unreliable character-narrator. The facet that fascinated me the most, however, is the language used in the book. The aspect that shall be looked at specifically is what the language reveals about the identity of the characters. To me, this is an important topic, because language has the ability to reflect a person's self-perception as well as their world view. It is the catalyst through which each and every one of us describes the world. The way one speaks, that is which tone, register, and range of vocabulary one uses, shapes the way one perceives and experiences the world and oneself immensely, and often on an unconscious level. Vice versa, the use of specific language can also reveal a lot about how one experiences one's environment. The dominant language of The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is the English language. However, the Spanish language is also very prevalent in the text. Additionally, the style of language varies greatly. Díaz employs a wide range of registers, such as formal and informal language, nerdspeak, vulgar jargon and academic speech. Both of these aspects shall be analyzed in the following paper. One of the reasons English is the main language of the novel is, of course, to reach an English- speaking audience, especially readers in the United States of America where the book was published and where many aspects of the story take place. However, the reason English and Spanish are intertwined is that the main characters of the story have ties to the United States as well as to the Dominican Republic. Oscar, the character mentioned in the title, is a young Dominican-American. He and his sister Lola were both born in the United States, but their mother Belicia was born in the Dominican Republic and Oscar spent a few years of his childhood there. Yunior, a character who narrates most of the story, was born in the Dominican Republic and moved to the United States as a child. The use of English and Spanish represents the everyday reality of immigrants all over the world, being confronted with the language of their country of origin and the language of the country they now live in. Furthermore, these two languages represent both countries and cultures that are relevant to the characters of the novel and their identity.
The complexity of such an identity can not only be found in the use of Spanish and English, but also in the variety of registers and styles employed by Díaz. Due to the limited space, only the varieties of nerdspeak and academic English will be examined. Even when only looking at this small selection of styles, it can be seen that these varieties are used because the transcultural characters have a desperate need for a language or register which truly gives voice to their experiences and their identity. In the following paper, I will argue that the language used by Junot Díaz in The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao reflects the transcultural identity of the characters and I will examine the ways in which it does so. The literature discussing this novel has looked at the two languages, the strategies of code- switching and the different registers, but none so far has decided to analyze the relationship between the language and the identity specifically.
Before I start my analysis of the book, the terms "identity" and "transcultural identity" will be introduced to define precisely which elements each of these terms include. This is necessary for the understanding of the paper, as these terms will occur frequently in the following chapters. Then, the relationship between language and identity will be examined in order to establish the theoretical basis for the claim that a person's language can be used to draw conclusions about his or her sense of self. The definitions of the two terms as well as the information about the way language and identity are entangled are part of the chapter "Theoretical Background" and provide the crucial basis for the next chapter, which is "The Language in The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao". In this section, the use of the two languages English and Spanish including the strategies of code-switching will be discussed first and the two registers nerdspeak and academic language will be examined second. This analysis shall already include the interpretation as to which statements are made about the identities of the characters through the employment of these different languages and language varieties. The first and second part of this analysis examine the alternation between the two languages in relation to the characters' identity. As an example, the question whether Spanish and English blend together becoming one is also the question if the transcultural identities of the described immigrants are balanced. Similarly, analyzing if Spanish is forced onto English, resulting in collision and ungrammatical structures, also means discussing whether the characters' transcultural heritage leaves them alienated. The third part of the described chapter moves beyond the question of belonging to the Dominican or American culture and analyzes the way the characters, especially Oscar, attempt to find their place and voice within the English language, employing specific varieties unintelligble to many English-speakers.
2. Theoretical Background
2.1. What is 'Identity'?
The Oxford Advanced Learner's Dictionary of Current English offers three aspects which can be referred to when using the term "identity". Firstly, it describes “who or what somebody/something is”, secondly “the characteristics, feelings or beliefs that distinguish people from others”, and thirdly “the state or feeling of being very similar to and able to understand somebody/something". This first description of 'identity' is very vague and could be answered on a mere factual level. The second and the third explanation, however, make it clear that while 'identity' undoubtedly refers to the facts of someone's geographical roots and current country of residence, it also and most importantly refers to the way someone feels about themselves. Interestingly, the second definition focuses on the attributes which distinguish a person from another, while the third explanation emphasizes the aspects of belonging to a group and perceiving oneself to be of the same kind as other people. Even though the term 'identity' comes from the Latin word 'idem', which translates as 'the same', "[i]dentities are constituted by socially counting as 'the same' as others or counting as 'different' from others." (Bailey 191) Hence, the way one views oneself is the sum of both one's sense of disparity and one's sense of belonging. Only when all the provided definitions are considered, they provide a definition that covers the complexity of what 'identity' truly means.
2.2. What is a 'Transcultural Identity'?
Immigration challenges identity. In order to describe the reality of "migratory processes, as well as of worldwide material and immaterial communications systems and economic interdependencies and dependencies" (Welsch 4), Wolfgang Welsch created the concept of transculturality. Welsch states that the term 'transculturality' may be applied on the macrocultural level (see Welsch 4), adressing the fact that immigration challenges the identity of whole countries as migrants change their demography and bring new ways of living into already established cultures.
What is more, transculturality can also be applied on the individual's micro-level (see Welsch 4). This is necessary to discuss the identity of specific individuals, for example the identity of immigrants whose self-perception is challenged and possibly changed through their migration. In today's world, not only migrants are confronted with different cultures. Nonetheless, combining several cultural interests becomes a much more urgent and personal issue if these several cultures all belong to the heritage of one individual. Consequently, "[w]ork on one’s identity [equals] [...] work on the integration of components of differing cultural origin" (Welsch 5), especially when discussing the identity of people involved in migratory processes. Hence, having a transcultural identity means being able to combine cultural aspects into one's life which belong to different countries and nations, such as different languages, literatures, traditions and national histories. Part of a transcultural identity can "still be determined by ethnic belonging or the community in which one grew up. But it doesn't have to be." (Welsch 9) A transcultural identity can also mean that one appreciates and knows the culture of the country of origin, but considers the country in which one has built a new life as "[the] actual homeland [which] can be far away from [the] original homeland." (Welsch 9)
2.3. The Relationship Between Language and Identity
"Language and culture are at the core of one’s individuality and sense of identity." (Lapin 1542) Asking about an individual's culture or nationality means, to an extent, asking how they identify themselves. Similarly, the question which language a person can speak and which of these languages that person uses in which aspect of their life, also means asking about their sense of belonging. Language is the central medium through which social reality is represented and the social order (re)constituted [...]" (Bailey 198), which means that (not) speaking a specific language, dialect or register influences a person's place in society which in turn influences their self-perception. For immigrants in general there are the options of rejecting the language of their country of origin, refusing to learn the language of their new country, or speaking both languages. When, as described in the first case "assimilation means abandoning the mother tongue, it makes the immigration transformation extremely unsettling by upsetting the sense of identity [becauseȐ a person’s mother tongue is linked to his or her emotions." (Lapin 1542)
Considering the concept of transculturality, a transcultural identity can only be formed if the immigrant speaks both languages, because "[t]he concept of transculturality aims for a multi-meshed and inclusive, not separatist and exclusive understanding of culture." (Welsch 6) The features of transculturality are "entanglement, intermixing and commonness [...] [as well as] exchange and interaction" (Welsch 10), which means that, on the level of language, a transcultural individual should be able to speak the language of his ancestors as well as the national language of his new country. Even when speaking both languages perfectly well - even if both languages would be first languages - a person's sense of self may be different in one language than in the other: "It is not uncommon for bilinguals to feel different in their different languages." (Lapin 1542)
Talking specifically about immigrants from the Dominican Republic in the United States, the Spanish language seems to be a very important identifier concerning one's common Caribbean origins (see Bailey 206).
In the essay “The Language of Multiple Identities among Dominican Americans”, Bailey states:
"As a group whose members are Hispanic, American, and largely of African descent, Dominican Americans must negotiate distinctive issues of identity in the United States. Language is central to these negotiations, both as a symbol of identity and as a medium through which to construct and display local social meanings. Dominican Americans use linguistic forms from multiple varieties of two codes, Spanish and English, to situationally activate various facets of their multiple identities." (Bailey 190)
Bailey calls the use of Spanish and English by Dominican-Americans a negotiation of identity issues, because Dominican-Americans have to find a way to negotiate their Dominican self-perception and the way they are perceived in the United States. Due to their often dark skin color, Dominican- Americans are often categorized as 'black' in the United States. While "to be partly white (which includes most Dominicans) is to be non-black" (Toribio 1147) in the Dominican society, Americans usually apply the " 'one-drop' rules of racial classification" (Bailey 190), which leads to the categorization of most Dominicans as black. "Dominicans, who perceive that only Haitians count as black subjects, ironically become subject to anti-black prejudice upon arriving in U.S. shores." (Sepulveda 19) Fighting against this racial classification, "their Spanish language makes th[eir] ethnolinguistic identity situationally salient to outsiders." (Bailey 190) Therefore, the use of Spanish by Dominicans in the United States serves the specific function of showing other people, specifically white Americans, that the Dominican identity does not agree with the label 'black', but the label 'Spanish'. "Thus, while there exist a number of markers of identity, such as social group, geography, cultural traditions, and race, for many Dominicans, language is the most significant criterion of self- identification." (Toribio 1135)
While a native English-speaker in North America only needs to switch between different registers in English, Dominican-Americans "use multiple Spanish and English resources to activate aspects of identities" (Bailey 192). Since "[l]anguage controls the frame of reality by giving structure to perception" (Shachar 79), the linguistic variety used in the speech of Dominican-American provides insight into their world view and sense of self (see Bailey 195).
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- Oscar Wao Junot Díaz The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao Identity Transculturality Transcultural Identity Language Speech Registers Code-Switching Spanglish