Monday, February 11, 2008

You Should Read This Award (nomination)

The honorable Colleen Mondor (Chasing Ray) runs a great little awards process each February for a category of books that is broader than, say, Middle Grade fiction, or Young Adult fiction, or Graphic Novels. Last year, for example, Colleen called for the best in coming-of-age novels. This year, Colleen seeks to honor books "published for adults that work perfectly for teens."

I gave a lot of thought to my choice this year, mostly because this topic has been on my mind: I have a 12 year old who is venturing out into the world of adult books while still reading MG (fantasy) and YA fiction. William Boyd's Restless was one of her favorite books this year, and she also loved Wilkie Collins's The Woman in White. So while I wanted to nominate either one of those titles, a book I read recently kept whispering in my ear, "pick me."

It's not like Junot Diaz's The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao has been ignored by critics and readers. I think it's been on every top-10 list this year. It's one of those books that was reviewed twice in the New York Times (once by Michiko Kakutani, and once by A.O. Scott). Diaz has been interviewed everywhere about his "work of startling originality and distinction," most recently by Edward Marriott in the Guardian.

I'm not going to review The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao here, because I agree with almost every word of Kakutani's review. What I am going to do is give you five reasons why I think every teen over the age of 15 should read The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.

1. I found Diaz's presentation first-generation U.S. citizens in the late 20th century more accurate than anything else I've read recently. Oscar and his coevals were born in the States, but can travel back to their parents' country--in this case, the Dominican Republic. They're ambivalent about the U.S., sometimes romanticize the land of their parents' birth, but are ultimately more comfortable in the States. Their identity is more complex than that of their parents. As Kakutani writes at the end of her review,
  • "This is, almost in spite of itself, a novel of assimilation, a fractured chronicle of the ambivalent, inexorable movement of the children of immigrants toward the American middle class, where the terrible, incredible stories of what parents and grandparents endured in the old country have become a genre in their own right."
Yes, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao does tell the tale of the first generation. But it also shows what's different for many immigrants and their children today--the fluidity between two cultures, two countries, and two languages. Even the parents in this story return to the Dominican Republic. They choose to stay in the United States, but still call one another Dominicans.*

2. Respect for "genre." Diaz's semi-heroic hero, Oscar, wants to be the Dominican (note how this designation relates to #1) Tolkien. He reads and writes Fantasy and SciFi. He grew up on comic books. The fantasy world is there for him when times are tough.

3. The young adult heroes of The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao are intelligent, flawed, and ambitious. Oscar is a smart kid, his mother's golden boy. He follows his amazing older sister--Lola--to Rutgers and studies writing. The book's most frequent narrator--Yunior--is also a writer, Oscar's roommate, and a ladies' man. Oscar, Lola, and Yunior strive to overcome their flaws and make it in this world as adults. If this premise doesn't appeal to Young Adult readers, I don't know what else will.

4. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao has at its heart Oscar's attempt to score. (Hence, the arbitrary 15 and up age designation. Use your own judgment here.) Is this not a central theme of much of Young Adult literature? A coming-of-age story in its most literal sense.

5. The maturation of Oscar, Lola, and Yunior is grounded in the history of the Dominican Republic in the 20th century. They are part of a larger story--the "terrible, incredible stories of what parents and grandparents endured in the old country"--despite the fact they live in 21st- century New York and New Jersey. Diaz's contextualization of the personal in the historical and the political makes The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao a novel every teen should read.

*I do realize that not all first-generation Americans have the opportunity to travel back to the home country of their parents due to political, religious, or economic reasons. However, this global fluidity seems to be much more common than it was, say, in the World War II era.