Chi Lin

EOTS – “Oscar Wao” (Díaz) Close Reading



In the early 1940’s, right around the time of the Fall (237), the beginning of the end for the family Cabral, a new field of scientific study was emerging. C.H. Waddington, a British geneticist, was in the process of coining the terms epigenetics and genetic assimilation. He was studying the cause and effect relationship between external environmental factors and genetic variation and hereditary succession, ie. whether or not acquired characteristics could be passed down from parent to child. Epigenetics looks at aging, addiction, obesity and metabolism, depression and mental health, any condition that is acquired from the outside world in the span of a lifetime and the capacity for that condition to be passed down from one generation to the next. Think: slavery, famine, generational trauma. Fukú.

What intrigues me is how different schools of thought, say, one scientific, one spiritual, can develop such similar philosophies. Fukú: the curse of the new world, the shadow of evil that laps at the heels of the victims of colonialism. In the Cabral lineage, the fate of Abelard and his family set the tone for the rest of the Cabrals that succeeded them. Paranoia, anxiety, depression, and most of all, horrible, horrible luck. Beli es una negrita, born sick, passed from unloving hand to unloving hand, and even when she does find Sanctuary (259) with La Inca, nothing can protect her from the constant stream of misfortunes that await her. She passes this curse to her daughter, who has her own fair share of traumatic experiences, and to her son, who lives in perpetual injury. Dealt bad cards. Jinxed with bad luck. Fukú.

After the Irish Famine, geneticists conducted studies on the descendants of the survivors. Even generations later, descendants had a notably higher tolerance for hunger and a higher capacity to stave off starvation. Numerous papers have been written on Post-Traumatic Slave Syndrome and indigenous generational trauma being passed down transgenerationally. What parents or grandparents or great grandparents go through doesn’t fade quickly. Genomes change, phenotypes are altered, switches are flipped, and somewhere down the line someone feels the pain like a phantom limb.  

It seems only appropriate that Díaz would include footnotes in this text. This book is as much a study of fukú as any of Waddington’s papers were ever a study of genetics. Fukú is as colloquial as epigenetics is technical, but they are, at the core, congruent philosophies from parallel disciplines. Díaz presents the reader with the question: what’s more fukú than this? This story isn’t the “scariest, the cleverest, the most painful, or the most beautiful”, but it’s the one that has it’s fingers around his throat, and what’s more fukú than that? (6). As Yunior, as any good scientist would, he tries to prove his hypothesis wrong in order to prove it right. He shovels piles of evidence down our throats, arguments to the contrary, the fukú of Abelard, the fukú of Beli, the fukú of Lola, the fukú of an entire country enslaved. Look at these stories, they are brutal, indignant, heart-wrenching. But in the end it’s Oscar’s story that endures, that has us limping, stumbling and falling to the final page where we roll to a stop and finally take a breath. Hypothesis tested. Study concluded.

There are countless disciplines with countless interpretations and ways of making sense of the world, of giving meaning to our experiences. Whether you call it a curse or genetics, science or spirituality, it’s hard not to hold on to something like fukú, something that binds the past and present, ancient and contemporary. Maybe Oscar sacrificed himself, Frodo style, jumping into the fiery lava of Zafa martyrdom in the hopes that he would lift the curse from his people. Maybe he just had bad genes and worse luck, figured he would try for one last hurrah, because what was there to lose? I like the first theory better. Maybe that’s the point.