If you're looking for a thesis statement of sorts in Junot Diaz's Pulitzer-Prize winning novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, you can find it in the very first chapter, where the narrator says of Rafael Trujillo: "At first glance, he was just your prototypical Latin American caudillo, but  his power was terminal in ways that few historians or writers have ever truly captured or, I would argue, imagined." In the pages of the novel, Diaz attempts to capture that terminal power, in part by weaving in references to other works of fiction and fantasy such as the Lord of The Rings and Marvel comics titles. These references are meant to add an emotive force to the tale, and I believe that they truly contribute powerfully to the novel's emotional weight. 

However, the success of Diaz's project depends somewhat on his reader's knowledge of and connection to his intertexts. After all, what does it mean to know that Trujillo "dominated Santo Domingo like it was his very own private Mordor" if you don't know what Mordor or Sauron are? It's not just the facts of these novels that need to be understood either. To connect with Diaz's references a reader needs to both understand what they refer to and feel the emotion that they're meant to invoke. Because so few people could ever be as widely read in the realms of science fiction and fantasy as Diaz himself, the novel is one that cries out for databases where readers who want to do research can go to explore the layers of meaning in the novel.

The Project:

At the end of my last semester at Yale, I chose to focus my final project on The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, and particularly on creating my own intertext to the book, a companion to it that both collected its references and imparted some semblance oft their emotional impact. However, I didn't want to make something that simply listed and defined these references. I wanted to create something that would arrest readers at first glance, draw them in with all the irresistible power and story that the novel itself harnesses. I wanted to create something that, as a super-nerd who grew up somewhat fluent in Diaz's true native language, fantasy and science fiction, I would be hungry to explore. After all, what else would make sense when dealing with this book?

Using the online tool Storymaps JS, I uploaded a hand-drawn (or perhaps, given how abysmal my own artistic abilities are, it's better to say hand-traced) map of the Dominican Republic. Populating it with visual representations of some of the most important references Diaz makes, I added multimedia that helped convey the emotions behind them, including quotes from source texts and interpretations such as films or comics. I included some of my own commentary while imitating Diaz's distinct style to round out the map while keeping its style consistent. The final result was an engaging companion to Diaz's novel that's just as hard to look away from as it is illuminating.

This isn't a final product, and perhaps will never be. The potential to add in more of the references Diaz makes, to nestle maps within maps in order to show off the dizzying amount of allusions he packs into those pages. I'll keep adding to it intermittently, probably for years. But it's polished enough that I'll gladly put it out for anyone reading the book to explore. I hope it helps you enjoy the book, and get as much out of it, as I did.

Happy adventuring!