10 May 2013
No Puedes Escapar la Familia Nunca
“… if these years have taught me anything it is this: you can never run away. Not ever.
The only way out is in. And that’s what I guess these stories are all about (Díaz 209).” These
words were spoken by a young, talented Dominican girl named Lola, who wanted more than
anything to believe they weren’t actually true. Throughout Junot Díaz’s 2007 novel, The Brief
Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, Lola, and many of his other characters attempt to find some sort of
escape, whether it is from school, their family, or just life in general. As the novel progresses, it
becomes more and more clear that no matter how hard you try to avoid confronting your
problems, they will come back to haunt you. No matter how hard you try, you can never escape
the past. One aspect of life no one can ever outrun is family; however, by examining the
characters in Oscar, as well as other works of literature and personal life experiences, it becomes
clear that people have a tendency to use reading and writing as an escape from their problems.
Using literature as a way to hide from your problems is an incredibly common practice.
It’s fairly easy to understand why; by reading, you can ignore your problems and completely
immerse yourself in someone else’s life, even if it’s only for a short period, and through writing,
you can actually create an entirely different world for yourself. Oscar, the protagonist of Díaz’s
novel, took the concept of using reading and writing to escape from the world to extreme
proportions, spending the majority of his life holed up inside, either reading his favorite comic
books and sci-fi stories or working on his “great novel” that became his life goal to complete.
While every other Dominican man (or so it seemed to Oscar) was busy charming girls, Oscar
was stuck on his own, forced to fantasize about the women he could never seem to win over. He
resented his heritage, and who can blame him? He was born into a culture known for its men’s
womanizing abilities, when he wasn’t lucky enough to inherit that quality. Literature and
anything involving science fiction seemed to provide the perfect escape for Oscar, but even he
couldn’t outrun his family history. When he finally got out of the house and found a way to be
with a woman he loved, an older woman named Ybón, he was brutally murdered by her
boyfriend’s workers. Oscar’s Dominican heritage finally caught up to him, and ended up being
his downfall (Díaz).
Of course, Oscar Wao isn’t the only person that has ever tried to use reading and writing
as a substitute for real life experience. Revered poet Emily Dickinson is known for her unusual
subjects and unorthodox grammar, but she is also remembered for her bizarre social habits. She
came from a successful, Calvinist family in Amherst, Massachusetts, and she barely ever left her
parents’ home. She was born in 1830, and by the 1860s she was living in almost complete
isolation. She was very smart and talented, but incredibly awkward around people, much like
Oscar, so she preferred to dedicate her life to writing poetry. By the time she passed away in
1886, she had written nearly 1800 poems. Despite her attempt to escape from the real world, she
was very inspired by what she saw around her. Even though Emily eventually discovered she
didn’t fully agree with or believe in Calvinism, it still influenced her poetry and had a large
presence in her life. She succesfully cut off contact with most of civilization, but even she
couldn’t escape the effects of family and her surroundings (“Emily Dickinson”).
Having a personal connection to an idea is an important step towards understanding it,
and I have had a few experiences that have shown me how reading and writing can provide a
temporary escape from reality, as well as that there is no way to break away from your personal
history. Last winter, for a brief period, I mimicked Oscar, Emily, and countless others in using
literature as a way to temporarily escape reality. I made what some people, particularly my
parents, consider to be a bad decision, and found myself grounded from sometime in the
beginning of January until February 9th, my birthday. The first night I was grounded, I found
myself searching for a way to forget about my current situation, to think about anything else.
After a few minutes alone in my room, I realized that my predicament was a little similar to the
life of one of my favorite fictional characters: Harry Potter, of course. Until age 12, when he
was finally told he was a wizard, Harry was essentially grounded all the time, forced by his aunt
and uncle to remain in his room without any form of entertainment while Harry’s cousin Dudley
was spoiled to no end. I compared my situation particularly to Harry’s life in Harry Potter and
the Chamber of Secrets, when Harry’s aunt and uncle literally put bars on his windows to keep
him in his room. After my little epiphany, I spent the next 5 weeks or so rereading the entire
Harry Potter series. The stories helped me forget about the fact that I was grounded, and my
newfound connection with Harry gave me a new appreciation for the books. I’ve never used
reading and writing to avoid my problems to the extent of Oscar or Emily Dickinson, but I can
definitely relate to the idea of using literature as an escape.
My own experiences have also taught me that there really is no way to outrun your past.
No matter what you do, your history will always come back to haunt you, whether someone from
your past pops unexpectedly, or you just can’t forget an unpleasant memory. My parents,
especially my mom, raised my brother and I as Catholics, making us go to church just about
everyone Sunday morning. Until I was 12 or 13, I didn’t really mind going to church, other than
having to get up at eight in the morning for it. I accepted everything I learned from my family
and the weekly readings and Sunday school lessons to be true, since that’s what I had been
taught my whole life. I don’t remember exactly what it was that made me start questioning my
faith, but by the time I got to middle school, I was very skeptical about everything I had learned.
Luckily for me, my mom and brother had a similar crisis of faith at around the same time, so as
soon as I stopped believing in the teachings of the Catholic Church, I got to stop going to church.
However, there were still certain concepts I had learned from the church that I couldn’t seem to
shake, like the idea that confessing your sins to someone, if not a priest, is a necessary step to
become a better person. The conflict I was having confused me slightly: I knew I wasn’t
Catholic anymore, but I just couldn’t get some basic Catholic ideas out of my head. Then, over
Thanksgiving break, I had a discussion with my parents and aunt and uncle about this very topic.
They all had some sort of experience that pushed them away from the church, but felt that in a
way, they were still Catholic. After talking about the predicament for a few minutes, we all
came to the conclusion that you don’t necessarily have to be religious or go to church to be
Catholic; actually practicing Catholicism isn’t the only definition of Catholic, at least to us.
Being Catholic is more like being Irish or Italian, or being from New York or from California. It
isn’t all about belief; heritage is just as important. Even though none of us are currently
practicing Catholics, we all know that a part of us is still Catholic, and that will never change.
My family isn’t the only one that feels you can belong to a religious group without
actually practicing the faith; according to Stephen Prothero, ethnicity and history are just as
important to the Jewish community as the actual religion. When someone says they are
“Jewish”, they could mean they’re a practicing Jew: following the 10 Commandments, keeping a
kosher home, and fulfilling all the other requirements, but it can also mean their parents were
Jewish, so they are too. Judaism sets itself apart from most religions in that it is possible to be
an Atheist and a Jew. The idea seems very contradictory at first, but since community and
history are at least as important to Judaism as practice and belief, you don’t really need to believe
in Adam and Even or Moses or even that there is one God to be Jewish. History and family are
powerful enough to hold the Jewish community together (Prothero 245-248).
Sometimes, even people who never tried to escape their heritage are reminded of the
inescapability of family. Sui Sin Far’s story “Its Wavering Image” tells the tale of a young half
Chinese, half American woman living in Chinatown named Pan who was raised by her Chinese
father. Even though she was slightly different from all of the Chinese people living around her,
Pan always felt much more comfortable around Chinese people than white people, and chose to
identify more with her Chinese half. One day, she meets a white reporter named Mark Carson,
who she starts spending quite a bit of time with. He explores Chinatown with her for several
weeks, and the pair end up falling in love. For the first time, Pan was reaching out to the
American part of her heritage, and Mark tries to convince her that she is really a white woman on
the inside, and it would be best if she forgot about her Chinese side and embraced American
culture. Pan is torn at first, since she feels like she loves Mark and wants to make him happy,
but she is so close with her father and so connected to Chinatown. Then, Pan is quickly brought
back to reality when Mark has to leave to work on an assignment, and she discovers that all the
time he had spent with her was actually for the benefit of a story he was working on about
Chinatown. Pan feels incredibly betrayed and realizes that she is not, in fact, a white woman.
She was born and raised Chinese for a reason, and that is the way she wants to keep it. When
she started to branch away from her culture, Pan is quickly reminded that family are heritage are
impossible to avoid. She ultimately chooses to embrace her Chinese side because that was the
culture she grew up with, and old habits die hard (Far 61-65).
The characters in The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao also had to learn from
experience that you can never get away from family. The trend of attempting to escape from
family or Dominican heritage did not start with Oscar, or even his older sister Lola, but an entire
generation before with their mother, Belicia. As the narrator puts it “[Belicia], like her yet to be
born daughter, would come to exhibit a particularly Jersey malaise—the inextinguishable
longing for elsewheres (Díaz 77).” Beli’s life started out horribly, since her father and mother
died, she was sent to live with other relatives, who chose to give her up to a family who
essentially used her as a slave. Luckily, Beli is rescued at a fairly young age by her father’s
cousin, La Inca, who takes it upon herself to raise Beli as her own. Despite the fact that La Inca
probably saved Beli’s life, she became very ungrateful and rebellious as a teenager, turning away
from her studies in favor of chasing after boys and working as a waitress. La Inca still did her
best to take care of Beli, but the young foolish girl wanted to just pull away. “She would be a
new person, she vowed. They said no matter how far a mule travels it can never come back a
horse, but she would show them all (Díaz 163).” Eventually, Beli would learn and attempt to
pass onto her children the idea that you can never run away from your past, but Beli tried as hard
as she could.
The tradition of attempting to run away from family and Dominican tradition continues
with Beli’s daughter Lola, who had many similarities with her mother, as much as she would
hate to admit it. Lola initially showed her rebellion through virtually harmless acts like cutting
off all her hair and becoming a “punk” chick. Eventually, Lola took her mother’s attempt at
escape to even more extreme lengths, running away from home to live with her boyfriend on the
Jersey Shore. As always, her past eventually catches up to her when she decides to tell Oscar
where she ran to, and he informs Beli, who tracks down Lola and forces her to come home.
Throughout high school and college, Lola tries to distance herself from her mother through a
new method: success. She uses her work ethic, intelligence, and natural athletic ability to get
ahead, travelling abroad multiple times in a further attempt to run away from her past. By the
end of the novel, Lola finally realizes that even though she eventually chose a different path from
her mother, she would never be able to fully escape her. After all, “You can never run away. Not
Oscar, Lola, Beli, Emily Dickinson, myself, and countless others learned through
personal experience that there are ways to temporarily escape from reality, such as reading and
writing, but ultimately, your life will catch up to you in the end. Try as you might to forget or
run away from the past, eventually, family and history will pull you back into the real world.
Attempting to escape from your family and other important aspects of your life can actually be
an important learning experience. By trying to run away from your problems, you experience
life in a new way and might even gain an appreciation for the very thing you wanted to avoid.
However, in the end you must learn that there is no way to outrun your past, for it is always a
part of you.
Díaz, Junot. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. New York, New York: Penguin Group Inc.,
"Emily Dickinson." Poets.org. Academy of American Poets, n.d. Web. 26 Apr 2013.
Prothero, Stephen. "Judaism." Trans. Array God Is Not One. New York, New York:
HarperCollins Publishers, 2010. 245-248. Print.
Far, Sui Sin. "Its Wavering Image." Trans. Array Mrs. Spring Fragrance and Other Writings.
United States of America: Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois, 1995. 61-65.