Schulenburg publishes article exploring societal themes in Junot Díaz novel

January 24, 2017
Dr. Chris Schulenburg
Junot Díaz

PLATTEVILLE, Wis – Dr. Chris Schulenburg, associate professor of Spanish at the University of Wisconsin-Platteville, recently published “Nerd Nation: La breve y maravillosa vida de Óscar Wao and Life in Tolkien’s Universe” in the March 2016 Hispanic issue of Modern Language Notes, a contemporary continental criticism into American scholarship published five times a year by The Johns Hopkins University Press in Baltimore, Maryland.

Schulenburg’s article deals with the position of nerd as outsider in the Dominican novel, “La breve y maravillosa vida de Oscar Wao,” or “the Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao,” by Junot Díaz, professor of creative writing at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

The novel, published in 2007, received the Pulitzer Prize in 2008. The story, written in a colloquial, oral style, deals with a protagonist, Oscar Wao, whose life in New Jersey is still affected by his heritage from the Dominican Republic. It is the legacy of the dictator Trujillo whose shadow extends itself in a particularly uncomfortable manner into Oscar's life, to the point that Oscar returns once more to the Dominican Republic, despite its inherent dangers. Schulenburg said that beyond the novel’s role in garnering Díaz the Pulitzer Prize, it also constitutes a genuine search for identity between Dominican and American cultures.

Schulenburg’s essay explores how Oscar Wao utilizes the fiction of J.R.R. Tolkien – especially “Lord of the Rings” – as an escape or, according to Schulenburg, a sort of nerd homeland. “The protagonist lacks his own space to belong – as a Dominican who lives in New Jersey and as a nerd who is excluded socially – and thus, ‘Lord of the Rings’ bestows him with a literary realm that he can call his own,” Schulenburg said. “The article is based upon the ways in which Oscar finds a literary refuge in Tolkien’s novels when his position as a nerd in American (and Dominican) society dooms him to social failure.”

Schulenburg will incorporate a selection from Díaz’s novel in his Phonetics course this spring as a way to study the importance of code switching as a part of bilingual cultural navigation. “It is a masterpiece of the profound abilities that bilingual speakers apply to complex cultural crossings on a daily basis,” Schulenburg said.

Written by: Laurie A. Hamer, Communications Specialist, College of Liberal Arts and Education, 608-342-6191,


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