The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao opens with the narrator describing a curse. Legend tells that this curse originated in Africa and traveled across the Atlantic Ocean on the screams of enslaved Africans. This curse spelled doom for the Tainos, whose world ended when the Europeans arrived, cracking open the “nightmare door” that enabled the takeover of the Antilles island chain in the Caribbean Sea. The name of this curse is fukúamericanus, or just fukú, which the narrator translates loosely as “the Curse and the Doom of the New World.” However, others refer to the curse as “the Admiral,” after the first European to step foot on the island of Hispaniola. This man claimed to have discovered the island, and in so doing, he unleashed the fukú on the world.
Regardless of where it came from, the narrator insists that the curse affects all Caribbean peoples, including those who have moved away from the region and now live in the global Caribbean diaspora. The narrator also emphasizes that fukú isn’t just an ancient story or a harmless legend. People of his parents’ generation truly believed in fukú, and they believed the curse had come to life in the form of a man named Rafael Leónidas Trujillo Molina.
The narrator inserts a lengthy footnote that offers background history on this political figure. The footnote explains that Trujillo numbered among the twentieth century’s most infamous dictators. He ruled the Dominican Republic between 1930 and 1961 with “a potent (and familiar) mixture of violence, intimidation, massacre, rape, co-optation, and terror.” The narrator continues with a fuller inventory of the many evil deeds Trujillo committed during his reign, then declares the man “our Sauron, or Arawn, our Darkseid, our Once and Future Dictator.”
Returning to the main text, the narrator insists that Trujillo had an intimate, supernatural connection with the fukú curse. Dominicans widely believed that anyone who harbored bad thoughts or spoke ill of Trujillo would meet a terrible end. This explains why everyone who attempted to assassinate Trujillo ended up dead. According to the narrator, it also explains the apparent curse on the Kennedys, a prominent American political family. When President John F. Kennedy approved the assassination of Trujillo in 1961, he brought fukú upon his family.
The narrator also proposes that fukú caused the United States’ disastrous military involvement in Vietnam. Prior to shipping young men off to fight in Vietnam, President Lyndon B. Johnson had launched an illegal invasion of the Dominican Republic. The narrator posits that many of the men who took part in the invasion went straight to Saigon from Santo Domingo and carried fukú with them as “a small repayment for an unjust war.” This example demonstrates that fukú doesn’t strike suddenly, like lightning, but rather works patiently over time.
The narrator explains that every Dominican family has fukú stories. He reveals that he, too, has a fukú story. Yet he also hesitates, indicating that Oscar, the subject of his book, might not have approved of the designation “fukú story.” Oscar’s love for hardcore science fiction and fantasy would have led him to frame the story in terms of genre fiction. He’d have asked: “What more sci-fi than the Santo Domingo? What more fantasy than the Antilles?”