Review of A Literate Passion: Letters of Anais Nin and Henry Miller

On the inside cover of the used copy of A Literate Passion: Letters of Anais Nin and Henry Miller 1932-1953 is an inscription that has been covered over with black permanent marker. Dated December 1987, it reads

Dear Thom,
In some ways we will always be together.
Love,
S.

Those familiar with the life and works of Anais Nin and Henry Miller would no doubt not be surprised by such a sentimental dedication being written into its pages, and made an amusing start to my reading this 395 page edited selection of these two literary luminaries letters. I chose to read these letters, which range in length from 1/2 to 33 pages, following a reflection on a discussion.

As you can see from the below photo from my library…

#Truestory: I #binge #books #henrymiller #litlife

A post shared by Ariel Voyager (@arielvoyager) on

I’ve a long history of affection for Miller’s autobiographical oevre. Now that I’ve read enough of Art and Artist by Otto Rank, a psychologist who actually plays an short but important role both as an inspirer to both and lover of Nin’s, to know the word I’d even go so far as to say that he was, in Rank’s terms, the artist after which I’d apprenticed myself.

Missing from the picture are the journals of Nin’s that I’ve read from the same period when she was first introduced to Miller. I’d first read two of her multi-volume journals while in Copenhagen, Denmark, occupying time as rain made the wide city unwelcoming. My host, a family friend, had just smoked some buds from Christiania, put on some chaotic but oddly calming jazz music while writing a paper on import tariffs effects on the fishing industry of the country and then suggested I occupy myself with what was on his shelf since he had no television. I perused it, picked up her, and began literary journey of my own as the recordings of her inner life were so compelling and the man about which she felt so ecstatic about so intriguing that after that bingereading I knew I had to have more.

In the letters collected here they are at first merely two people with deep passions to be recognized as literary artists. The share the writings that they’ve been working on – in Miller’s case Tropic of Cancer and Tropic of Capricorn while in Nin’s it was her early childhood journals – and give each other reams upon reams of feedback, discuss art, and a variety of topics from the banal to the esoteric. A note in the introduction, in fact, points out that the roughly 400 page collection is but a partial fragment as a number of the notes – sometimes two or three a day – were lost and that a sizeable amount of material was excluded so as to make this collection a “best of”. Anyways. Though both were married, Miller and Nin soon became lovers after meeting. Nin also explores lesbianism with Miller’s wife, June. Anais’ husband, well he’s oblivious to it all. A banker, he leaves for a short period and this gives the two of them a few weeks together. The time that they share during this brief affair become grist for more and a growing, profound appreciation for each other. Since Miller is too poor to afford to keep a home with Nin as he’s unwilling to take on non-literary work he is not able to ever “set them up” as he so wishes. Amusingly enough in fact, Miler relies on Hugh for money to live, though not directly but by that which is given to him  by Nin. Here, for example, is one of the many delightful passages that Miller writes:

Don’t expect me to be sane anymore. Don’t let’s be sensible. It was a marriage at Louveciennes – you can’t dispute it. I came away with pieces of you sticking to me; I am walking about, swimming, in an ocean of blood, your Andalusian blood, distilled and poisonous. Every thing I do and say related back to that… I say this is like a wild dream – but it is this dream I want to realize.

It’s not just as human expressions of love and longing that makes the collection pleasurable. Alongside the star-crossed love narrative are the reflections of two genius writers that struggle to find markets for their works. My book is peppered with underlines to mark great turns of phrase and insights into the human condition. No surprise given that this was a period when both were each producing significant works. One of those significant works, in fact, I learned about for the first time while reading this book. The World of Sex is a Penguin Modern Classic that despite having read all of those books from New Dimensions and Grove Press that I’d never heard of.

Those familiar with Henry literary work will be pleased to find a number of the kaleidoscopic collisions of thoughts in the form of beautiful flourishes of phrase and insight characteristic of Miller at his creative height.

The latter third of the book the romance has ceased to be described. Following a series of events – which I describe in the close their letters and lives turn from lovers to an exemplar friendship. Such a friendship does not come easy, however. A number of letters contains long and heart-rending accusations and cold, but insightful recriminations flow back and forth. The romantic love subtext fades from their exchanges, but they still clearly love each other.

Henry’s final break with Nin comes over her haven taken on Rank as a lover. While there is no direct statement of this by Henry, the pattern of behavior that he follows for a while hints at his pain. Had he the courage to admit the source of his pain, to overcome it and thus not keep distant from her is an interesting exercise in “what if”. While they both found professional acclaim and a financial stability form their work – I can’t but help wonder – a la La La Land’s lovely and yet heart-rending ending – whether or not they would have found greater happiness had pride not prevented it.

 

Review of Storyscaping: Stop Creating Ads, Start Creating Worlds


As part of my professional development as a Creative Director, despite my title of “Creative Strategist”, I decided to read a book by the Chief Creative and Brand Strategy Officers of Sapient Nitro, a very large brand and content marketing agency. Storyscaping: Stop Creating Ads, Start Creating Worlds, written by Gaston Legoburu and Darren McColl could easily have been one of those shamelessly self-promotional type of works, which seeks to show in book form a number of client successes and merely hint at the type of research and creative work that goes into the marketing projects they manage. While they certainly do include a number of their success stories, this is done primarily to illustrate the developmental and publishing process related to “storyscaping”.

To put this new form of marketing action the books begins with a delineation of the power of human narrative going back to the time of man when we sat around fires and told each other stories to distract us from the fear of animals and tribes surrounding them. In reviewing the elements of short narratives I found myself recalling much of college elective course in Storytelling. This is actually a knowledge set that I’ve found myself consistently drawing on in my ideation for Fractl, which I find amusing as after I’d decided to take it a number of people said that this was something that’d I’d never use. Following this the authors provide an overview of the various ways that the internet has changed the development of effective business to consumer marketing communications. They point to a digital/traditional divide that exists in marketing and are even handed about it saying that while the latter still has its place, it’s due to the dominance of virtual worlds for mediating decision-making processes and the more number of contact points with customers that it’s something that companies neglect at huge potential risk to their bottom line.

The application of Joseph Campbell’s ethnographic and literary/mythic concepts related to the hero’s journey was, for me, surprising but also sensible as it’s appropriate for relate the product of a brand to the hero’s quest. It frames desire as, well, heroic self-development rather than personal satiation.

The recent Pepsi television ad that has been receiving much, deserved, flak for its social insensitivity is a great example of this. In the video while a heroic goal is met, the cessation of social strife stemming from systemic economic and racial marginalization and oppression, the cause for it – mutual enjoyment of Pepsi – is, well, stupid.

A more appropriate example of such heroic help is provided in the analysis of campaigns that SapientNitro did for a UK gambling company and a ski resort. For the gambling company they were able to apply UX principals to their app – there’s always a co-constitutive relationship between marketers and producers – such that they were able to provide an improved “excitement” level for bettors. For the ski resort they were able to consultancy that would lead to investment in digital photography equipment and smart chip technology so that guests were able to share their experience and thus encourage the most convincing form of marketing – word of mouth.

By “building worlds” the opportunity is created for people to connect with brands in immersive and cooperative ways. With the emotional responses to these “Experience Spaces” that lead to sharing as the goal, consumer research helps improve the response and helps to build brand identification and loyalty. At this point Legoburu and McColl outline relationship between the steps leading from brand strategy and product positioning to an organizing idea and experience space that leads to the “storyscape”. They’re clear to point out that this is not a linear path but a conceptual totality that adjust to the many variables which exist within consumer insights and their purchasing journey.

Part two of the book switches tracks to focusing on how it is that an organization’s purpose can be clarified, uncovered and applied in the office and in marketing to increase brand value. The purpose is something that Legoburu and McColl say is not found from talking with the president of the company but an internal assessment of their operation due to the fact that their can be an excessive focus on profits on the part of management such that they lose sight of what they are actually delivering. Lest this seem esoteric, let me provide an example given in the book. Whereas Hanna-Barbera’s leadership defined themselves as purveyors of cartoons, Walt Disney conceived of themselves as providing family entertainment. Because of this wider scope of their operations, Disney was able to rapidly diversify their productions into other profitable areas while Hanna-Barbera slowly stagnated.

The chapters Walk the Walk, Insight to Desire and In Their Shoes, all provide an outline for how a creative, marketing department can transform various forms of research and data points in order to better understand the typical consumer narrative. For someone like myself, who is familiar with Marxist and Freudian interpretations of social and commercial activity, the book reads like a bowdlerized Marcuse with aphoristic rather than baroque formulations. Lest there be some confusion on my evaluation of the book here, this is a compliment to the authors. The author’s discussions on marketing mix modeling, adaptive worlds, and their relationship to the epistemology of customers is, I dare say, incredibly insightful for determining how to influence behavior and maximize on opportunities. This is a great book that I marked up significantly and I definitely fore see myself revisiting in the near future.

On Research for Unraveling

When I began writing Unraveling, it was a much different story compared to what it has now developed into. My early chapters and the notes for the project focused primarily on Jesse and Aaron. My vision was limited to exploring the dynamics in their lives that they were struggling with – respectively lost status stemming from familial/social causes and hedonistic nihilism that began following undesired repercussions of previous decisions. Put another way, the two main dynamics I wanted to explore were “what do you do when something occurs that’s completely outside of your control that you don’t want” and “what do you do when something happens that you don’t want but that was a result of your actions.” Because of this I conceived most of the other characters that I’d outlined merely as foils to their foibles on the path to achieve their goals – revenge over the person that had caused the loss of status and personal enlightenment.

A primary intention behind my writing, as I first conceived it, was to better understand my own personal development. Aaron and Jesse’s narratives contain a number of auto-biographical elements. As I continued to write out their stories and interactions, however, I came to realize that continuing with these limits not only made me miss out on developing some great characters but also caused me to exclude some of my own areas of expertise and interest. Since you’re supposed to write what you know about, I realized it was worth some time re-conceptualizing the project. Since doing that I’ve radically changed what I’d include in Unraveling.

As I decided to expand and explore the secondary character’s back stories I came to see how this not only made them richer persons in the book, but also added new depths to their interactions with Jesse and Aaron (and now others). Happy, for instance, was previously just a means for helping Jesse and Aaron get things that they needed. He became a business/social model for Jesse as well as a sage figure for Aaron. This transition from drug kingpen to force of benevolence in the community, think Stringer Bell/Damon Pope meets Huey Newton, required me to do more research as unlike Aaron and Jesse’s stories, which I knew well given they’re based on certain times in my life, I wasn’t as familiar with that type of psychological development. Put less delicately, I’m not black so I felt uncomfortable presuming that just through my imagination I’d be able to come up with a robust character for him and those around him.

To better write his character as well as those in his orbit, I decided to do research. Here’s what I came up with.

Autobiography of Assata Shakur
Angela Davis: An Autobiography
Black Against Empire
BMF: The Rise and Fall of Big Meech and the Black Mafia Family
Revolutionary Suicide
Soledad Brother: The Prison Letters of George Jackson
The Spook Who Sat by the Door
Who Becomes a Terrorist and Why

Thankfully, I’ve now completed the above research I wanted to have done before really getting into Happy’s chapter and am now a few books away from completing the research I’ve already started for Ela. While this was a long delay on the project, I look forward to being able to be able to write Happy’s chapter with greater verisimilitude to similar historical characters!

 

 

Titles of poems from my collection “20 Poems of Love”

Dowry Street
Escape
Heaven’s Mansions
Paris
Trinity
Notes
Returned to One
Silk
Those Skeletons Made You
Spark (v. 3)
Constellations
Breathless
A Simple Request
Menagerie
The Hipster Demagogue, The Leftist Professor and The Manic Pixie Dream Girl
Escape
Haiku #62
Ode to the Beauties that Have Sheltered Me
Un/binding
The Ascent of Icarus

Review of Contagious: Why Things Catch On

Contagious: Why Things Catch On by Jonah Berger is one of the books that inform the unique grading rubric for determining whether or not a certain campaign conceived in our daily Ideation meetings will be proposed to our advertising clients, send back for further details how it would be completed or shelved. The TL;DR book review format can turn the book into a short acronym, STEPPS, that stands for and encourages marketers to ask the following about their products:

Social Currency – Does sharing information about this make you look good?

Triggers – What cues do people have with your product, how can this be expanded

Emotion – What sort of emotion is elicited by discussion of you product and how can this be changed?

Public – What can be done to make private purchasing decisions private?

Practical Value – Can you assist others in some way by this information

Stories – Are you framing the information you want transmitted into a narrative format or just a list of product specifications?

Delving deeper into these principles, Berger presents a number of case studies that illustrates various advertising campaigns in action using these principles, correctly or incorrectly.

Being familiar with internet lore in general several of the examples provided in each of these sections, or variations therein, were those that I was familiar with. For example the $100 sandwich and the  connection between 1980s anti-drug advertising, which made the private public, being seen in part as a cause for the rise in teen drug use. A larger number of them, however, I was not. Thankfully the books was written in such a way that though it consists primarily of case studies illustrating the aforementioned messaging qualities the book does not take an overly formal tone.

Reading these analyses and commentary on the over-importance of influencers, varieties of physiological arousal, presenting information in an appropriate context all are very useful not only to those seeking to raise awareness about products for sale but also for those seeking to engage in any sort of public awareness campaign. An anecdote about a healthier eating campaign on college campuses, for instance, is described how a different choice in wording (A/B testing) could have a 25% greater likelihood in encouraging students to eat more fruits and vegetables. The difference in wording? Using a general food associated terms “When you eat” versus “when you fill your tray”. The latter was more effective as it had a stronger contextual trigger – students saw this in a cafeteria.

I found the “fool in the pool” anecdote – the story about Ron Bensimhon’s break in to the Olympics and jumping from the divers deck while wearing polka dot tights and GoldenPalace.com emblazoned on his chest – to be particularly useful as a reminder for the need for correct triggers/context and being attuned to the psychology of sharing. As a content marketer, depending on the client, much of the material we produce can be quite tangential to those whose products or services we are seeking to help bring greater exposure to.

The book is a quick and easy read and I was happy to learn that some of the practices that I’ve applied to my project decisions are those that Jonah Berger endorses. This isn’t necessarily a result of my own genius, but likely from my having read Berger’s teacher’s book Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die. For example, a project that I’m working on I was ready to use a single broad survey as a data source for a campaign. After having read this I’m now more confident in pursuing a slightly different direction that queries less people but gets more information that will likely lead to others relating to it at a deeper level. Previously open to pursuing the least time intensive route that would likely still make the customer happy, now I can cite evidence why a small pivot could be result in much greater visibility.

Review of Big Data: A Revolution That Will Transform How We Live, Work, and Think

Viktor Mayer-Schönberger and Kenneth Cukier’s Big Data: A Revolution That Will Transform How We Live, Work, and Think provides an brief history and overview of the promises, advancements, issues and implications of the big data revolution.

Big data is a social phenomenon that has significant qualitative effects that the authors state is revolutionary. Able to come about as a result of technological evolution, for the first time in history, there exists the ability for people to easily and cheaply capture and store massive amounts of data and monetize it for various uses in a variety of ways one thought impossible. This transition means that statistical methods of sampling or estimation no longer ought to be seen as the ideal manner in which various interests can extract meaning from data.

The book points out that data is rapidly becoming the raw material of business and government policy. A number of other examples include, as it related to criminal justice issues, police use the technology to determine which regions to patrol at certain times of day. In the business realm Wal-Mart, the first company to adopted datafication for it’s sales analysis systems, learnd from that that they should send Pop-Tarts to areas about to be affected by hurricanes and not NutraGrain bars. This area small examples, however, as data accumulated by some companies for insurance and banking are able to sell for hundreds of billions of dollars as they can help with predictions about the likelihood of loans defaulting.

Data, as it exists in the world, can however lead to flawed conclusions. Mayer-Schönberger and Cukier praise Google’s Flu Trends service – which analyses billions of searches into its website as well as other indicators to estimate the prevalence of flu in the United States. In 2015 Google’s estimate of flu cases was twice the actual number. This isn’t itself an issue – however – as it allows data scientists to better figure out how to quantify this without people filling out a survey every day. So, what exactly is so revolutionary about businesses having a better means of projecting items that will likely be purchased by consumers? Well, the book argues that it’s paradigmatically revolutionary and cites three shifts why this is so.

The first shift cause by big data is the ability to survey components of information from potentially a whole population instead of just sampling random portions of it. Rather than projecting based upon samples – which the authors repeatedly decry as an antiquated means of projecting (something proven by the recent election of Trump despite most polls to the contrary) – we can look at everything.

The second paradigmatic shift is that “looking at vastly more data also permits us to loosen up our desire for exactitude”. This is so as in big data, according to the authors, “with less error from sampling we can accept more measurement error”. Science is obsessed with sampling and measurement error methodologies and potential error percentages because they exist in a ‘small dataworld.

It would be amazing if the problems of sampling and measurement error really disappeared when you’re “stuffed silly with data”. But context is something that needs to be considered carefully and why it is easy to treat samples as n=all as data gathering means get closer to full coverage, researchers ought to account for the representativeness of their sample. One  easy to overlook example of this relates to the digital divide.

 

The third and potentially most radical paradigmatic shift in understanding complex information and their relationship to each other means that people will change the “causal modality and get rid of “the idea of understanding the reasons behind all that happens.”

The traditional image of science the authors propound, however conflates principles with practices. While desire to determine causality and precision in measurements are generative mores, the authors seem to dismiss causation as something to aspire to too cavalierly with the promise of big data.

Their claim that the social sciences “have lost their monopoly on making sense of empirical data, as big-data analysis replaces the highly skilled survey specialists of the past” seems fatuous. So what if the new algorithms can review big data analyses and predictions, they only determine meaning by the means by which they are input. What others not so blinded by promise of datafication know is that even at the most granular level of practice, analytic understanding is necessary when attempting to implement these systems in the world or use them to understand the past.

Review of “The Functional Art: An Introduction to Information Graphics and Visualization”

Unlike any time before in history, people have access to vast amounts of free information and with the right tools and training they can structure data in an aesthetic manner that allows non-specialists in the field to see patterns and trends that would otherwise be invisible or difficult to derive meaning from. The Functional Art by Alberto Cairo presents an epistemological overview of how people read infographics and then demonstrates how to most effectively use statistical data to make charts, maps, and explanation diagrams. Cairo does not merely present us with a list of what he considers his best works but shows the steps taken to create successful infographics and how certain forms of quantitatively measurable changes should typically be associated with certain types of illustrating change – such as box and whisker plots.

By transforming numbers into graphical shapes, readers can come to spot the stories in the data and learn new things from it with greater speed than in text regardless of the type of data you’re working with. Cairo states that most people new to the field jump too soon to the “look and feel” part, without first asking the right questions. Based upon his experience, he believes that people should first ask about what information is most important to display, how consumers of it will want to explore the information – especially if it is interactive – and then at this point start to determine the look and feel of it. Cairo, like myself, views much of the decorative additions typical of infographics, i.e. symbols or icons included that don’t really add anything other than flair, as poor design. Not that it is ALWAYS bad to include these, just it’s become the trend for them to be included at the cost of reducing effective communication.

Exegesis on this issue of approach to graphical forms takes the form of a discussion of “engineers” versus “designers”. On one extreme is Edward Tufte, who espouses a minimalistic approach to visualization. On the other extreme is graphic designer Nigel Holmes, who takes a more emotional, mimetic approach to graphic design. Cairo argues that there are benefits to both approaches and that the project itself should dictate how one processed rather than personal preference.

In the first part of the book, Cairo explicates the three main tenets of good data visualization practice: first, good graphic techniques and strategies (minimal use of pie charts, reducing non-data ink, etc.); second, how to create eye-pleasing graphics (how to choose color, fonts, layout, etc.); and, most importantly, how to use data visualization to tell a story. I think this is where The Functional Art really stands out as a great reference – Cairo shows you how to use data visualization not as a way to just show your data or to create a tool for people to explore your data, but as a way to be a storyteller with data.

One of the model’s Cairo created to help him ideate on how to develop a visualization is called the “Visualization Wheel”. The top part of the wheel indicates increased complexity and depth and the bottom part representing simplicity and lightness. The key takeaway is to provide balance to a visualization with the audience in mind. Certain audiences are likely to gravitate towards one than the other.

The next part of the book explains the eye-brain connection – how humans perceive different shapes, colors, etc. – in relation to designing good infographics. Cairo isn’t a cognitive scientist, but the skill with which he addresses these issues illustrates the depth of study he’s done of the literature and how to use this knowledge to create better graphics. These two first parts of the book are helpful for anyone those in the visualization and the graphics Cairo has chosen to include are all inspirational and make this not only a good overview of the field but also a good reference book.

In the last section of the book, Cairo profiles and interviews 10 prominent data visualization designers and visual journalists, including The New York Times’ Steve Duenes, The Washington Post’s Hannah Fairfield, Condé Nast Traveler’s John Grimwade, National Geographic Magazine’s Fernando Baptista, Hans Rosling of the Gapminder Foundation, and others.

This section is beneficial as it gives brief insights into how it is that leaders in the field approach different challenges created by their projects and to see how journalists work with the information visualization professionals in their teams in leading newspapers in different  ways based upon the workplace.

In closing, The Functional Art touches upon all the important issues related to infographics such as:

  • Why data visualization should be conceived of as “functional” rather than fine art
  • A general outline of when to use bar versus circle charts
  • How to use color, type, shape, contrast, and other components to make infographics more effective
  • Differentiation between symbols and icons and help versus hurt their readability.
  • The science of how our brains perceive and remember information
  • Best practices for creating interactive information graphics
  • The creative process behind successful information graphics

It’s a great book for those new in the field and the clarity of expression found within was so good that I look forward to reading more of Cairo’s work.

Unpacking Happy's Chapter

Ever since I was a little kid I’ve loved gangsta movies. I’d set up fake Colombia House accounts in order to get free VHS tapes of films like Menace II Society, Boyz ‘n the Hood, New Jack City, Juice, Paid In Full, and Deep Cover and watch them over and over again.
Whereas Jesse’s chapter is stylized after Spanish picaresque and German Bildungsroman literature, Happy’s is based on these films as well as a number of original documents and documentaries. 1, 2, 3

Rather than merely replicate these narratives, however, I wanted to inverse a number of the tropes that are found in these gangster films/reality to depict a gang that is crypto-socialist, truly consensual work relations rather than that which is strictly primitive-capitalist and based on force.
Now presuming that you’re familiar with the above listed movies, so I don’t have to cite each, here are some of those narrative tropes that I mentioned/inverted.
1. The leader of a group got due to his ruthless violence or a chance encounter with a plug rather than his intellect.
2. The leader of the group stays in power based upon loyalty out of fear and not of love (unless relations are also familial).
3. The capture of power foreshadows similar machinations on the part of someone else within the organization that similarly wants to take over.
4. Wealth created from the criminal venture predominantly accumulates in the hands of those at the top.
5. This wealth created goes primarily towards the administrator’s consumption, which leads to organizational degeneration in some fashion.
6. Money spent is primarily upon luxury goods that are flaunted.
7. This leads to general envy/viewing the criminal enterprise as the best provider for income and entices those willing to do whatever to get it, but this makes community relations poor.
Making an analogy to larger institutions of political economy, as I would like my readers to so, I can say in short hand that the typically depicted criminal association is more akin to an absolute monarchy.
This passage shows Happy’s organization is significantly different and touches upon a number of the problems that will be delved into later in the chapter. Specifically what is the Project; the impact that the investigation into Officer Daniels illegal dealings; who the other person is that Happy is getting information from in the police department; their relationship to the Zoe Pounds; the possibility that some conflict might transpire should a power vacuum be created from several Zoe Pounds members finding themselves arraigned; who are these important people in Atlanta that requires Happy to have to meet them in person, etc.
I’ve still got a lot to write about for this chapter to near completion – but I hope this explanation of a portion of my project and the small section of the chapter convinces you that my serial novel project is worth getting into and you buy Book 1 of Unraveling!

The real brothers who inspired the Sucrarios in Unraveling

Fanjul Brothers
The Fanjul Brothers, Alfonso and Jose

Two of the antagonists in Unraveling are a pair of brothers whose last name is Sucrario. Sucrario is not a “real” Spanish last name or even a real Spanish word but a portmanteau term combining the Spanish word for sugar, “sucre” with the Spanish word for assassin “sicario”. While the characters and their history are fictional, they are largely based upon two real people: Alfonso and Jose “Pepe” Fanjul.

Documentation that the Gomez-Mena’s were the largest sugar owners in Cuba before the revolution

Despite Alonso Fanjul’s claim otherwise, his grandfather Jose Gomez-Mena was intimately involved with the functioning of the Batista government. He was Batista’s Minister of Agriculture, which in a country that had since it’s colonization been recognized as one giant sugar plantation is a big deal. He was also involved in banking and using capital to consolidate sugar holdings and upgrade their productive facilities. He was an important person and his friends and associates included a number of American politicians, important to keeping sugar tariffs low, as well as the former president of Cuba, Mario Menocal. Prior to this post and private sugar and banking enterprises the Gomez-Mena family were involved in the Cuban sugar trade at a time when the slave trade was legal. Even after it was officially abolished, the conditions of the Africans remained largely the same as it was before. To circumvent the ban of chattel slavery over 100,000 Chinese workers were imported. Though the white, landowning Cubans considered “the Celestials” less barbaric than the blacks, their work and living conditions were much the same.

The Fanjul family, which had long ties to Spainish nobility, escaped Cuba following the seizure of governmental authority by the Communist Party of Cuba headed by Fidel Castro. Castro even used one of the mansions built by Jose Gomez-Mena as his private residence and is even said to have met with him to point at a map of his holdings and tell him face to face that all of that land now belonged to the government’s collective farms. The mansion as well as his extensive private art collection remains intact and is now called the Museum of Decorative Arts and can be viewed by the public.

After arriving in the United States with all of the cash, capital goods and deeds that they could carry and ship without getting caught, the Gomez-Mena/Fanjul family were able to obtain a number of large farming subsidies with the help of the numerous American politicians whose favor they had curried over the year and were able to obtain large parcels of land for sugar production, and help halt the flow of Cuban sugar. Raising sugar cane in the Everglades was long a desire for many American farmers. Given the costs of land reclamation, dike projects, and other issues this was considered impossible without significant government assistance. While Florida and the Federal government wouldn’t seriously consider such a project prior to the Cuban Revolution due the huge amount of capital investment and political risk that it talked, after the revolution they did. Those that had cultivated the relationships with the right politicians – like the Fanjul’s had – were able to rapidly build back up their wealth.

According to the Land Report, the Fanjul brothers now collectively own 160,000 acres of land, or 250 square miles, in Florida and according to the New York Times they own 240,000 acres, or 275 square miles, in the Dominican Republic. Based on too many reports to cite here, they are not merely the farmers, land conservationists and philanthropists that they promote themselves as, but are sugar barons in the most original sense of the word. The co-existence of feudal labor relations within a mixed-capitalist economy isn’t itself surprising. What is perhaps more so is the wide reporting of it that doesn’t seem to gather any traction in the public imagination. Articles regularly point out how their meagre investments of, say, two million dollars, into the American political machinery will bring a return of sixty-five million dollars.

The Fanjul brothers are notoriously shy of the public spotlight, one of the reasons that I wanted to fictionalize them, yet still make it into the press occasionally. Most recently they’ve been receiving press over their actions taken to prevent action being taken on Florida’s 2014 Amendment 1, which passed with 78% of the vote. Their goal? Prevent the purchase of land that would be used to increase the quality of South Florida’s water supply. Their money not only buys the political machinery of south Florida but a number of estates in the Domincan Republic, Florida and a lavish lifestyle.

One of their playgrounds for the rich.
One of their playgrounds for the rich.

 

References

International Migration in Cuba: Accumulation, Imperial Designs, and Transnational Social Fields

The Castro Collection

2014 Land Report

Land Report on the Fanjuls

Everglades to be Killed this October

In the Kingdom of Big Sugar

Wikileaks: Fanjuls among ‘sugar barons’ who ‘muscled’ lawmakers to kill free trade deal

Interview with Paul Kwiatkowski

510AlpEUpbL._SX425_BO1,204,203,200_

So after reading (and loving) Paul Kwiatowski’s book And Every Day Was Overcast and then confirming that one of the people that I thought I knew from the pictures in it was in fact who I thought it was, I decided to email Paul Kwiatkowski to request an interview. I wanted to talk to him about growing up in South Florida, his creative process as well as his early literary and musical influences. He agreed to speak with me and on July 23rd we spoke over the phone.

Ariel Sheen

So, have you had any contact with people whose pictures you took in the book and if so what have been some of their responses to it?

Paul Kwiatkowski

Yeah some of the people I’m still in contact with. Most of the people I’ve talked to have dug it. As for those that I haven’t spoken with, well, I hope they like the project and know where I was coming from with it.

Ariel Sheen

Keeping in mind that I love the lyrical nature of the book, I’m wondering what your decision making process was in deciding to forego a traditional narrative arc.

Paul Kwiatkowski

A narrative arc would be disingenuous to the material considering it’s the past and memory doesn’t work narratively that way. You can’t really remember it anything other than as bemusings and flavors. To create something that would make an arc would have been too clear.

Ariel Sheen

Do you find yourself more or less alienated living in New York than you were in South Florida?

Paul Kwiatkowski

OVERCAST_7I mean, I think a lot of the alienation that I wrote about had to do with just being a teenager. Plus Florida is kind of an isolated place to grow up. Not living in close proximity to people, I never felt like there was a community there. When I read your review of my book, like, I also remember wanting to go downtown, which was really just a movie theatre, and it being like a 40 minute ride just for that. As a teenage I hated that but I feel at this point in my life you can use that to your advantage creatively and just call it solitude.

Living in New York, well, I feel that your experience of the city largely depends on what you make of it. One thing I think is funny is that so many people come here with purpose and certain expectation of what will happen with it. Once that goes away, I think it becomes less exciting. Didn’t you use to live here? What did you think?

Ariel Sheen

Yeah, I did. My experience was largely the same. But I was in grad school so there was a large number of people to socialize with had the same purpose as me. The school encouraged meetings through a number of free food/drink events. But even then there was always this temporary element to any connection we had in the back of our minds. Or at least in the back of my mind. Something like we can be friendly now, but in a year or so we’ll be in totally different places of the country doing totally different things and so will lose track of each other. When I lived in Bushwick it wasn’t like that so much.

Paul Kwiatkowski

Oh nice, I like Bushwick. I saw Genesis P-Orridge play there last week.

Ariel Sheen

Awesome. I’m a little jealous. And a lot surprised! I don’t encounter a lot of people that know who that is. When I was about 16-17 I got really into industrial music. Through my investigations into the genre I came across him and a number of other… unusual musicians via V. Vale Re/Search Publications like Industrial Culture Handbook and his book on William Burroughs, Brion Gysin and Throbbing Gristle. I wasn’t always appreciative of the music, thought I did send Vale a demo I’d made, but I liked the innovative qualities of it. I mean a lot of it, like, sounds really weird.

Paul Kwiatkowski

Yeah I remember hearing them around the same time. Right about the same time I got into writing. I was mostly into Throbbing Gristle. I think it just really changed the way I go about making art. I think that’s what I got the most out of it. You know, Industrial or whatever electronic music name you want to call it just totally blew my imagination away. It definitely was inspiring and I definitely didn’t like every song to just get into the vibe of it. It was kind of a big influence. That stuff was just really. Man. Just finding out about it as a kid was inspiring. Maybe even more so than the products that the artists made. It definitely got me in tune with process and experimentation.

Ariel Sheen

So say 30-40 years from now, when there is no South Florida; How do you think you’ll respond to that?

Paul Kwiatkowski

d5551cf814407980-OVERCAST_0198It’ll be bitter sweet. There’s a lot of things that I love about Florida that I credit with my imagination. It seems inevitable though… Right? You should check out this book called Finding Florida. It’s just about this history of Florida and how it’s this state that’s never been able to be tamed. From the early Conquistadors that went there thinking they’d find gold. It goes from how thy not only didn’t finding gold but it was the only state that doesn’t have any rocks in the ground. Then tells about how later settlers tried to damn the waters but that storms kept flooding and destroying them. Then the elections and Bush. It’s this like, comprehensive history that this state has manipulated the people that have tried to harness it. Thus if Florida went up it’d just be fitting. It just has this entire history of kicking people back and that’d be just one more instance of it.

Ariel Sheen

I think you’re really on point about the land we call Florida not wanting the practices of white settlers. I’ve actually studied a lot Florida history and am also writing a book myself set there/here right now. Besides the North, prior to the Civil War, it was the Glades that had the largest population of runaway slaves. These were those that escaped and then acculturated themselves to the indigenous people in this land that at the time just could not be brought under the till.

Paul Kwiatkowski

Yeah, the Seminoles, right? The mix of races: free slaves and indigenous.

Ariel Sheen

Yeah, exactly! So from your 2011 Street Carnage interview I saw that you were reading a lot of literature that dealt with… unusual and extreme topics and themes. Because you and I are the same age I had this feeling that, well, in high school the setting of EDWO, at the time my group of friends was reading a lot of Poppy Z. Brite. She wrote Lost Souls and was wondering if you’d ever read it…

Paul Kwiatkowski

Haha. You know it’s funny I too was reading Poppy Z. Brite. I was a huge fan of Exquisite Corpse, which was one of my favorites.

Ariel Sheen

Yes! That book was so great!

Paul Kwiatkowski
You know it’s funny, I picked up the book again a year ago and it’s still really good. She’s kind of a kick as writer. So transgressive as well. It’s so impressive. Other than her, at the time I was also getting into Dennis Cooper and he definitely had a big influence on my approach to writing. Oh, and I started to discover Bret Easton Elis. There’s a book called Jesus Saves by Darcey Steinke.
It had a goth feel to it. I was just a voracious reader and was just really discovering literature at that time. I also remember reading In the Belly of the Beast and being really impressed by that. I worked at Borders so I had a lot of access to books. And a lot of the French Surrealists like Bataille and the Marquis se Sade. I’m glad I got that stuff out of my system as a teenager and not as an adult.

Ariel SheenPaul_Kwiatkowski_10

That’s so funny. I also worked at Borders, briefly, and when I was there Mike [the guy I know in one of the photos] was one of the floor managers.

Paul Kwiatkowski

That’s really wild.

Ariel Sheen

Going back to the Street Carnage interview, you’d mentioned then that you were working on a project from your trip to the Caribbean and Mexico, are you still working on that project? Or something else?

Paul Kwiatkowski

Haha! I don’t even remember what that project was, but at the moment I am working on a new book about Minnesota. Which is a large departure from those project. I’m working with a photographer who’s from Minnesota that’s now based in Medellin in Colombia. The book is about an airplane accident that claimed his cousin and photography’s relationship to technology. So it’s kind of like a mix between an Adam Curtis documentary with… I don’t even know what you’d say it’s mixed with…

Ariel Sheen

Cool. Interesting that you say that. I showed The Power of Nightmares in my Debate Classes to help students better contextualize the rhetoric their subjected to in the news.

Anyway, last question. So I bought the paperback edition of the And Everyday was Overcast for $30 and then learned that there’s an audio component that came for free with the $6 digital edition. Think you can send me that?

Paul Kwiatkowski

Oh, I can send it to you! I think it’s on my site. The soundtrack is part of the digital edition that I had done for my published that I did with Ryan DeShawn. It was actually heavily inspired by Genesis P-Orridge and Throbbing Gristle. I wanted to illustrate that Retard Radio storyline that runs through the book and, you know, in addition to going back to Florida and collecting pictures I’d go back and collect sounds. Something that always really stuck out in my memory of Florida was the sounds. It’s such an alive state. It’s constantly buzzing and grinding. It’s something that always fascinated me so I wanted to put something together as a companion piece to the book. But yeah, I’ll send you a zip file of it in a little bit.

Ariel Sheen

Cool, I’d like that.

Paul Kwiatkowski

No problem, I like that you’re interested in it. It was a cool experiment.

Ariel Sheen

Yeah. It sounds like it. And hearing you talk about it, it sounds like a friend of mine’s music production process that I just heard about on NPR that also left Florida for New York. Hopefully I can make it back there in two or three years.

Paul Kwiatkowski

Well it seems like you’re doing well over there, teaching and writing.

Ariel Sheen

That’s true, but that’s only after a long period of some personal hardships. No need to get into that, though. Thanks again for taking the time to speak with me.

Paul Kwiatkowski

My pleasure, it was good talking to you!

*

You can purchase And Every Day Was Overcast by clicking the title and learn more about Paul Kwiatkoski’s current projects by clicking here.

You can also read more interviews with the author that may or may not deal with topics of greater substance here.

Featureshoot Interview

Air Ship Daily

Street Carnage Interview