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.
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!
In the tree outside my bedroom window
Overlooking the preserve, not ten feet from me
A dozen black vultures
Jerk and twitch their veiny black necks
As they hop, fight and squawk
Over the body of an opossum
With a black tire mark
Over it’s spine and back legs.
I’m not sure if it’s their beaks pulling at furred flesh
Or a dying breath that had it the words I’m sure
It would wish for,
But its mouth seems to twitch at each touch
Of beak on body.
As I watch them caw and compete for the corpse
Another vulture alights on the outskirts
To see if it too can get in on the action and then
A green gator of maybe seven or eight feet
That must have been sitting,
Watching far longer than I,
Or maybe that just moved so slow
That not a one of the murder of carrion crows noticed it
Leaps from the brackish water
To the side of the embankment with jaws open.
I’m not sure if it mistook their numbers for its safety
Or was simply to hungry to care,
And was thus reckless,
But as the bird is pulled into the water by the neck and wing
It seems jut to accept what is, it doesn’t even scream.
Death stands just outside my window,
In intention and in accident,
With resistance and acceptance –
And as a cloud passes that dims the grim scene
For a moment I see my mirrored reflection in the glass
That reminds me that I too am locked in such a struggle to survive
For I too am matter and energy existing across space and time.
I’m not yet sure what that means to me
Nor that absolute certainty
Is a beneficial currency with which to trade
In the time left until I fill a grave
But looking at this scene I perceive I too am Death,
Speeding down the highway and waiting at the water’s edge
In my own way.
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!
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.
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 manyreports 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 the themes within my book is race’s role in economic and political power. Each part of the series is a first person perspective with worldview that differs dramatically based upon their historical consciousness and the desires they wish to fulfill.
In Book 1, Jesses displays what I and other philosophers of race would call racial ignorance. What does this mean? Pulling from concepts explicated by Frantz Fanon’s in his book Black Skin, White Masks, we learn that whites often lack the experience of systematic prejudice and thus there is a knowing and unknowing of race. Whites can conceptualize race, but have only the experience of the privileged “norm” rather than the racialized Other and thus are unable (or unwilling) to perceive, understand, acknowledge, or relate to the general condition and experiences of non-whites.
Given the widely-touted multi-racial nature of Miami this seems to not fit with normal expectations. However the below maps and history are an attempt to give greater contextualization to how Jesse came to this worldview and also gives background to other characters perspectives on the role of race to their worldview.
Unfortunately this ethnic map of Miami doesn’t also show the history of legislation and settlement to the many cities and townships that make up Miami, Miami Beach and it’s surrounding areas. Including this sort of data we would begin to get a larger understanding of why the composition of the region is that way that it is.
As you can see here, in areas that are the poorest people are living in the densest arrangements. While there is little statistical breakdown by the City of Miami of what the percentages relate to in material conditions, from this data and that elsewhere we can see that two bedrooms apartments housing five or more people is normal. If this were the case we would find many of the circumstances described by Ta-Nehisi Coates in The Case for Reparations. From the founding of the City of Miami and Miami Beach the patterns of habitations were guided by racial segregationist legislation that was enforced through a combination of policing and intermittent mob actions.
White politicians consistently sought to and successfully deprived black entrepreneurs from accumulating capital in white areas as well as their enterprises in black towns, rabidly fought unionization and collective bargaining campaigns and targeted social justice activists for harassment and assassination. While expanding along the beachfront to the east, whites captured formerly black areas through eminent domain and corrupt housing practices that pushed black west into higher density housing areas.
This and the patterns of public transportation directly informed the type of labor available to black-American and Caribbean populations (and later Latin American groups) as well as their ability to demand political change, their ability to use public goods and services as well as their housing options.
Justifications for an inflated police state and greater surveillance of the population at first stemmed from the second World War and the fear of destabilizing acts by foreigners. The work pass system, started in the 1930s, mandated that black and white workers in the tourist sector wear passes, for instance.
This theme would pop up again in various forms in order to legitimize greater oversight of black bodies and delegitimize political opposition to such acts by the government. Jim Crow, in a word, formed thoroughly enmeshed the patterns of habitation, political power and labor in the nascent Miami, which as late as 1953 was, according to Robe Carson, was a “Tropical Frontier” that had not yet been fully conquered by the white race. How so? Well even after 1943, when this threat was no longer credible, and into the 1960’s these passes served to reinforce an apartheid style urban geography.
Various counties created and enforced curfews to keep blacks out of white areas both through their police departments and white vigilantes. Later political upheavals were blamed by foreign agitators from northern Florida and New York to prevent the granting of political demands. The worldview promulgated by local papers was that local blacks were happy with their conditions and it was only because of outside influence that civic unrest occasionally erupted. Racism in the police forces in these and other areas continues to this day.
As the shows, the high rate of poverty in Miami communities of color was not caused by cultural character flaws but by a sustained and systematic assault by the local white and even Federal government policies towards maintaining segregation, preventing communities of color from having access to beachfront property on the larger scale keeping trade going with Caribbean dictatorships that were able to extract higher rates of surplus capital from their investments due to authoritarian practices.
The later success of Cuban communities is often cited as a reason as to why it is a cultural character flaw, however this belies the capital and advanced educational degrees that many first wave migrants were able to bring with, the federal assistance that they were given, the longer history of successful political mobilization they’d experienced and accrued as sociopolitical capital as well as the notion of the first wave as “white people”.
Miamians continues to suffer as a result of it’s past. It’s continuously named as one of the worst places to live, it lacks a comprehensive plan to combat global climatic change due to the interests of land developers – the most powerful political lobby in Florida – it’s politicians and police are recurrently in the press for corruption and illegal acts and as anyone who’s familiar with it knows it’s vast area could be greatly reorganized for more rational and equitable land usage. This is all intimately tied to municipal government development and the influence of predominantly white capital on the areas political economy.
Jesse, however, isn’t aware of any of this. He hasn’t learned this data in his history class. His parents are, like many others living in South Florida, are not natives nor are they aware of it’s history so cannot pass this information along. The private high school he previously attended was predominantly white, as is par for South Florida Private Schools, so he’s not interacted with many black people until last year when he entered a public school. As a result of his growing recognition of the nature of political power and through the course of his increased interaction with black people, however, Jesse comes to have greater awareness of the racial environment of Miami and, in his later book, the surrounding regions. Jesse’s epistemological development is thus not aptly described by calling his views in the beginning racist but ignorant. Furthermore this is not an active ignorance that seeks to maintain privilege but one that seeks ruthlessness to understand and critique how power operates. At each step of his epistemological development Jesse comes to a state of greater empathy, understanding and recognizes a greater duty towards, to bring it back to Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth.
I thought that coming up with a book cover for Unraveling would be easy, but it’s turned into a project. My first idea was to look for a stock photo that captured enough of the elements of one of the scenes in the chapter and then to slap some text over it with the title and my name. I searched through ShutterStock for a good several hours using terms that were appropriate for Jesse’s chapter. Teenagers. Drug Abuse. Gangs. Addiction. Recovery. Secrets. Espionage. Isolation. etc. The amount of images that I went through was, well, staggering. Finally, I alighted upon this image!
I liked it immediately and purchased it. My thought process in doing so was that though the image doesn’t depict Jesse Oberman, a bright and driven 16 year old boy trying to deal with a number of major changes in his life that he doesn’t fully understand or know how to deal with, the image is a pretty damn good physical approximation of Josselyn, a character that Jesse meets in Book 1. The items around her, the gun, mask and money, are also components of their relations so it seems appropriate. Lastly, who wouldn’t be intrigued enough into making a small purchase of a serial novel by a pretty woman with these items around them.
From here I then decided to use the Cracked font for the author attribution and title, then Age of Unraveling. I chose the Cracked font as a means of highlighting the social/political/economic disintegration prevalent within the plot. I’d previously chosen Unraveling as a title, again referring to the themes of the book, but had added Age of to it as a nod to British Historian Eric Hobsbawm. Whereas Hobsbawm wrote with insightful and compelling mastery about the upheavals over 202 years at a high level of abstraction, Unraveling is set over a two year period at a very low level of abstraction wherein characters deal with this historical inheritance. To make the name stand out I made the text black with a red drop shadow. Happy that the picture related if not to Jesse than at least a character he meets in Book 1 and confident that the text alluded to a breaking down of social order I shared this on my Facebook and asked for input.
The response that I got from my friends upon sharing my work was unanimous and disheartening. Time and money spent on that cover were, in their view, a waste. The image was “cheesy” and the text looked awful. Trusting of my friends input I decided to scrap it for a new one. I would not have to do so alone, however, as my brother Jaz said he would help me. He forwarded me a couple of test images, shown below, so that I could help guide him as to what I want.
I like both of these a lot. Here’s why:
I like the one on the right as it shows a youth, presumably Jesse, in an out of focus manner, hinting at the internal conflict he is going through while interacting with an external world that he wants to mold to his will. The one on the right, however, I can’t use (or can I?) as it is the same stock photo used by the musician James Blake on his album James Blake.
I like the one on the left as it hints at the accelerating chaos from the unexpected confluence of a number of people/events. Because of this I feel that the lack of a human beings on it not to be so big an issue.
Given that one of the uncommented-upon-by-the-characters conflicts within the book is between Hegelian and Nietzschean conceptions of time, history, law and agency I find myself drawn to a typography that looks like this True Detective poster from season 1.
After I informed Jaz of the the right cover imaged was used by James Blake, he produced the one below as a well as another one with the title text more distorted which I prefer but don’t have a copy of. In this cover iteration we also decided to include a one line thematic description of Book 1: “His life is falling apart and he’s taking everyone with him.”
He also encouraged me to look over other covers at Designspiration, which is a great resource for ideation of covers. There were many that I liked there as well as on the website for Face Out Books. I was especially drawn to the aesthetics relying upon the placement of multiple covers as there will be several more books in the series. There were so many choices that I felt overwhelmed.
Lastly I decided to do a little digging onto cover ideas on my own. I’m not extensively well read when it comes to pulp/noir novels, but as I’ve always found myself intrigued by the aesthetics of pulp covers and as it was in part a response to my enjoyment of reading the major works of novelists Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler which made me include elements of classic noir fiction (though with a much more progressive worldview) into Unraveling – I also decided to look through Pulp Curry. Some of the pulp covers that I liked are below, though given the number of modern stylistic and narrative elements in it as well as the expenses in producing these original drawings this seems to be a dead end.
I think that the pulp covers would work for some of the female characters books, but not for Jesse. I think it’d be double interesting as most of the females break from being the typical passive object that they are in these types of works and are heroes fighting a toxic form of masculinity and making up for the failings of their male comrades. I don’t want to go to much into this so that you’ll want to see what I mean by reading subsequent books, but did want to point out the irony that would occur if such a détournement was ever made.
All this said, as of now I’ve decided on the following post. I like the oldness of the map – which relates to the repetition of patterns in this area of the world. I’d like to change the font to something more stylized – but I plan on doing this after the publication of the third part of the book as then I plan on getting physical copies published and making them available for sale.
Jesse Oberman’s plans for the summer go sideways after discovering that his parents have decided to send him to a drug rehabilitation and leadership program called Natural Living. Natural Living is based upon the Outward Bound program that deals with troubled youth. The reason that Jesse doesn’t go to one of the many treatment and recovery centers in Miami, Book 2 spoiler alert, is that his mother’s boyfriend wanted to have the summer alone with her.
Jesse emphatically does not want to go to into the program or to the Everglades. From a high enough vantage point it appears that there are no people inhabiting the region at all.
This, however, is not true. The Everglades have been continuously occupied by various peoples since 1000 B.C. The Calusa were there first, but their population was decimated by disease and guns by colonial settlers who thought that the land could be easily tamed for intensive agriculture. The land, not a swamp but a river of grass wholly unique in the world, was not easily changed a la the Dutch model nor were the indigenous people that moved there from north easily tamed.
The Muscogee Creek Confederacy was a large civilization in the Mississippi basin area the had lived in the area for some two-thousand years. Faced with dispossession and genocidal actions of the American government and militant settlers, these peoples had two options – to go further west or to go south into areas unsettled by whites. Going west meant conflict with other tribes and continued conflict with White settlers. Going south meant adjusting to life in a radically new environment. Since the
Escaped slaves in Northern Florida, Georgia, Louisiana and Texas were faced with similar considerations. To make a long trip up North where there chances of getting caught were high or to go to the Glades and seek refuge.
The Miccosukee and the Seminoles came to be composed of a mix of indigenous tribes and the descendants of tribesman from Africa. Though their original languages and cultures were different, Creek soon became the common tongue and white men the common enemy. The unpleasant climate and difficulty for agriculture allowed what became the largest haven in the U.S. South for runaway slaves. This was impressive not only for this fact but also as the people’s there were able to organize and lead the largest slave revolt – the 2nd Seminole War – in U.S. history that lead to the only emancipation of rebellious slaves prior to the U.S. Civil War. This and subsequent bellicosity when faced with continued aggression by the Federal government lead to the Seminole epithet of “unconquered tribe”.
Jesse’s entrance into the Everglades and the experiences that he has there should thus not be seen simply as a “rehab and recovery trip”. In Unraveling the only mention of white society’s impact on the Everglades is the early 20th century government’s spreading of melaleuca seeds (now considered an invasive exotic that current taxpayers must pay to destroy) by plane to soak up the fresh water, the introduction of pythons that have decimated the natural wildlife and the alteration of the region via dikes and levies operated by the South Florida Water Management District. Despite this lacuna of discussion, this deeper history remains in the land at a deeper level and Jesse’s speedy adaptation to life there as well as the mystical experience he has directly before he returns home should be seen as his unconscious connection to this history.