Joe Emersberger’s story Segundo’s Revenge is an accomplished and valuable story. It’s artistic and readable, informative and educational. Though pointed and factual in urgent ways, it exhibits as well ambiguity of life and art. The story exemplifies quality propaganda and quality art, which writers on the left have sometimes noted can coexist well, contrary to what liberals and conservatives often decry or dismiss. Stories are invariably propagandistic or political in various ways. What makes Segundo’s Revenge special for progressive social change is that it works both as propaganda and as art, both implicitly and explicitly. Liberal works often function as propaganda mainly implicitly, though sometimes explicitly in part. Liberals often claim that overt propaganda is neither desirable nor aesthetic.
Not all art needs ambiguity to be aesthetic – this story happens to have it as a secondary or tertiary feature, some might argue primary. Segundo’s Revenge is artistic as well beyond ambiguity; for one, it is aesthetic in ways directly tied into the norms of the story and its structure – about which a great deal could be shown. Overall, the story is full of life, an end in itself, and a great tool. Paradoxically, the story’s utility both enhances the art (including the aesthetics) and makes the art often disappear in the face of its normative and educational power. Segundo’s Revenge is complex but simple. It is a pointed and purposeful and agitating creature, a remarkable work of art and education, both welcoming and working.
An earlier draft of Segundo’s Revenge, titled Rodrigo’s Pool, failed to foreground vital content, failed to let that content help shape the story.
There was a lot of vital content in Rodrigo’s Pool, no question, but the thing about art is that it serves a huge function beyond that of nonfiction – often having to do with form and memory, at least. Nonfiction that makes a huge perhaps changing or catalyzing impact can have a powerful form, but fiction/art especially should have it.
To me Rodrigo’s Pool felt like it was playing at being a story, instead of actually being a vital living form, engaging. RP had a high voltage dramatic opening, followed by a history lesson (flashback). That’s a typical structure and yet it did not really cohere – maybe because RP did not continue to be a typical story.
RP may have worked better as part of a much longer piece, but when keeping such a piece short, one is often more well served starting it with a straight history (a section RP put later) which is much more central to the type of story RP was and turned out to be as Segundo’s Revenge. Foregrounding the facts or history gives much more weight and organization to the local drama.
Even mainstream writers give the advice that often to get a piece of fiction going in the imagination you need to start out with straight history. And as it happens, both the great novels Les Misérables and Wizard of the Crow start out this way, with histories of a sort that then open into well formed, or otherwise engaging, short sections that then lead into more or less well formed or variously appealing longer works.
Especially with progressive information (or even any history) that is vital to some story, it’s often most important to orient the hell out of readers right off the bat, then see what power accumulates and how that informs and enhances individual situations of characters and locales and finer aspects of various issues that arise.
So that’s what I suggested with RP, reform everything beginning with history first. Hugo in Les Misérables opens with a sort of dramatic history of character and society, a recounting of family history and a decisive encounter with the Emperor and a Cardinal, followed by a churchman’s professional history. Ngugi dramatizes history in the opening of Wizard of the Crow almost essayistically by starting with several popular theories the people held about the ruler of the country. The opening of Rodrigo’s Pool was very, very limited by comparison, almost literally nowhere, in that it was all micro, and any stray macro detail was tossed in all out of orientation, and almost as a teaser – so it comes across as clichéd and vacuous really, all out of whack with the original intentions. Segundo’s Revenge opens very differently than RP, briefly framed but then immediately launching into key economic, labor, and social history of Ecuador. The power of the writers, the stories, is such that all these histories feel contemporaneous in their urgency and vitality.
Curiously, leading with history in Segundo’s Revenge helps give readers a far stronger sense of an author, or at least of a powerful and invigorating presence behind the story, within and of the story. In RP, one does not get much sense of a strong enlivening force of story. Segundo’s Revenge comes alive throughout, whereas to the extent one begins to get a sense of powerful creation in RP, it begins to come across in the more eagle eye historical recountings.
The effects of overarching broad history affecting the particulars of the present may happen to be the grand underlying theme that runs throughout Joe Emersberger’s stories of social change. Doesn’t mean he need always start with some sort of historical position, if he can make something else work. But until then, he might build identity as a writer and social agent via fiction and ease some formal problems by opening with history that seems to come more naturally or more authentically and urgently, and building from there.
In my view, that’s what he has got that others don’t have, a detailed knowledge of vital progressive history as it relates urgently to today; that’s his effective relative advantage, at this point at least. Not only is it a relative advantage but an inherent advantage for building story, and for creating effective form of expression and communication. His other stories include The Publisher and Dave the Prophet.
History is more likely to explain Joe Emersberger’s existing characters than his characters are likely to explain history, so he does well to go with the history first. With that base, then his fiction can work in all kinds of ways, including eventually characters accounting for history – all of which his earlier two Lib Lit stories do as well. Both of those stories immediately put us into large scale history and keep us there, where it’s clear that something big is at stake and happening and we’re watching it, participating in it, and coming out of it newly equipped for making life and creating change. Those stories are cohered genuine dramatized historical processes (of oppression and change) brought to life as…story…via particular characters making history past and present. It’s like we are living history direct through the skin with the minds of the characters and author, that history is wearing skin and is mindful – the macro brought alive in the skin of the micro, the particular, with the universal at least implicit. And in all three stories the urgency and liberatory possibilities of specific contemporary situations are rendered explicit. Such vital life is there for us to engage and be engaged by, to learn from the experience, and to use.