Margaret Randall on Resistance and the Role of Art in the Struggle for Justice
March 31, 2017
“As writers, I believe we must bear witness. Bear witness in our work to life as we know it, this beautiful life they are doing their best to destroy, erase, and make meaningless.”
Margaret Randall (born in New York, 1936) is a poet, essayist, oral historian, translator, photographer and social activist. She lived in Latin America for 23 years (in Mexico, Cuba, and Nicaragua). From 1962 to 1969, she and Mexican poet Sergio Mondragón co-edited El Corno Emplumado / The Plumed Horn, a bilingual literary quarterly that published some of the best new work of the sixties. When she came home in 1984, the government ordered her to be deported because it found some of her writing to be “against the good order and happiness of the United States.” With the support of many writers and individuals, she won her case to overturn her deportation in 1989.
Throughout the late 1980s and early 1990s, Randall taught at several universities, most notably Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut. Randall’s most recent poetry titles include As If the Empty Chair / Como si la silla vacia, The Rhizome as a Field of Broken Bones, About Little Charlie Lindbergh, and She Becomes Time (all from Wings Press). Che On My Mind (a feminist poet’s reminiscence of Che Guevara, published by Duke University Press) and More Than Things (essays, published by the University of Nebraska Press) are other recent titles. Haydée Santamaria, Cuban Revolutionary: She Led by Transgression was released by Duke University Press in 2015. Exporting Revolution: Cuba’s Global Solidarity will be published by Duke in spring 2017.
Randall has also devoted herself to translation, producing When Rains Become Floods by Lurgio Galván Sánchez and Only the Road / Solo El Camino, an anthology of eight decades of Cuban poetry (both also published by Duke). Red Mountain Press will publish her translations of two individual collections by Cuban poets, and The Operating System will publish two more. Randall lives in New Mexico with her partner (now wife) of almost 30 years, the painter Barbara Byers, and travels extensively to read, lecture, and teach.
Margaret Randall, it is an honor to have this opportunity to interview you. I hope this does not make you uncomfortable, but you are a hero to many of us as a poet, a warrior on many fronts, and as an out lesbian who has seen worldwide changes most of us can only imagine. It is shocking to be here at this place politically in early 2017.
This past year, United States lawmakers have issued more than 200 anti-LGBTQ laws, some of them sticking, and newer ones being presented as bills. North Carolina, Virginia, Tennessee, Arizona, Indiana, and Mississippi all proposed laws stifling our rights all across the nation. A Hillary Clinton Supreme Court would have found these laws unconstitutional (because THEY ARE) but now we do not have the Supreme Court to help end this disturbing and violent return of right-wing anti-LGBTQ legislation.
It is bleak and I keep thinking we need to look back to your generation, Margaret, because if it wasn’t for the work you all did, we would not have the rights we have to lose. Do you have advice as we talk together, just days before Donald Trump’s inauguration?
It’s true that our generation did a lot of work, not only to gain rights for the LGBTQ community but for other groups as well. It’s also true that our generation failed in its overall attempt to make a lasting revolution. These two facts are woven together in complex ways. And so I think while those of our generation have a lot to say to younger people today, our future–the people’s future and the future of the earth itself–is in the hands of those coming up. We can talk about our experiences, our errors, our wrong turns, but it is up to those in their twenties and thirties and forties to move us forward.
Right now we are on the brink of a truly terrible time, not unlike what was happening in Germany in the late 1930s and into the early 1940s. Trump’s neo-fascism is not unlike Hitler’s fascism; only the rhetoric and trappings are different. Like Hitler, Trump is a psychopath and a bully. Both men were/are very clear about their hatred and lack of respect for whole segments of the population. We know what happened to Jews, Roma, homosexuals and those on the political left during the Nazi era. We need to take seriously that similar things can happen to any of us during a Trump administration.
And you’re right, with a Trump nominee on the Supreme Court, or perhaps more than one, work may be undone that took years to build. We need resistance today more than ever before, resistance of every sort. Start with simple acts of kindness, taking care to see the other and extend a hand. And then, whatever your job, put it to work for justice. Inclusive justice. Justice that leaves no one out. It’s clear to me that only by speaking with a truly multiple voice and moving with a truly multiple and multitudinous body, can we stop the tyrant in his tracks.
In 1984, in the middle of the Ronald Reagan presidency, you lost your US citizenship due to your political work. In fact, the INS district director at the time wrote, “…her writings go far beyond mere dissent.” In 1989, you finally won the battle to have your US citizenship reinstated. Could you please tell us where you were in 1984 when you first found out that your rights had stripped and what was going through your mind?
When I decided to come home, after 23 years in Latin America (Mexico, Cuba, Nicaragua), I perhaps naively believed I would be able to apply for residency and eventually retrieve the US citizenship I inadvertently lost when I took out Mexican citizenship in 1967. After all, I was born in the United States. And when I took out Mexican citizenship (I was married to a Mexican, had three small children, and citizenship enabled me to get a better job) I had gone to the US consulate in Mexico City and told them I did not wish to lose my US citizenship. Their reply was that I already had. You ask where I was when I found out I would have trouble coming home, and what was going through my mind.
When I made the decision that it was time for me to come home, I was in Nicaragua. Perhaps what was most in my mind then was a feeling of guilt at leaving my comrades engulfed in war. On the other hand, I didn’t really have a choice. I was emotionally and physically exhausted, on the verge of an emotional breakdown. CA, when I talk about being on the edge of an emotional breakdown when I returned to the US, I probably should say why this was so. Much of it had to do with leaving Nicaragua in the midst of the Contra war, leaving my comrades behind, and moving to a place that presumably was safer.
But there were other issues as well. I was living for the first time without any of my kids. I was grappling with reentering a capitalist society, after almost half a century in revolutionary and/or socialist systems. I was beginning to remember the incest perpetrated upon me by my maternal grandparents. And I was coming out to myself as a lesbian (I couldn’t come out publicly until after my case was resolved since McCarran-Walter barred what it called “sexual deviants” from entering the United States–this need for secrecy was also a strain during the years of my case.) So I was dealing with a lot more than just the immigration case alone.
When I actually came home, on a one-year multiple entrance visa, I immediately started the formalities toward getting my green card. My first inkling that they would single me out for my ideas came when months went by and I didn’t receive a response. That was confirmed when, in mid-1985, I was called into the INS office here in Albuquerque and subjected to a recorded interview that lasted two hours.
On a table they had seven of my books opened to different pages and with certain passages highlighted in yellow magic marker. The INS interviewer kept asking me what I meant by this or that opinion. In all cases, I said I meant exactly what I had written. My opinions, after all, were no different than the opinions of hundreds of thousands of people in this country who were also against US support of Latin American dictatorships, US policy toward countries in its sphere of influence, etc.
About this time I knew I had to get legal representation. I called my old friend Michael Ratner at the Center for Constitutional Rights and he immediately agreed that the organization would take my case. Three expert lawyers from CCR represented me as the case wound its way through the court system, until our victory in 1989.
One of the things I love about CCR is how it combines art with political struggle: we set up 25 defense committees across the country, to educate people about the McCarran-Walter Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952, under which I was being prosecuted. Me and so many others. Although I was charged under that act’s ideological exclusion clause, McCarran-Walter also prohibited entrance into the country for anarchists, socialists, communists, homosexuals, and those suffering from mental illnesses. It was fine to be a fascist!
CCR, as I say, used art and creativity in marvelous ways: it involved PEN’s American Center, well-known writers who were willing to bring a countersuit against the government (Alice Walker, Arthur Miller, William Styron, Grace Paley, Kurt Vonnegut, and others), and staged poetry read-ins, academic sit-ins, bowl-a-thons, house parties, direct mailings, and other events.
We needed to raise a quarter million dollars to fight my case, not including our tax dollars that went toward the government fighting its case against me. We received donations ranging from 5 to 5,000 dollars. I answered each of them personally. Sometimes I felt uncomfortable knowing so much money was being spent on my defense, when millions of undocumented men and women are barred from the United States with no one to represent or support them. On the other hand, I knew that a victory in my case might help change immigration law, which would be to everyone’s benefit.
During the close to five years that my case lasted, many things were on my mind. In the first place, I needed to work to support myself, and the law around employing people in my legal situation wasn’t entirely clear. It was kind of up to the institution, and most institutions wouldn’t take the chance. But Trinity College, in Hartford, Connecticut, did. I will always be grateful.
Another thing that was often on my mind was the dichotomy between the opinions I had expressed twenty or thirty years before and how I would have expressed myself then. This was mostly a matter of expression; I still believed in the same basic principles, but might not have voiced them so stridently. Because I deeply believe in freedom of expression, freedom of dissent, and even the freedom to make mistakes, I had to rededicate myself every day to defending comments I’d made as a very young woman and which I found almost ludicrous during the years of my case.
The government let me know, in no uncertain terms, that all I needed to do was to say “I’m sorry” and things would be different. So I also had to be careful not to say that in order to defend, in both content and form, spelling America with three kkk’s and other comments that now seemed cliched to me.
Knowing I was fighting not just for myself but for many others gave me the strength to get through those years. There was a lot of hate mail, a few physical attacks, incessant travel to appear for five minutes on Good Morning America, The Tonight Show, or Larry King Live–a very heavy schedule of public appearances for someone quietly suffering an emotional breakdown. The incredible support kept me going.
There were physical attacks? After appearing on television? What happened?
Because there are so many people out there who seem to need to make their bully presence felt despite not knowing the facts, I suffered physical attacks throughout the almost five years of my case. Not necessarily after appearing on television, but surely after the case was in the public eye in some way–either it was a court hearing or it was featured in the press for whatever reason.
People often shouted: “Go back where you came from!” totally unaware that I was born in New York City. The worst was when a young man came into my office at the University of New Mexico one day and beat me up. He wasn’t a student, more of a drifter who hung around campus. From then on the university stationed a campus policeman at my door when I did office hours.
I would get some pretty scary hate mail, although I actually received about 99 supportive letters to every hate letter. Once in a while, we’d be out at the movies or something, and someone would rush me and spit, Although, again, more people approached to hug me than anything else. It was the not knowing what was coming that kept you off balance.
Someone holding up a sign that said “Pinko” tried to run me off the freeway. And once, a stranger sitting next to me on one of my frequent flights recognized me and asked if he could pray for me. I thought he meant silently, so I said of course. Turned out he was a Southern Baptist minister and he prayed out loud the entire hour-long flight: “God forgive this communist woman…” etc. etc.!! I was glad the flight was only an hour long! As I say, there were many many shows of support, for which I am still grateful. The relatively few attackers made up in viciousness what they lacked in numbers, though.
It was terrifying, but I kind of got used to it over the years. It really defined who’s hateful in this country and what they tend to do to make themselves feel important.
Duke University Press has recently published your book Haydée Santamaria, Cuban Revolutionary: She Led By Transgression, and it seems she is someone who also dealt with a lot of physical violence and bullying. You mentioned once when we were talking that you considered her to be a mentor to you. Could you please tell us when you both first met?
Yes, Haydée Santamaría also dealt with violence in her life, much more than I have. Bullying, not so much. It was a different era and I don’t think she would have stood for bullying. Which is not to put the blame on those who are bullied–it’s generally impossible to avoid it, and one must learn how to cope in ways that protect one’s own dignity and safety.
Haydée was from the Cuban countryside. She was born and raised on a sugar plantation, where her father was the carpenter at the mill. She only had a sixth-grade education, at a one-room country schoolhouse. Then her younger brother, with whom she was very close, invited her to come to Havana where he was living.
He made contact with Fidel Castro and his group of revolutionaries, and his sister fit right in. Haydée and one other woman, along with 160 men, took part in the attack on Moncada Barracks–the second largest military garrison in the country–in an action they hoped would spark a revolution and the overthrow of Cuba’s dictator, Batista. The attack was a failure, though, at least militarily.
Eighty of those brave young people were either shot during the battle or tortured to death after. The soldiers showed Haydée her brother’s eye and lover’s testicle, to try to make her talk. She was imprisoned for 14 months following Moncada. Fidel and a few other survivors were imprisoned for more than two years.
Eventually they all got out, went to Mexico where they regrouped, and returned to Cuba on the aging yacht, Granma. Then the war began in earnest. Haydée took part in every phase of that war: in the mountains, in the city underground, traveling to the US to buy arms from the Mafia, etc. She is the only woman to have taken part in every area of the Cuban struggle.
After the victory of 1959, and despite the fact that Haydée had only a sixth-grade education and had never gone to university or studied art history, Fidel asked her to found and direct a cultural institution capable of breaking through the blockade that the United States launched against Cuban art and culture. People talk about the economic and trade aspects of the US blockade against Cuba, but less about its cultural side. The Cubans knew how important that cultural side was.
Haydée founded and, until her death, directed Casa de las Americas, which became the most important arts institution on the continent. It holds a yearly literary contest in a dozen categories, invites artists, writers, and thinkers to Cuba from all over the world, makes Cuban art and literature known beyond the Island, and more. Every single day at Casa there is at least one free cultural event.
But Casa’s importance has gone beyond the pure exchange of art and artists. From the beginning, Haydée imbued it with a horizontal working model… and during the years of the worst repression of homosexuals and others deemed “different,” she personally took those artists in, protected them with her great prestige, and gave them space to work and grow. She was extraordinary in every way. She was also besieged by the demons she had encountered at Moncada.
I met Haydée for the first time in January of 1967, when I was living in Mexico, editing El Corno Emplumado, and had been invited to Cuba to participate in a meeting of poets sponsored by Casa. We immediately clicked. She was down to earth, consumed by the struggle for justice, naturally lacking in classism, racism, homophobia, or any other bias. I considered her a mentor and a friend. After I moved to Cuba in 1969, we got to know one another better. My book is filled with anecdotes and stories.
Haydée, as I have said, was burdened by what she had been forced to live through at Moncada. She suffered from depression, that was not well understood in Cuba in the 1970s and ’80s. In July of 1980, she committed suicide. The night of her wake was one of the worst of my life. I stood in an honor guard at the head of her casket for two minutes, looking down at her face in death. I swore then that I would one day write about this extraordinary woman. It took me many years, but the book just out from Duke University Press is the result of that vow. It is not a biography in the traditional sense of the word, though it gives enough biographical information so the reader can begin to understand the woman herself. It is more a poet’s impressionistic vision of someone truly unusual and courageous than anything else.
What did you learn from your time in Cuba with Haydée about what we can do now for our world? The suffering of war and police brutality is only increasing and I was wondering what tools or ideas you can share with us about what we can all do?
I think what Haydée taught me, more than anything, is that justice can only be measured by inclusiveness, never by being exclusive. The Cuban Revolution taught us all that a different society is possible. That exploitation is wrong, and that a small island nation can stand up to the greatest power on earth and maintain its dignity and independence.
But then we all know that the Cuban Revolution failed gay people for a while, failed anyone deemed “different,” didn’t go far enough in creating equality for women or Afro-Cubans. Haydée fought all that. She just naturally brought dark skinned and gay artists into Casa’s embrace. She made a space for people who–in their art and in their lives–challenged the rigidity that raised its ugly head from time to time within the revolutionary context, artists who made the power structure uncomfortable.
She was a member of the Cuban Communist Party’s Central Committee, and, on several occasions, she went to Central Committee meetings dressed as a man, to protest the Party’s unwillingness to look at gender issues. She didn’t have to read Marx or Lenin to stand for what she knew was just; it came naturally to her. Even as part of the Revolution’s leadership, she cared less about a party line, a correct line, or any -ism. She was REAL, in that way we would all hope to be real all the time.
Making, and especially preserving, a Socialist revolution so close to the United States has been no easy job these past 56 years. There were many times when the Revolution claimed unity as more important than identity politics, and there were times it may have been right in doing so. Or, if not right, at least that stance was necessary at that moment. But Haydée taught us–taught me–there is always another way if you look for it, if you truly want to find it.
There were those who could not forgive what they considered Haydée’s extremism. It was never extremism to me. And the proof lies in the fact that Casa de las Americas, today, is the same horizontal, embracing, welcoming institution it always was. You cross the threshold and you can feel it. You can feel her presence, 35 years after her death. Her leadership didn’t die with her, but lives on in everyone carrying on her collaborative work model, her fierce inclusiveness, her courage, and brilliance, and compassion.
When the Revolution came to power in 1959, people like Haydée immediately began receiving letters from relatives, friends, friends of friends, and others who suddenly came out of the woodwork asking for this or that favor. I don’t think there are many people in power who don’t grant a favor here or there, open a door for someone they know, assume the “benefactor role.” Not Haydée.
When I was doing my research for the book I had access to all her correspondence, every letter written to her, and every one of her answers. One letter in particular I reproduce in the book because it seemed so emblematic to me of who she was. The letter was written at the beginning of the Revolution. It was signed only with a first name, so it’s not entirely clear who wrote it, but it appears to have been from a family member of her first lover, who had a relative in prison for some reason.
The letter writer seemed to have tried to get Haydée to intercede on behalf of the relative, and she seemed to must have refused. So in this letter the writer said something to the effect that “now that you are so important, you don’t care about your old friends anymore.” Haydée’s response was furious and to the point. She said that the letter-writer had an odd idea of what constituted importance. She said that she was important back when she had been willing to give her life at Moncada, not now that she was director of Casa de las Americas. And she reiterated her refusal to pull strings because of her position.
This particular exchange of letters intrigued me, because when that letter-writer called Haydée important, even in that mocking way, I expected Haydée–in the spirit of how most women thought of themselves at the time–to respond something to the effect that she wasn’t important, to put herself down as women have been educated to do. But that wasn’t her response. She knew and honored her own importance, but it was the importance of having been willing to step up when history called, not of holding some position.
Haydée also taught me the importance of art in revolution. Of art in life. She wasn’t the only one who taught me this, of course. But she was as influential as anyone in my understanding of it. She always used to say that art was necessary to revolution, and that the highest state a person could aspire to was being an artist.
Haydée never separated the human being from their condition as an artist. She saw them of a piece. I am sure you know great artists who aren’t such good people… yet and their art is still valuable. But she definitely considered people as both humans and as artists, and saw those two conditions as feeding each other. I never heard her put anyone down; she might critique a job poorly done, but it was the job she critiqued, not the person.
I could go on and on, telling stories that illustrate what I learned from Haydée. I don’t want to because then there would be no surprises left for those who want to read the book.
You and Haydée see the value in others around you in a way that feels vital, now more than ever. As a writer, a poet, and a creative person who is also committed to political action, can you please tell us what we can do as poets and artists for the world in these darkening hours of life on Earth?
I think the most any of us can do, right now, is engage in acts of kindness, SEE the people around us, and make them feel they are seen. The powers dragging our planet down count on us all feeling like meaningless pawns–powerless and resigned. Each of us has an obligation to not be that, to the fullest of our abilities: a kind word, a helping hand, a breath of clean air, a poem, a delicious meal, a sliver of protection, a bit of quiet, some knowledge, some peace.
As writers, I believe we must bear witness. Bear witness in our work to life as we know it, this beautiful life they are doing their best to destroy, erase, and make meaningless. With the rise of hate, fear, violence, and death on all sides, I think any counter-energy we can put out there is valuable. Get it down on paper, read it out loud, lift our voices, share the work…
One problem is that the above sounds good but is very vague and theoretical when it comes to the precision power of the destructive forces lined up against humanity. Sometimes it feels like it did back in the day when we used to chant: “They have millions and we must hold bake sales!” Except that now, instead of millions they have trillions, and no bake sale can heal the damage being done.
If each of us lives as if the poem, the painting, the song, the novel, the symphony, the dance, etc., is important and worth of our best effort, we ARE putting something out into the world that helps to balance the ugliness and lies. We cannot allow ourselves and those we love to become so much more collateral damage. Be aware, and ACT!
Can you please tell us about your translations of Chely Lima’s beautiful new book and also the anthology of Cuban poetry you edited?
I have long felt a special relationship with Cuba and, the Cuban revolution–the only successful revolution on the American continent–despite its many lasting problems still resisting attack from so many quarters. Having lived in Cuba throughout the 1970s (1969-1980), much of my own poetic development happened there, alongside Cuban poets who were close friends. I have also long believed that poets tell a truer story about a country or culture than social scientists do. So, although I have translated a great deal of Cuban poetry since those years (producing several bilingual collections), more recently I set myself to the task with renewed passion.
Perhaps the most important result of this has been Only the Road / Solo El Camino: Eight Decades of Cuban Poetry, recently out from Duke University Press. The anthology is fully bilingual and includes a long historical and/literary introduction in which I deal with all the difficult issues and hope also to give a sense of Cuba’s cultural ambience. Fifty-six poets are represented with several poems each. And there are ample notes on each poet. I should also say that the book is based on the “whole island” concept of Cuba–in other words it includes poets living inside the country and those who live elsewhere. Although literary quality was my first criteria, 45% of the poets are women–reflecting, I suppose, my feminist consciousness.
While reading for and selecting the poets I would include in Only the Road, I naturally read a great deal. And I kept on reading, way past turning in the finished manuscript for the 510-page anthology. This led to my translating close to a dozen other books by individual Cuban poets. You ask about Chely Lima’s book. It is definitely one of the most important books of poetry I have read in recent years. Lima was presenting as a young woman when I knew him many years ago in Cuba. I included poems by him in an anthology of poetry by Cuban women that I produced in 1982, before he began transitioning, of poetry by Cuban women. I looked for him during my selection process for the new anthology, but couldn’t find him. Then, after the anthology was at the press, I came across Chely Lima living in Miami. Only now I realized that he had transitioned. We began writing, and he sent me a manuscript that grabbed me immediately, a book of poems that address his transition both physically and emotionally. It is a stunning book, as you know (since you wrote such a fine blurb for it). Lima speaks with a unique voice, searing and powerful. Once we had polished my translations, I was fortunate enough to place the book with The Operating System, a marvelous experimental publisher in Brooklyn. Its director, Lynne DeSilva-Johnson was as taken with the book as I am, and will release it in 2017.