Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Margaret Randall: A Life In Writing / Part I

Margaret Randall is a poet, photographer, essayist, activist and world traveler. She has documented the lives of women from Cuba, Mexico, Nicaragua, and the U.S., and many other countries. Her most recent books include two poetry collections: Something’s Wrong with the Cornfields (Skylight Press, 2011) and As if the Empty Chair/Como si la silla vacia (Wings Press, 2011); and a book of essays, First Laugh: Essays 2000-2009 (University of Nebraska Press, 2011).

Born in New York in City in 1936, Margaret’s parents made their permanent home in New Mexico. Margaret moved to Mexico in 1961 and became a Mexican citizen in 1967. She later moved to Cuba and Nicaragua where she spent 15 years documenting the lives of women during these countries’ revolutionary years. Upon her return to the U.S. States, she was denied permanent residence on the basis of having expressed opinions in her books that questioned the U.S.’s policy in Southeast Asia and Central America. Eventually, Margaret’s citizenship denial was overturned thanks to her perseverance for justice and love for her country. She now lives in New Mexico where she resides with her life companion, teacher and painter, Barbara Byers.

I had the honor and pleasure of interviewing Margaret several weeks ago. What follows is a conversation on writing, motherhood, activism and poetics.

This is part I of II.

You have lived for extended periods in Mexico, Cuba, and Nicaragua. What circumstances took you to each of these places?

Maria, you asked me to give you some idea of my life to date, particularly how I came to move around so much, to live in Mexico, Cuba and Nicaragua for long periods of time, and then finally come back to the U.S. I'm 74, so it's a pretty long story. But I'll try to hit the highlights. I was born in New York City in 1936. My parents were assimilated Jews and middle-class, although both those definitions bear further explanation. They were Jews but rather anti-Semitic, self-hating Jews who changed the family name when I was an infant. And class-wise my father was a public school music teacher, but there was family money that allowed for travel and other things a music teacher's salary would have been hard put to afford. My parents weren't happy in the east, and in 1947 they piled my sister, brother and me into their old Studebaker and drove around the country looking for a new place to live. They settled in Albuquerque. Although we were eastern transplants, the border area and Latino culture in general were to play important roles in our lives. My mother became a Spanish/English translator, devoting much of her life to the work of the Cuban Jose Marti. And I ended up living much of my life in Latin America, where three of my four children were born.

So I grew up here, and then, when I was in my early twenties I moved to New York. I always knew I wanted to be a writer, and as a provincial and rather romantic young woman I thought writers lived in New York! My four years in New York City were important in my formation. There I fell in with some of the abstract expressionist painters who dominated the art scene back then. And there I met the first poets and writers I knew who took their craft seriously. I've often said that I learned craft, and discipline, in New York.

In New York I also had my first child, Gregory, who was born in 1960. I had been married, briefly, in New Mexico, and didn't want or wasn’t ready to try that again. But I did want a child. So I got pregnant and had Gregory, and although the art world welcomed him, it was quite unusual to have a child on one's own back then. But I never really thought much about that. When I set out to do something, there was little that could have stopped me.

Still, it wasn't easy to be a single mother in New York City in the early 1960s. There were no social services. I worked hard to support the two of us, and almost never got to spend time with my son. So when he was ten months old, in the summer of 1961, the two of us boarded a Greyhound bus and headed for Mexico City. I was tired of New York by then, or maybe I felt the city had given me what I needed from it. I had the idea that in Mexico I would be able to support my son more easily and, most importantly, spend more time with him.

Mexico City was an exciting place in the early 1960s. The city, although large, was still manageable. Artists and writers were respected. I quickly fell in with a group of young poets who gathered almost every night at the apartment of U.S. American beat poet Philip Lamantia. We were a dozen or so poets, from Mexico, the U.S., Peru, Nicaragua, and several other countries. We read to one another. We quickly realized not only that we didn't know what was going on in each other’s literary worlds, but we didn't even know each other’s mentors. For example the young Latin Americans had never read Whitman or Williams or Pound, and we U.S. Americans hadn't read Vallejo or Neruda. We started talking about the need for a bilingual literary journal where we could publish good translations, a journal that was not subject to an institution or the academy but was truly independent. That's how EL CORNO EMPLUMADO / THE PLUMED HORN was born.

A young Mexican poet named Sergio Mondragon--who also frequented Philip's apartment--and I fell in love, eventually married, and decided to found the magazine. At first no one believed we were serious. But we walked the streets, begged work from the best young poets, and looked for patronage and support. We got some of the older poets to believe in us, and especially after we'd produced our first issue, in January of 1962, people began to trust that we were really doing what we said we would.

EL CORNO EMPLUMADO was part of a great literary and artistic renaissance that was happening at the time throughout many parts of the world. In the U.S., creative people were just beginning to emerge from the repressive 1960s, with McCarthyism and all that meant for freedom of expression. In Latin America many of the young poets were involved in the liberation movements that were just beginning to surface against fascist dictators in a great many countries. The time was definitely right for a project like ours, and in fact we were part of a world-wide movement that had its expression in hundreds of new magazines, theater groups, musical movements, groups of painters...

EL CORNO lasted eight years. We published 31 issues, each of them between 200 and 300 pages long. When I look back on that time, and especially when I reread the journal, I can hardly believe we were able to achieve so much!

But most things come to an end sooner or later. In 1968 Mexico, like several other countries, was the scene of a powerful student movement. In Mexico the movement was huge. Workers and farmworkers joined the students. And the Mexican government that had invested millions in building the installations for the Olympics that were due to begin in October of that year, felt it had to put the movement down when tourists started canceling their hotel reservations. And so October 2, 1968 saw one of the worst massacres in Mexico's history. More than a thousand unarmed people were murdered in the Plaza de Tlatelolco. The magazine had taken the side of the students, and I myself had also become involved in the movement. As a result, the magazine could no longer publish, and the following year, 1969, I had to go underground. I eventually found my way out of Mexico and to Cuba.

Why Cuba? Well, I had been to Cuba twice by then, in 1967 and 1969. In Mexico we got a lot of information about the young revolution, information I wouldn't have had access to had I remained in the U.S. I was fascinated by the revolutionary process, and when I had problems in Mexico I decided to give Cuba a try.

And I ended up living in Cuba for 11 years, from 1969 to 1980. By this time Sergio and I were no longer together. I lived with a U.S. American poet named Robert Cohen, and I had four young children: my son who was born in New York, two daughters with Sergio, and then my youngest who is Robert's child. When we went to Cuba the oldest was 8 and the youngest 3 months old!

I feel very fortunate to have been able to raise my children in Cuba, especially during their early years (my oldest two finished their undergraduate work there as well). The Cuban Revolution was alive and well back then, and it was an exciting time. My children grew up with solid values of justice, fairness, and equality because of being raised there.

During the years we lived in Cuba, I was also fortunate, as a woman and a mother, to be able to have access to the advantages of a socialist society, things like free daycare, free health care, free education for my children, worker's dining rooms, and also just the respect and support the Cuban revolution always gave to artists and writers. Creativity has been one of the things that has set the Cuban process apart, even through the more recent years of more complex difficulties and problems.

Of course nothing is perfect, and I did suffer some of the ingrained traditional expectations that always seem to keep women relegated to some sort of service role. For example, throughout my years in Cuba, I worked ten to twelve hours a day at a publishing house, and wrote late at night. I look back at some of the books I produced during those years, and realize how much more profound they might have been had I not had to attend to my children and the house more than my partner did. For many years I wrote on a desk in the corner of our bedroom, with a diaper pail sitting on the corner of that desk! Still, it was a good deal better than it would have been in a capitalist country at the time.

And so our life in Cuba unfolded. The Cuban revolution supported many of the other liberation struggles taking place at the time on the continent, among them the Sandinistas in Nicaragua. When the Sandinista revolution came to power in 1979, I already knew many of the main players. I had written a book about one of the women in 1975. I should say that at the very end of my time in Mexico I discovered feminism: the first essays and documents that came out of the women's movement in the United States and Western Europe. Feminism became very important to me, both as a personal practice and as an explanation for much of what I knew was wrong with society. I started doing oral history projects with women, something I did a lot of in Cuba. So when the Sandinistas won their war in 1979, I had already published a number of books about women's lives. I was invited to Nicaragua to learn about what was happening with women there. This eventually led to my leaving Cuba, at the end of 1980, and moving to Nicaragua. My two oldest children opted to remain in Cuba--they were both in college at the time--and the two younger girls accompanied me. Actually my second youngest daughter, Ximena, also stayed in Cuba. She wanted to finish high school. But she joined Ana and me in Managua at the end of that first year. We lived in Nicaragua for four years, until I finally decided to return to the U.S. in 1984.

Why my desire to return? I loved Latin America; I speak Spanish with my children and most of my grandchildren. I think of myself as something of a hybrid. But New Mexico is my land, my landscape. My original language is English. My parents were growing older, and I myself was in my late forties. I wanted to spend some time close to them before it was too late. The Contra war had heated up in Nicaragua as well by then. I was exhausted, both in the sense of what was going on in my life right then and in terms of having lived in the midst of such demanding scenarios for so many years. A number of factors influenced my wanting to "come home."

But the U.S. government wasn't about to make it easy for me. Back in Mexico, when I was married to Sergio and needed to work in that country, I had taken out Mexican citizenship. So when I returned to the land of my birth, I had to ask for a green card like any immigrant. I hoped eventually to recover my U.S. citizenship. The government used this situation against me. In October, 1984, my request for residency was denied and I was ordered deported. The stated reason –and this is a literal quote— was that my writing "went beyond the good order and happiness of the United States(!)" What they did was use a 1952, McCarthy-era immigration law against me. It is called the McCarran-Walter Immigration and Nationality Act. I was called to an interview at the Federal Building in downtown Albuquerque, where 7 of my books were laying open on a table, with passages highlighted with yellow magic marker. I was told that the opinions expressed in those books were contrary to U.S. policy in Southeast Asia and in Central America, which was certainly true. I was asked what I meant by those statements, and replied that I meant exactly what they said. That I had always believed this was a country where freedom of dissent and expression were protected by the Constitution. Thus began a very difficult period in my life, in which I chose to fight the deportation order. I lost in one court after another –my first trial was in the courthouse in El Paso, Texas—until I finally won my case on appeal in 1989.

Then, I guess, I was finally home. A middle-aged woman trying to figure out the next chapter of her life. At the time I had also come out as a lesbian, was living without my children for the first time, was trying to earn a living in a country which was mine but with which I was no longer really familiar, and much else. Through some psychotherapy, I also discovered the root of a long-time phobia: I had suffered incest at the hands of my maternal grandfather when I was very young, and had blocked the experience from my mind. So I had a lot to deal with.

How you were able to raise four children, write, and be an activist and move around the world is quite amazing, a feat in itself. Can you tell us more about this?

I think I touched on this already to some degree. Moving around the world was just what I did. It was in my nature. When I was curious about something, I explored, I asked. When I was curious about other places I tried to visit them. I’ve always been like this, although more so in my youth. For example, aside from the places where I’ve ended up living, I visited some other pretty amazing places. I visited North Vietnam while the war was going on (I was living in Cuba at the time, and was invited by the women of the North Vietnamese Women’s Union… it was six months before the end of the war and I was one of only nine foreigners in the country at the time). In 1973-74 I went to Peru for four months to work for the United Nations’ International Labor Office during the exciting government of Velasco Alvarado. I was also briefly in Chile during the Allende government. Much more recently, when I saw a show about Petra at the Museum of Natural History in New York, I had a powerful urge to visit Petra, which is a massive Nabataean ruin in Jordan. So I found a way for us to go. The same thing with Easter Island, a tiny island in the middle of the South Central Pacific, where giant stone statues called moai line the coastline. I read an article about Easter Island in the New York Times travel section, and had to see it for myself.

So that’s part of it. I also knew I wanted to have children and, as I’ve already said, from a very early age I knew I wanted to be a writer. So I simply had to figure out how to do both those things. And as I developed a political consciousness, I also knew I had to be an activist for social change. I’ve sometimes said that I’m actually glad that I had my children before I became a feminist, because I didn’t really think about any of that theoretically, I just did what I had to do.

Which of course doesn’t mean any of it was easy. I had my share of struggles, like all active mothers, my share of fights with husbands (more than one husband!) who talked a feminist line but when it came right down to doing the housework or cooking or caring for the children, somehow “forgot” or acted like we were both equal but I was a bit more equal when it came to all that. I guess I am a pretty strong-willed person, and I just never “settled.” And although my children sometimes complained that I was “making the revolution for all the world’s children, while ignoring their needs,” I think in the long run they appreciated having a mother who was a role model in terms of going after what she wanted to do and doing it.

Also, as I’ve said, I’ve had help. In Mexico, when the children were very young, we had a woman who worked in the house. Almost everyone in Mexico has domestic servants (problematic as that is!), even those who are not at all well off. Then, when we moved to Cuba, the revolution provided social services that helped working mothers. By the time I moved to Nicaragua, my two daughters who accompanied me were older and really didn’t need “child care” any longer.

Was it difficult to love your country again after spending so many years away?

What a wonderful question, Maria! I do love my country, passionately. I don’t love its succession of governments, of course, but there are few countries about which I think one can love the government. I love the many rich cultures here, and I love the ever-changing language. I love the landscape of New Mexico, which figures prominently in my work: the desert, the mountains, the canyons, the vast space and special light.

With some exceptions, I also love the people in this country. There is a vast political ignorance, but once most people learn what is really happening, they are good people.

So, although I love my country, and fought very hard to be able to come home, I also had to figure out how to live here again after so many decades away. When I returned in 1984 I had never seen a bank machine, never had a credit card. Much was familiar but much was also new. It was a learning process.

Sometimes during the five years of my immigration case, someone—usually a heckler—would ask me why I didn’t “go back where I came from,” or imply that if I really loved my country I wouldn’t have done the things I was being accused of doing. My answer was always the same: it is precisely because I love my country so much that I want it to be the best it can be.

How do you feel about the idea of writing as activism? Do you think poets and writers can influence social change through writing?

I’m not sure I like the idea of “writing as activism.” Writing is writing and activism is activism. If one is forced to embrace the other, it usually ends up detracting from both. Having said that, I do believe that we write out of who we are. If we are social activists, our writing will reflect that—even writing that is not specifically aimed at political themes.

And I do very much believe that writers can influence social change. Look at “I Am Joaquin.” Look at Brecht. Look at Ginsberg. Look at many of the great women poets and writers, especially women writers of color, over the past couple of generations. All this work has opened people up, changed their perception of the world, pointed them in the direction of wanting to make change, or at the very least of gaining a broader perspective on what the world is about, how other peoples besides oneself experience it, the values they have and cultures they embody.

To be effective, writing first of all must be good. It must work as writing. Once it does that, it carries the message implicit or explicit in it.

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