Margaret Randall is a writer, poet, photographer, feminist, and political activist. She lived much of her early adult life in Mexico, Cuba, and Nicaragua and has written over eighty books including collections of poetry, oral histories, memoirs, essays, translations, and photography books. Born into a white, middle-class, assimilated Jewish family in 1936, she grew up in New Mexico. A young poet, she moved to New York City in the late 1950s where she lived and worked among the abstract expressionists, and decided to have a child on her own.
In the early ’60s, she moved to Mexico City with her young son, married a Mexican poet, co-founded and ran the bilingual literary journal El Corno Emplumado (The Plumed Horn) for eight years, and had two daughters. Unable to have dual citizenship at the time, she became Mexican so that she could live and work hassle free. She divorced the Mexican and married an American poet with whom she had a daughter. After taking a prominent role in the Mexican student movement in 1968, she was persecuted by the Mexican government and forced to flee the country, first to Prague, then to Cuba where she spent the next eleven years. Later she would describe this period in To Change the World: My Years in Cuba (2009)
In an effort to understand what a socialist revolution could mean for women, she collected oral histories published in Cuban Women Now: Interviews with Cuban Women (1974).
In 1980, she moved to Sandinista Nicaragua where she interviewed women about their role in the revolution, resulting in Sandino’s Daughters: Testimonies of Nicaraguan Women in Struggle (1981) and Sandino’s Daughters Revisited: Feminism in Nicaragua (1994). She wrote an account of her own disillusionment with women’s involvement and treatment in radical social movements in Gathering Rage: The Failure of 20th Century Revolutions to Develop a Feminist Agenda (1992).
She moved back to the U.S in 1984. The following year, under the McCarran-Walter Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952, based on some of her writings she was accused of being “against the good order and happiness of the United States”; her deportation was ordered. After a five-year legal battle, she finally won her case at the Washington-based Board of Immigration Appeals in a split decision in 1989. Ruth Bader Ginsberg wrote the opinion giving her victory. Coming Home: Peace Without Complacency
(1990) describes the ordeal. During this period, she came out as a lesbian.
This autumn, Randall, now seventy-seven, published two more books. Che on My Mind is a 160-page tour-de-force in which, with her poetic and visual sensibility, she considers Che Guevara’s life and legacy. The slim tome is also a meditation on how her own beliefs on revolution have changed, a prose poem on the vicissitudes of protest, courage, and the tricks of time. The other book, More Than Things, is a collection of essays meandering through her extraordinary life, using things — objects, people, places, poems — as points of departure for exploring ideas, dreams, memories and the ever-shifting meanings of what it is to be alive.
Randall’s first essay “Shaping My Words” sets the wistful, bleak, yet ultimately uplifting tone of her entire collection. It is both an homage to Haydée Santamaría and a personal consideration of suicide. Santamaría was a member of the Cuban Communist Party’s Central Committee and the president of Cuba’s cultural institution Casa de las Américas. She took her own life in 1980 not long before Randall moved away. She is the author of one of the Cuban Revolution’s “most moving and iconic texts,”Haydée Habla del Moncada , in which she describes being one of two women who participated in the 1953 attack on Moncada Barracks, a crucial battle in the Cuban Revolution. Randall writes of her: “This was a woman who embodies all that was promising about the revolution: its uniquely Cuban roots and risk, its brilliance, creativity, and passion, a genuine appreciation of difference, and the authority to journey where others didn’t know enough or didn’t have the courage to go.”
Though one can never know why someone decides to end her life, in reflecting on Haydée’s political disenchantment then, and on her own now with U.S. policy, Randall asks, “What do we do, what can we do, when faced with such weighty evidence that those who would destroy life as we know it are winning on every side?” In her apocalyptic vision of our future her solution to the impending social, political, cultural, and environmental doom is not to end her own life but to “whisper or shout, shaping my words into ever new configurations of a dignity that documents and empowers” — in other words, to write.
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