The Complexities of Putting Ideals into Practice: Interview with Margaret Randall



Margaret Randall is a feminist poet, writer, photographer, and social activist.  Born in New York City in 1936 and currently residing in Albuquerque, New Mexico, she has also spent a number of years outside the United States.  Randall participated in the 1968 student movement while living in Mexico City, from where she was forced to flee to Cuba in 1969.  She was in Cuba during the period of reconstruction (1969-1980), after which she moved to Nicaragua and witnessed the first four years of the Sandinista project (1980-1984).  She also visited North Vietnam in 1974 during the last months of the U.S. war in Vietnam.

Randall has published an extensive collection of poetry, essays, photography, and over 100 books.  In the 1960s, she co-founded and co-edited the bilingual literary journal El Corno Emplumado/The Plumed Horn, which published some of the most dynamic and meaningful writing of its time.  Other titles include Cuban Women Now; Sandino’s Daughters; This Is About Incest; Walking to the Edge: Essays of Resistance; Hunger’s Table: Women, Food & Politics; Gathering Rage; and Inside the Nicaraguan Revolution.  Some of her recent titles include Ruins, First Laugh, The Rhizome as a Field of Broken Bones, and As If the Empty Chair/Como si la silla vacía.  Che on My Mind and More Than Things will be out in fall 2013.

In 1984, Randall came back to the United States, but was ordered to be deported under the 1952 McCarran-Walter Immigration and Nationality Act.  She had taken Mexican citizenship while living and working in Mexico, resulting in the loss of her United States citizenship.  Upon her arrival, the U.S. government refused to grant her back her citizenship, and claimed that the opinions expressed in Randall’s texts were “against the good order and happiness of the United States.”  The Center for Constitutional Rights, as well as several writers, supported Randall through a five-year lawsuit.  She eventually won her case in 1989 and her citizenship was restored.

Margaret Randall serves as a role model to younger social activists for her continued efforts to create positive social change.  Her bravery, outspokenness, and commitment to justice and equality continue to inspire her readers.  I had the privilege to interview Randall after seeing the documentary The Unapologetic Life of Margaret Randall in a Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies class at the University of Connecticut.  I was immediately impressed by Randall’s story and particularly mesmerized by her escape from Mexico to Cuba.  Perhaps her intense commitment to social justice work and her burning passion to make the world a better place were what touched me the most in the documentary.  I expressed my interest in wanting to interview her for a research project, and was lucky to be connected to her through my professor, Delia D. Aguilar.  Randall agreed to do the interview and made time in her busy schedule to thoroughly answer my rather lengthy questions.  The fact that I received her answers the following morning after emailing her my questions shows that Margaret Randall is not only a brilliant writer and activist, but also a very generous person.

Margaret Randall has four children, 10 grandchildren, and has lived with her life companion Barbara Byers for a quarter century.

Interview with Margaret Randall

1. (A) How would you compare second-wave feminism to contemporary feminism?  For example, what do you think the second wave had that today’s feminism has lost, and what do you think contemporary feminism has gained that the second wave didn’t have?

Rather than compare or contrast second-wave feminism with feminism today, I think of them as organically sequential and related.  The latter would not be possible without the former.  Media pundits, some scholars, and others who enjoy designating discrete feminist periods pay a lot of attention to naming those periods.  This may work for longer-range historical periods, such as “the classic Maya” or “Cold War.”  But I am a woman, a feminist, and I am alive now.  In my sense of things, this nomenclature is somewhat meaningless.

Without the women (and men) who struggled for the women’s vote in the early years of the twentieth century, without the brave textile workers or the women of Hull House, there could have been no struggle for reproductive rights and the ERA later in that century.  Without success in Roe vs. Wade, and even the lack of success in the struggle for an Equal Rights Amendment, feminists today would not be fighting current battles but would still be dealing with those.  Of course different historical moments birth different struggles, not just in terms of women’s rights, but for all peoples.

Many young feminists today have different priorities than my generation did.  Some of them refer to our struggles with a sort of irritation, unable to understand that without what we did they wouldn’t be where they are now.  What I sometimes don’t believe they recognize is that they are able to prioritize the way they do precisely because of the battles we fought and won — or even those we lost.  I see the struggle for equality as a continuum rather than as a series of separate efforts.  Creating catchy new labels for our struggles seems to me to be the prerogative of a sound-bite-giddy press.  It obscures the true complexity of our ongoing need.

(B) Many authors argue that contemporary (mainstream) feminism lacks a critique of capitalism, imperialism, and neocolonialism.  Would you agree with this?  If so, do you think it is important for mainstream feminism to discuss these topics, and if so, how could these issues be centralized in feminist discourse?

I do think mainstream feminism lacks a critique of capitalism, imperialism, and neocolonialism.  But so does mainstream everything else; in a capitalist society this is almost a definition of mainstream.  Mainstream anti-racists, gay rights activists, economists, and even historians do as well.

I have long believed that one of the central problems in all our struggles is our inability to grasp our interconnectedness: the ways in which capitalism or imperialism affect women’s rights, for example, or the ways in which race and class and gender intersect.  Because we are intellectually isolated in this country, by which I mean that we are poorly educated and have little real sense of ourselves in a global context, even well-meaning people tend to see their needs as isolated from the needs of others.  I am a feminist.  Or I suffer from racism.  Or I am poor.  Or I live near a toxic waste dump.  We tend to focus on our individual lives and problems, incapable of seeing the bigger picture or understanding the connections — where our problems intersect and how their possible solutions do as well.

As to whether or not I think it is important for mainstream feminism to discuss these topics, of course I do.  I think it is important that everyone interested in justice learn to see the interconnectedness of our struggles.  These issues can only be centralized in feminist or any other sort of discourse through an analysis that shows, in very real everyday terms, how what one group of people suffers affects us all.

2. Drawing from your own experiences from living in many countries, what do you think would need to happen in order for women (or any oppressed group) to be liberated?  In the context of the U.S., do you think this could happen in the current political and economic system?  If not, what do you think it would require for a revolution to start that would truly challenge the current system in the U.S.?

Linda, I am of a generation that tried hard to create a different, more just world.  I was involved in the Mexican student movement of 1968, a movement that went far beyond demanding student rights.  I lived in Cuba from 1969 to 1980, working within that country’s revolutionary context.  From 1980 to 1984, I lived in Sandinista Nicaragua, working and learning from its initiatives.  I saw all those efforts fail to one degree or another (it can be argued that the Cuban revolution continues to exist, and I honor that, but I don’t think it can be argued that it exists in the way its initiators envisioned it).  And I also saw the larger, global socialist experiment fail, culminating in the implosion of 1989-90.  At this point words such as revolution are somewhat meaningless to me.  Or perhaps they are given so many different meanings that their original meaning has been diluted.

What I know, without a doubt, is that the current political and economic system in the US is not meant to liberate people.  It is meant to control us.  Here at home, and also abroad.  Yes, there are people inside and outside our government who want small improvements in people’s lives: less poverty, more jobs, universal health care, attention to climate change, more equality for women or people of color or gays and lesbians.  But real structural change, systemic change, would be required for the oppressed to be liberated.  Our system of government is predicated on that not happening.

3. Considering individualism and the collective, how would you compare the mentality in the U.S. to that of the other countries you have lived in?  Especially in relation to social justice activism, where have you seen the best collective effort?  Have you seen a difference in different time periods regarding individualism vs. a collective effort?

The issue of individualism and the collective is not an easy one.  I do not believe that it is an either/or equation.  My experience, in Cuba especially, has taught me that working for the collective good is an imperative for social change, but preserving certain individual rights is also very important to human dignity and creativity.  Striking a workable balance is what has been so important, and as yet I have not seen that happening anywhere.  In some places, such as Vietnam or Nicaragua during the first years of the Sandinista experiment, we saw bits and pieces of this.  But they could not be consolidated because the struggle against imperialism was too demanding.  And also because not everyone in those countries at those times was able to conceptualize such solutions, or even wanted to do so.

I have often told a story that illustrates this well.  After the Sandinistas lost the 1990 election in Nicaragua — it must have been in 1992 or 1993 — I was there doing fieldwork for a book.  One night I was invited to a gathering at the Cuban embassy.  Several well-respected Cuban journalists had invited several of their Nicaraguan counterparts to a discussion of freedom of the press.  Cuba is notorious for having an absolutely controlled and boring press.  The Sandinistas had prided themselves in being able to maintain a press with a great amount of diversity, in which opposing opinions were featured.  All the journalists present agreed that a free press was an ideal to be worked for.  But, while the Nicaraguans argued with pride that they had been able to promote freedom of the press, the Cubans responded by reminding them that they no longer had their revolution, while the Cuban revolution still existed.  I tell this story not to advocate for one side or the other, but simply to illustrate the complexities of putting ideals into practice.

I cannot say where I have seen the best effort toward the ideal of combining collective and individual rights, because I have had glimpses of this in different places and at different times.  In Cuba, for example, whenever the revolution felt particularly threatened by the US, the government and party would tighten their control on dissent.  When the threat of the moment receded, they would relax that control.  This proved, I think, that the Cuban leadership really wanted a freer society.  But the push and pull is hard.  People cannot speak out and then silence themselves and then speak out again without it causing self-censorship, which is the most dangerous kind of censorship there is.

4. Did you notice a change in how your texts were received after coming out as a lesbian?  Did people who disagreed with what you wrote use homophobia as a way to try to discredit what you wrote?

I must answer this question by saying, first of all, that I have never really been a mainstream writer.  Although I have published over 100 books, and many essays, articles, poems in journals, etc. etc., and although some of my writing has reached tens of thousands of people, my readership has always been mostly a progressive, feminist, justice-seeking one.  I don’t believe coming out as a lesbian changed how my texts have been received any more than I believe coming out as a socialist did.  Because groups of people tend to seek out writing “by their own,” perhaps my coming out as a lesbian gained me a broader audience among gay readers.  But I have always felt that my most faithful readership is that which understands and appreciates the connections among all groups and needs.

5. What do you think it would take for the U.S. to change its foreign policy and move away from imperialism and militarism?

I think it would take a whole new way of looking at the world, and at our role in it, and a widespread understanding that we and everyone else in the world would benefit from working together rather than in opposition or in our own separate spaces.

This would require, first of all, several generations of public education geared toward teaching real history.  And, more importantly, teaching people to think.  It would require monumental changes in values, the understanding that power might be better served by empowering peoples than by dominating and controlling them.  A differently educated public might then elect a different leadership, one for whom human wellbeing is paramount.

US foreign policy is shaped by US interests, not by an understanding of how we must deal with climate change or how to insure a decent life for all peoples.  What do I think it would take for the US to change its foreign policy and move away from imperialism and militarism?  At this point, tragically, I don’t even see that as a remote possibility.  We have come too far in the wrong direction, and our discourse is designed to obscure that face, not clarify it.

6. How did you conceptualize a personal event, such as the threat of deportation in the 1980s, into a more broad understanding of injustice?

From the moment when I first began to understand socialist principles, from the moment I consciously tried to make my own life reflect my ideals, I began learning that every choice we make either mirrors how we wish to stand in this world or doesn’t.  No, that’s not right.  I actually intuited this long before I considered myself a socialist.

I did not just learn this in the 1980s, with my immigration case, but much earlier.  In New York, way back in the late 1950s, I wanted to have a child.  I wasn’t married, and having a child “out of wedlock,” as it was called back then, was frowned upon.  But I didn’t hesitate to have my first child on my own in 1960, because I knew it was right for me.

In Cuba, during the last few years of living and working there, I suffered a strange repression.  I was let go from my job but continued to receive a salary.  I became persona non grata in the sense that it was clear I had fallen out of favor in certain important quarters, a number of friends stopped visiting my apartment, and I received other clues, but try as I would I could not get an answer to why this was happening to me.  Eventually, I understood that some of my ideas, and some of the people who frequented my home, were too “far out” for the official Cuban mentality of that time.  My son urged me to leave, to go somewhere else “where I would be appreciated.”  But I refused.  I didn’t want to leave Cuba before this painful situation had been clarified.  I didn’t believe I was in the wrong, and I felt leaving might be seen as an admission of some sort of guilt.  When I finally got the explanation I wanted, and as much of an apology as was possible, I moved on to Nicaragua.  But I never saw those difficult years as indicative of the Cuban revolution overall.  I was always very clear that revolutions are made by human beings, and that some human beings are true visionaries while others are mediocre hacks, incapable of acting outside their own small follow-the-leader mentalities.

It was the same years later with my immigration case.  Of course I wanted to win my case for myself, so that I would be able to come home, to live in the country of my birth, and be free to accompany my elderly parents in their last years and to come and go as I pleased.  But I also understood the broader implications of my case.  I knew that McCarran-Walter was a grossly unfair law, and that US immigration law in general was driven more by political policy than by family unity or individual fairness.  I wanted to fight on the issues of freedom of expression and freedom to dissent.  I knew, as well, that because I was a fairly well known writer I had the kind of support denied the hundreds of thousands of immigrants who cross our borders every day, simply looking for relief from political persecution or for a better life for themselves and their children.

So I felt an obligation to fight for those people as well as for myself.  I knew it would be important to use my case to try to change immigration law in general.  This intimate knowledge played itself out for me in a number of concrete ways.  For example, throughout the years of my immigration case I was constantly made to feel that if I just said I was sorry, that I “would never write those things again,” it might help me win.  I won’t say I wasn’t tempted from time to time.  But I knew that I must stick to my conviction that I had a right to have written what I had written, to have expressed the opinions I had expressed — even when twenty years after the fact I might express them differently.  I would wake every morning and recommit myself to defending the ideals in which I believed.

Perhaps the best answer to your question, Linda, is that it is not a matter of conceptualizing a personal event into a more broad understanding of justice, but of understanding that — as we said long before we really knew what it meant — the personal really is political.

Linda Ruutu is a feminist and athlete.

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