Interview: Margaret Randall

Posted: December 16, 2013 at 2:17 pm


Margaret Randall is a distinguished poet, essayist, photographer and activist. She visited George Mason University on October 21st and 22nd to discuss her experiences and read from her latest book, Che on My Mind. Interview by Cultural Studies graduate student, Lisa Daily.

 Firstly thank you so much for being here and for allowing me to interview you.  I think your work connects with much of what we do in cultural studies, especially in the critical examination of systems of power.  Douglas Valentine of Counterpunch Magazine described your work as attempting to “reshape our global imagination” and I would take it a step further in saying that your work seems to attempt to demythologize common or dominant narratives of experience. In particular, a portion of your work examines narratives of war with a focus on the ways that the trauma of war affects women—in Nicaragua as the Sandinistas opposed the Somoza dictatorship and in North Vietnam during the last months of the Vietnam War. I’d firstly like to ask you to say more about the women you’ve interviewed, sometimes photographed, and if you have any lessons or experiences you’d like to share with women today.

This is the important question, I think, to be able to look at power, as a political category and analyze it as such. Of course, it is important for women and young women, but it is really important for everyone.  I feel in some ways that my whole life has prepared me to examine this. As you know from my work, I was involved in a series of revolutionary movements in Mexico, Cuba, and Nicaragua. Although I wasn’t in the U.S. at the time, we also saw the movement against the U.S. war in Vietnam and the Civil Rights movement. In an effort to combat the great centers of power, and by the great centers of power I mean the United States and the Soviet Union—the kind of bipolar system that existed as I was growing up. Being a part of these movements to struggle out from under the boot-heel of those centers of power, I and many other people like myself did not question enough the power of our leaders, and so in recent years, I think I’ve really begun to explore that in these two new books I’ll be presenting. In More than Things, a collection of essays, five or six are about power in different ways.  Really they’re all about power, but a few are particularly so. The book about Che, Che on My Mind, is very much about this iconic figure, which leads us to discuss war.  The war that was meant to end all wars—the Second World War—of course didn’t end all wars. It was one in a series. War can’t end war, that’s the lesson for my generation as I see it. The language we use must embody the values that we say we are for in our struggles. It is just not good enough to say “we’ll deal with that later.” For instance, once we’ve won we’ll deal with women’s rights, we’ll deal with gay rights, issues of race, etc., which is what all of these movements have essentially done. This is based on such misconceptions about power itself. My life as I’ve lived it has taught me these tactics don’t work and we need to look at things differently. 

How do you see your work fitting into that?

Early on I did a lot of oral history, maybe 20 or 30 books of that, most of them with women. That was a first big effort on my part, going to the protagonists themselves and it was very much a part of the revolutionary struggles in Latin American during the years I was there, through 1961 to 1984. Liberation movements, whether or not they were successful, encouraged oral history.  In the case of Cuba, one might argue that it was successful; Nicaragua to some extent for a while. Most of the rest of them weren’t.

All of those experiences privileged what we now call oral histories—protagonists talking about their lives, the people that made that history talking about that history rather than historians of other social classes telling their stories for them. That was where I first began to see my role and began to understand that people could speak for themselves.  Another big area of my work is essay, so I started to do collections of essays, beginning with a book I did in the early 1980s called Gathering Rage: The Failure of 20th Century Revolutions to Develop a Feminist Agenda. It is the first book in which I began to question the socialist version of rights—women’s rights and so forth. Following this book were the books about Nicaraguan women, Sandino’s Daughters: Testimonies of Nicaraguan Women in Struggle and Sandino’s Daughters Revisited: Feminism in Nicaragua. The first book didn’t question the feminist project that much, but in the revisited version, published twelve years later, the Sandinista women were willing to tell the truth about what they had experienced. These oral histories were a venue for me to talk about power, although today I work more through my poetry, considering myself first and foremost a poet.  I’m going to start out tonight by reading a poem I wrote recently, “Everyone Lied,” which comes out of the realization that when we blindly follow a leader, no matter how wonderful that leader appears to be, that just isn’t the way to go. We have to continually be asking questions and we must build into the struggle somehow the values that we associate with the society we’re fighting for.  The message of “Everyone Lied” is how we lie—all of us—to each other, to our children. For me the Cambodian killing fields were significant; the socialist camp was saying it wasn’t happening, that it was a figment of the Western imagination. For a certain amount of time, I believed this, but it was an important wake up call.  The poem also alludes to Roque Dalton, a close friend, poet and revolutionary from El Salvador who was tortured and murdered by his own comrades because they were jealous of his intelligence and leadership. Referenced as well is Ana Maria, also from El Salvador, the second in command of the FMLN, who was murdered by the head of the organization. The poem ends with a reference to the comrades who gave their lives for revolutionary struggle and I don’t want to say that this was meaningless. I still believe in those ideas deeply but we went about it in a very “follow the leader” way instead of thinking critically.   

One thing I’ve seen in your work is the ways in which we need to think about war, power, or even about following leaders simultaneously in their bigger structural formations, but also as they exist minutely as little wars, little catastrophes and struggles. You’ve mentioned elsewhere that we mustn’t only think of war as what goes on between soldiers, but also as that which goes on between communities, a home, or even a family.

When I came back from Latin American in 1984 I had to do some psychotherapy because I was involved in the war in Nicaragua and I was not in good shape. In that therapy, I was able to remember abuse by my grandfather when I was a very young child.  I have a book about it entitled, This is About Incest. In remembering the experience of incest in my own life, I immediately sensed the relationship between a child’s body and a person who abuses that body and a small nation and a larger nation. It is really very much the same. The scenario is different—one is seen as a major issue, one is seen as a domestic issue—but the effects on a population and the effects on an individual are very similar, even the actual physical effects. Judith Lewis Herman did some really outstanding work at Harvard years ago, Trauma and Recovery: The Aftermath of Violence in Domestic Abuse to Political Terror.  She was one of the first people to point out that what people call ‘shell-shock’ on the battlefield—the physical effects that war had on soldiers—manifest itself in exactly the same way in battered women or abused children. They do the same things and react in the same ways. Perhaps because I didn’t go to school and didn’t have the theoretical background, the lessons have often come in a personal sense and I extrapolate from that. In whatever venue, the power issue is very similar.

Can you speak about your work with North Vietnamese women during the Vietnam War?

I was living in Cuba at the time and was invited because of my first book about Cuban women. The North Vietnamese Women’s Union invited me in the fall of 1974 to talk to women throughout the country—we started in Hanoi and went down to the 17th parallel. I was one of nine foreigners in the entire country, interviewing all kinds of women—those who powered anti-aircraft guns along the coast, those who had lived in tunnels for years, women leaders, poets, writers, doctors. I knew the Union wanted me to write a book, but it was difficult for me as I don’t believe you can go to a place for two months and write a book.  I did eventually produce a small book, Spirit of the People, which was a collection of interviews presented through my point of view. These women were doing such extraordinary things; I remember when we were in Quảng Trị, we met with a group of women—sisters, wives, daughters of the Viet Cong and they told us that the war would be over in 6 months. This was in September of 1974. They told their men not to shoot, that there should be no more killing. I remember thinking this was crazy; there was no evidence that the war was ending, but the war did end approximately 6 months later. They understood power in a way that was very moving to me and they understood the need to spare every life possible. It was a privilege to be there, to listen to people’s stories. It was a formative experience for me.

Tonight you’re talking about Che and you’ve just published Che on My Mind. In particular, I’d like to talk about the iconography of Che, what I would even argue is the branding of the Che image, as evidenced in some of the ridiculous Che-branded commodities out there.

Yes, Che’s name and image have been used on everything—to sell Smirnoff vodka, t-shirts, coffee mugs, posters, clocks, flasks, pretty much you name it. In the book I’m more interested in grabbling with who Che was. It isn’t a biography, however, and I never knew Che personally; I was close to his sister and my kids went to the same school as his kids, I was quite close with his first wife, so I knew a lot of his family.  For my generation he was absolutely emblematic and we were convinced he was going to change the world. On the one hand, he was a very exceptional human being. He was a brilliant man and really did what he said he was going to do. He put his life behind his ideas to the point that he died for them. I’m very critical though of his strategy and tactics in Bolivia, in the Congo, the idea that a white Argentinian could go to these places and believe he was going to lead a guerrilla movement—in the Congo, among black men whose culture he didn’t understand, whose language he didn’t speak and in Bolivia, among indigenous men and women, again whose language he didn’t’ speak and whose culture he didn’t really know. So in some ways, he sort of led himself and his men to the slaughter.

I’m also very critical of certain ways in which Cuba used that image of Che. The fact that he’s on these t-shirts all over the world and any item you can think of really can’t be chalked up to him. That interests me less. In the book, I talk about how I interpret that quite positively. I think that most people who wear a t-shirt today with Che’s image may or may not even know who the man was and will most likely not know all the details of Che’s life. But the image has come to stand for a rebellious spirit and distrust for authority and social hypocrisy. Obviously people make money from this image, but that’s another story. I think for the people who wear the image it is a positive thing, but it troubles me that, for instance, in Cuba every single morning, school children go out on the playground—my children did this for years—And recite: “Pioneers for communism, we will be like Che.” It is well intentioned in that it is meant to instill a sense of courage and sacrifice, but those kinds of emotions are potentially dangerous because not all kids, most kids in fact, cannot live up to the status of Che. This is why it is troubling to glorify a figure without going deeply into the humanity of the man—what was extraordinary about him but also what was wrong with him.  He was a human being. He was an extraordinary human being, but he wasn’t a god.  So there is a sort of religiosity connected with all of that that I find very troubling. That’s one of the things I analyze in the book.

Certainly, and I think that is one of my fears with the over zealous branding of the Che image—that through the branding it erases the man, the history, and inserts this commodity that somehow stands in for counterculture, but I wonder if it stops there. Do kids who wear Che shirts draw their political lines there or does it represent bigger political commitments?

I think people who really want to change society are the sum total of all their personal experiences—their culture, their history and it is different for every place and every person. So while young people may wear a Che t-shirt, they need a whole lot more than that to dedicate their life to some kind of real change. The shirt isn’t terribly important.

From what I understand about the book, you try to draw some lessons out of examining Che as a historical figure that are important for justice movements today. Could you highlight some of those lessons?

The most important positive influence of someone like Che was the fact that he really put his life on the line for what he believed.  You don’t find enough of that kind of consistency. He was someone who would never ask someone to do something he couldn’t or wouldn’t do himself. He didn’t take special rations in Cuba. He lived in a very small house while all the other leaders of the revolution lived in large houses and had special rations. Almost to a point of absurdity, he was absolutely severe in these ways and I find it admirable. Another thing I love about him is his intellectual curiosity. He was a doctor, so he knew about medicine, but he also knew about anthropology, music, agriculture, and art. I analyze his most important theoretical writing, “Man and Socialism in Cuba,” a long letter he wrote in 1965 to Marcha, an important Uruguayan political cultural magazine. For example, one of the many things he talks about in that letter is a defense of modern art.  Very few people who talk about Che know that he was against socialist realism. He argued that to be truly revolutionary, art has to break boundaries. It has to be adventurous and courageous; you can’t just paint tractors and people with hoes and call that revolutionary. On the other hand, he seemed to have this death wish. I go into many pages of analyzing a book by one of the five guerrillas who survived the Bolivian campaign. They walked over a thousand miles over a period of eight months to the Bolivia-Chile border and were able to get out and back to Cuba. One of them, his war name is Benigno, eventually wrote a book that was very critical of the whole campaign in Bolivia, entitled Life and Death of the Cuban Revolution. It is a book that has been detested by the Cuban government.

A lot of people who are against the Cuban revolution have said that Fidel betrayed Che, cutting him off and leaving him to his devices, and was therefore responsible for his death.  I don’t support this claim; they were very close, but Fidel was a statesman and Che was a guerrilla leader.

In the book I talk a lot about why the Bolivia campaign was such a disaster.  Che weighed 90 pounds when he was murdered and he could barely breath because his asthma was so bad. There were 3,000 soldiers fighting against this tiny band of bedraggled, emaciated, sick, exhausted, hungry guerrilla fighters; it was like a modern tragedy. I think when people become icons there is always a huge amount of misinformation, and I try to deal with not so much the rightist interpretations, but some of the leftist interpretations. So I assume as with some of my recent work, the left is going to find fault with it along with the right, of course.

I have two more quick questions. The first, because I can’t resist bringing it up, could you say more about your deportation in 1984 from the United States. You eventually won your case in 1989, but would you speak for a few minutes about the U.S.’s rationale for why you were denied re-entry to the United States—that your work was against “the good order and happiness of the United States.”

If it weren’t so serious it would be hilarious. First of all, I was in the U.S. the entire time; I was ordered deported and would have had to leave if I lost my case. At the time, the press had said that I had given up my citizenship because I had taken Mexican citizenship back when I was married to a Mexican citizen and poet. We had three small children all under the age of 6, he didn’t have a job, and it was quite easy for me to acquire Mexican citizenship since I was living there and married to a Mexican. I did this in order to get a better job, but at the time I went to the U.S. consulate and said that I did not wish to renounce U.S. citizenship.

Around the time I was seeking Mexican citizenship, a Supreme Court case had been ruled on, Afroyim vs. Rusk, which ruled that U.S. citizens may not be involuntarily deprived of their citizenship. The problem for me was a technical problem: after a case like that is won or lost it usually takes about a year for the State Department to issue instructions to all of their embassies throughout the world on how to handle these cases. And so, I was caught in that year. The case was eventually decided this way in 1989 when I won. That I had taken out Mexican citizenship allowed the U.S. government to really attack me because of my books.

When I went in for that first interview as far as I was concerned I had Mexican citizenship. I was living in Nicaragua at the time and was intending to re-establish my citizenship when I got here, but at that first interview I was called in and saw seven of my books, all with highlighted passages, laying out on the table. The interviewer asked, “What did you mean by saying this?” Interestingly, quite a few of the quotes in my books they objected to were things said by women in my oral history books and not even said by me, but I agreed with these women. I was completely naïve, under the impression that there was freedom of expression in the United States and so I answered very honestly saying that I don’t approve of U.S. policy in Vietnam and Central America. What they were angry about was that I was writing from places like Cuba and Nicaragua and they really didn’t want the truth of those places to be known in the U.S.

Your case and the justification that the U.S. government had of your work going against the “happiness of the United States” really goes to show the power of word.

Yes, it shows how dangerous the word really is. It also shows how immigration policy in this country and others has long been used for political purposes. During the years of my case, I taught at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut and that university stood behind me 100%, from the president of the university down through every member of the staff, many of who didn’t agree with my politics, but believed absolutely in the freedom of expression and freedom of dissent. That is what my case was about. I wasn’t saying or writing about anything that hundreds of thousands of U.S. citizens didn’t believe. Look at who marched against the Vietnam War or who was involved with solidarity work with Central America. I wasn’t unusual in that respect, but that I had according to the government given up my citizenship made it possible for them to fight me on it.

Lastly, Do you want to say anymore about the power of word? I’d also like to add into there the power of the image, seeing as you are also a photographer.

Most of my oral history work incorporates photography. As soon as I learned photography I did all my own work simultaneously as I was interviewing someone. I began to realize the way I developed an image in the dark room had a lot to do with how I would cut a transcript, edit the words, and vice-versa. For me, the symbiosis between the image and the word is very, very important. Language can change the world; poetry can change the world. I believe it in a different way than I believed when I was younger; I’m not as romantic anymore. Voice is one of the last things they can take from us. It is such a powerful tool. Look at how things said by people thousands of years ago continue to affect us. And I think by the same token, the way to destroy a people or a person is by rendering them voiceless, by taking their voice away; that is what drew me to oral history and now I do that through poetry.  One of the interesting things that has happened in my lifetime is that people in the far reaches of the earth are speaking. They have different venues, different platforms, many of them are still being silenced in important ways. This is no longer a world in which we trust the historians, the official scribes of history to write about people they don’t even understand. The world has changed in that respect, and it is much more powerful for the people.



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