Q&A with Margaret Randall

Randall F15 author photo Courtesy Albuquerque The MagazineMargaret Randall’s latest book is Haydée Santamaría, Cuban Revolutionary: She Led by Transgression. Randall is a feminist poet, writer, photographer, and social activist. After living in Mexico, Cuba, and Nicaragua since the 1960s, she attempted to return to the United States in 1984. Randall had inadvertently lost her U.S. citizenship when she acquired the citizenship of her Mexican husband in 1967. The U.S. government refused to reinstate her citizenship after finding opinions expressed in some of her books to be “against the good order and happiness of the United States.” The Center for Constitutional Rights defended Randall, and many writers and others joined in an almost five-year battle for reinstatement of her citizenship. She won her case in 1989. In 1990 she was awarded the Lillian Hellman and Dashiell Hammett grant for writers victimized by political repression. Randall is the author of more than eighty books, including Che on My Mind (Duke University Press, 2013), the oral histories Cuban Women Now, Sandino’s Daughters, and When I Look into the Mirror and See You: Women, Terror, and Resistance. A documentary, The Unapologetic Life of Margaret Randall, was released in 2001.  Randall lives in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

Haydée Santamaría was a close friend of yours. What inspired you to finally write about her? Is it challenging to write about a friend in this way?

She was a friend, but not close in the way we usually interpret that word. That is, we didn’t frequent one another’s homesRandall cover image, 5962-3 or get together often. We were friends but she was also someone I deeply admired, a mentor you might say. Yes, it was immensely challenging to write about her, but perhaps not because of the friendship. What challenged me was to not allow my deep admiration to get in the way of searching out Haydée’s complexities, her contradictions, what makes us all human. I was inspired to write about this exceptional woman long before I had the courage to do so. I was motivated by the fact that she was one of the great women—one of the great human beings—of a nation, a continent, a generation. But certain uncomfortable issues, as readers of the book will discover, kept historians and biographers from plumbing the depths of her life.

What is Casa de las Américas and how has it contributed to Cuban identity, culture, and Haydée Santamaría’s legacy?

Casa de las Américas is one of the premier cultural institutions in Latin America. When the Cuban revolution came to power in 1959, the United States almost immediately began blockading the country diplomatically, economically, militarily and culturally. Casa de las Américas was begun as the revolution’s response to the cultural blockade. From the beginning, its mandate was to bring the world’s most exciting writers, artists, musicians, theater people and others to the island, so that Cubans would be able to read and see and hear their work. Conversely, the institution promoted Cuban art outside the country.

Haydée Santamaría was chosen to head Casa. A provincial woman with barely a sixth-grade education, and who was not herself an artist or art historian, might be seen as a strange choice. But her openness, sensibility, and way of relating to great creative minds, proved ideal. People such as Simone de Beauvoir, Gabriel García Márquez, Eduardo Galeano, and Violeta Parra immediately felt drawn to her, and as if they had known her all their lives. She understood them and also made the revolution understandable to them.

Casa has been operating now for more than 56 years. It has a rich publishing program and several important magazines. It runs one of the most prestigious yearly literary contests in the Spanish-speaking world. Its galleries display an ongoing calendar of cutting-edge exhibitions and its recital halls offer the best in new sound, all free of charge.

Haydée’s legacy is varied and rich. She was the only woman to take part in every phase of the Cuban revolutionary struggle. Until her death she served at the highest party and government levels. She had two children of her own and raised a dozen others; despite her multiple public roles many remember her best as a mother. And Casa was her crowning achievement. Not only did she break the cultural blockade, she created an institution that functioned horizontally and this non-hierarchical structure continues to flourish today. And Haydée did all this while suffering bouts of severe depression due to her terrible losses during the war of liberation.

In chapter two, you recall Haydée observing, “I never knew if Ho Chi Minh was the kind of man he was because he was Vietnamese…or if the Vietnamese are how they are because of Ho Chi Minh.” Was Haydée Santamaría the kind of woman she was because she was Cuban or are Cubans how they are because of Haydée Santamaría?

Probably both, as must have been the case with Ho Chi Minh as well. But I would venture to say that Cuba as a nation has been able to resist and build as it has because of a number of men and women like Haydée. She was exceptional but not alone.

How does Haydée Santamaría, Cuban Revolutionary approach memory and remembrance?

In Haydée Santamaría, Cuban Revolutionary: She Led by Transgression, I approach memory and remembrance as I do in all my work, as the thread that holds history together. Our patriarchal society, with its glorification of violence and war, tends to disparage memory. We are urged to distrust our individual memories, and our collective memories are rarely taught or honored. We are fed news as entertainment, rarely in anything other than 30-second sound bites. Everything is reduced to its most superficial aspect. This book reclaims memory—both individual and collective—and reinserts it along with other sorts of research and scholarship in order to present a fuller picture of a life.

How has your work as a poet informed your reading of Haydée’s life?

My work as a poet informs everything I do, just as all that I observe, think, feel and do informs my poetry.

978-0-8223-5592-2_prIn what ways is this book in conversation with your previous book, Che on My Mind (Duke University Press, 2013)? How important is it for you to present revolutionaries like Haydée Santamaría and Che Guevara as real people who lived rather than depict them as mythological figures?

I do see this book as being in conversation with Che on My Mind, and not simply because both books are about figures of the same generation who were central to Cuban revolutionary history. Che and Haydée were brilliant leaders who thought and acted outside the box. And especially Che but also Haydée were idealized. They were exceptional but also human, with scars and flaws. I believe it is very important to depict the humans behind the mythological figures. Movements for social change are not served by mythology. They are pushed forward by ordinary women and men who make extraordinary choices, who are able to walk the walk as well as talk the talk. In Che on My Mind there is a chapter about Haydée, almost like a brief preview. And much of Che’s thinking about culture and art, so ahead of its time, is present in the underlying fabric of the new book. Both were transgressive figures; indeed, both led by transgression.

Do you see Cuba’s role in inspiring similar global movements changing with the re-establishment of diplomatic relations with the United States? What effect, if any, will this re-establishment have on Cuban nationalism?

The reestablishment of relations between the United States and Cuba is overdue and important, but it is not the “before” and “after” many seem to believe. US Cuba policy has been a failure for more than half a century. But the decision announced on December 17, 2014 is, I think, more a change in method than in policy. Cuba has long supported change attempted by people against oppressive forces, but it pretty much stopped inspiring other revolutionary movements in the wake of the 1967 defeat of Che’s guerrilla in Bolivia. Over the past several decades, this support has been much more along the lines of the revolution’s internationalist aid: sending teachers, doctors, technicians and others to impoverished communities or those that have suffered some terrible natural disaster. Revolutionary Cuba has done this even when it could least afford to.

As for Cuban nationalism, although I understand and respect the deep pride of a small island nation, that consistently prioritizes the wellbeing of its people and of peoples poorer and needier than their own, I think nationalism is a dangerous mindset, and extreme nationalism spawns legislation such as our Patriot Act, that for almost a decade and a half has skewed rational consideration of a threatening world order.

You can order Haydée Santamaría, Cuban Revolutionary: She Led by Transgression from your favorite local or online bookseller or directly from Duke University Press. Save 30% using coupon code E15RANDL when ordering from us.

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