Margaret Randall is a poet, essayist, oral historian, translator, memoirist, and photographer who has published over 150 books of poetry and prose. In her newest book, I Never Left Home, she details the extraordinary stories from her life, recounting moments ranging from her time living among New York’s abstract expressionists in the mid-1950s as a young woman to working in the Nicaraguan Ministry of Culture to instill revolutionary values in the media during the Sandinista movement.
You explain in Chapter 1 that you started this project by writing about your time in New York in the late 1950s and subsequently moved forward and backwards in time throughout your writing process. How was the experience of placing these chapters in chronological order for the book? Did conceiving of your memories in this linear fashion bring you to any new insights about your life?
I guess I should say that I have always believed more in non-linear than in linear time. Perhaps that’s why I didn’t begin this memoir by writing about my earliest years but rather about my years in New York City, an experience I had never written about before. When it came time to organize the book I did go with a chronological timeline, though, maybe because I thought it would allow readers to follow my life and times as they have unfolded. This also seemed like a good choice because earlier experiences inevitably influenced later ones, and I wanted my readers to understand that.
A number of big geographic and cultural moves punctuate your life—first as a child to New Mexico, and later as an adult to Spain, New York, Mexico, Cuba, and Nicaragua, and then back to New Mexico. Throughout these moves, you navigated many “insider/outsider moments” —moments in which you felt at home, and those in which you grappled with your racial identity, class status, and foreignness. What have you learned about the importance of embracing one’s position as an outsider? What kinds of connections break down this distinction and allow one to feel at home?
Embracing one’s experience as an outsider is necessary. One always wants to belong; it is part of the human condition. But if one chooses to live in places foreign to one’s culture or in ways that are foreign to one’s class, racial or gender identities, one’s “otherness” is right out there for all to see. There is no denying or getting around it. So, I think we learn to make peace with that and live the experience as it is. As a young US American in Latin America, living and working and raising my children in countries frequently attacked or exploited by the United States, it was inevitable that I should carry a sense of guilt. Inevitable but not healthy. I had to learn to struggle with that and not allow it to overpower or destroy me. I believe one can straddle this outsider condition best by living as much as possible as the people where you are living. In Mexico this meant learning about dozens of indigenous cultures, appreciating native art and music, participating in national fiestas. In Cuba it meant refusing the foreigner’s ration book and living as much as possible like a Cuban. In Nicaragua it meant participating in national defense as the Contra war heated up. Despite such efforts, though, if one is from somewhere else one is an outsider. So then it becomes important to figure out how to make one’s condition transparent and use it to benefit others.
You mention that, while living in Seville, you “immediately agreed” to assist smuggling contraceptives from Morocco to Spain, as would be your response to other future invitations to risk. At what other moments in your life do you recall agreeing to risk? How necessary is risk in one’s pursuit of justice?
I have taken risks as long as I can remember. Smuggling contraceptives into Spain in the 1950s was just one example. In Mexico I assisted revolutionary organizations and took part in the 1968 Mexican Student Movement. In Cuba I insisted on asking difficult questions of a revolution not accustomed to being questioned by outsiders. And when I returned to the United States and was ordered deported because of opinions expressed in some of my books, I didn’t leave but decided to fight for my right to stay. All these moments, and others, involved risk. I can’t really explain why it has been so natural for me to take risks. Perhaps it is written into a person’s DNA. Perhaps I was simply following the example of mentors who were, themselves, notable risk-takers.
While publishing the bilingual journal El Corno with Sergio Mondragón during the 1960s, you recall believing that “poetry could change the world.” How did you conceive of the relationship between artistic expression and revolution then? What connection do you see between them today, both in the US and abroad?
I have always believed that poetry is a necessary ingredient to living fully. Revolution, or working for justice, is really about living fully. We can only live fully if we struggle for equality and fairness in all areas. Art is the highest manifestation of living to the fullest, engaging all the senses, experiencing the heights and depths of the human experience. When I was younger and claimed that poetry could change the world, I think I meant that more explicitly than when I say the same thing today. Today I understand this more complexly. Poetry—and artistic expression generally—allows us to exercise our imaginations, think outside the box, believe in the “impossible”. It is in this sense that I believe it can change the world.
It was not until your return to the US that you were able to reflect on your sexual identity and come out as a lesbian to yourself and others. What was it about returning “home” that allowed for this personal exploration?
I think what kept me from understanding my sexual identity while I was living in Latin America, especially when I was in Cuba and Nicaragua, was that I was involved in situations of social change that required full focus on the collective. It would have been healthier if we had found ways to attend to our personal issues as well, but we didn’t know how. That was one of the problems with the movements with which I was involved. We rarely prioritized our own needs. The collective was what was important. So, when I came back to the US, I was immersed in the women’s movement. It was the 1980s, and women were addressing issues of personal identity, domestic violence, recovery, and so forth. Arriving in the midst of this community of women, many of whom were lesbians, somehow allowed me to begin to question my own sexual identity. It was in this context, as well, that I remembered the incest of which I had been a victim as a very young child. I do believe that social change movements must find ways to combine the personal with the public, develop ways to struggle that take into account people’s individual differences and needs.
You describe your witnessing of the Cuban and Sandinista Revolutions as a “privilege,” as you experienced times in which quests for justice, passion, and creativity seemed to be bursting at the seams of daily life. What do you hope younger generations looking for revolutionary change might learn from these memories and experiences?
I do believe that I was privileged to have lived in the places where I lived and at the times when I lived in them. And that sense of privilege, in my mind, implies the willingness to share those experiences. Every generation is faced with new situations that demand new strategies and tactics. But we can learn a lot from our parents’ and grandparents’ generations, their struggles and solutions. Just as I believe that I can learn a lot from those who are coming up now. In terms of my memoir, I guess I just hope that it is a good read, a story or series of stories that express one woman’s journey through the second part of the 20th and beginning of the 21st century.
Watch Margaret discuss her book and read a passage:
You can catch Margaret at a virtual reading sponsored by Collected Works Bookstore on April 30 at 6:00pm MDT. Read the introduction to I Never Left Home free online. Save 50% off all in-stock titles, including Randall’s other books, Che on My Mind, Haydée Santamaría, Cuban Revolutionary, and Exporting Revolution with coupon SPRING50 until May 1, 2020.