The Paella of Revolution
To Change the World: My Years in Cuba
by Margaret Randall
New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2009, 273 pp., $24.95, paperback
Reviewed by Minrose Gwin
It’s the summer of 1960 and the revolution has come to town. Fidel Castro and his entourage are staying in Harlem’s Hotel Theresa after leaving the Waldorf Astoria in a squabble purportedly involving live chickens. Young writer, soon-to-be single mother, and hopeful revolutionary Margaret Randall decides to show her solidarity by making a special paella for her hero. At her neighborhood grocery she chooses her ingredients with the greatest of care—the biggest shrimp, the tastiest drumsticks, “one gorgeous sweet red pepper”—and carries them back to her Lower East Side walk-up, where she brings the scrumptious dish to the height of perfection. She then heads out on the subway to bestow it on the triumphant Castro. Unfortunately, police are guarding the entrance to his hotel, and the paella remains “untouched, its metallic covering soiled and torn, its contents beginning to sour.”
The sky-high hopes of those revolutionary days, the palpable sense that one could actually mix up a new world from the finest ingredients and have it come out right, flavor Randall’s To Change the World with excitement and promise. But the souring of those hopes is also her story; today, as a seasoned revolutionary from the trenches of Mexico, Cuba, and Nicaragua, Randall sees both the up and down sides of revolution. At 72, she knows the paella can be made; she just isn’t sure whether it can be delivered.
Randall has lived a large life. Her scope has always been global, well before the term achieved cachet. She’s produced eighty-plus books of prose, poetry, translation, oral history, photographs, and political analysis. Books such as Sandino’s Daughters (1981) and When I Look into the Mirror and See You: Women, Terror, and Resistance (2002) focus on women’s human rights; she was also a brave, early voice in feminist discussions of childhood sexual abuse in her book This Is About Incest (1987). To Change the World reflects and refracts this depth of perspective and intellect, personal history and feminist aesthetics. It is about more than Randall’s years in Cuba. It is, as its title suggests, about a time and place where anything seemed possible, and how a white woman born in the US lived out that transforming experience with a feminist sensibility. Randall writes, “I must get it down, I keep telling myself, before I forget the events, the meaning, but especially the feelings. Those are the most elusive and perhaps the most important.” Indeed, the book tells the story of revolution from the inside out.
Randall’s decade-long stay in Cuba began in 1969. Having relinquished her US citizenship to become a Mexico citizen years before, she found herself on the wrong side of the brutally quashed 1968 Mexican student revolution. Her passport was snatched by paramilitary police at gunpoint, leaving her and her four young children in grave jeopardy. Even though she was suffering from a serious kidney ailment, Randall went underground along with her partner, the US poet Robert Cohen, because of their support for Mexico’s student revolutionaries. With few other choices, she turned her children over to Cuban officials for safekeeping, and they were flown out of Mexico and carefully tended. Describing dressing her youngest, three-month-old Ana, in a pink one-piece suit for the trip, Randall writes, “Even now, writing about that day causes physical pain, invading muscle, sinew, bone.” She herself couldn’t leave Mexico for Cuba until months later, when she was smuggled out.
Moved by the potential of the Cuban revolution, the volunteer spirit of the Cuban people, and the compelling rhetoric of Fidel (always called familiarly by his first name by Randall and other activists of the period), Randall plunged headlong into revolutionary activities, sometimes to her detriment. She recalls that, barely out of the hospital after having one kidney removed, she passed out after insisting on cutting sugar cane to help the country meet Castro’s harvest goal of ten-million tons (it wasn’t realized). She judged poetry contests (enthusiastically) and beauty contests (reluctantly), becoming an important figure in the international poetry scene. She honed her writing skills on the revolution, came early to neighborhood meetings, participated in high-profile events, met Fidel and members of his inner circle, chose the ration book over the foreigners’ more ample food supplies, and taught poetry to prisoners. Randall serves up fascinating stories: discovering live cockroaches in her freezer; finding herself in violation of Cuban women’s compulsion for cleanliness (she bathed once but not twice daily); tracking on foot an elusive 120-plus-year-old woman in the back country. Latin American revolutionaries and artists travel through Cuba and her story, larger-than-life figures who sometimes end their own lives.
But feminism and art, Randall learns, can become the flies in the honey of revolution. Despite Cuba’s promises in the sixties and seventies to educate girls and to move female prostitutes and maids into more dignified forms of labor, Cuban institutions and those in charge of them remained sexist and homophobic. Randall recalls that, at one much-anticipated neighborhood committee meeting, her comments about husbands’ control over their wives’ decisions to study or work were summarily dismissed by the leader. At home, she found herself up against a purportedly egalitarian culture in which women were expected to work outside the home but, unlike their husbands or male partners, were also expected to stay home when the children were sick and manage all the housework.
The Cuban revolution brought about what for Randall were exciting new initiatives in art and education, but during the quinquenio gris (five-year gray period) from the late 1960s through the early 1970s, artists and writers chose to leave Cuba because of excessive control. “They felt cornered, menaced, suffocated, or hopeless,” Randall writes. “Homosexuals were among those most vilified.” When a well known gay poet, Heberto Padilla, was accused of misrepresenting the revolution to the foreign press and arrested, Randall admits she took the government’s side. In the end, she became despondent when she found herself a target of suspicion, lost her job, and became a persona non grata for reasons she never really figured out, despite an official apology later on. In retrospect, Randall understands that a true revolution must honor a wide range of expression.
One of many remarkable things about Randall’s book is the delicate pivot between past and present. She doesn’t let herself off the hook and, while she still believes in socialism and the necessity of art to politics, she articulates serious doubts about revolution and its affiliation with coercive and often violent modes of power. She asks: “What if it turns out there is a fundamental problem with this way of seizing power? What if it inevitably leads to over-centralization, and central power becomes the problem rather than the solution?” A few pages later, she continues:
Did I really believe that the lives of women, peoples of color, lesbians and gay men would be addressed once the new society had been consolidated? How long would that take? And who would be sacrificed along the way?
Similar questions have haunted Randall’s work—especially Gathering Rage: The Failure of Twentieth-Century Revolutions to Develop a Feminist Agenda (1992)—and she sees feminism’s critique of the overarching issue of power as part of the answer: “One of feminism’s great lessons is that by talking to one another, revealing the secrets and naming our oppressor, we gain the strength to empower ourselves.”
In this memoir, then, there’s political intrigue, a riveting personal story, an exciting moment in history, nuanced political analysis from the ground up—but what I most treasure in it are those paella moments when we as readers enter Randall’s experience, feel the weight of that unwieldy platter on the stretched abdomen and the even heavier weight of her disappointment. The writer of memoir must make a crucial move, from her own life to the life of the story. This Randall does in a number of ways. The wealth of detail is astonishing—court cases, a butcher who gave his best meat to friends and kept a hibiscus behind his ear, pudding made with pumpkin and condensed milk, split pea jokes, the yearning of Randall’s daughter Ximena for a cowgirl outfit with a hat and gun like the boys’ outfits had. There are wonderful photographs—a happy little girl in threadbare clothing skipping rope (Randall’s film was taken by police, but fortunately they didn’t know about the roll already in her pocket), her wistful-looking children, taken right before the family parts ways when Randall leaves Cuba.
Stylistically, the memoir rocks delicately between past and present with excerpts from Randall’s journal and received letters, lyrical passages, and dreams. This is a passionate book that should appeal to readers looking for a riveting story as well as to scholars interested in Cuba. There’s an excellent index. My only quibble—and it’s merely a quibble—is the distracting subheadings (“The Important Thing Is That We Rectify Our Mistakes”; “I Am Excited About This Meeting”) within the fourteen roughly chronological chapters. After a while, I trained my eyes to leapfrog over them. In all, To Change the World is a gripping, affecting narrative by one of the most extraordinary feminists of our times—and a cautionary look at how and why the reach of revolution can fall far short of its grasp. In the end, though, Randall remains hopeful; Cuba, she writes, “taught me that another future is possible.”
Minrose Gwin is the author of Wishing for Snow (2004), a memoir about the convergence of poetry and psychosis in her mother’s life, and a novel, The Queen of Palmyra, forthcoming in 2010. In her other life as a literary scholar, she’s authored three books, most recently The Woman in the Red Dress: Gender, Space, and Reading (2002) and edited five, including The Literature of the American South (1997). She teaches contemporary literature at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.