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Douglas Fetherling - Reciprocity in Exiles
by Douglas Fetherling

A wonderful aspect of the long and tangled relationship between the United States and Canada is the way that the two societies have so often given refuge to each other's rebels. I'm thinking not only of Loyalists, those rebels against rebellion, but also of significant individual cases later on. In the shambles of the 1837 Rebellion, didn't William Lyon Mackenzie dodge his way to Rochester and then New York City, where, just as at home, he kept founding newspapers and making a nuisance of himself in politics? Conversely, didn't Sitting Bull slip across the border following the Battle of the Little Bighorn? There must be scores or hundreds of other instances ready to hand.

The same principle, I'm happy to report, applies to literary outlaws as well. Noam Chomsky's "respectable" books-the ones about linguistics-are published by major American academic presses. But his books criticizing American foreign policy have a much lower profile. Some appear under the imprint of a little press in the Boston area, traditionally a hotbed of tolerance. This month, New Star Books in Vancouver is publishing Class Warfare: Noam Chomsky in Conversation, 1992-1996, in which David Barsamian interviews him (a sequel to Chronicles of Dissent: Noam Chomsky in Conversation, 1984-1991, also from New Star). Other books of his are put out by Black Rose Books in Montreal, an anti-authoritarian publishing house that also makes available to the English-speaking world some of the works of Murray Bookchin and other fringe thinkers in the U.S.

And then there's the extraordinary case of Margaret Randall. This most excellent poet, short story writer, and practitioner of what's now fashionably called "life writing" has found many of her books (she's written or edited fifty in all) published by Canadian presses, before, during, and after the period when she was persona non grata in her native U.S.

Randall was born in New York in 1934 but reared mostly in New Mexico. The geography is important, because in the 1950s, when the Beat movement was at its strongest, she became the southernmost station-master on a sort of underground railway of Beat culture that ran from Vancouver through San Francisco (the Beat capital) to Mexico City. She resettled in Mexico in 1961, and there, for eight years, published the influential bilingual literary journal El Corno Emplumado (The Plumed Horn) with her husband, Sergio Mondragon. The periodical had a special relationship with the new poets of British Columbia. For example, George Bowering (who translated the work of Hispanic writers the way his contemporaries in Central Canada translated those of Quebec ones) edited a Canadian issue of the magazine. Indeed, one of Bowering's own significant early books, The Man in Yellow Boots, appeared in 1965 as a special number of Emplumado.

By the late 1960s, Mexico had become, as so often in the past, a dangerous place for people with left-of-centre views like Randall's. After troops massacred students in Mexico City in 1968, she was forced into hiding. Using another quite different underground railway this time, she got her four children out of the country to the safety of Cuba. She and her mate themselves followed towards the end of 1969. Randall worked as an editor at one of the Cuban state publishing houses. Later she went to Nicaragua, following the overthrow of the Somoza dictatorship in 1979. She wrote several interesting books about Nicaragua, especially Nicaraguan women, and one about the role of "liberation theology", and Christianity generally, in the Sandinista regime that followed Somoza.

In 1984, after more than twenty years away from home, Randall moved back to the U.S. to be near her aging parents in Albuquerque. She had long since taken out Mexican citizenship but did so, she insists, without any understanding of what effects that might have on her U.S. citizenship, which she specifically did not renounce or override. As a result, she was twice refused resident status under the terms of the notorious McCarran-Walter Act, which had been used to keep Canadian writers such as George Woodcock and Farley Mowat out of the U.S. as visitors, to say nothing of Graham Greene from Britain and Gabriel Garcia Marquez from Colombia. At one stage, immigration authorities ruled that her writings went "far beyond mere dissent, disagreement with, or criticism of the U.S. or its policies" and-here the legislation in question betrays its origins in the hysteria of 1952-"advocated the doctrines of world communism." Washington actually tried to deport her.

One saw or heard little about this in the major media, but the Randall case polarized the American writing community. Several writers' organizations-the sort that are always quick to come to the aid of writers in countries the United States doesn't like-did their best to ignore or denigrate Randall. At one point, absurd rumours were spread about her supposed anti-semitism. Other people fought to raise a legal defence fund for her. Throughout the early 1980s, where one stood "in re: the United States of America versus Margaret Randall" was shorthand for where for one stood on the bigger question of free expression.

Randall won her case in 1989 when an appellate panel of the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service ruled that she had in fact been a dual citizen of the U.S. and Mexico since 1967 and therefore could not be denied U.S. residency. Since then she has continued to live in Albuquerque, turning out a steady stream of books.

The closest Randall's career has ever come to the mainstream was in 1972, when James Laughlin, heir to the Jones & Laughlin steel fortune, brought out her book Part of the Solution with his company New Directions, publishers of what might be called the domesticated avant-garde. But look who's been publishing her since then.

With Our Hands (1974), a poetry collection; Spirit of the People (1975), "a Vietnam notebook"; Carolta (1978), a collection of prose and poetry from Cuba; Doris Tijierno: Inside the Nicaraguan Revolution (1978); and Sandino's Daughters: Testimonies of Nicaraguan Women in Struggle (1981) were all published by New Star Books of Vancouver. In 1983, another important small Vancouver publisher, Arsenal Pulp Press, brought out Breaking the Silences, an anthology of Latin American women writers edited by Randall. Then it was back to New Star, which has published: Christians in the Nicaraguan Revolution (1983); Carlos, the Dawn is No Longer beyond Our Reach (1984), a work translated by Randall; and Albuquerque, Coming Back to the U.S.A. (1986), one of her most deeply felt, most clearly realized, and altogether most important books.

The two most recent works of hers I've seen are Dancing with the Doe: New & Selected Poems, 1986-1991 ( a useful starting point, this; published by West End Press of Albuquerque, 1992) and Sandino's Daughters Revisited: Feminism in Nicaragua (illustrating the other half of her brain, published by-surprise-New Star in Vancouver, 1994).

Long may Margaret Randall evade capture, for the benefit of those who agree with her as well as to the annoyance of those who don't, or simply for the edification of those who admire her as a poet, as I do.

Douglas Fetherling's most recent book is Way Down Deep in the Belly of the Beast (Lester). He is close to finishing his biography of George Woodcock, which will be published by Douglas & McIntyre.


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