Welcome to This Week in Books, where we highlight books just released by small and independent presses. Books have always been a symbol for and means of spreading knowledge and wisdom, and they are an important part of our toolkit in fighting for social justice. If we’re going to move our national narrative away from one of hate and fear, we need books that display empathy, that help us understand different points of view, that show us we aren’t alone, that feed our spirits.
This week, we’ll look at To Have Been There Then (The Operating System, January 2017), a memoir by Gregory Randall about growing up in “revolutionary” Cuba from the late 1960s to the early ‘80s. Originally published in Spanish in Uruguay in 2013, where it sold out of two editions, Randall’s mother Margaret has now translated the book to bring it to an English-speaking audience.
The book comes at an interesting time, shortly after the death of Fidel Castro and improved diplomatic relations between the United States and Cuba. Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, who wrote An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States among other works of history, called it “the perfect book for this change in US-Cuban relations, and when a new generation in the United States has embraced the idea and goals of socialism and human solidarity.”
Randall was born in New York City but spent the first years of his life in Mexico before his parents moved again when he was eight, this time to Cuba, where he lived for eleven years. Now a professor of engineering at the University of the Republic in Montevideo, Uruguay, To Have Been There Then is Randall’s first book.
It is not the first for his mother, though. Margaret Randall has published numerous collections of poetry, essays, oral histories and translations, and in the ‘60s founded a bilingual literary journal out of Mexico City. In the ‘80s, when Randall attempted to return to the United States, her entry was barred despite her US citizenship because of the revolutionary bent of some of her writing. She fought the ruling and won the case in 1989.
About writing the memoir, Randall says, “On the one hand, it was a personal necessity, a way of looking at my life that became a sort of psychoanalysis. At the same time, I felt the need to talk about what I’d experienced and felt. Many years have passed, and the idea people outside Cuba have of that country is either one of blind devotion or ferocious rejection, often based on a profound ignorance of what has happened there.”
Randall knows what those of us who didn’t live through that time period don’t know: the nuances, the complexities, the richness of life in the second decade of Cuba’s revolution. Lucky for us, he’s chosen to share them.
Pick up a copy of To Have Been There Then at The Operating System’s online store.
Logo art by Max Winter.