Destination: Rapa Nui (Easter Island)
Book: Their Backs to the Sea(2009) by Margaret Randall
(review copy supplied by Wings Press, San Antonio)
In her journey to Easter Island, the well-traveled Margaret Randall, came to a place more remote than any she had visited or lived in before. The introductory stanzas of [amazon_link id=”0916727610″ target=”_blank” ]Their Backs to the Sea [/amazon_link], imagining the arrival of the ancients who carved the giant totems, spells out the location of Rapa Nui..
Unyielding Pacific, 1,300 miles west of Chile,
1,260 southeast of Pitcairn,
at 27 point 9 south and 109 point 26 west
in the measurements we use today.
a journey of stars beckoned you then,
exhausted but ready,
to this speck of land.
The debate about whether we should ignore the writer’s life and just look at the work may never come to a satisfactory conclusion. But I cannot help but think that knowing something of Margaret Randall’s life brings even more depth to her work. Randall and Adele Barker comprised the panel I moderated at the Tucson Book Festival. Their subject was “Memoirs about Travel and Place,” because both have written about foreign places that they lived for an extended time.
Randalls’s long periods of living in Cuba (just after Castro came to power), and Mexico (during student uprisings), visiting North Vietnam(at the end of the Vietnamese War), and again living several years in Nicaragua were not trips taken to immerse oneself in culture or to study history, let alone lie on a beach. A writer–essayist, memoirist, poet–and a photographer, Randall lived her political beliefs. Her opposition to United States policy eventually led to her losing her U.S. citizenship. You can read more about that and the long struggle that finally restored her citizenship at her web site. You can also read more about her Cuban life in To Change the World: My Years in Cuba. Excerpts can also be read at the Havana Times web site, a site sympathetic to the country and government of Cuba.
I bought To Change the World at the Tucson Book Festival and am eager to read it, having read some of the excerpts at the Havana Times. Just to be perfectly clear, I am not sympathetic to Castro, and steeled myself to dislike an apologia for his revolution. However, Randall is far too intelligent to just parrot dogma. I found the excerpts I read to be fascinating, and a good counterpoint to the (my) unexamined attitude toward Castro.
Randall now lives in Albuquerque, and the travel to Easter Island was spurred by an article by playwright Edward Albee about how a visit to the island had affected him.
In the first half of her book, the poetry and photography beautifully portray the mysterious stone heads on the island, and she asks the questions that I have asked when seeing pictures of the carvings, weaving the physical descriptions through the facts and speculations of history and anthropology.
Even here, she sees the dangers of colonialism, and her contemplation of the ancients moves through time to Baghdad, and on to a loop between past and present and future–both personal and global. Thus the second half of the book moves from Easter Island to the contemplation of universal life questions, and asks more of the reader than simple tourism.
Margaret Randall kindly gave me permission to use her photographs here. They are copyrighted and are NOT available for your use, other than enjoying what you see here.
I hope that you will start or join a conversation here. Surely I have given you enough controversial topics to approach. Have at it!
Read about the other panelist from Tucson Festival of Books, Adele Barker, and about another South Sea Island experience. And don’t forget to recommend this post by clicking on one of the social media buttons below.