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Laura Lomas

Lourdes Casal (1936–1981), award-winning poet, fiction writer, editor, social psychologist, and activist, contributed to the articulation of multiple interdisciplinary fields including Cuban studies, Latina/o, Latin American, black, and women’s studies, yet her work has not received the attention it deserves because she published different kinds of writing in two languages, each directed to disparate, sometimes conflicting or overlapping, audiences. Alternatively, it could be said that her writing addresses an emergent readership more visible today decades after her death, who see—as she did—the need for dialogue across disciplinary, linguistic, and political divisions. Although Casal has remained in print primarily in Latina/o literary anthologies, Casal made her living as a social scientist and a psychology professor, and she remained engaged with Cuba through editorial work and what scholars call today “publicly engaged scholarship.” Casal’s work exemplifies a transnational attention to both homeland (Cuba) and residence (New York) that has become a distinguishing quality of Latina/o literature. In 1978, Lourdes Casal defined herself in “Memories of a Black Cuban Childhood” as learning to assert herself as an “Hispanic Black” (p. 62). In an interview with Margaret Randall that prefaces translations of her poetry into English, she defines herself as a “Latina,” and she asserts her claim to speak as a Cuban, despite living outside the island. During the Cold War, this combination of identifiers constituted a paradox, which Casal asserted both against the mainstream of the Cuban exile community and against heteronormative cultural nationalisms. Casal’s bilingualism and skillful diplomacy provided her with the salvoconducto to weave across multiple borders, despite the walls that became almost impossible to scale after the United States broke off diplomatic relations with Cuba in 1961 and Cuba began relocating people to the Military Units to Aid Production (UMAP) camps in the mid-1960s. A queer feminist of African, Chinese, and European descent, Casal’s writings and editorial projects map the participation of a diverse group of Cuban exiles in the articulation of latinidad; yet even as she becomes legible in certain ways, she remains largely illegible, precisely because she ventured into uncharted, sometimes life-threatening, border spaces, in step with an unexpected ideological itinerary.

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At the start of the last century a modern tradition of literary radicalism crystallized with inspiring results. From 1900 onward, socialists and bohemians yoked their ideals to become a marathon of forward-thinking activist cultural workers. For the next three decades, writers and intellectuals of the Left, such as Max Eastman (1883–1969), were oracles of enchantment in a world increasingly disenchanted, initially by the international war of 1914–1919 and subsequently by a decline in popular political defiance as capitalism consolidated. Still, the adversarial dream persevered during the violence and later, often in little magazines such as the Masses, Liberator, Seven Arts, and Modern Quarterly. Since the 1920s, literary radicalism meant creativity in the service of an insurrection against political power combined with a makeover in human relationships. With the economic catastrophe of 1929 and the triumph of Nazism in 1933, what might have been a generational succession morphed into a paradigm shift. This previously self-governing literary radicalism was now multifariously entangled with Soviet communism during its most awful hour. An unofficial state of emergency escalated so that a range of journals—this time, New Masses, Modern Monthly, and Partisan Review—once more served as barometers of the depth and breadth of radical opinion. Bit by bit, a strange new ethos enveloped the literary Left, one that blended heroism, sacrifice, and artistic triumph with fifteen years of purge trials in the Soviet Union, mortifying policy shifts in the international Communist movement, and relentless domestic repression against the organized Left in the United States. By the end of this phase, in the reactionary post–World War II years, most adherents of communism (not just the pre-dominant pro-Soviet Communism, but the other varieties of communism such as Trotskyism and Bukharinism) desperately fled their Depression-era affiliations. The upshot was a blurring of the record. This occurred in ways that may have seemed clever for autobiographical concealment (by one-time literary radicals who feared exposure or embarrassment at youthful excesses) but became maddening for future scholars wishing to parse the writers’ former convictions. As literary radicalism passed through the Cold War, 1960s radicalization, the late 20th-century culture wars, and into the new millennium, the tradition was routinely reframed so that it faces us today as a giant puzzle. New research and scholarship emerge every year to provide insights into a very complicated body of writing, but there is a fretful ambivalence about its actual location and weight in literary history. Not surprisingly, most overall scholarly histories, chronicles, and anthologies do not include the category of literary radicalism as a well-defined, principal topic. This is because enthusiasts of the last twenty-five years brilliantly championed the tradition less under the rubric of “literary radicalism” than as the fertile soil for a blooming of gender-conscious, multicultural, and polycentric legacies connected to the Left but primarily rendered as eruptions of American literary modernity onto the world stage. These revisionist images came to us in discrete volumes about black writers, women writers, regional writers, children’s writers, Jewish writers, and so forth. Nonetheless, such celebratory portraits remained in competition with a dark double, a notion that nearly all literary radicals were wanting in artistic value. This skeptical appraisal was entrenched in an older scholarship, a point of view that is partly an aftereffect of the long shadow that the Communist imbroglio cast on its entire legacy.