Say Her Name

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Celebrated novelist Francisco Goldman married a beautiful young writer named Aura Estrada in a romantic Mexican hacienda in the summer of 2005. The month before their second anniversary, during a long-awaited holiday, Aura broke her neck while body-surfing. Francisco, blamed for Aura's death by her family and blaming himself, wanted to die, too. But instead he wrote Say Her Name, a novel chronicling his great love and unspeakable loss, tracking the stages of grief when pure love...
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Say Her Name: A Novel

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Celebrated novelist Francisco Goldman married a beautiful young writer named Aura Estrada in a romantic Mexican hacienda in the summer of 2005. The month before their second anniversary, during a long-awaited holiday, Aura broke her neck while body-surfing. Francisco, blamed for Aura's death by her family and blaming himself, wanted to die, too. But instead he wrote Say Her Name, a novel chronicling his great love and unspeakable loss, tracking the stages of grief when pure love gives way to bottomless pain.

Suddenly a widower, Goldman collects everything he can about his wife, hungry to keep Aura alive with every memory. From her childhood and university days in Mexico City with her fiercely devoted mother to her studies at Columbia University, through their newlywed years in New York City and travels to Mexico and Europe—and always through the prism of her gifted writings—Goldman seeks her essence and grieves her loss. Humor leavens the pain as he lives through the madness of utter grief and creates a living portrait of a love as joyous and playful as it is deep and profound.

Say Her Name is a love story, a bold inquiry into destiny and accountability, and a tribute to Aura, who she was and who she would have been.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Goldman's (The Divine Husband) fifth book is a highly personal account of the author's life in the aftermath of his young wife's drowning. Goldman moves in time from meeting Aura in New York and her harrowing death on Mexico's Pacific Coast to the painful and solitary two years that followed in Brooklyn, marked in part by his mother-in-law's claim that he was responsible for Aura's death. His struggles to exonerate himself from his own conscience, and from his mother-in-law's legal threats, is electric and poignant, encapsulated in painful such moments as the author's discovery of "the indentations of Aura's scooping fingers like fossils" in the surface of her face scrub soon after her death. Goldman also includes fragments of Aura's fiction and her diary: "Played Atari like crazy, rearranged my Barbie house" recall her youth in Mexico City, and "We're on a plane, we've spent most of the day traveling, Paco asleep on my shoulder" illuminate the private moments of the couple's life. Goldman calls this book a novel and employs some novelistic techniques (composite characters, for instance), but the foundation is in truth: messy, ugly, and wildly complicated truth. (Apr.)
Library Journal
With total candor, Goldman (The Divine Husband) describes his life with his wife, Aura Estrada, who died tragically in 2007. This is only a novel in that he changed names to protect some specific identities; otherwise the story is true. This is an authentic work of the heart and soul. He and Aura had a short married life, but one can tell they were happy. They were both gifted writers. He was significantly older; her mother was controlling, and her father absent. Aura was a bright light of ineffable humanity. Goldman describes Aura and his life with her in a gradual way that circles backward and forward in time from the present. He fills in the story bit by bit; the actual description of the accident coming last. VERDICT The feeling, the memorial incarnation that this book creates, is monumental. Essential for all libraries. This book about tragic death is a gift for the living.—Henry Bankhead, Los Gatos P.L., CA
Kirkus Reviews

A nonfiction novel of love and loss...and perhaps even a little redemption.

In the Author's Note, Goldman makes clear that much of this novel is based on the facts of his life. The main characters are named Francisco Goldman and Aura Estrada, a married couple. Goldman (in real life) lost his 30-year-old wife Aura in a freak accident on a beach in Mexico, as does the "Goldman" of the narrative. Both Goldmans are novelists; both Auras are writers of fiction. Goldman (the author) weaves into his story excerpts from journals and short stories penned by his late wife. While all this logistical complexity could conceivably be confusing, at some level it doesn't matter what's "truth" and what's "fiction," for the story is inherently moving and tragic, and it focuses on loss and lament—universal themes whether they derive from memoir or from an author's imagination. The novel moves back and forth chronologically, starting at Aura's death and providing generous flashbacks into both Aura and Goldman's life. When they met, he was an accomplished journalist and a gifted novelist in his mid-40s, and she a talented graduate student from Mexico who'd come to Columbia to earn her doctorate in comparative literature. Along the way she decides she would like to study creative writing, so she co-enrolls in an MFA program at Hunter College. Aura is sprightly, witty and free-spirited, while Goldman is an extremely creative but self-admittedly overgrown adolescent. Their love is deep, and Goldman feels inconsolable at her loss. Shortly after Aura's death, her domineering mother Juanita begins a campaign against Goldman, suggesting that he was in some way responsible for her death and threatening to bring a lawsuit against him.With pathologically maternal petulance, she refuses to let Goldman have some of Aura's ashes for him to take back to their New York apartment. Toward the end of the novel, he begins to accommodate himself to Aura's loss and to a limited extent to Juanita's fractiousness.

Appropriately, in this novel of death and dying, Goldman writes gorgeous, heartbreaking prose.

Robin Romm
…passionate and moving…[a] beautifully written account of Goldman's short marriage to Estrada…while Goldman's gifts as a reporter are on full display…the truth that emerges in this book has less to do with the mystery of her death—which, at its core, is the mystery of all tragic deaths—than with the miracle of the astonishing, spirited, deeply original young woman Goldman so adored. "I always wished that I could know what it was like to be Aura," he writes. Goldman revives her through the only power left to him. So remarkable is this resurrection that at times I felt the book itself had a pulse.
—The New York Times
Roxana Robinson
Goldman's long cry of pain seems more like memoir than novel. The use of real names, the apparent cleaving to historical facts, the relentless attentiveness to detail and feeling—all suggest that tenebrous realm we've come to know through the eloquence of Joan Didion and Joyce Carol Oates. Regardless of form, Goldman shares their dark territory. As to what a writer should write about his private life, the answer is that writers have no private lives: We write what we know. Goldman here bears witness to his anguish, which is mighty.
—The Washington Post
From the Publisher
"Out of crushing loss and despair, Goldman has forged a radiant and transcendent masterpiece." —-Booklist Starred Review
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780802119810
  • Publisher: Grove/Atlantic, Inc.
  • Publication date: 4/5/2011
  • Pages: 288
  • Sales rank: 387,944
  • Product dimensions: 6.30 (w) x 9.10 (h) x 1.30 (d)

Meet the Author

Francisco Goldman

FRANCISCO GOLDMAN is the author of three novels: The Long Night of White Chickens, which won the Sue Kaufman Prize for First Fiction and was a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award; The Ordinary Seaman, a finalist for the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award and The Los Angeles Times Book Prize; and The Divine Husband. Goldman is also the author of the non-fiction book, The Art of Political Murder: Who killed the Bishop?, which was named a Best Book of the Year by The Chicago Tribune, The Washington Post, The San Francisco Chronicle, and The Economist. Goldman has been a contributing editor for Harper’s magazine, and his fiction, journalism and essays have appeared in publications such as The New Yorker, The New York Review of Books, Esquire and The New York Times Magazine. He is the recipient of a Guggenheim Foundation grant and the T. R. Fyvel Freedom of Expression Book Award, and was a fellow at the American Academy of Berlin and the Center for Scholars and Writers at the New York Public Library. He currently directs the Premio Aura Estrada/Aura Estrada Prize ( Goldman divides his time between Brooklyn and Mexico City.

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Read an Excerpt

Say Her Name

By Francisco Goldman

Grove Press

Copyright © 2011 Francisco Goldman
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8021-1981-0

Chapter One

Aura died on July 25, 2007. I went back to Mexico for the first anniversary because I wanted to be where it had happened, at that beach on the Pacific coast. Now, for the second time in a year, I'd come home again to Brooklyn without her.

Three months before she died, April 24, Aura had turned thirty. We'd been married twenty-six days shy of two years.

Aura's mother and uncle accused me of being responsible for her death. It's not as if I consider myself not guilty. If I were Juanita, I know I would have wanted to put me in prison, too. Though not for the reasons she and her brother gave.

From now on, if you have anything to say to me, put it in writing—that's what Leopoldo, Aura's uncle, said on the telephone when he told me that he was acting as Aura's mother's attorney in the case against me. We haven't spoken since.


Aura and me

Aura and her mother

Her mother and me

A love-hate triangle, or, I don't know

Mi amor, is this really happening?

Où sont les axolotls?

Whenever Aura took leave of her mother, whether at the Mexico City airport or if she was just leaving her mother's apartment at night, or even when they were parting after a meal in a restaurant, her mother would lift her hand to make the sign of the cross over her and whisper a little prayer asking the Virgin of Guadalupe to protect her daughter.

Axolotls are a species of salamander that never metamorphose out of the larval state, something like pollywogs that never become frogs. They used to be abundant in the lakes around the ancient city of Mexico, and were a favorite food of the Aztecs. Until recently, axolotls were said to be still living in the brackish canals of Xochimilco; in reality they're practically extinct even there. They survive in aquariums, laboratories, and zoos.

Aura loved the Julio Cortázar short story about a man who becomes so mesmerized by the axolotls in the Jardin des Plantes in Paris that he turns into an axolotl. Every day, sometimes even three times a day, the nameless man in that story visits the Jardin des Plantes to stare at the strange little animals in their cramped aquarium, at their translucent milky bodies and delicate lizard's tails, their pink flat triangular Aztec faces and tiny feet with nearly humanlike fingers, the odd reddish sprigs that sprout from their gills, the golden glow of their eyes, the way they hardly ever move, only now and then twitching their gills, or abruptly swimming with a single undulation of their bodies. They seem so alien that he becomes convinced they're not just animals, that they bear some mysterious relation to him, are mutely enslaved inside their bodies yet somehow, with their pulsing golden eyes, are begging him to save them. One day the man is staring at the axolotls as usual, his face close to the outside of the tank, but in the middle of that same sentence, the "I" is now on the inside of the tank, staring through the glass at the man, the transition happens just like that. The story ends with the axolotl hoping that he's succeeded in communicating something to the man, in bridging their silent solitudes, and that the reason the man no longer visits the aquarium is because he's off somewhere writing a story about what it is to be an axolotl.

The first time Aura and I went to Paris together, about five months after she'd moved in with me, she wanted to go to the Jardin des Plantes to see Cortázar's axolotls more than she wanted to do anything else. She'd been to Paris before, but had only recently discovered Cortázar's story. You would have thought that the only reason we'd flown to Paris was to see the axolotls, though actually Aura had an interview at the Sorbonne, because she was considering transferring from Columbia. Our very first afternoon, we went to the Jardin des Plantes, and paid to enter its small nineteenth-century zoo. In front of the entrance to the amphibian house, or vivarium, there was a mounted poster with information in French about amphibians and endangered species, illustrated with an image of a red-gilled axolotl in profile, its happy extraterrestrial's face and albino monkey arms and hands. Inside, the tanks ran in a row around the room, smallish illuminated rectangles set into the wall, each framing a somewhat different humid habitat: moss, ferns, rocks, tree branches, pools of water. We went from tank to tank, reading the placards: various species of salamanders, newts, frogs, but no axolotls. We circled the room again, in case we'd somehow missed them. Finally Aura went up to the guard, a middle-aged man in uniform, and asked where the axolotls were. He didn't know anything about the axolotls, but something in Aura's expression seemed to give him pause, and he asked her to wait; he left the room and a moment later came back with a woman, somewhat younger than him, wearing a blue lab coat. She and Aura spoke quietly, in French, so I couldn't understand what they were saying, but the woman's expression was lively and kind. When we went outside, Aura stood there for a moment with a quietly stunned expression. Then she told me that the woman remembered the axolotls; she'd even said that she missed them. But they'd been taken away a few years before and were now in some university laboratory. Aura was in her charcoal gray woolen coat, a whitish wool scarf wrapped around her neck, strands of her straight black hair mussed around her soft round cheeks, which were flushed as if burning with cold, though it wasn't particularly cold. Tears, just a few, not a flood, warm salty tears overflowed from Aura's brimming eyes and slid down her cheeks.

Who cries over something like that? I remember thinking. I kissed the tears, breathing in that briny Aura warmth. Whatever it was that so got to Aura about the axolotls not being there seemed part of the same mystery that the axolotl at the end of Cortázar's story hopes the man will reveal by writing a story. I always wished that I could know what it was like to be Aura.

Où sont les axolotls? she wrote in her notebook. Where are they?


Excerpted from Say Her Name by Francisco Goldman Copyright © 2011 by Francisco Goldman. Excerpted by permission of Grove Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Interviews & Essays

Back into the Abyss: Junot Díz and Francisco Goldman Join the Barnes & Noble Review

Between the two of them, Junot Díz and Francisco Goldman have produced some of the most mesmerizing literary fiction today — vibrant and soulful, often screamingly funny, and always searching. Each of their debuts was selected for the Discover Great New Writers program — Díz 's Drown in '96 and Goldman's The Long Night of White Chickens in '92 — and since then, both have published to ever-growing acclaim, including a Pulitzer Prize for Díz 's The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.

The longtime friends generously agreed to let the Barnes & Noble Review eavesdrop on their conversation, one that I kicked off — and closed — with some questions of my own. —Miwa Messer

The Barnes and Noble Review: Which comes first, voice or place?

Junot Díz: For my first three books the setting (or place if you will) has always been a given — NJ and the Dominican Republic and some NYC — so from one perspective you could say that the place in my work always comes first. But really what comes first is something even more basic — my desire to write about the Dominican diasporic experience, to write about a movement of people, a set of experiences, a history, which I witnessed firsthand and which shaped almost every part of my life, and yet which was largely ignored, erased, and misunderstood by the larger culture. That was the first impulse, certainly. But with all three of my books there were other very specific evolutionary conditions that made them possible. Oscar Wao for example cohered in a period of terrible distress. All the novels that I wanted to write were not happening. I was living in Mexico City, next door to you, Frank (in fact you were the one who enticed me to come down to the DF [Distrito Federal], thinking the distance and the city would inspire me.) My apartment had almost no furniture and garbage bags for window shades — I definitely wasn't taking care of myself. I was going nuts from my lack of success, and I kept playing the Conan the Barbarian soundtrack over and over thinking that it might spark something.

Now that I've had time to reflect, I realize that in all the failed books I was attempting to write about the deepest shit in both my life and in Dominican history. I was trying to tackle the traumatic after-effects of dictatorship, specifically the afterlife of the Trujillato, starting with my own family and projecting that out to my fictional characters. This was not an easy thing to do. Not for me certainly. I grew up in the shadow of the Trujillato, saw how the regime had ravaged so many families. The sexual violence that the Trujillato deployed to terrorize the Dominican people was one of my principle concerns and given all the silence and shame that surrounds it — no wonder I was having trouble with the material.

So one night we were all at a party with some Mexican actors, and I was drinking beers and listening to the chatter, and one of the actors came up to me and said that his favorite writer was Oscar Wilde, but of course I heard it as Oscar Wao and that was how it all started. With a name misheard. As soon as I heard Oscar Wao the title came to me, and then this vision of Oscar and his sister and their crazy mother and over them all the shadow of Trujillo. I wrote the Oscar section of the book very fast; the rest of the novel came much slower. What kept me going even in the darkest periods was that strange third person first person voice that mixed the nerdish with the historical, which was so vibrant and flippant and yet so dark. Oscar Wao more than any of my other works was a delicate balancing act — keeping the voice from becoming too funny or too bleak, too historical or too nerdish. Drown, my first book, was something else altogether. I was an immigrant kid who grew up in a neighborhood that I never saw depicted anywhere, who remembered a Dominican Republic that was very much alive and kicking. I wanted to write stories about both these worlds. I floundered for years until I hit upon Yunior's voice. Then suddenly the pages started flowing out of me but before Yunior's voice crystallized in my head nothing was working. Nothing at all. Even stories I was dying to tell were flat on the page.

Francisco Goldman: And what a creation Yunior's voice is, one of the great literary character voices of our time! Some people probably believe that Yunior's voice must be close to your own, a directly autobiographical voice. But it's something, as you imply, that you developed. I'd love to know more about what went into your discovery of that voice. Are there earlier versions of that voice filed away somewhere that make you cringe?

The sources of most of my novels have been a mix of things. What is interesting to me is the question of what finally sparks the writing, how do you get to that moment when, as you say, Yunior's voice crystallized and the writing took off.

My first novel, The Long Night of White Chickens, grew out of my immersion, beginning in 1979, in the war and nightmare repression in Guatemala. Sure, I had a Guatemalan mother, but I'd had a mostly typical suburban middle-class New England upbringing. I was so innocent that I thought that our old family cottage on Lake Amatitlán, just outside Guatemala City, would be a perfect place to hole up and write the stories I needed for my MFA applications. When I arrived and told my uncle my plan, he freaked. Don't you know there's a war on in this country! The cottages are shut down, the night watchman who looked after them was murdered, the police station was attacked by guerrillas, etc. So I was forced to live in my uncle's house. That's where it started: when, miracle of miracles, a short story I'd written for the MFA applications was accepted by Esquire magazine, the editors invited me to write non-fiction, and I asked to be sent to Guatemala, and just like that I became a freelance journalist, that's how I (barely) supported myself, working out of Central America until 1991. One of the reasons I was so committed to this was that I thought it would make me grow as a writer. In that grand tradition, I was after experience.

But I didn't know how to write fiction about violence, suffering, injustice, absolute evil, the inevitable political and moral entanglements, didn't really understand my place in all that as a human, never mind as a would-be fiction writer (Me quedaba grande, as they say here in Mexico.) I was obsessed with writers who'd written novels that were also rooted in historical tragedy and violence and that somehow managed to balance light and darkness, the all too real and the mysterious. How did they do that? One of those was Faulkner of course and when reading that he described Caddy from The Sound and the Fury as his heart's darling, something clicked. Flor de Mayo Puac was partly born in that moment, but she was still only an idea for a character. In 1986 Morgan Entrekin offered me a modest advance. I escaped to Madrid, worked on my novel every day, failed every day, had stupid fistfights with Spaniards who thought I was a moro, and a few months later returned to Guatemala having blown my advance, and without a single page of the novel.

One day I said to myself, Okay, this is a ludicrous and complicated story you want to tell, but ludicrous and complicated things happen to people here all the time, and if it had really happened to you, and you absolutely had to tell it to somebody, you'd be able to. And that's how the narrator Roger's voice finally came forward, with him speaking as if to a friend about what had happened to him, and that opening page never changed. Since then, every novel but one has begun with this terrifying process of failing every day that lasts for months and months. I'm convinced that while we are consciously flailing away, trying, say, to find that voice, our subconscious is actually doing the work, laying down a foundation, exploring paths, a sponge absorbing ideas and impulses until it begins to take on the weight of obsession and conviction. Twice, after months of anguished failing, it's been a dream that's finally gotten me rolling. A dream that I was on a freighter at sea with no other person on board gave me the tone I needed for what became The Ordinary Seaman. I'd done a ton of research for The Divine Husband, but when I tried to start it nothing came, I gave up, went back to it a few years later and it was the same. At a party in Mexico City I drank a daiquiri made with bad ice, ended up in bed hallucinating with fever, and dreamed a scene of convent servants searching the streets of 19th- century Guatemala City for a suitable Indian to take back to their Mother Superior for her foot washing ritual, and it was only then that the novel finally found a spark of life and lurched forward.

Say Her Name was different. I began it six months after Aura's death and was helpless to do anything else. Now I've gone back to a novel that I was working on when Aura died. It's a different novel now, just as I'm a different person. I failed at it for much of this summer. The difference is that this time, the weeks of failing didn't panic me, I'd been down this road before and knew that sooner or later it would resolve.

So Junot, my question to you is up at the top. Related to it is another question: how do you find your way forward when you write a novel? Did you know where you wanted the novel to go when you began Oscar Wao? How radically different was that process for you than when you write short stories?

JD: I have hundreds of pages filled with failed versions of Yunior's voice. That's how I roll; I always have to write a lot of crap before anything useful emerges. I don't necessarily cringe. I just shake my head, amazed that I have to sow so much to glean so little.

But I totally agree with you — my unconscious mind does better work than my conscious mind. And it was without question the best guide to get me through the earlier stages of my novel-writing process. In the first abortive stages of Oscar Wao I was trying desperately to write a Rushdie- esque encyclopedic novel about contemporary Dominican history. I wasn't listening to what the writing was telling me — I, Junot, was trying to be in charge. I wanted an encyclopedic novel for no other reason than I wanted it. The arrogance of our executive selves. I lost years chasing that lame dream. Turns out that Rushdie-esque is just not my bag, but I still persisted, writing hundreds and hundreds of pages of junk. All the while my hidden brain was putting together a different kind of book, one that was more fractured and more filled with silences, an archipelago of a book, whereas the usual Rushdie novel is a goddamn continent. Honestly if I'd not insisted, if I'd not been stubborn, I probably could have finished Oscar Wao in half the time. But I kept trying to push my agenda, and boy did my agenda suck. But every now and then I'd put the encyclopedic novel crap down and just play around on the page, and that was when the real work would come out, the sections that make up the novel today. But between each of those sections was always a massive time-consuming battle between my pride and my creativity. Between my conscious and unconscious selves. Hopefully I've learned a lot since that time, but we'll see. Right now the book I'm working on is not going well at all, and I fear I might be falling into the same bullshit pattern. I keep telling myself listen to the work, but you know how hard that can be.

Short stories unfortunately are not a whole lot easier for me. I've never been able to jump from one story to the next, can never build up any flow or momentum. I'm like some shoddy warp drive that has to take long breaks between jumps. As a form, stories require me to be vicious in my discipline. I'm always trying to cut things, to pare them down — excess truly is the enemy. (Not for every story but just the ones that I find myself writing.) There's a spirit of restraint that guides my writing of stories that is not present at all when I'm working on a novel. The novel has always been a lusher process for me, less teleological, more generous. A novel can easily withstand any number of digressions, but rare is the short story that can sustain even one.

In all honesty I doubt I'll write any more stories. They're too damn hard. Besides, I find myself resisting the small canvas these days, wanting to test myself on the longer form. One should never say never but I feel like I've done enough of these bad boys to last me a lifetime.

So let's talk inspiration, Frank. Am I wrong to suggest that your complex relationship with Guatemala brings out the best in your work? Or maybe this is just how I think of my complex relationship with the Dominican Republic. From where did this new book of yours spring? Is it an old dream or something else altogether?

FG: But I don't really think of Guatemala that way, as bringing out the best in me, but maybe I'm taking Guatemala for granted now, because I did learn and see so much there. (I think Mexico City is the place that brings out the best in me, but not in the way you mean.) I mostly grew up in a mean, almost Shirley Jackson type of New England town, that's how I experienced it, where my house offered no escape, where we all lived in fear of my father for one, always angry and often violent, and where my mother, like some kind of Tennessee Williams diva, was always holding Guatemala out as a lost paradise, where her family was respected, a loving and happy family, where we owned toy stores, where I could have a pet monkey. Never forget you're Guatemalan too, she was always saying. So home was also always somewhere else, and that home was this place that didn't really exist. In my twenties I really got to know Guatemala and I learned about fear, every kind of violence, the suffering of so many other people, and so much else, not all negative, far from it, but all playing out on that horrifying stage. The traumatic reality versus the dream of another reality, I think that's a fundamental conflict for me. The reality of death versus the dream of life, that more than anything else intrigues me now, though I think it's always been there. I'm probably pretty happy by nature, yet, as for so many others, the reality has often been cruel, incomprehensible, sad, overwhelming, whatever. I'd always dreamed of loving and being loved and had rarely experienced it, and when I finally truly did, it was taken away in an instant.

Anyway, that kind of conflict or incongruity or engaging of loss drives my writing (though if I'm going to be totally honest, maybe all this is just a guess, something that sounds about right to me today.) I partly mean the imagination as refuge and even rebellion, but mostly fiction writing as a way of making something out of words that has meaning and coherence in a world where it's hard for me to find it any other way, or that I could never express in any other way, or just as a way of making something that for some reason I really want to make, so that I think that it's actually writing that brings out the best in me, though obviously not in a social way, the discipline and conviction of it, the getting up every day and working hard at it, living with the mystery and insecurity of it, challenging yourself to be as brave and true and even ruthless as you can or need to be in the writing, and so on.

Bolaño said writers should leap head first into the abyss, but you really can't do that, you'd never come out alive, and anyway, I didn't have to leap into it, I was already there. After Aura's death, I wrote a book that is mostly about her, a very poor substitute for Aura, of course, but something to put back into the abyss so that it won't only be emptiness. The new book is something like that too, an unhappy person, the death of her essential loved one, and how will she live now? Things will happen to her and hopefully some of those will be marvelous and hilarious, but others will be awful. (It's set in a sort of Lovecraftian New England, but it does have Guatemalans in it, and also Mexicans.) I think you were suggesting something similar to all this at the end of your amazing short story, "The Cheater's Guide to Love." It's a story about Yunior's loss of his fiancée, which devastates him, the loss of his great love and his relentless remorse, and in the end his seeming answer to that loss is to return to his writing, and it is such a lonely solution and such a powerful and inspiring one, and I don't mean in a therapeutic way, it's actually kind of mystical. Why is that the answer, or the only way he can find? I know we're not supposed to confuse a character with the author, but now Yunior is a writer, teaching at a university in Cambridge, and so that ending seemed very revealing and hard-earned. You seemed to be saying something about what writing means to you and about why you need to do it. What does it mean to you and why do you need to do it and what is it that inspires you? Brotherito, take a few decades away from them if you want — more novels! — but please don't stop writing short stories.

JD: Frank, no one could have said it more clearly or more beautifully than you so I'll just paraphrase: at the end of This Is How You Lose Her, Yunior, who has lost about as much as he can lose, turns to the writing to put something back into the abyss so that it won't only be loss and regret. In my mind Yunior re-engages with his writing to bear witness, to inform on his self. This bearing witness, this reckoning with self, with all his actions and lies, this shouldering responsibility for what he has done to his ex-fiancée and to the other women in his life, represents a tremendous step for Yunior. A movement towards recognizing the humanity of the women he has so persistently denigrated and in recognizing their humanity finally finding some of his own. This is not insignificant. Not every guy achieves that simple breakthrough in the imaginary that transforms women from objects into full human beings. This writing/bearing witness is a sign that Yunior is finally becoming the person he needs to be in order to find the intimacy that he so desperately longs for but was never able to achieve.

OK, I'll see what I can do about the short stories, but damn, Frank, these things have just about worn me out. These days I'd rather read the short stories than write 'em but let's see what the future holds. I guess I'd have the same reaction if you suddenly announced that you were going to abandon journalism. I'd be like: you better not. Every time I read your nonfiction works, whether it's the chilling Art of Political Murder or your excellent profile on Camila Vallejo, I am forcefully reminded that you are that illest kind of switch hitter: you are brilliant in more than one genre.

But before I lose the thread you asked about me and my relationship to the word: I guess we all have our covenants with the world (or at least we should have). For people like my mother, it's her religion. For other people, it's their children or perhaps their families. For me storytelling is my sacred. About the only covenant I have. As reader and writer I believe in the infinite worldmaking power of stories. I'm with Leslie Marmon Silko when she says in Ceremony: "I will tell you something about stories, (he said). They aren't just entertainment. Don't be fooled. They are all we have, you see, all we have to fight off illness and death." If I have a faith, that's it. Stories are all we have to fight off illness and death. I suspect Silko's words resonate with you too, Frank.

But there are many reasons, really. On the most selfish level I write to make sense of the universe, to make sense of my self, of my immigrantness, my Dominicanness, my New Jerseyness, my maleness. I feel like I've lived so many weird disparate lives, often simultaneously — DR, NJ, native, immigrant, first generation, Dominican, Latino, Black, Spanish, Black English, Official English, hiphop, nerd, military family, high school dropout, grunt worker, Rutgers, Cornell, activist, writer, professor — sometimes it's hard for me to fold them all into one coherent identity. But in my writing all the pieces of me come together, if not happily then at least beautifully. Writing allows me to be simultaneous in ways that the larger culture seems to resist.

Also: I grew up in a Dominican community that was totally erased, totally ignored by the mainstream. I grew up never seeing myself or my neighbors or my friends in any kind of literature. I grew up with no books or movies or tv shows that reflected my world, my identities, my struggles. The brief instances my community did appear in, say, the news or books it was always as monsters: either some drug-dealing pathology or illegal immigrant menace. The real us was never shown, totally elided. (In college I read books like Down These Mean Streets and The House on Mango Street and Sula, which came close to showing us, but when it comes to seeing yourself in the representational universe close is never enough.) Growing up I felt that absence, that wound, viscerally — who the hell wants to come up in a hole, in a silence? It's astounding how little some of us have in this culture to build healthy selves from. The Jeremy Lin phenomena writ large — some groups have thousands upon thousands of athletes that reflect them — some groups have only one or two and when that one or two appears you suddenly realize how long you've lived with none. If I had to parse my first motivations for becoming a writer down to one it would have to be my profound desire to battle that fucked-up erasure (which is really a violence) by singing my community out of that silence. I guess that's really what launched me into the words — I wanted to be part of that movement of artists that were insuring that the next generation wouldn't have to endure what I endured.

But ultimately I suspect what keeps me on the page, despite all my slowness and all my difficulties, despite the failures and the long doubt, is the same force that returns Yunior to his writing: the profound need to bear witness, to leave a trace, a record, an account of a people that many, including many of the people themselves, didn't know existed. For a people like mine, children of the abyss, of apocalypses without end — from slavery to dictatorship to immigration — bearing witness is sometimes all we had, like firing a flare up into the dark vault of the universe. Bearing witness in order (to quote you Frank) to put something back into the abyss so that it won't only be silence and loss. In order to mark that we were here, we lived, we mattered. In order to have a little light by which to see ourselves and others with, a little light to carry us into the future, a little light to call our own.

FG: You witness a lot as a journalist, and what you witness becomes a part of you. IThe Art of Political Murder is about the nine- year Bishop Gerardi murder case. More than twenty people related to the case were murdered, and numerous others fled; throughout it I worked closely with some of the most wonderful, courageous people, but it brought the vilest people imaginable into my life too. The last two times I went to Guatemala I had to have bodyguards, and was taken out by a side exit at the airport. Just a few weeks ago I received a creepy anonymous twitter message. I don't feel like I can go back to Guatemala right now, I don't want that stress. The Gerardi case was incredibly complex, and it could only be narrated with authority through the most devout attention to concrete detail and substantiated acts. I had to learn to write in a new way, to strive for a transparent style that would let those details and acts convey the story. You're always learning, with each book hopefully pushing ahead. Say Her Name wasn't a book, of course, that I ever expected to write, but one of my writer friends has pointed out that it's as if The Art of Political Murder, with its forensic detail, and The Divine Husband too, which is about the yearning for love, prepared me to write it. Because, as you know, Say Her Name is framed as a sort of trial or investigation, conducted by myself against myself, seemingly in response to the legal dangers I was threatened with in Mexico after Aura's death. I knew that a journalistic examination of Aura's death would never reveal that I'd been legally culpable, and even though I did include those facts in the book, that's not, finally, the mystery I was "investigating." I was nearly finished writing it when I came across this sentence that I love, from Lydia Davis's translation of Marcel Proust's Swann's Way. "For one thing love and death have in common, more than those vague resemblances people are always talking about, is that they make us question more deeply, for fear that its reality will slip away from us, the mystery of personality."

I've been living in Mexico City and love it here, I have the best friends in the world and am only half-ashamed to admit that this summer I've carried on at times like a wild teenager. Mexico City has largely been spared the violence happening elsewhere in the country. None have it worse than the Central Americans who trek through on their way to the U.S., who get kidnapped by the Zetas and others, their relatives in the U.S. extorted for money, and often they get killed anyway; the Zetas rape the women and girls and kill them, or they take a young man and say, Okay kill those other two or else you'll die too, maybe he has to kill his brother or friend, and then they force him to become a Zeta sicario, or else he refuses and is killed anyway; the deserts of Mexico are filled with the graves of kidnapped migrants, no one knows how many have vanished. What, as a writer, do you do with that? I don't know, but I don't see myself writing about it in a documentary way. But it's something I know about, and that strikes close. After college I got a scholarship to a summer writing workshop where William Gass was a teacher. Gass is a philosophy professor, and when a student asked if his "philosophical ideas" inspired his writing, Gass answered no, that he knew he was "smart," and so he just worked on his sentences. You have to trust that who you are is going to come out in some way. You focus on your sentences or on the most daring and delirious narrative vision, and trust that you'll show up. In U.S. discourse, immigrants are mostly represented as less than human, a policy problem, or as just that, a category, and categories are prisons. The novels I love are prison breaks — what you did, Junot, in Oscar Wao, and Bolaño with the Ciudad Juarez femicides in 2666, Yuri Herrera with the narco war in Trabajos del Reino — the categories get smashed open and the unexpected, the unthinkable, the forgotten, the ignored, the unknown, the terrifying, the secretly beloved, the misunderstood and astonishing, the mesmerizingly human, it all breaks out.

JD: That's what we dream about, what we long for, books like those. Certainly as a reader that's the kind of books I've loved. Of course what you end up writing is something else altogether. You're working on that new novel set in New England and I'm trying to imagine the world of a young teenage girl in Santo Domingo, a Third World striver, the kind of girl that wants to do everything right in a country where for poor people even that can't keep the catastrophe off you. I'm hoping she'll lead me through to my next novel. But who knows — it takes me years of patient scribbling before my characters ever deign to speak to me.

BNR: Before we finish, I can't resist asking you both the classic question: Tell us what books you'd want to have with you if you were stranded on a desert island?

FG: Desert island books, damn. How big is the island, and how long am I going to be there? Long books, I guess. In Search of Lost Time. War and Peace. The Collected Shakespeare. Moby-Dick! The Collected Borges. 2666, why not? Something immense that I haven't read yet, The Man without Qualities. Emily Dickinson's poetry too, which I've been reading all summer. And definitively the Guia Roji, which contains all roads, a Borgesian cartography of Mexico City, as immense and dense as the city itself, but all its maps packed into a single fat book. Currently, for a piece I'm writing, I'm using it like the I-Ching, closing my eyes, opening it to any page, and then trying to drive to the spot my finger touches down on. I've never driven in Mexico City before, and it terrifies me.

JD: Les Miserables is perfect for the stranded. It's immense and has a lot of Melville-esque post-modern outbursts, and it's about justice — few books are about that anymore — and it always gets me crying. I'd also need something from my childhood. Watership Down. Every time I read this line —"My Chief Rabbit has told me to defend this run and until he says otherwise I shall stay here." — my heart feels like it's going to burst. And I'd need something from real life. Maxine Hong Kingston's China Men or Edward Rivera's Family Installments. And something from home (the Caribbean). Patrick Chamoiseau's Texaco or Cristina Garcia's Dreaming in Cuban. And a book of poetry. Aracelis Girmay's Kingdom Animalia. And a comic book. Katsuhiro Otomo's AKIRA. And something for the ancestors: Song of Solomon. And something I haven't read before, something that ain't out yet but that will be by the time I'm shipwrecked.

-September 11, 2012

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  • Posted August 13, 2011

    more from this reviewer

    Horrific grief~Illuminating Love Story

    Grief is emotional and physical's not something that just dissipates as the days go by like people say it does. It's something that rewires you, shatters your whole life and changes you forever. Finally, Francisco Goldman has touched the ends of that agony and is capable of sharing it with us. There is hope for those who need that comfort now...both for women and men.

    Francisco Goldman is positively a man familiar with the agonies of grief. He knows the living death of grief. He knows the impossiblities of having to go on living after the death of the one person who makes life worth living. And, he is the most gorgeous and generous of tellers of that experience I have ever known to be alive in my time. He's a writer of the most profound gifts to share.

    "Say Her Name" is a magnificent tribute to Goldman's love, Aura, his precious young wife of only 4 years. Her life affected him in such a way as to brand his heart and soul eternally, and he shows that in an eloquence of language and writing that is timeless, heart-wrenching, and a memorial of their relationship.

    I was simply spellbound by his story and his prose. Although this book is fiction, you will be instantly gripped by the love story,the angst of it and the autobiographical insistance. It is a haunting story.

    Descriptively, Goldman is a master writer. Let me quote him as he speaks of loss and desolution here:

    "Every day a ghostly ruin. Every day the ruin of the day that was supposed to have been. Every second on the clock clicking forward, anything I do or see or think, all of it made of ashes and charred shards, the ruins of the future. The life we were going to live, the years we were going to spend together, it was as if that life had already occurred millennia ago, in a lost secret city deep in the jungle, now crumbled into ruins, overgrown, its inhabitants extinguished, never discovered, their story never told by any human being outside it--a lost city with a lost name that only I remember--"

    What touched me at a level of wonder and anger, actually, was that in the telling of his relationship with his wife, Aura, I saw Mr. Goldman's self-effacing and self-sacrificing love; while Aura's was more narcissistic and selfish. Although Francisco gave her his all in love, she was often "ashamed" of him, hiding him away from her college peers, "made jokes" about his age and how ugly he was; i.e., he was easily 30 yrs. older, and manipulated him into all sorts of things. Goldman shares these qualities openly and without rancour as a part of who Aura was and what their relationship was like; but, as a reader, I was struck by how insensitive she was to him in return of his obvious devotion to her. Was he was aware of this as he wrote the book? I doubt it. I believe he was only telling the parts about her that he remembered and wanted to preserve. I don't mean to say that Aura didn't love Francisco, she seemed to, of course, and they had a beautiful relationship, but his love was more profound, I think. Aura was a young woman intent on being a writer and she had determination to that end.
    This is a book which will send you directly into the heart of the darkness of human misery after the loss of a loved one, and it will send you into the heart of a love so powerful it transcends that pain. Francisco Goldman is a magnificent author.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted July 5, 2011

    more from this reviewer

    A haunting story of grief

    Francisco Goldman fell in love with the much younger Aura, a graduate student from Mexico, studying literature at Columbia University. To his surprise, she agreed to marry him and they lived a very happy life. He recounts their short life together in his fictional memoir Say Her Name.

    On vacation in Mexico, Aura has a surfing accident and dies. Goldman is devastated, and his pain is made more unbearable by his mother-in-law who blames him for her daughter's death, and vows that he will pay for what he has done. She implies that there was foul play, and not only does he have to deal with his loss, he has to worry about being arrested for Aura's death.

    Goldman's grief is palpable and visceral. He was
    "no longer him. No longer a husband. No longer a man who goes to the fish store to buy dinner for himself and his wife. In less than a year I would be no longer a husband than I was a husband."
    Not written as a traditional memoir, Goldman tells Aura's story, using her own writings and diaries to do so. Aura is a poet, and this book has a very poetic, almost dreamy feel to it. He delves into her childhood, her close relationship with her mother, and her insecurities. Although we know that Aura dies, she comes to vivid life on the pages of this book. It is a loving tribute from a husband to his wife.

    Goldman lays his grief out on the page for all to see, and it is hard to read at times. He cannot bear to pass by the restaurants and other places they used to go to together. He builds a shrine to her in their apartment, complete with her wedding dress hanging on the mirror.

    Say Her Name takes the reader on an honest, emotional journey. We get to know Aura so that her death has an effect on us. There is an element of mystery as well; how did Aura die and did her husband have any responsibility?

    Aura and Goldman both studied Mexican and South American literature; if I knew more about it, that would have deepened my appreciation of the book even more.

    Readers who liked Calvin Trillin's About Alice and Joan Didion's The Year of Magical Thinking will be moved by this story as well.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted April 8, 2011

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    Still thinking about it

    Francisco Goldman's "novel" will stay with me for a long time. Such beautiful language, such heart-felt emotions. As I was reading it, I wasn't sure how much I liked it, as it seemed too "high-brow" for me, with two brilliant writers, fluent in several languages, living in two countries, dropping names of professors and authors that I have never heard of. But the crux of the book was Francisco's relationship with his wife, Aura, and a celebration of her life, even as he grieves her tragic death. Haunting.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted October 29, 2014

    Haunting Tale of Love and Loss Say Her Name by Francisco Goldma

    Haunting Tale of Love and Loss

    Say Her Name by Francisco Goldman is a haunting tale of love and grief.  The way that Goldman tells this autobiographical novel draws the reader into his pain making you feel his grief and guilt towards the death of his wife, Aura.

    The story takes you through Francisco’s life when he is dating Aura, their marriage, and the year after her death.  The love he had for his wife shines through in his writing, making the reader feel so connected with his grief.  

    The gist of the story is that Francisco marries a much younger Mexican woman, Aura, who is aspiring to be a writer but is getting her PhD at her mother’s request.  Goldman takes us through the two short years that they were married, before they go on vacation to the beach for two weeks in Mexico.  They spend a lot of time back in Aura’s home country when they are not in New York City.  They had been to this beach several times before and the waves were not as dangerous as some of the other Mexican beaches.  Near the end of the story you finally learn how she dies at the beach and why Francisco blames himself and his mother-in-law does as well. 

    I thought this book was so well-written and I would recommend to anyone.  I would give this book a 4 out of 5 stars.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 24, 2012


    Goldclan creek.

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  • Posted December 26, 2011



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  • Posted June 30, 2011

    A beautifully written love story

    Francisco Goldman tells us at the very beginning of "Say Her Name" his wife has died, after a swimming accident on a Mexican beach. It is not until after we travel with him through memories of their meeting, courtship and wedding do we read the heart wrenching details of the accident. Trying to find meaning in every detail of his time with Aura, Francisco takes us along with him on his journey through raw and bleeding grief as he weaves us through a story of self blame and ultimate healing alternating the past and present. It is not a book I would have been drawn to, but it is one I am glad I did not miss.

    I would give it a 5 but there are several passages in spanish and not translated. I do not speak spanish.

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  • Posted May 11, 2011

    Beautifully Haunting...

    This book is a story of love, loss and the little things that make up the richness of a life shared. It is worth the time and the read. There is a rawness and a realness to it that sticks with you. You can also feel how those memories of someone you have lost are replayed searching for something new that makes you feel like there is still some little piece of someone to be discovered. The result of his musings is that Aura comes alive on the pages. You can almost feel you know her laugh, her wit and her pixie smile. Both their losses are tragic.

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