Say Her Name

It ispossible to glide past the heart and core of Francisco Goldman’s Say Her Name without realizing you have read it, in a sentenceof twelve words on page 10: “I still regularly imagine that Aura is besideme on the sidewalk.” Everything else on these beautiful, raw, haunting 350pages—the novelist and journalist’s tribute to the young wife whose death in afreak accident at a Mexican beach nearly destroyed him, too—could be considereda gloss on that one line. He wills her to live again because feeling her lossis intolerable. In one thing, then, he is lucky: a writer of this great a talentpossesses the power to resurrect the dead. Almost. And it is that”almost,” the sense of longing for complete reanimation, once we havemet the literary Aura Estrada in all her uniqueness, that tints this book withunutterable sadness.

The author calls it anovel, rather than a biographical memoir, since facts alone could not yield thedepth of emotional shading created instead with physical detail that isnecessarily imagined (he did not know Aura as a teenager, though she is seenhere as one) as well as undoubtedly true. It is also a working diagram of love,all its wiring and bolts. Drawn from two highly specific individuals, itbecomes useful in understanding a construction that is universal.

No one else sees you withthe full, all-seeing gaze of the one who truly adores you. Goldman’s profoundlove for the young graduate student in literature he meets when he is notexactly looking turns the brightest light on her, so that we too see her inalmost painful richness. The writer remembers—everything—and displays it like asacrificial offering to angry gods: her funny walk, the musings of her girlhooddiary, bits of the fiction she seemed born to write, her playful teasing, theself-doubt that seemed strangely necessary to her creative impulse. It is aparticular way of looking, with the eyes of love, every aspect amplified,important, and meaningful, because beloved.

By dying young—onlythirty, married just shy of two years, coming into her full powers as a writerand her desire to be a mother—Aura gave us an unwitting gift. It is abreathtaking present, yet one that both recipient (reader) and creator (husbandand author) would gladly give back: the stunning biography that most likelywould never have been written but for her untimely death.

Losinga spouse is like contracting an incurable illness. Many medicines will beessayed (and Goldman tries most, from overdrinking to intemperate sex) eventhough all must fail: the only real cure is the return of the lost. Writing abook must present itself as the next best remedy, given the evidence of howmany writers have had recourse to its purgative powers: Joan Didion, JoyceCarol Oates, Calvin Trillin, and Rush drummer Neil Peart (who lost both wifeand daughter in the same year) all wrote memorable books about losing theirmates. These are essential volumes in the library of grief and remembrance;with Say Her Name, the inimitablepowers of poetic fiction are added to the memorial shelf.

All new love, I suspect,is made strong by imagined loss. It is integral to those fraught first days: What would I do without you? In the caseof Aura and Francisco, the difference in their ages (some two decades) causedAura to wonder what she would do in her old age without her husband: “Shewould occasionally say, ‘Why couldn’t you be ten years younger? Then everythingwould be so perfect!'” The irony here needs no comment. It is painfulenough as it is.

Everyday a ghostly ruin. Every day the ruin of the day that was supposed to havebeen. Every second on the clock clicking forward, anything I do or see orthink, all of it made of ashes and charred shards, the ruin of the future.

One central passage in thegreat fiction that is falling in love, what comes after those first lines fullof jittery anticipation of loss, is the giddy sharing of life stories. There issomething wholly imperative about feeding yourself, bit by verbal bit, into themouth of another: you want him to consume it all, and love its taste—the flavorof you. So it is that Goldman knows so much about his lovely young wife; forthe rest, he immersed himself, after her death, in her diaries and the workstored on her computer. Then all he had to do was put it in the kiln of hisnovelist’s imagination and fire it with his despair. What emerges ispermanently enamaled in bright colors:

Aura. . . was just raising the key to the lock when the old timber of the bigzaguán door shook in its frame as if from an earthquake aftershock, followed bya burst of metallic fidgeting within the lock, which set the door handlequivering. She waited a moment, put the key in, turned it, pushed the heavydoor open, and found Héctor, her father, on the other side, in the stone-pavedvestibule, looking flustered, his mussed graying hair dangling over hisforehead.

Writing like this,immediate, hopeful, vibrant, can only be considered an act of creativerestoration. It is also a prayer to prevent another loss: forgetting. “I’mterrified of losing you in me,” Goldman writes. Making his belovedphysically present, right up to the edge of breath, is a talisman against thisnew bereavement. It would be too much to bear, first her, then the memories soreal they can practically be touched. Then it would be our loss, too.