I met Francisco Goldman in 2011 at ABA’s Winter Institute after a bookseller’s nudge: Hey, there’s this guy, who’s half Guatemalan half Jewish and I think you’ll like. Taking my then coworker’s recommendation (Thanks, Sam!), I stood in line to get my Say Her Name galley signed, and during my turn, Goldman and I bonded in Spanish over what felt like a rarity at the conference, our Central American heritage. Standing in line at ABA, I didn’t know Goldman’s story – a journalist and novelist who’d lost his young Mexican wife, Aura Estrada, in a tragic bodysurfing accident in Mexico City, what is now his second home and her burial ground. He signed my book (para la sorpresa de ABA), left me with his email and, not long after, became honorary family.
What is most evident about Goldman, or Paquito as I call him, is that he’s no more Central American than I am ninja. Paquito is Chilango at heart – splitting his time between Brooklyn and Mexico City – he throws around words like huey (dude) and chingón (bad ass) and padre (cool, also see chingón) and in an American accent no less.
Sitting down with a recording device wasn’t too different from many of our conversations. Our talk steers from Mexico City to Mexican Literature, from cantina culture to graduate literature academia to locavores, from grief to friendship, and from “Oprahfication” in the U.S. to Borges’ "Pierre Menard." He hardly requires a question – which is evident in this interview, if we can call it that – and in his most passionate moments, he dips in and out of Spanish.
Ortiz: You just got back from Mexico. What were you doing there? Why are you always there?
Goldman: I’m always there? I don’t know why. [laughs] No, I do know why. First of all, I have an amazing apartment that I love. It’s enormous – so big. It has no furniture. It’s totally empty besides writing desks. There’s a large living room and an American football that we pass around, which we do all the time like at 6 o’clock in the morning when we come back from our night out. The front windows look out over this beautiful park. It’s so beautiful. I’ve never loved an apartment so much. It’s great because I share it with a really good friend.
G: Jon Lee Anderson. And it’s great because he’s never there. [laughs] There’s a great café around the corner where I work. The waitresses don’t even ask me what I want, they just bring it to me.
O: Tell me about the reception your book has received in Mexico.
G: It’s been one of the greatest surprises in my life. I was very frightened about publishing the book in Mexico.
G: it was going to be very emotional for me. I was warned by friends that Mexicans don’t like it when non-Mexicans write about Mexico. There were so many things that could have gone wrong. The reception has been incredible. It’s been like nothing I’ve ever seen. Mexicans – Mexican woman, but also men – they just connected to Aura. People come up to me with tears in their eyes and tell me “I think Aura would have been my best friend” or “I have that same relationship with my mother as Aura.” Of course they connect! They’re Mexican. Mexico is a very particular culture. The other thing that has been gratifying is that there are a lot of very literary views. Not to criticize overly the Americans, but they have a memoir obsession.
O: Right. The obsession of the memoir.
G: And all the big autobiographical books in Latin America: Hector Abad’s book. Julian Herbert’s Canción de Tumba – about how his mother was a prostitute. In Latin America, we publish this thing as normal, because we know that memory is not necessarily nonfiction. And the way you write about your own life isn’t really journalism, and a novel is a really copious and ambiguous term, and finally for what you end up doing with these books is the most honest term. What’s been really incredible, so far, is the press in Spain and the press in Mexico and elsewhere in Latin America, they really write about it as piece of writing. They’re not obsessed with Is this true? Or is this not true? Or should this be a memoir? They write about it as a piece of writing.
O: Why do you think that is?
G: I think it’s about the way it approaches grief and love. This is not a critique. Just an acknowledgement of differences. I remember Joan Didion’s – which is a wonderful book – The Year of Magical Thinking. Very different from my book in so many ways, I shouldn’t even compare them, except for the fact that they’re both are examples of magical thinking in certain ways. The magical thinking that comes with grief. Which is basically: How to bring the departed back? She was – in the very Anglo-Saxon way – praised over and over again for being a cool customer. She declares herself a cool customer. And Americans admire coolness and detachment. That’s just not what Latin Americans admire. [laughs] This novel is obviously not afraid to display its emotional rawness. And Latin Americans respond to that, so do Mediterraneans.
O: What about the UK? Europe? Were they focused on what was real? Not real?
G: The UK also didn’t care about that at all. It’s the Oprahfication of the U.S. A lot of U.S. readers who can’t feel a lot of emotion. They’re very moralistic, American readers. It’s been fine in the United States, but the reception everywhere else in the world has been much more emotional. Why? I don’t know. But I’ve been blown away by the reception everywhere else. What was important to me is that it’s a book about a Mexican woman, a Mexican family, a Mexican love. I held the translation rights back the for a year, because I was scared about how it was going to be received. I didn’t think I was emotionally ready to deal with it.
O: And now you’re busy touring Mexico.
G: It’s really fun to tour in Mexico. I also went to Spain. I’ve been to Mexico City, Oaxaca, Monterrey, it’s great to see the republic. It’s always emotional to do press. Siento el deber que si me invitan a hablar de este libro, tengo que hacerlo. I feel a responsibility to do it. I get a lot of grievers. This book is the opposite of a manual. It’s a portrait of a mourner. It gives no advice. It’s about a man who’s been out of his mind. And that’s what they connect to. Not everyone wants an inspiring Oprah lesson. My book has a faithful recreation of the mental – of the traumatic grief. The book channels that atmosphere. It’s the loneliest state.
It’s always emotionally exhausting to do events for this book. I think the day I become cold about it, if it becomes second nature I’ll probably refuse to do it anymore.It always, always, always - siento el deber si me invitan a hablar de este libro, siento un deber a Aura y este libro que tengo que hacerlo, y siempre lo hago con convicción y emoción. It’s never become routine for me to talk about this book. I feel a responsibility to do it. You know, I wrote it!
And every event I do, there’s never people at the event that have read the book for literary reasons. It’s a grieving book. I get a lot of grievers. It’s the opposite of a manual – I think it’s something that connects with certain readers. It’s a portrait of a mourner. Not everybody wants prescriptions. Not everybody wants an inspiring Oprah lesson. And one thing I’ve learned is: my book has a pretty faithful recreation of a mental atmosphere of traumatic grief. I was diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress syndrome, minor psychotic episodes, major depressive disorder and somewhere in the midst of all that, I was writing the book. The book channels that atmosphere. I think, that it’s one of the loneliest states to be in. You’re 100% alone.Think about it: traumatic grief is caused when someone dies unexpectedly; someone dies violently and even worse, if you’ve witnessed it.
O: I recall that from the book. And you had a combination of the three.
G: Yeah, and it creates trauma. Long-lasting trauma. And that was typical. I used to work as a journalist in Central America in Guatemala, in San Salvador, where tens and thousands of people were killed violently every day. And I live in Mexico now – where 60,000 people under Castro – died violently in the narco war.
Roberto Bolaño said that “America Latino es un manicomio,” (Latin America is an insane asylum.) and I understand that really well now. So many of our countries (Guatemala, El Salvador, etc.) are filled with people that are trapped in loneliness, in the hallucinations, in the tragedy, the madness, the sadness, and in the isolation of traumatic grief. It’s the mental atmosphere of great parts of these countries, and I feel incredibly connected to these realities. I understand what it’s like. People who haven’t been through it don’t.
O: In the book, Aura interpreted Mexican literature differently from her professors. There’s a passage where Aura was frustrated, because a professor didn’t understand that Borges was being funny.
G: Aura had a lot of problems with academia honestly. I mean she was brilliant. She was a also writer, so she had a writerly irreverence. We all know academia, not all but that graduate literature department, are incredibly humorless places. I’m not an expert, I can’t speak on it– They have a way of reading things that elevate purely theoretical interpretations, political interpretations, orthodox, leftists... and I’m a leftist, but a leftist orthodoxy with literature that is incredibly disdainful and incredibly humorless. So, yeah. Nobody understood Borges better than Aura. In Mexico, Aura’s graduate thesis on Borges was published as a book. Aura understood writerly irreverence, that’s all, so when they were all being so solemn and asking if: Pierre Menard is a rejection of fiction? Is it a rejection of imaginative narrative? A rejection of the author or imaginative fiction? [Aura] was like: are you guys kidding me? [Borges] was having fun and making fun of self-important, pompous, envious literary critics, among other things. It’s a very funny story. She understood it as a very comic story. I’ll never forget that day, I met her at the subway platform up by Columbia, and she was like “Nobody laughed. Nobody got the story.” She’s not rejecting that fact that the story had other meanings, she’s saying that it’s open to a lot of other readings. Fundamentally, it’s a funny story. And that’s important too.
O: There are so many times in your book where it’s so evident that you’re translating from Spanish to English. The word tranquilo, for example.
G: I’m just more comfortable in Spanish nowadays. It’s my emotional language.
O: Tell us a bit about the Mexico piece you’re writing now.
G: It’s hard to talk about it as I’m writing it. Mexico city has always been, since 1995, it’s always been my second home.
O: Wait, what was it about Guatemala that you didn’t . . . ?
G: It’s a much more violent, primitive, vulgar society.
O: And Mexico isn’t?
G: No, not in the same way . . . everything is different. Central American societies are not that complex. Americans have a lot more influence. Americans really dominate Central America. everybody bends over for gringos. Mexico isn’t really at all that way. Mexico doesn’t give a crap about gringos. It’s much more complex.
O: Yes, insomuch that gringo is a Mexican word.
O: And it carries negative connotations.
G: And Central America is a lot more boring. Mexico city is a city like no other. It’s its own completely idiosyncratic, completely deep, crazy culture. And to me it’s one of the most mysterious, dynamic amazing cities in the world. It just simply has a kind of history and spirit and exhaustible quality and personality that I’ve never found anyplace else. I’ve never had friends like the ones I have there. I really learned that after Aura died.
A lot of Mexican writers, Borges and Bolaño, write about the Mexican culture of friendship. It’s a culture in which often you don’t know where you stand with people, until you really make friends. And then when you make friends, you make the most loyal friends you’ve ever made in your life.
When Aura died, my friends – you know, because I was going out of my mind – were scheduling on their calendars who would drink with me that night, so that I wouldn’t be left alone in the cantinas. My friend Martín Solares, the writer, didn’t tell me this till last year. Aura had been brought to the funeral home, they’d sent me home to sleep, and for legal reasons somebody had to identify the body, and I wasn’t there, and somebody had to volunteer, and Martín volunteered. And he didn’t tell me until four years later. He never tried to be like: look at what a good guy I am. He just did it. And when you’re grieving, in a terrible situation like mine – and this has nothing to do with a culture of death, Halloween-folklore – they just understood that I didn’t need people to talk to me about death. Mourning, grieving is done all by yourself. What I really wanted was friendship. To tell jokes, be themselves. Keep shit light. With gringos it was the opposite. It’s the Oprah culture. “Oh, no. Frank wants to see us tonight. We’re going to talk about death. It’s going to be really hard. I think it’s better that we avoid him.” [laughs]
That’s when my loyalties shifted to Mexico City. My close friends in New York were women: Barbara Epler and Rebecca. And in Mexico City, the guys just got it. They understood that – the guy just wants company, he doesn’t want to talk about death, make him feel a little less lonely.
What’s the secret of my great love for Mexico, it’s friendship. We have cantina culture.
O: They do.
G: I can walk into a cantina and you’re never lonely. These are the quotidian details that might not make a difference to people.
O: But it matters.
G: Also there are no locavores. No foodies in Mexico City. No one is going to try to have a conversation with you about their locavore market. [laughs] Don’t mean to offend anybody.
The main thing is when someone you love dies in a country. Like Aura, she died in Mexico City. I read something Benedict Anderson wrote: when do people really feel like a nation is theirs? When do they begin to feel that they belong to a nation? When they bury their dead there.
And that’s what my piece is about. Mexico City was the place that I loved but having my great love die there, makes it a city that I can no longer separate myself from. She was so Chilanga.
O: It’s so clear that the relationship you have with Mexico, that love, is the same you had for Aura.
G: Yes, I love it.
O: Speaking of Aura, tell me about the Aura Estrada Prize.
G: The Aura Estrada Prize we give out is an awesome prize. It goes to a woman, 35 or younger, who writes creative prose. Fiction or nonfiction and lives in north America (Mexico, U.S., Canada). I have nothing to do with the jury, but we have a great one this year. If you win you get $10,000, and what makes it really special is you can go to all four, or one, of all residencies: Ledig House, Santa Maddalena in Tuscany, Ucross in Wyoming, and Ex-Hacienda Guadalupe in Oaxaca. You get published in Spanish Granta. And in off years the prize is awarded.
Aura was amazingly talented. She had more literary learning than me. To this day, when I’m approaching a novel, I imagine myself in dialogue with her. There was a wonderful review of [Aura’s] book this summer. The reviewer said, “I felt a rejection towards it. [I] thought leave the poor girl alone, how sentimental, and her widower is publishing her student writing out of some sentimental desire to honor her. But when I read Say Her Name I became intrigued by her.” She concluded that without a doubt, Aura was one of the most important writers in the generation of Mexican writers born in the 70s.