On Francisco Goldman’s SAY HER NAME

It came to me after a series of realizations: I am, in fact, growing older; my parents, aunts, and uncles – once so impossibly young in my memory’s eye – are indeed aging at an alarming pace, evidenced by the sudden and ubiquitous appearance of eyeglasses; and life, the great architect, can (and will) change your life when you least expect it, sending you to places you thought you’d long conquered. All late-twenties realizations, perhaps, but underscoring all of these is this: everything, everything, is in a state of decay. Life, and all of the beautiful things and people and sensations and pain that go with it, is a fragile, ephemeral thing; it is filled with a series of goodbyes, some brief, some uncomfortably drawn out.

The more I thought about it, the more I came to understand that life is really a series of losses, one leading to the next. I’ve said goodbye to pets, to cars, to boyfriends, to moments in time that I knew I would come only one time. Then come the more painful events: the deaths of loved ones and friends, sometimes expected, sometimes not, all in preparation for the ultimate horizon: that I, too, will one day succumb to the jowls of death. We all will. Everything is drifting toward the blackhole of oblivion, where memory seems to be the only savior.

With those sombre realizations percolating in my mind, I became obsessed with the idea of preservation: suddenly I became overwhelmed with the need to listen to and record my grandmother’s stories; I quickly made it a point to kiss my mother’s forehead every time I left the house, because you never know. I watched and dissected the entire five seasons of Six Feet Under in less than three weeks, sometimes being unable to sleep because my mind would race with thoughts about mortality or the transience of things. Heavy thoughts, I know, but ideas that I vitally need to process.

In my quest for literature to scratch this latest philosophical itch, I ran across a review in the New York Times of Francisco Goldman’s beautiful book, Say Her Name. I also had the opportunity to talk to Goldman for a little bit last night after a reading he did at the Los Angeles Public Library.

Admittedly, the main reason I became interested in it was because of the book’s subject. In it, Goldman explores his grief after the loss of his thirty-year-old wife of four years, Aura Estrada, after she tragically dies in a surfing accident while vacationing in Mexico. Goldman brilliantly reconstructs all the important aspect of his beloved Aura’s life – her childhood in Mexico City, her travails in academia, her relationship with her overweening mother Juanita – and does so beautifully, without ever becoming melodramatic or sentimental. His background as a journalist becomes apparent when reciting the facts, but his true powers as a novelist shine when he describes in sometimes heartbreaking detail the course of their love, and the aftermath he dealt with after Aura’s most devastating loss.

When I actually started reading the book, I quickly realized that it didn’t read like a standard memoir. There was something about the structure, the characterization, and even the dialogue that reminded me of the techniques of fiction. A quick Google search showed that it was actually being billed as a novel, and Goldman himself said at last night’s reading and in interviews that portions of Say Her Name were fictionalized but that the story was completely true. Aside from bringing up the age-old debate vis-à-vis the act of writing itself (is any work really entirely fiction, or entirely true?), I was immediately interested in the amount of liberties that one allows oneself when writing about something so intensely personal. I can see how giving oneself the permission to fictionalize certain portions of a story can provide enough creative freedom to concentrate on the more important aspects: in Goldman’s case, the beautiful relationship he had with Aura.

Indeed, Aura is present on every page. We learn about Aura’s creative impulses (she wanted to be a writer, despite her successes as an academic), her playfulness (Oh, mi amor, ¡que tonto que eres!), and about the special Journey Chair just outside their Brooklyn apartment, among many other details. We see Aura in moments of joy, of elation, of frustration, of sadness, of anger. She is drawn beautifully with all the hallmarks of a talented novelist; she has been resurrected by Goldman in the most golden meaning of the word. In fact, he alludes to the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice in relation to his desire to create in memoriam of Aura. Reflecting on his need to revisit mentally his memories with Aura, he writes: “Descending into memory like Orpheus to bring Aura out alive for a moment, that’s the desperate purpose of all these futile little rites and reenactments.” (146) Allowing the fictional Goldman to meld with the real-life author, the reader is drawn into the narrator’s memory: whether he pauses in front of Katz’s Deli to remember how Aura wolfed down a pastrami sandwich to using a dollop of her tea tree shampoo every time he misses her, we are witnesses to the process of grieving.

I was also quite struck – and inspired – by the frank honesty that Goldman displays. In a moment that shows us the complexity of love, he describes a moment on the subway platform when he reflects on Aura’s innocence. It’s written so beautifully that it deserves to be quoted in its entirety:

At such moments, there on the subway platform, practically dizzy with love for her, I would sense how vulnerable she was – so caught up in her own excitement, not paying attention, so physically slight – to a shove from behind by some fiendish lunatic off his medication, into the path of an oncoming train. This recurring fear of a crazed subway pusher was sometimes so strong that I would almost feel the urge to push her off the platform myself, as if the fiendish lunatic was me and I needed to get the inevitable over with, or as if I just couldn’t endure so much love and happiness one more second, and simultaneously, in a silent burst of panic, I’d pull her to safety, away from the edge of the platform. My hands around her wait or on her shoulders, I would gently pull her back into the mass of waiting passengers and put my own body between her and the tracks, and give her a relieved kiss on the cheek. I never understood it, this awful urge to push her off the subway platform while simultaneously pulling her to safety, rescuing her from phantom fiends but also from myself. (174-5)

Talk about honesty on the page, n’est-ce pas? I don’t think I’ve ever read anything so paradoxical and so honest before. And this is one of many, many examples in which Goldman bares his soul to the reader. Another favorite moment: walking up the stairs to the empty apartment, Goldman trips:

My knees and hands ached as if they’d been sledghammered and I felt blood trickling down my shin. There was a small tear in my jeans over my knee. My face was burning and there were tears in my eyes, of humiliation as much as anything else. What did it mean? Did that hard fall on the stairs mark the start, finally, of being old? (334)

Here we see the poor widower stumbling up the steps, an act that itself has come to signify a struggle, and the author brilliantly makes a choice not to cover it up.

There is so much to praise in this novel that I could write for another few hours extolling all its virtues. It must be said, for example, that Goldman’s prose is “muscular,” as someone put it last night, devoid of any unnecessary words or phrases that can easily clog up a less-polished manuscript. His metaphors are consistently on point and do the complicated job of refining an image, not defining it. The quality of his prose allows the reader to easily lose him- or herself in the book, and one can easily overlook the seamless way he’s structured the novel. Moments are drawn out on the page in exquisite detail, and he balances all of these important scenes in the life with the skill of a tightrope walker.

Where Joan Didion’s Year of Magical Thinking fails insofar as connecting the reader, Goldman not only lets the reader in, he allows the reader to participate in his grief. The reader knows where the story is going – Aura’s death – and the path to that moment is drawn out so that we get to know Aura and the amazing individual that she was before reaching the climax. And then comes the true triumph of Goldman’s masterpiece: we, too, feel his pain, his loss, his grief. Aura, delightful Aura, has been lost to this world, and Goldman makes us feel this void.

I was glad to be able to attend Goldman’s reading last night. He said many wise, craft-related things but what struck me was his response to a question about the act of memory itself. He said that he had written this book in order to not forget the little details about Aura. “Forgetting is the enemy,” he said. Goldman says he refused an advance to write the book; he didn’t care about money or whether or not he published it; he wanted simply to write a book to honor Aura’s memory.

Say Her Name has really given me hope. Hope that, although we are all marching toward the jowls of death, glimmers of ourselves live on in the hearts and minds of those we love. Hope that love can be the driving force to create and memorialize the beautiful souls like Aura that have come into this world, only to be taken from it far too quickly. Aura has been immortalized in black-and-white print. As Goldman demonstrates brilliantly, through art, memory and love can triumph over death.

¡Arriba, maestro! 

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