In 2007, Aura Estrada, a 30-year-old writer and wife of the novelist Francisco Goldman, died in a tragic accident body surfing off the coast of Mexico. Goldman was devastated, not only feeling somehow responsible for her death — which, to this day, Aura’s mother insists he is — but also inconsolable, entombed by the grief of a man who lost the love of his life.
It took Goldman, who is half-Jewish, six months to begin writing again, yet the only subject he found even remotely interesting was Aura. The result is one of this year’s best-reviewed novels, “Say Her Name,” a thinly fictionalized account of Aura’s death, her mother’s attempt to hold him legally responsible, and the rage, confusion and pain that Goldman has only recently begun to shake off.
“For three years, I was completely insane, I was mad, I was crazy,” Goldman, 57, said over coffee near Bryant Park. “I really believed I could bring her back to life again through words.”
The novel indeed creates a vivid portrait of Aura, a precocious Mexican writer pursuing her doctorate in literature at Columbia, and, secretly, an M.F.A. in creative writing with Peter Carey at Hunter. Goldman read through Aura’s journals, notes and fictional fragments in order to write “Say Her Name.” And though he found solace in resurrecting her in his own prose, he relied heavily on other grieving sources as well — some of which, crucially, were Jewish.
In “Say Her Name” Goldman writes briefly about saying Kaddish, albeit Kaddish without solace. He said in the interview, however, that other Jewish texts often guided him. In an interview at a local café, he pulled out a scrap of white paper with a Talmudic passage he spent months reflecting on. It said that while we must always remember the dead, in time “it is decreed that a dead person should be forgotten from the heart.”
“Forgotten from the heart?” Goldman said, piqued by the thought, but also baffled. After all, had he not spent the last four years of his life trying to forget — teaching, writing, even attempting to love again — put simply, trying to move on? Goldman then gave his long-considered response to that advice, reciting a line verbatim from his book: “Show me the Proust of forgetting, and I’ll read him tomorrow.”
The point of forgetting, rabbis have taught, is that without it those in mourning would never again be able to function. Goldman explained how he tried for months to take that teaching to heart, but found it impossible. Instead, he used it as a goad to action, trying to understand Aura even better than he ever did while she was alive. “My only way of processing anything for me is by writing,” he said.
The novel involves, in part, a failed attempt to rewrite the novel Aura had begun before her death. After digging through fragments of her book, bits of them republished in “Say Her Name,” Goldman visits the insane asylum in France where Aura set the novel. “I always thought that in the last third of the book, I’d step into her novel,” he said.
He writes that he can only do so much, however, like describe what the asylum actually looks like. What he cannot do is create what only Aura’s own imagination could. As he said: “There’s your lesson in grief — you can’t. You can’t step into anyone’s life but your own.”
He paused, then summarized what is perhaps the great lesson he learned in writing the novel: “I just have to accept the fact that it was an accident.” There is no reason, no higher purpose, no ultimate cause for Aura’s death: “I guess you have to accept chaos. … She’s gone.”
“We knew Aura; we kind of lived through that process with him,” said Lauren Wein, Goldman’s editor at Grove/Atlantic, which published “Say Her Name” as well Goldman’s three other novels and a recent book of nonfiction. “He’s been a house author for at least 15 years.”
Wein said that over the last few years, when Goldman did little else professionally except work on “Say Her Name”— despite a normally busy career reporting for Harper’s, The New Yorker and other prominent publications, as well as teaching — he would send her rabbinic quotes. “He was really looking at different texts and different ways to mourn,” said Wein, who is Jewish. “He was really trying to make sense of it.”
That was made more difficult by Aura’s mother, Juanita. A single mother born poor, Juanita spent her life trying to give Aura a better life than she had. Though Juanita had become a high-ranking university administrator in Mexico, she wanted Aura to become a credentialed academic, encouraging her to get the best education she could. But she was disappointed that she married Goldman—when he was 51, and she, 28. In addition to their age difference, she felt it would slow her career.
Throughout the book Goldman tries his best to understand Juanita’s rage at him. Perhaps he even sympathizes too much, actually blaming himself for her death. But that was part of his grieving process, he said: “Why do I say things like I lived off [Aura’s] savings after her death, when I didn’t? I was punishing myself,” he thinks now. In the book, there is less self-absolution, and even if he no longer thinks he is responsible, he wanted the reader to be able to at least see what a mother’s grief might be like. Ultimately, he said, “It’s up to the reader to decide” if he’s in any way at fault.
Goldman also writes about his father, Bernard Goldman, as a brutish if vague figure. Goldman says he may have misplaced some of the anger he felt towards Juanita — but could not bring himself to write — on his father instead. Yet he does hold to certain truths, like the fact of Bernard’s impulsive, violent behavior — “physically violent, to me, but verbally to my mother and younger sister.”
Bernard could also be caring, though, and was often motivated by a deep sense of justice — “How Jewish liberal is that?” Goldman said of his father. Bernard was born near Boston, a few years after his father emigrated from Ukraine. Raised by ardent socialists, Bernard taught Francisco that being Jewish meant doing justice. “There is something Jewish about justice,” Francisco says he was taught, “that justice has a higher value.” He remembers his father taking him to the African-American neighborhood playground, for instance, hoping it would ward off America’s racial prejudices.
But Bernard married a Guatemalan Catholic — she was a secretary at the dental engineering plant where he worked — which gave Goldman a somewhat confused religious upbringing. Yolanda briefly left Bernard and took Francisco with her to Guatemala, where he was raised among her Christian family. Four years later, though, Yolanda returned with Francisco to Boston, and to Bernard. “They committed the cardinal sin of thinking they were doing us a favor by staying together,” Goldman says now.
Francisco was baptized as well as given a bar mitzvah, though one he laughs about now. “I had one of those farcical bar mitzvahs where they spell out the words phonetically on index cards, and you don’t even know what you’re saying.” Suffice it to say, he is not religious. But when he became a writer, reporting from Central America for magazines like Esquire and Harper’s in the 1980s, he began to think seriously about his Jewish identity.
His widely praised first novel, “The Long Night of the White Chickens,” published in 1992, followed a half-Jewish, half-Catholic Guatemalan protagonist largely based on the author himself. “Like a lot of first novels, that was my identity card,” he said. But he said he no longer bogs himself down with self-identity questions: “I identify myself as what I am,” he says simply. “I’m half Jewish, like Proust,” he jokes. “I have no other way to put it.”
He still has an awareness, however, of how his Jewish identity affects his writing. He made a point, for instance, of highlighting the place where he both started, and, three years later, finished writing “Say Her Name” — in Berlin. “This book both began and ended in an atmosphere that resonated with my Jewishness,” referring to Berlin. “The sense of having Jewish ghosts all around me set the tone of the book.”
In the spring of 2010, when he returned to Berlin to finish the novel, he wrote what he said was the most difficult part to write: the actual last moments of Aura’s life, when a giant wave crashed down on her, breaking her neck. “I finished writing [that scene] at 3 a.m.” Goldman said. “As soon as I was done, I took a bottle of mezcal with me and went to the lake near Wannsee, where the Final Solution was hatched.”
That is where “Say Her Name” is at its darkest, but in other moments the novel teems with life. In one of the book’s most arresting passages, Goldman picks up a package of Aura’s old Camel Lights cigarettes. He finds them in the kitchen drawer of their apartment in Brooklyn, long after she’s died. He lights the cigarette, breathes in the smoke, then writes: “Hold her tight, if you have her; hold her tight, I thought, that’s my advice to all the living. Breathe her in, put your nose in her hair, breathe her in deeply. Say her name. It will always be her name. Not even death can steal it. Same alive as dead, always. Aura Estrada.”