LATINA Book Club Pick: 'Say Her Name' by Francisco Goldman

If you are going to read only one novel this summer, choose one that allows you to explore your own life and its fragility. In Say Her Name (Grove Press; $24, out now), author Francisco Goldman takes us into the most intimate aspects of the love he shared with his late wife Aura Estrada. After she died in a bodysurfing accident while vacationing in Mexico, this Brooklyn-based writer creates the most poignant and heartfelt novel about a mourning widower who narrates Aura’s life and how she transformed his. Goldman, who is half Guatemalan, spoke with Latina.com about the book.

This is a novel based on your own experiences after losing your wife. How do you differentiate the lines between what’s fiction and reality – between what happened to you and what you constructed from Aura’s diaries? 

When I am writing about things that Aura and I did together, it’s straight autobiographical writing. When I write about her childhood, for some of those things, of course I wasn’t there. So, I have to rely on what I have had, sometimes it’s an anecdote I remember her telling me, sometimes it’s something in her diary. I try to use my imagination to try to evoke those moments in her life.

What did you want to accomplish in writing the book?

I think there is an important line when you look at the opening epigraphs where I quote the French philosopher Serge Leclair. He has that beautiful line: “It’s never just death – it’s always the death of someone.” That’s the sentiment I was trying to honor. The saddest thing of the many horrors of death is the fear that the person who has been lost will be forgotten – forgotten by other people and eventually, in part because memory erodes, even somewhat forgotten by ourselves. It’s a loving effort to try to fight against that loss, and leave a book in which Aura is remembered and is fixed at least within the pages of a book so that somebody, any reader, can get to know at least this version of her.

Throughout the book we also fall in love with Aura. Is that what you wanted?

Absolutely! There is nothing that satisfies me more as the writer than for the reader to love Aura and to share that sense of loss, to realize how fragile happiness is.

This idea of fragility is really interesting, especially because in the book the narrator questions how four years of marriage could have such an impact in someone’s life. How have you reconciled this idea of time and love? 

Marriage, happiness and love do transform you. Four years is short amount of time, but it’s also a long time I think for me and I think for her. We both grew so much. I think when you are in love with somebody who you admire, who you think is smarter than you, who you think is pure and better, just everything you dream of in a partner, it does make you raise yourself to a better standard. You have to become better. You find yourself terrified of disappointing her. You try to be in every way you can a better man. Also, you give each other strength. For instance, Aura’s big dream was to finally break away from certain things she was pressured to do her whole life, and finally pursue her own dream to be a writer. As much as she loved her mother, and she did love her mother tremendously as you read in the book, she also was struggling with certain pressures that came from her mother. She was learning to separate herself. It was in our marriage she found the strength to do that.

The book reveals a lot about Aura’s relationship with her mother. At the beginning of the book, you write: “If I were Juanita, I know I would have wanted to put me in prison, too.” How did you work to develop that character?

The most important thing was that if you’re going to love Aura, then you’ve got to love her mother. For all of the differences they had, Aura loved her mother and her mother loved her. It was an incredibly intense relationship, as you see in the book. As a writer, I had to explore that. The next step from there for myself as the writer was to find compassion for her and understanding in what she did.

As you were working on this book, how did Aura’s writing influence your own creativity?

Even though everything in the book is true, that’s one reason why I call it a novel because of the importance of that level of creativity. I thought of the book as a way in which our imaginations could still interact, and that somehow the book was a communication and in some way we were collaborating and playing. It was a way of keeping her alive and doing something that you could only do alive because for me she’s still alive in those writings. You’ll see in the book where that happens.

I understand that after you wrote the scene about her accident, you did not work on the book for months. It must have been really difficult to recreate the events that occurred then. How did writing this book help you mourn?

I started this book six months after Aura died – six months after unbelievably self-destructive sad behavior. You see some of it in the book, which culminated in my getting hit by a car and almost dying myself. In the book I changed the date of when that occurred, but that was the moment when I confronted the fact that Aura died and I was going to live. If I was going to die, then I was going to die, but I didn’t. For me being a writer, I have no other way to mourn, other than to process it through writing. In some ways writers are lucky that they have that tool to do that. Those are the most ancient roots of literature. Plato said the function in the community of the poet is to provide the place, the words for laments and tears that other people can’t provide themselves. Poets have sort of a social role. When I started this book, it was a way of keeping Aura with me. It was her refusal to detach, in a way.

So, writing it became part of your grieving process.

According to Freud, and his famous essay, “Mourning and Melancholy,” that’s the way you should grieve. You should examine the lost person from every single possible angle until you’ve exhausted it. That was sort of the classic prescription of how the mourning process should be. In the end, it became a sense of duty, that I owed it to Aura to make the most beautiful book for her and about her I was capable of doing. Sometimes it was incredibly awful. There were so many days when the last thing I wanted to do was sink back into that loss. It probably made my mourning process more severe, but I had to do it. I felt a sense of obligation, but when I finally finished it, that was when the satisfaction came.

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