Until very recently, Francisco Goldman’s Brooklyn apartment was as he describes it in his deeply moving novel, Say Her Name.
His late wife’s wedding dress hung from a clothes hanger and butcher’s twine in front of the bedroom mirror. Below that was an altar composed of her belongings. And at the foot of the altar, Goldman writes, were “her shiny mod black-and-white-striped rubber rain boots with hot pink soles.”
Goldman’s wife, Aura Estrada, died in a body-surfing accident in Mexico on July 25, 2007. A talented writer and literary scholar, she was 20 years younger than Goldman and had just turned 30. The couple had been married “26 days shy of two years.” Say Her Name is Goldman’s expression of his love for Aura and his devastating guilt and grief over her death.
“Grief is very trippy,” Goldman says. “I say trippy, but I don’t mean it’s fun. You can’t believe the dreams you have. You’ll never dream like that ever again in your life. You hallucinate. You’re out of your mind. You know what’s happening and you try to understand it. And you can’t believe how bad you feel. It is not fun, but it is riveting.”
“Riveting” is also a very good description of Goldman’s book. The narrative opens a year and a half after Aura’s death. “That’s when I really did have what the shrinks call complicated grief and post-traumatic stress and minor psychotic episodes,” Goldman says. In writing about this period, he says he “didn’t mind saying shocking things. I wanted to be brutally honest in this book and not pretty anything up.”
But if Say Her Name were merely an account of Goldman’s grief and his occasional grief-induced bad behavior, the book would not be as large-hearted as it turns out to be. Drawing on Aura’s childhood diaries, Goldman sets out to explore how she became who she was—and how he became who he was.
“Those diaries awoke another kind of love in me, almost a parent’s love,” Goldman says. “In part I was trying to understand what drew us together. How did I get to be this way and how did she get to be that way? We both had difficult childhoods in different ways. I was sort of a hard-shelled boy and didn’t take it as much to heart. She was just so enmeshed with her mother, and she struggled against it.”
After Aura’s death, her mother blamed Goldman for the accident. She withheld Aura’s ashes. She kicked him out of the apartment Aura owned in Mexico City. She hinted at prosecution. Goldman relates all this yet still remains respectful of Aura’s mother.
“Because I love Aura, I have to love this part of her,” Goldman explains. “It was a dangerous thing for me, that whole conflict. There were times, as I say in the book, when I felt angry at all the room it took up in my mourning. But in order to make my peace with Aura’s death—not that there will ever be full peace, but to integrate it into myself in the right way—I had to be able to honor her love for her mother, because that was such a central narrative in her life.”
“It was easy for me to write about how much I loved Aura, but it was a real leap to see how Aura saw her mom. One of the most important elements of fiction writing—or even nonfiction writing—is the ability to put yourself in somebody else’s shoes and see the world from a perspective unlike yours.”
So is this fiction or nonfiction? “We don’t ask a poem whether it’s a fictional poem or a nonfictional poem,” Goldman says. “And I think this book works like a poem. There are many reasons it’s a novel, the most basic being that some things are made up. I always had the idea that at the end my book would kind of merge and disappear into the novel [Aura was working on]. That’s not quite what happens, but it makes that gesture in a big way.”
And in giving Aura’s imagination—as well as her impish humor, her anxieties, her academic and creative struggles, her writing, her love—room to play, Goldman, remarkably, vividly, brings her to life. “She was the funniest person I ever met,” Goldman says. “She had such a quick mind, a quick wit. You could not win an argument with her. This book was most of all a way of keeping close to Aura.”
Goldman says he was meditating on her death one day when it struck him that “the biggest fear of the dying is to be forgotten. And the biggest fear of someone who has loved a dead person is to forget that person. Time erases everything but it can’t erase a person’s name. Your name is always your name.”
With Say Her Name, Goldman ensures that readers will always remember Aura Estrada’s name.