on Say Her Name
Francisco Goldman is an unlikely Hades.
Other than the cartoonish arch of his black eyebrows and his swarthy overall appearance, he is more Pan than underworld overlord. He is quick to laugh and does so with abandon; he has an infectious appreciation for beauty and eccentricity, is prone to exuberance, flights of fancy. These are qualities that often diminish with the years, but with Frank they always seem to broaden and deepen. When I began working at Grove many years ago, just as Frank’s novel The Ordinary Seaman was about to be published, one of the first things I noticed about him was his openness, his sense of wonder.
This is surely one of the things that drew Aura Estrada to him when they met. In Say Her Name, the novel in which Frank draws on Aura’s all too brief life, and their all too brief time together, he writes that “they were comedians for each other always.” From my first read, that was among my favorite lines, because even though their story ends in tragedy, that simple statement captures so much about who they were together, and exemplifies what gives this book its incredible richness and texture, its aliveness.
I knew Frank had been working on an “Aura novel.” He’d begun writing it soon after she died in 2007, at age 30, following a freak body surfing accident on a beach in Mexico just before their second wedding anniversary. He turned the manuscript in on June 8, 2010 and I read it compulsively over the next twenty-four hours. I found myself walking around in a heartbroken haze for days after.
Readers, and perhaps especially editors, meet each book where they are at that moment. On June 8, 2010, I was less than a month away from delivering my third child—I knew I’d have to race against the clock to get my notes to Frank before the baby arrived. I’d lie in bed with the manuscript propped against my legs while my belly undulated violently against the unmoving lines of type, which might explain why I saw the Persephone myth all over the pages of Say Her Name.
In the novel, Aura’s mother Juanita is fiercely protective of her beautiful, brilliant, talented daughter; she had made every possible sacrifice to give her only daughter everything. Aura was her life. In the opening pages, we learn that Aura’s family blames Frank for Aura’s death: “If you have anything to say,” they tell him, “put it in writing.”
What ensues is a reckoning of sorts: the novel can be read as the brutal accounting of a bereft husband desperate to determine whether the costs of the shared journey with his beloved outweigh its gifts. In the book, Juanita, half-crazed with grief, casts Frank as Hades—the interloper who may as well have risen from a cleft in the ground and seized her daughter and dragged her under, never to be heard from again. It is irrational, of course, to blame him, but in her mind, Aura died on his watch that day at that beach.
Lying in bed getting pummeled from the inside, I couldn’t help but think of all the treacherous unknowns lying in wait for my unsuspecting daughters.
Beautifully, uncannily, Goldman describes an earlier trip to Mexico, where he and Aura discover cenotes—”seemingly bottomless crevices filled with the crystalline water of an underground river.” They heard a guide at a Mayan ruin explain a cenote to a group of tourists as a “portal to the underworld.”
This geological phenomenon serves as the perfect image for the unexpected chasms in the time-space continuum that in many ways came to define Frank and Aura’s story. Frank had more or less given up on finding true love, and then, the earth opened and there was Aura. And then a few years later, it opened again and she was gone.
Of course that was unimaginable in August 2005, when Frank and Aura were married in San Miguel de Allende, in central Mexico. I traveled there with a colleague, Amy Hundley, and my six-month old daughter. I sobbed through much of the nearly 12-hour journey. As a new mother, I was still finding my footing. I could not believe I’d been entrusted with this new life, and what was I doing taking her so far from our comfort zone?
But those days in San Miguel, that wedding, were among the best moments I’ve ever shared with my daughter. It proved to be an empowering journey in every sense—away from home, family, work, caregivers, she and I learned each other’s rhythms, learned to trust one another. We survived, we transcended, we fell in love. Frank and Aura were people who inspired others to leave their comfort zone—they led by example, they dared you to take risks that enabled you to become more than you were before.
Less than two years later Aura broke her neck in that terrible accident. The news devastated all of us at Grove; having just returned to work after my second daughter was born, it was beyond my comprehension. If Frank and Aura’s wedding had given me the confidence to claim my role as a mother, her death laid bare the risks of that claim. As Frank demonstrates so powerfully in this book, the results are never guaranteed.
When I sent my notes on that first draft to Frank in Mexico City, it was June 21, 2010. My water broke the next morning. Not for a moment did the timing feel coincidental. My daughter had been patient, and now she knew I was ready for her.
One thing Say Her Name taught me—the novel, the events that inspired it, and the editorial process itself—is that we affect each other’s narratives in ways we can neither anticipate nor control. “The Pomegranate,” a poem by Eavan Boland, hangs above my desk and comes to mind again and again when I think about Frank’s book. In it, Persephone’s mother asks:
But what else
can a mother give her daughter but such
beautiful rifts in time?
If I defer the grief I will diminish the gift.
For me, and for the great many readers I know this book will speak to, Frank Goldman’s novel is a most beautiful and generous gift.
Lauren Wein is an Editor at Grove/Atlantic. Say Her Name by Francisco Goldman is available for preorder at semcoop.com
Posted in Editors Speak