“I’ve Embraced the Outsider Status”: A Conversation with Francisco Goldman

“That reality, such suffering, and violence, so much evil, was just shattering. Of course I witnessed so much courage too, and goodness, much of it doomed.”

A Latino writer with a Jewish last name; an American novelist who has set much of his fiction south of the Rio Grande; an English-language prose stylist who draws heavily on the Latin American tradition: Francisco Goldman confounds the labels that the US book market regularly affixes to its literary authors.

Goldman has always had a vocal group of admirers in the United States. Junot Díaz once referred to him as “the greatest American novelist of our generation.” Susan Choi has called him her “literary hero,” and Daniel Alarcón has said that he is “one of the people who inspires me the most to do what I do.” He has also earned the praise of literary scholars, several of whom have argued that his border-crossing novels about the US, Mexico, and Central America have set the standard for a new wave of “hemispheric” American fiction in the 21st century.

Notwithstanding the enthusiasm of authors and academics, Goldman has yet to achieve the mainstream acclaim in the US enjoyed by many of his similarly regarded peers. I have long suspected that this is partly because Goldman does not fit easily into our ready-made identity categories. Born in Boston in 1954 to a Guatemalan mother and a Jewish American father, Goldman studied at Hobart College, the University of Michigan, and the New School. In 1979, he left the United States for Guatemala, and he spent most of the 1980s in Central America writing fiction and covering the region’s civil wars as a journalist. Since the end of the 1990s, he has split his time between Mexico City and New York. He teaches one semester a year at Trinity College, where he is the Allan K. Smith Professor of English Language and Literature.

Over the past 30 years, Goldman has produced a steady stream of ambitious, experimental works that resemble little else that has been published in the Anglophone world. He is the author of the novels The Long Night of White Chickens (1992), The Ordinary Seaman (1997), The Divine Husband (2004), Say Her Name (2011), and Monkey Boy (2021)—the last of which was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in 2022. He has also published two books of nonfiction: The Art of Political Murder: Who Killed the Bishop? (2007) and The Interior Circuit: A Mexico City Chronicle (2014).

Last August, I visited Goldman in his house in the San Miguel Chapultepec neighborhood of Mexico City, where he lives with his wife, Jovi, and his two daughters. Over the course of an afternoon, we discussed his transnational life and literary trajectory, his relationship to Latin American texts and authors, the reception of his books on both sides of the North-South divide, his abiding fascination with the biography of José Martí, and the immigrant port city novel he’s been planning to write for nearly 20 years. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.


Jeffrey Lawrence (JL): As a reader, I’ve always been struck by how much you are in dialogue with the Latin American literary tradition, and I associate you more with Latin American writers of your generation (Roberto Bolaño, Juan Villoro, Horacio Castellanos Moya, etc.) than with US authors. Which Latin American authors or texts have most marked you as a writer, and how has your relationship to Latin American literature changed over your career?

 

Francisco Goldman (FG): I could talk about that all day because Latin American literature has been the tradition that I’ve long been most engaged with. When I was a teenager, in the ’70s, I was reading people like Vonnegut, Salinger, Kerouac, the same writers most American kids read at the time. In college, I was really into Black writing, Ellison, Ishmael Reed, The Autobiography of Malcom X—the parts set in Boston filled in the city for me—and later, and to this day, Toni Morrison. As an undergrad I started a novel. It included things that I’ve been writing about off and on ever since: my adolescence, my hometown, my parents, the young Guatemalan women who lived with us. My own sort of Less than Zero (even though that book was still far in the distance) about growing up in Massachusetts in that druggie, violent world, in a very white town that was mostly working class, though it had very wealthy neighborhoods, too. My creative writing professor, the poet Josephine Clare, sent it to a writer in New York and that writer said he could get it published. But something in me knew I didn’t want to start off with that kind of book. I was going in another direction. At the time I also sensed that my relationship to American literature was always going to be kind of confused, fucked up, even, because of my ethnicity. My father was Jewish, from a Ukranian immigrant family, but my mother was Guatemalan, a Catholic mestiza, of Maya, African, and Spanish blood. And where did I fit? I knew I wasn’t going to write about Jewish families in the American suburbs. I sensed that that was what was expected of me. People always want to situate and categorize you, and a surname like Goldman seems to tell them, often, all they think they need to know.

 

JL: In your novel Monkey Boy, Frankie’s mother is the one who introduces him to Latin American literature. Is that what happened in real life?

 

FG: Yes, absolutely. She was always my big influence in that and so many other ways. My mother had been a Spanish language teacher, but as she got further along in her career, she taught some literature classes. She used to subscribe to the Latin American Review, which published a lot of cutting-edge fiction and essays. The Boom was already well underway, but the first Boom writer I read was at the tail end of the Boom, Manuel Puig, sometime in high school. I think the next book I read was The Obscene Bird of Night by José Donoso, which seems the least dated, the most contemporary of the great Boom novels, with its sort of gothic punk atmosphere, its ambiguous sexualities and so on.

In any case, I remember by eighth grade, my mother was telling me about One Hundred Years of Solitude by García Márquez, which I did not read right away, but I do remember being home sick and her reading some of it out loud to me. To everybody in the United States, One Hundred Years of Solitude and the Boom were magical realism, the cliché of the floating grandmother and so on. But the profound insight from my mother, which I never forgot, was how deeply rooted in reality it all was. I remember her telling me that she thought it was a very sad book because it reminded her so much of the town our family is from on the southern coast of Guatemala, a cattle and sugar farming zone in the hot lowlands like Macondo that I remember visiting as a little boy. That gave me a vivid image of what Macondo was like. It was this sad hot poor rainy place, and all this fantastic extravagant storytelling was a way to defeat the tedium and the sadness, a hallucinatory quality emerging from the steamy heat.

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Mexico City Chronicles

By Mauricio Tenorio-Trillo

JL: I’ve read several of your early interviews where you talk about the influence of García Márquez—as a fiction writer, but also as a journalist. When you went back to Guatemala in the 1980s, did you feel like you were actively turning away from the Vonnegut and Salinger models you mentioned earlier toward the Latin American Boom?

 

FG: I think I had my own mix. Even at that point I was telling myself, I’m not really an American fiction writer. I can’t go set stories in the suburbs. I can’t even set them in New York City. I don’t really belong to anything here, it’s just how I felt, even if that wasn’t really true. I felt profoundly incomplete, somehow, and I sensed that I needed to go to Guatemala and stay there to complete myself. I was very aware that the writers I most loved, like García Márquez at that point, Vargas Llosa, V. S. Naipaul, and also Graham Greene had all worked as journalists. Also sticking in my mind was a lesson I’d taken from Borges. My first year as an undergraduate at Michigan, Borges came to speak. I’ll never forget that. I still remember by heart a bunch of things he said, one of which was, You never become the writer you dream of becoming. For example, he said, I always dreamed of becoming a Conrad, a Kipling.

By then what I dreamed of becoming was a Borges, a Calvino. And yet I was very much being pulled toward this other thing. It was 1978 and I was finishing up my undergrad, though I didn’t actually receive a BA at that point. I moved to New York from Michigan with my girlfriend at the time. When we broke up, I was working in restaurants and trying to write short stories to apply to an MFA program—I didn’t know what else to do. But with the war really getting underway in Central America, in ’79, a war between between my two homes, in a sense, I just knew that I had to be there. When I went to Guatemala that’s when my life really changed.

My heroes were people for whom journalism was, at least in part, an entry into writing novels: García Márquez, Vargas Llosa, Naipaul, Graham Greene. It was 1979, and I was in Guatemala trying to be a fiction writer, and the reality of what was happening in Central America was just so overwhelming. My uncle let me stay in what had been my spinster great aunt’s apartment. I was very lucky to have a place to stay, because that allowed me to just live there, in Guatemala City, and maybe sell two magazine articles a year. I had zero money—there were times I couldn’t even pay for a beer. I couldn’t write fiction, I couldn’t find my imaginative footing. That reality, such suffering, and violence, so much evil, was just shattering. Of course I witnessed so much courage too, and goodness, much of it doomed. I started lots of short stories, but they would all deteriorate into rantings against the Reagan administration or something. The really important book to me, the one that showed me a way forward, was Mario Vargas Llosa’s book about García Márquez [García Márquez: historia de un deicidio], which was out of print for decades, even in Spanish, until quite recently. My most precious volume. I have it in the next room. It was such a great immersive course in the difference between journalism and fiction and what you have to do to translate political horror, violence, and tragedy into fiction.


JL: Can you move forward a bit in time now and talk about Roberto Bolaño? You were one of his earliest champions in the English-speaking world.

 

FG: The first time I remember hearing about Bolaño was when I was living in the Condesa neighborhood in Mexico City around the year 2000 and this writer named Mauricio Montiel lived next door to me. We used to get together all the time there, with Horacio Castellanos Moya, sometimes Mario Bellatin, David Lida, Bernardo Esquinca. Horacio and Montiel were always talking about Bolaño, but I hadn’t gotten around to reading him.

I didn’t start to read Bolaño until I was with Aura [Estrada]. The first book I read by Bolaño was Estrella distante, in 2003. It was her copy, and it just blew me away. [Goldman and Estrada married in 2005.]

 

JL: That was the first Bolaño book I read too. I had the same reaction.

 

FG: I read it at the beach—on the very beach, Mazunte, where in 2007, Aura had her fatal accident in the waves. So that’s when it started.

 

JL: In several interviews Barbara Epler of New Directions has given over the years, she has said you were the first one to talk to her about Bolaño. It must’ve been around that time, right?

 

FG: Yeah, as soon as I read Bolaño, I fell in love with his writing. And when I met with Barbara she asked me, Who should I publish from Latin America? I said, You have to publish Bolaño. And I said the same about César Aira. I recommended Horacio Castellanos Moya and Rodrigo Rey Rosa, too. Horacio’s first novel, La diáspora, was the first time, around 1989, I read someone of my own Central American generation, writing out of the pox-on-both-your-houses, political disillusionment I was feeling by then too, and that cleaved me from the simplistic, politically correct attitudes about Central America that were so common among my peers in the United States—that is, among the few who were paying attention to Central America. I’m proud that the first time I ever heard the phrase “politically incorrect,” it was a reference to myself and my journalism. I despised the Right, obviously; the complications arose from the Left, its hypocricies, mediocracy, and betrayals.

Bolaño’s political experience of dictatorships and resistance and wars comes out of the South America of the ’70s and ours was obviously the Central America of the ’80s. But of course he was from our generation, the generation that witnessed and participated in the Latin American Cold War slaughter. And it was so important to me to read writers who were dealing with the same raw reality that shaped so much of my early adulthood.

 

JL: I’ve heard you express your frustration with American reviewers who have called Say Her Name a memoir, even though you’ve stated that you deliberately fictionalized many parts of it. In one of those interviews, you mention Bolaño and Philip Roth as two prominent writers who have used alter egos to good effect. Was Bolaño a model for you as you were fictionalizing your own life?

 

FG: I think people in the US … son muy pinches (laughs). They try to box you in and sometimes almost maliciously want to reduce you and misinterpret you. Why? It’s a kind of mean-spirited thing, or it’s an intellectually shallow thing, I don’t know. James Wood had it exactly right when he referred to autofiction in the first paragraph of his review of Monkey Boy in the New Yorker, where he said the autobiographical novel has been around forever. There’s nothing new about it. What’s autofiction anyway? It never occurred to me that I was writing autofiction.

I’ve always had the desire to create a literature that embodied this space I was claiming for myself, which is the United States and Latin America fused as they can only be in a novel, or, in another sense, inside a human’s body, and certainly inside a heart.

JL: When I’m reading your work, you do seem to draw on these traditions of the autobiographical novel, or whatever we want to call it. Bolaño may be one source for you—the way the Belano character serves as a barometer for registering the violence happening all around him, especially in a book like Distant Star. And with Roth, the influence might be in the way his novels constantly stage the demand for ethnic authenticity—from the Jewish family, but also from the literary world. I love the scene in Monkey Boy where the reporter from the Boston Globe basically asks Francisco Goldberg, the Guatemalan-American narrator who’s clearly modeled on you, What’s your essence?

 

FG: That part, I admit, is based on a real incident. Goldberg was immediately suspicious to that reporter, a Boston Irish man, as someone writing about Guatemalans with a Jewish last name. The reporter thought he was going to catch him for claiming to be something he was not, and he says, We got a fax from a girl you went to high school with who says you’re not really Guatemalan, you’re Jewish! And Goldberg responds, Yes, and all this time I’ve been hiding my true identity under the surname Goldberg.

 

JL: (Laughs) Right, right. Do you think this idea that Goldberg’s Jewishness and his Guatemalanness are mutually exclusive has something to do with the fact that for your generation, the concept of the Latino writer was less available than it is now?

 

FG: When I first started writing, the idea of Latino writing didn’t really exist, not in the way it did later. I was very aware that there was an awesome sort of Puerto Rican writing in New York City, the Nuyorican Poets Café, and that there was obviously a Chicano tradition out there that I wasn’t very familiar with, but I knew it existed, even before I’d ever heard of Sandra Cisneros, Dagoberto Gilb, or Gloria Anzaldúa.

I always had this sense of growing up in this very traditional, pretty brutal, and physically beautiful New England town, but so much of my life was embroiled from an early time in Guatemala. So I eventually began to think of myself as kind of a Latin American writer writing in English, but with deep roots in the United States too, though not necessarily Jewish roots. I loved Salinger, I loved Bellow, Grace Paley, from my early twenties on, I loved the great Russians and, of course, Toni Morrison. But I was very into New England too. Those New England literary traditions really marked my imagination in ways that can seem very intentional. My New England in so many ways is an eternal and internal literary landscape that comes from Melville, Hawthorne, all the way to Charles Olson. By an internal literary landscape I mean that if I am going to write fiction set there, I am going to be consciously looking for and listening for those literary echoes and ghosts. However remotely, they are going to be somehow present in the deeper patterns of the writing.

When I found my own writings being mentioned in relation to the Latino category, I assumed, Oh, that must include me. But I didn’t really fit. I was doing something else.

 

JL: And maybe the flip side of this is that you’re also more integrated into the literary world in Mexico and Latin America than in the United States?

 

FG: Well, I do feel more comfortable here, in Mexico City. I think that you alluded to this in that beautiful letter you wrote to me where you asked if I thought my peculiar ethnicity has marginalized me in some way. I forget your exact words. But the answer is without a doubt. That’s one reason I need to be here. Because frankly, if I were just living in the States, I’d doubtlessly feel frustrated and probably, in certain ways, angry. Or I’d keep myself inside my bubble and just ignore it. Whereas here, it’s like I can forget about it in a really important way.

The Divine Husband had mostly white male reviewers in the mainstream literary press, in the US, and in the UK too. Some of them seemed to have no idea who José Martí was, or of his importance to us in Latin America. Or because they thought of Martí as a “great man” from Latin America, they assumed the novel’s portrayal must be a solemn one, and maybe they thought that as white anglo males they were prohibited from entering into the book’s irreverence or else they thought that irreverence was a betrayal. One reviewer even said that I’d had an obligation to write about Martí as he would have wanted to be written about. Can you believe it?

If you look at my relationship to the New York Times Book Review over thirty years now, they’ve sometimes treated my books really well, and sometimes treated them awfully. And, of course, that’s just how things go there. But as I’m sure you know, when you’re a writer of color, or a minority writer, when they do review your book, they tend to match it with another person of color or minority reviewer. Anyone can flip through those pages and see that in most cases this is true. But they’ve never done that with one of my novels, not even once in my career. Now what does that tell you? It tells you there’s a kind of bigotry, and that that bigotry, if it’s coming from a place like the New York Times Books Review, is mostly a white liberal bigotry that says a writer with a Jewish last name can’t be considered a “Latino,” or a “minority” person, that his work shouldn’t be read in such a context even if his writing, in terms of its obvious content at least, is as Latin American, or as Guatemalan-immigrant rooted, as mine is. How weird is that?

 

 

JL: That’s crazy because many of my favorite contemporary Latinx authors, including Junot Díaz and Daniel Alarcón, have talked at length about how much your writing about Latin America has influenced them.

 

FG: It’s the editors. It’s, especially I guess, the New York mainstream. I was confused about it until I read White Girls by Hilton Als. In the first essay, “Triste Tropiques,” he writes about a platonic intense love in his adolescence for a girl who was half Jewish and half Puerto Rican. She suffered a lot because she felt that in New York they wouldn’t allow her to be either Jewish or Puerto Rican. And Als has this line where he writes something like: the particular stupidity of New York is its need to categorize everything and its ability to only categorize the most obvious. In that New York, the most obvious thing is your last name. So that’s what you are.

JL: All of this is very interesting to me as as a half Jew whose Jewish roots are on my mother’s side. My grandmother’s name was Rosalie Roth Rosenblum, but now I’m Jeffrey Lawrence, so the Jewishness has become completely camouflaged. I’m fascinated by the moment in Monkey Boy where you talk about your envy for Jewish or half-Jewish writers with non-Jewish names.

 

FG: If I had been smart enough when I was 26 and publishing my first short stories, I might have called myself Frank or Paco Goldman Molina, or I might even have just used Molina, my mom’s surname. Plenty of people do that. I have to admit, it hurt a bit to learn that Frank Gehry’s original surname was Goldberg. As Goldberg, would he really have become this iconic great American architect? It feels forbidden even to bring up this subject. Maybe all this used to hurt me because I wanted to feel included. But now I’ve embraced the outsider status. I feel a real richness in my outsider status. As deeply connected as I feel to Guatemala—and I do identify as Guatemalan American, that doesn’t feel inaccurate to me, and it doesn’t even exclude the Jewish ethnicity that comes from my father—I don’t belong to any one larger group. My spiritual and literary guide in these matters, by the way, is Natalia Ginzburg. I’d be lost without her.


JL: This might be a good moment to segue into the role of José Martí as a character in your novel The Divine Husband. The novel revolves around Marti’s poem “La niña de Guatemala,” which Martí composed later in life about a love affair he had during the year he spent in Guatemala starting in 1877. In interviews you’ve talked about how long it took for you to research Martí for the book—more than a decade, I think. Some of that research sounded like the research that a scholar would do for an academic article, but of course your ultimate goal was to make him a character in your novel. Can you talk about what Martí means to you both as a historical figure and as someone whose life and work are at the heart of one of your most ambitious novels?

 

FG: When I first had the idea for The Divine Husband, I was burnt out by Central America, the war, the violence, the politics. And as I’ve said, I had reached that point, that Bolaño point, that Horacio Castellanos Moya point, where I was like, A pox on all your houses, left and right. I’m tired, I want fantasy, I want sheer nerdy bookishness. And it was a rainy afternoon in Guatemala City and I just stopped on the sidewalk and asked myself—what is behind that Martí poem? The famous one about the Guatemalan niña who died of love for him? I crossed the street and went to the hemeroteca in the National Library, a wonderfully decrepit place, you had to sit by the windows because the lights didn’t work, and I started to read all these newspapers from the 1870s that pretty much no one had looked at since then. And I fell so in love with that escape into 19th-century Guatemala. One day I found an ad in a newspaper put there by José Martí himself, for a composition or writing class for women. And I filled up reams of notebooks just writing down odd details about that 19th-century city so determinately modernizing itself. Then I put all those notes aside and let it sink into my own subconcious, so that they became like my own memories of a far off place and time.

Back then, as I got deeper into Martí, what really drew me to him was that I realized that his places were my places. He leaves Cuba as a very young man, goes first to Mexico City, then comes to Guatemala City, then goes back to Mexico City, then goes to New York City. He spends all those years in New York City as a struggling freelancer, much of that time miserable and lonely. All of that just spoke to me so much. So I really got into Martí through his sense of place. And I became obsessed with his personal life because his love life was just so anguished, so tormented, so frustrated. And he was so romantic. He so wanted to do good in every way, and so often, as we all tend to, made a mess. In Guatemala, I spoke to Mario Monteforte Toledo, an astonishingly robust 90-year-old writer whose grandmother had known Martí in Guatemala City. Everyone in her circle was dazzled by him, she’d told him. Martí had a love affair with her best friend, the wife of a magistrate. You won’t find stories like that in any of the puritanical Martí hagiographies. That opened a door.

 

JL: You say Martí’s poem about Guatemala is the germ of the novel, but the novel has so many different characters and it really centers on this transnational immigrant figure, María de las Nieves. She comes to Guatemala from the United States when she is very young and ultimately gets adopted by a Guatemalan family, and then eventually goes back to the US when she gets older. The book is about many different places in the hemisphere, but it’s also very much a book about the United States of the late 19th century, and particularly about New York. I suspect American readers often don’t realize this because The Divine Husband mostly describes that world through the perspective of its Latin American characters.

 

FG: Without making any great claims for the book, I think it’s reasonable to say that it has a sort of Pan-American vision. It’s a vision that comes to me from my own life, from all these different parts of the Americas I’ve known and read about.


JL: I want to ask one last question before wrapping up. You’ve published five novels, two nonfiction books, and numerous investigative pieces for mainstream US magazines like Harper’s and the New Yorker. There’s so much range in your work. But in my opinion—and in the opinion of many other scholars who have written about you (I’m thinking particularly of Kirsten Silva Gruesz, Rodrigo Lazo, and Ariana Vigil)—the thread that connects everything you’ve written is your abiding interest in the ties that bind the US and Latin America. Not just political and economic ties, but also sentimental ties, including the love stories around which your novels are often built. As scholars, we probably take for granted that you have this broad hemispheric vision, because that’s what we want to see in you, and yet when I’ve listened to your interviews, you often talk about each book as having its own separate genesis. For instance, you’ve said that The Long Night of White Chickens was your way of bringing together your personal worlds in the US and Guatemala. But this makes me wonder if there was a specific time when you said to yourself, okay, what I’m really after is a kind of literary cycle about the Americas. Did you have a eureka moment? Or did the sense that you were working through the long history of hemispheric relations come to you gradually?

 

FG: I think in the first books I was subconsciously thinking of a literature that was outside the US tradition because of the way it incorporated Latin American literature, and my own binational persective. I was proud of the way I did that in The Ordinary Seaman, especially, a novel about a crew of castaway Central American merchant seamen stranded at an abandoned pier in Red Hook. And I thought the first books—if you read them together—spoke for themselves. I don’t want to reduce them to any sorts of political agendas, because I think that whatever politics the books have emerged naturally from the writing itself.

I’ve also always had the desire to create a literature that embodied this space I was claiming for myself, which is the United States and Latin America fused as they can only be in a novel, or, in another sense, inside a human’s body, and certainly inside a heart, or in a struggling conscience. Especially Central America, but maybe Latin America more generally, because, of course, Mexico City is where I live, I’m remarried, my wife Jovi and I are raising a pair of daughters, no place has ever been more my home that Mexico City is now. Aura’s death drove me more inward for a trio of books. The emotions, the meanings, the images and stories I was looking for were intimate ones. But that was interesting too, because I found in the inner space another way to explore the same dynamic. There are no overly autobiographical elements to my new book. Private ones, of course. We eat our anxieties, as they say here in Mexico, and that nourishes what we write. But this is the book I was getting ready to write when Aura died. I guess it deals with some of the themes I’ve always dealt with. Its setting was inspired by New Bedford, the great fishing port city of Massachusetts. What drew me to New Bedford at first was its Guatemalan immigrant community, there are thousands of Guatemalans there, most of them highland Maya with no or almost no previous connection to the ocean, to the fishing industry. But for three centuries New Bedford had been a hub for all kinds of immigrants. Now there are other Central Americans there too, Mexicans, Dominicans. The Portuguese are the most dominant immigrant group, and there are Norwegians, Italians, Irish, Vietnamese, French Canadians as well. It’s really a classic border town, only instead of on the Sonoran Desert, it borders on the North Atlantic. So the question right now is, what am I going to do with all this in the new novel? I’m not sure yet. I just know I’m really determined. I’ve been trying to unlock the mystery of what this books wants to be for something like 20 years now. icon

A version of this interview was published in Spanish in Rialta.

[Note: This conversation took place before the Hamas attack on October 7, 2023, and the Israeli assault on Gaza that followed. Our discussion of Jewish identity likely would have been different if it were conducted today. For readers who wish to know more about our views, please see this letter that both of us have signed.]

Featured photograph: Courtesy of Francisco Goldman.