Though some have termed it an ‘autobiographical novel,’ most readers would identity Francisco Goldman’s difficult book as a memoir. That classification carried a lot of baggage with it. Memoir is fictionalized reality, tweaked by the author just enough to make that question – “Is this really happening? – a valid one. I’m sure some parts of Say Her Name have been shaped as well; for example, the book’s non-linear nature that sets it up so that the most brutal part of the story happens in the final pages despite taking place in the middle of the plot.
But calling it a memoir and questioning its reality takes away something important about what Goldman has accomplished here. Say Her Name is an utterly devastating account of true love truly lost in a way that very few of those reading it will have experienced.
Say Her Name begins with confirmation of the facts that the whole book hinges upon: author Francisco Goldman’s beautiful, smart, young wife, Aura Estrada, was killed in a freak accident in Mexico in 2007. From there, the book jumps back and forth in time, alternating the story of how Aura and Goldman met, fell in love, and married with Goldman’s flailing efforts to move on from her death in the years following it.
Say Her Name provokes the strongest emotional responses not when Goldman is lamenting his own loss, but as he builds and makes you understand who Aura was and, more specifically, what she has lost by dying so young. Throughout the book, Goldman shares snippets of Aura’s poetry and short stories, casting her as an increasingly celebrated writer in her own right, someone who was desperate to publish her first novel and – in the months prior to her death – was well on her way to completing it.
It’s in these sections that, even in his despair at the utter senselessness of this loss, Goldman hides the true message of the book. Say Her Name is not about one man’s loss; it is about one woman’s life. It is a stunning elegy, a beautiful monument to Aura Estrada. In fact, the only moments where the book drags are a handful of passages where Goldman gets caught up on himself, the meaningless sex, alcohol, and cross-country trips he uses to try to forget what happened. I understand why they’re here, and I don’t begrudge the poor man his suffering; thankfully, they only briefly steal the page from the true star, Aura.
In Say Her Name’s most gripping section, Goldman digs through Aura’s school papers and recounts her struggles with Foucault’s essay “What Is an Author?” and critical theory in general. Confronted with Foucault, Derrida, Spivak, and indeed the predominant beliefs of her professors at Columbia, Aura finds herself pushed away from literature. She fights back; she still believes in the power of the literary text. Goldman does as well and proves it in Say Her Name.
One of the last things Aura said to Goldman before her death was, “Love me a lot, my love.” Say Her Name stands as evidence of just how much he loved her – enough to want to show everyone else why we should love her too, why we should all weep at her passing. If his goal with the book was to obey her dying wish, to love her a lot, he is successful.
The question remains: “Is this really happening?” It’s impossible for any of us to say how real or fabricated any of Say Her Name is – barring any of us being the actual people Goldman is writing about – but regardless of authenticity, regardless of whatever you decide to label the book, Say Her Name does something true and beautiful. Yes, Goldman’s work contains the trite and obvious messages about revering those we love and never taking them for granted. More importantly, though, it tells the story of a single beautiful person.
Say Her Name does not begin with a dedication. It doesn’t need one. It seems all things will be for the remainder of Goldman’s life: for Aura.
I give Say Her Name four-and-a-half pieces of lasagna out of five.