The Rumpus Interview with Francisco Goldman
I first encountered Francisco Goldman’s work as a graduate student at Cornell University. His novel, Say Her Name, was not only the great, standout book of that year, it was the only book for me. Everything I learned about story, I learned from reading and then re-reading Goldman’s words. After Say Her Name, I dove into his first novel, The Long Night of White Chickens, for which Goldman won the Sue Kaufman Prize. And then The Ordinary Seaman and The Divine Husband.
But it wasn’t until I read Goldman’s 2007 nonfiction book, The Art of Political Murder: Who Killed the Bishop, that I became a convert to the power of good, solid investigative writing. Goldman’s trademark is telling the story—the whole story—with such an unshakable gaze, with such thorough research and self-effacing prose, that Goldman himself disappears for a while as the story suddenly takes over. Though of course he’s always there. The danger of obtaining the story is real. So are the stakes of the facts.
These days, Goldman is perhaps best known for his most recent book of nonfiction, The Interior Circuit, which centers on his life in Mexico City five years after his wife’s death. Goldman chronicles his journey through grief, which ultimately lands him square in the midst of “The Heaven Case,” a story he covers about a crime involving the mass abduction of people in Mexico City’s Zona Rosa neighborhood. Through the Heaven Case, Goldman brings his cross-section of Mexico City full-circle: the beauty, the grit, the glory, the crime.
All of it so readily seems a preamble to Goldman’s most recent work in the New Yorker, which includes some of his influential newer pieces: “Who Killed Rubén Espinosa and Nadia Vera?” and “Mexico’s Missing Forty-Three: One Year, Many Lies, and a Theory That Might Make Sense.” Here we talk about the Narvarte murders, Ayotzinapa, and the stories Goldman feels most responsible for now.
The Rumpus: In your New Yorker piece “Who Killed Rubén Espinosa and Nadia Vera?” you explore the idea of Mexico “hitting bottom,” especially in the wake of the Narvarte murders in Mexico City. Has Mexico bottomed out? What does it mean to bottom out?
Francisco Goldman: In that piece, I’m specifically referring to this certain feeling of sadness, fear, and helplessness that descended on me at the Mexico City protest a day or two after the Narvarte murders. Many of us have grown familiar with that feeling. Every few weeks or so it seems we’re hit with some new crime or some new corruption scandal that isn’t quite the same as a massacre, but that spawns a feeling of futility and despair in its own way. And there was a while there when it seemed like people I knew were always asking if Mexico had hit bottom yet. Or they were asking what it would take to hit bottom. In that New Yorker piece, I wrote that as far as I was concerned we’d hit bottom with the disappearance of the 43 Ayotzinapa normal school students in Iguala. And that since then we just go bouncing along sideways in the mud every time something awful occurs. I think a lot of people would agree with that.
That may not be the most terrible crime that can be attributed to Mexican authorities or to the corruption or the rampant criminality of Mexico’s institutions, but this is the one that hit home. The Ayotzinapa murders really got to people here for so many reasons, some of them very obvious—like I explained in one of the pieces I did for the New Yorker online: their youth, the humble and admirable aspirations of a normal school student in Mexico; the fact that the crime occurred in a way that seemed to link local corruption to corruption and criminal complicity at the most elite national institutional levels; the way it made everyone feel violated and vulnerable, and so on.
Ayotzinapa will forever define this epoch of Mexican history. Like in the way the Tlatelolco student massacre of 1968 defines that one, the way the Colosio assassination, in many ways, at least symbolizes the Salinas Gortari presidency and a new way of regarding (or loathing, for many) the PRI. Enrique Peña Nieto will forever be associated with Ayotzinapa, and the scandal and shame of his government’s “historical truth.”
I feel surer than ever that Ayotzinapa represents the bottom because for the first time we can also sense that Ayotzinapa is going to turn out to be transformational. And a big reason for that is the 500-page report of the experts—from now on, let’s just call them the EXPERTS—appointed by the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights that so discredits, with such authority, the Mexican government’s investigation into the crime.
For the first time in history, the Mexican government can’t just close a criminal massacre case with its usual combination of criminalizing the victims—claiming they were narcos too, or whatever—and with rushed and tendentious conclusions and covered-up and destroyed evidence and “confessions” extracted by torture and so on. For once, the Mexican government is being confronted with independent scientific evidence gathered over months of ceaseless, hard work. They’re also being confronted by the courage of the (often terrified) witnesses the EXPERTS convinced to share information.
The Mexican government, according to what I’m hearing, has no idea what to do about this, at least not yet. They know the world is watching. They opened Pandora’s Box by, to their credit, letting the EXPERTS in in the first place, though they never expected a result like this. So, a traditional Mexican government cover-up isn’t going to wash.
Except for the former Attorney General, Murillo Karam, all the people who orchestrated this false investigation are still in their posts at the Mexican Attorney General’s office, the PGR. Nobody knows what Peña Nieto and Osorio Chang and Beltrones and Videgaray, the government heavyweights, are going to want to do about this, or if they agree with each other, or will agree. The government never expected this, they never expected the tenacity and unity of the Ayotizinapa family members who, in so many ways, have been vindicated by the report and have refused to let the case be closed. So, this is an extremely interesting moment in Mexico, and regarding the Ayotzinapa case, a crucial new chapter of what is going to turn out to be a long struggle.
As a society, the potential for transformation represented by the report has lifted Mexico up, at least a little, from that bottom. It puts right on the table such very important issues like the need for Mexico to have an autonomous Attorney General’s office and prosecutors (like in Guatemala) rather than just being at the service of the president and his government. The report itself gives Mexico an unprecedented taste of what rule of law actually can mean, and of what capable and autonomous legal investigators actually can do.
Rumpus: Where do Mexican journalism and letters go from here?
Goldman: There is a culture of corruption in many parts of the Mexican media, of course. It seems that there are fewer and fewer media outlets that permit authentic free expressions. But Mexico also has extraordinary journalists who, despite the dangers they face, have also been leading the way in this battle, who’ve really played a role in keeping the cause of justice alive in the Ayotzinapa case. And no matter what, they’ll keep doing that.
As for Mexican letters, I don’t know. I’m not a Mexican writer, but I think everything that happens here affects the Mexican writers I know, in their sense of being human and of being Mexican, even if they don’t in any explicit way address these issues in their writing.
I’m a little skeptical of so-called narco fiction, I have to say, though some writers I admire may have written some narco fiction. You feel the dread and the atmosphere in Yuri Herrera‘s extraordinary novels, but you’d never say that what he writes is narco fiction. The same goes for Martin Solares’s novels, inspired by the nightmare city of Tampico, where he’s from. Valeria Luiselli, Álvaro Enrigue, I know that they’re deeply affected by what goes on in Mexico, but their wonderful writing points in another direction, though not necessarily always and only. The great and late Daniel Sada absorbed everything into his fiction. There’s no one answer to that question about how all of this affects Mexican letters than I’m comfortable making.
Rumpus: In the vein of literature, what is it about narco fiction that makes you skeptical?
Goldman: I’m not against anything that anybody might want to try to pull off in fiction. Fiction writing has to, at least, always represent a possibility of absolute freedom. Narco fiction novels have a reputation, at least here in Mexico among some of the writers I know, of being somewhat rushed productions, usually written in one way or another like crime thrillers, with something cheesily exploitative about them
It feels exploitive—taking this horrible and ongoing tragedy and trying to turn it into something entertaining. Or trying to turn it into something that might earn the writer a reputation of the sort that many writers believe they aspire to. Or earn them money. Great fiction has been written out of the very darkest circumstances of our narco violence, and nothing written in either fiction or nonfiction has penetrated that darkness so memorably—you can even say beautifully, a relentless riveting forensic dark beauty that some readers in fact find themselves unable to endure—as Roberto Bolaño’s 2666. Especially in “The Part about the Crimes.” But here’s the thing: nobody would call 2666 a “narco novel.”
The writing that most interests me isn’t about narcos or sicarios or police or whatever. It’s about the victims and the survivors, and about the suffering and trauma that so many in Mexico and Central America endure, and that is all around us whether we notice it or not. A lot of the best of this work is in some ways as fractured as the lives they describe, and defies easy genre definitions.
Rumpus: I’m a little dubious about the term “narco novel” myself. To me, those two words next to each other feel like a marketing phrase cooked up by a firm with no HR to speak of. “Narco novel” feels blasphemous in the way “chick lit” feels blasphemous. And of course now we have “narco literature,” a phrase I’ve seen used a lot lately to market a certain kind of book. But I still wonder about the utility of fiction, both Mexican and American, in a time and environment where Mexican journalists like Nadia Vera and Rubén Espinosa are being targeted. Do you feel that contemporary fiction might fill a certain void that could be complicated or potentially fatal for Mexican journalists to fulfill?
Goldman: I don’t ever think about the utility of fiction. I don’t believe in it or certainly don’t require anybody to consider it. A novel or short story might be useful to a reader in all kinds of ways, many of which no writer would ever foresee, which is a good thing. As I mentioned before, “The Part about the Crimes” section of 2666 brought the meaning of Ciudad Juarez closer to us than I think anything had. And in a unique and complex way, that section alone is a masterpiece, a Sistine Chapel of death, of femicide, of corruption and defilement of every imaginable kind, and of human evil, complicity, haplessness, bravery, endurance, sweetness, madness. It’s all there. It’s insane: it elevates us just for existing, and it somehow makes us stronger. Among other things it teaches us about how to face trauma and death, which is what at bottom a certain kind of journalism is all about in Mexico, and in Central America, these days.
But great as it is, 2666 wasn’t written to help propel any court cases or police investigations forward, and it didn’t. Journalism, even when it’s practiced as a narrative art, is utilitarian in its ambitions. It wants to fuck up bad guys if it can, and inspire resistance, and cast light in an informative—that is to say, a useful—way.
Mexico’s journalists have taken some very hard hits. In some states like Veracruz and Tamaulipas, the situation is impossible, or almost impossible. But, no, even Veracruz has had some light cast on its darkness by the collaborative investigations carried out by the Red de Periodistas de a Pie, for example. Journalists are hard at work in Mexico. And they’re making a difference. They’ve led the way for the Experts Group in the Ayotzinapa case—John Gibler, Anabel Hernández, Marcela Turati, among others have helped to keep that case from being covered up or closed.
There’s not a void here that fiction needs to fill. Mexico just needs more journalists, and especially more good places to publish and exhibit. There are all kinds of censorship practiced in Mexico, not just violent repression. Perhaps the biggest threat to good journalism here is the massive power of the country’s media monoliths—Televisa and TV Azteca—who have 80% of the market. They endlessly saturate the country with propaganda and inanity. There was a terrific movie about that very problem last year, La Dictadura Perfecta, by the great satirist Luis Estrada, who also made El Infierno and El Ley de Herodes.
I’ve written one book-length piece of journalism. The Art of Political Murder: Who Killed Bishop Gerardi? That book had an impact. Eight years after it was published it’s still having an impact in Guatemala. I remember when I wrote it, a surprising number of people said things to me like, “That is such an amazing story; why didn’t you turn it into a novel?”
Oh yeah, all the glory for Frankie Gee, right? Of course I never considered that. Though my name appears as the author of that book, it was written by many of us. A novel wouldn’t just have been a betrayal of every person who’d told me her or his story and of all those people who trusted me to get their part in this amazing story right, it would have had no authority, and no more impact than a snowball tossed into a volcano.
Rumpus: It’s interesting you bring that up because so much of what I love about your writing is that there’s a certain self-effacing quality to it. I’m thinking specifically of The Interior Circuit. While much of it is written in the first person—written by a lesser hand, it could have been almost painfully introspective—ultimately the story reigns. There are small self-effacing scenes, like the party bus passage, and the narrative itself is almost self-effacing in scope, which is the great shift in that book: You go from looking inward to looking outward. And, of course, that’s when you take on the Heaven Case and the scope of the book blooms—everyone who touches the Heaven Case is given a certain depth and weight to make the story work. As a reader, I felt that you were trying to make good on a certain kind of trust you’d been given by the people who touched that story. Do you feel a responsibility to tell any kind of story right now?
Goldman: I felt a responsibility to prepare a piece for the first anniversary of the disappearances of the forty-three Ayotzinapa normal school students in Iguala—some journalism. I feel a responsibility to work on my novel nearly every day. This past year, with so much going on here in Mexica and in Guatemala I’ve sometimes had to struggle to maintain my concentration on the novel. I’m super grateful that the New Yorker has given me an outlet to express what I want to express journalistically. The novel is a space apart. For its opening many pages, believe me, it doesn’t seem to have anything to do with anything that goes on down here, I’ll just say that. But the novel is also being pulled in another direction; I’m not even sure where it’s going now—it could go in several directions. I may even be in the first volume of a trilogy. But I feel a responsibility now, as I get older, to be responsible to what I’ve experienced, to what I’ve lived and been in a position to witness. I realize now that as a consequence of having lived the life I have, quite apart from the one, as I understand it, lived by most American writers, maybe I now know some things and have some stories to tell that others don’t know about or wouldn’t be able to tell. Maybe there’s an intrinsic value in that lived experience and knowledge, though of course what you do with it is everything
I don’t impose political responsibilities on my fiction. The last thing I would ever want to do, for example, is write a novel that would appear to want to tell people what to think about the immigration debate, and I would never write a novel whose sole ambition was to give a “positive” view of immigrants. (I’m for open borders, by the way—down with the nation state!) But I think everything you are, everything that engages you, eventually comes to bear on the novel you write. I think the creative energy in novel writing, obviously, comes from tension. From trying to fuse. From trying to make coherent disparate things that might not at all seem to belong together within a narrative. My former undergraduate creative writing teacher, Richard Ford, developed this idea beautifully in the essay he delivered last year when he came down to the Oaxaca Book Fair for the Aura Estrada Prize lecture, the prize for women writers we founded in honor of my late wife. This ambivalence toward this whole idea of political responsibility, the responsibility to be responsible and the urge not to be at all, that could be one of the tensions.
Rumpus: In the vein of collective trauma, have you had a chance yet to read the independent investigation’s report on the Ayotzinapa students? If so, what are your thoughts?
Goldman: The experts report is historic. It’s the first time, I think, that Mexicans have ever seen what a real criminal investigation looks like—facts objectively laid out, revealing a complex narrative of a complex crime, without anyone jumping to tendentious conclusions, or obviously covering up or disregarding major evidence. But in so far as the EXPERTS report represented a challenge to the Mexican government to admit its mistakes and reopen an honest investigation in collaboration with the EXPERTS, it looks like they’ve already failed it. People who call on the Peña Nieto government to conduct an honest and rigorous investigation as if somehow it was a crime committed by elements unassociated with the government and that there’s some reason—entrenched bureaucratic inefficiency, for example—other than self-interest preventing them from doing so are completely naive. You suggested the same in your brilliant Guardian piece. If the Peña Nieto government wants to get to the bottom of that crime, it will have to investigate itself, from the VERY top down, not the as material assassins, but as enablers, and also as obstructors of justice, complicit from the very beginning of this piece in repressing key evidence and covering-up for the important possible actors—the Army, the former governor of Guerrero, etc.—who hold the key to understanding what happened in Iguala, and for assigning criminal responsibility beyond just that of the gunmen. The Peña Nieto government is not going to investigate itself; there’s no precedent for that, there’s no true autonomy in the investigative and justice branches of the government in Mexico. The crime, like other recent Mexican crimes and scandals, is profoundly structural, and you’d have to change the way Mexico is run, create a truly independent special prosecutor’s office, to even have a chance to get close to achieving justice. And therein lies the battle. People, including the families and many others throughout Mexican society, aren’t going to give up in fighting for just that kind of change. It will be a long and difficult struggle, and in the end it might change Mexico. That’s how historically important the Ayotzinapa case, and in that contest the experts’ report, really is.
Rumpus: So much has been written by so many people about how writing might save Mexico. Looking forward to the 2016 US presidential election, do you get the sense that the United States might not be as well off as we lead on? Can writing save us? Or do we need a miracle?
Goldman: I wouldn’t look to writers to save us. Some writers can save themselves and their families I suppose,and there might be certain writers we love so much we feel like they save us, but that sure isn’t every writer, if you know what I mean. We think, feel, imagine, experience reality in a richer way for having read certain writers and that’s an enormous thing too.
What I see of the US elections from down here makes me want to disengage from that particular reality and just hole up and read. It’s true. I think if I were living in the US, I would just turn my television and radio off for a year right now, and just read. Literature mostly: fiction and poetry and essays. From Laxness to Galchen to Hawthorne to Zambra to Proust to Coetzee to Dickinson to Tolstoy to Mann to Thirlwell to Sahota to Aira to Luiselli to Akhtiorskaya to Lowry, all those books currently piled by my desk. That’s about enough for a year.
I don’t see how it can possibly do anybody any good to listen to any more of what these candidates are saying. I’ve heard enough anyway. I mean from the Republicans, of course, but the Democrats are hardly agents of change, or even remotely interesting talkers or reality observers. The workings of actual power in the US is so remote from the ordinary person, who, it seems, can only be victimized by it, but is powerless to change anything. Even our presidents seem powerless to change things much for the better, right? Look at Obama; do you think that is why he wanted to become president? To become known by Latinos as the deporter-in-chief, to be waging wars and drone attacks all over the place? To really have almost zero effect on the country’s actual power structure? We say, “Well, he did some okay things; at least he’s not Cheney. Or Trump.” That’s true.
There’s a certain advantage to living in a small country like Guatemala, I think. You don’t feel so distant from political reality there. When things happen, they almost seem to happen on a Shakespearian stage with the audience so close they can become actors too. This is partly what Joseph Brodsky meant when he wrote that small countries have big politics. Sometimes booming politics! Look what just happened in Guatemala, what an extraordinary collective and individual human drama that was. And everyone felt involved. People in the big rich countries are often extremely dismissive of the small countries. They think nothing that happens there is of any interest or that it matters at all, but, at the very least, with that attitude they miss out on some extraordinary stories.
Mexico is somewhere in between. Mexico’s revolution was only a hundred years ago. Mexico can seem institutionally impervious to change, but I don’t think, ultimately, that it is.
Trump is an especially depressing phenomena because he is so debased and debasing and millions and millions of people want him to be president. We’re seeing how at least whole swathes of white America are becoming your worst nightmare of eternal Zombie High School. Something like a perfect mix of Groundhog Day and The Moronic Inferno. How can it be that a guy who looks like a bloated cadaver pulled from the Gowanus canal, with some rouge on his cheeks and a sticky Something About Mary wig, is actually applauded by his followers for making fun of how other people look?
Trump is seriously dark and disturbing. You can’t just dismiss it as one more example of American pop culture grotesque. I found myself especially thinking about that the other night when I read Jay Caspian Kang’s phenomenal but melancholy profile of Kareem Abdul Jabbar in the New York Times. Especially the part about Jabbar’s emotional struggles with racism: the way, after the Birmingham bombings he felt so angry he knew he was capable of murdering with his own hands. And how you can end up struggling against feelings like those for many, many years afterward.
I swear, I couldn’t get to sleep after that. I was thinking of how Trump’s rhetoric, calling Mexican immigrants criminals and rapists, talking about rounding up and deporting millions and millions of undocumented Latinos in trains, about how all that venom affects children. There are 37 million people of Mexican descent alone in the US! How many children have been hurt by hearing people of their ethnicity and parents’ nationality described as criminals and rapists, how many are being made to feel more insecure, or are even being damaged in their self-esteem? How many children are having nightmares about being rounded up and put on trains? Or think of being a Muslim child, exposed to that scene we just saw in New Hampshire where Trump coddled the man who said that Muslims are the country’s biggest problem, that Muslims have terrorist training camps inside the US, that Obama is a Muslim, and so on.
Someone wrote in the New York Times recently that if Trump was allowed to go through with his plans, he’d become one of history’s major human rights violators and ethnic cleansers, just below the Hitler and Stalin league. But people don’t care. Trump goes on Jimmy Fallon’s show and that spineless puff of a talk show host praises Trump for being such an “off the cuff” talker and providing “fresh air.” Fresh air! What’s fresh about racism? it comes out of the darkest dankest rottenest human cellar! If I were the Mexican-American father of a young child who was having trouble sleeping because of Trump, or who was being bullied in school because of Trump, or who was becoming ashamed of her own background because of Trump, and Trump somehow slipped away from his security and was walking down a corridor alone to use the men’s room at the restaurant where I worked—if I had that chance to confront him, what would I do? Of course if a Mexican or Latino harmed Trump, it would only make things worse. Let John McCain do it. He’s a soldier. Better yet, maybe Pope Francis will say something on his visit to the US, maybe he’ll rebuke Trump and anti-immigrant racism and demagoguery beautifully, in a way that illuminates hearts and makes people begin to turn away. That would be miracle enough for me.