In 2005, author and journalist Francisco Goldman had the idea to write a novel set in New Bedford, Massachusetts, a place he sees as a quintessential immigrant city, with its influx of Central American migrants. Then, in 2007, tragedy struck.
Goldman’s wife, the writer Aura Estrada, died in a body-surfing accident while the pair were vacationing in Mexico. The loss sent Goldman’s writing on an unforeseen autobiographical path as he dealt with his grief. Now, 12 years later and after having released his highly praised novel based on her death — “Say Her Name” — Goldman is returning to his idea of a New Bedford novel as a fellow at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, where has also been finishing his forthcoming book, “Monkey Boy.”
Goldman’s stories often revolve around Central America, whether they’re fiction, nonfiction, or articles for magazines like Esquire, Harper’s, or The New Yorker. He spent much of the 1980s covering the region’s many wars and more recently has written about the abuse and corruption that led to a fire in Guatemala that killed 40 teenage girls and a series on the 2014 kidnapping of 43 students in Iguala, Mexico.
The Gazette spoke with Goldman in advance of an event on Tuesday where he will talk about the new novel and New Bedford. Goldman — the author of four novels, two nonfiction books, and numerous articles — reflected on his current research and what pulls him to Central America and New Bedford.
GAZETTE: A lot of your work as an author and journalist focuses on Central America, its people, and its migrants. Why is it that you are drawn there?
GOLDMAN: It’s my family place. It’s not just that my mother is from Guatemala — I spent a lot of my early childhood there. I guess I would have grown up there if I hadn’t gotten sick. [Goldman had tuberculosis as a child.] That’s why we came back to here. I needed to be able to go to the hospital in Boston and we stayed. But there was always a sense of Guatemala being the place where I felt I was from. My mother really inculcated that in us.
GAZETTE: How did you start covering Central America?
GOLDMAN: After leaving the University of Michigan, I came to New York and was working as a waiter while trying to write. But it’s very hard to make time to write when you’re a young person in New York, having to work restaurant jobs like five days a week — more, even. Finally, I thought that I should apply to an M.F.A. program. Then, to make the time to write, I decided to go down to my uncle’s house in Guatemala — actually to a family cottage on a small lake outside the city. I’d thought I’d hole up there and write.
I got there and I was so naive. Whatever my heritage, I was still basically a suburban Massachusetts kid. I got there and my uncle said, “You can’t go out there! The guerrillas just hit the police station out there.” It was like full-scale war there. This was in 1979, during the civil war. That was the most violent year in the history of Guatemala City, though the subsequent three or four years would become the most violent in the country.
It was nightmarish and I was there living in my uncle’s house trying to write these stories that were essentially New York City love stories. I thought, What is going on here? But you couldn’t get any information; the local media couldn’t report anything, so it was like living in a fog.
Then I got very lucky because I got into various M.F.A. programs and Esquire magazine bought two of my stories I had sent them. After these stories were published, Esquire offered me the chance to do a nonfiction piece. So, at this point I was choosing between doing this one piece that pays $1,000 — which to me was a lot of money, ha — versus a full scholarship to get my M.F.A. I took the Esquire piece because I wanted to go back to Guatemala and write a piece about what was going on there. And that’s how it started.
GAZETTE: Your newest novel, which you are working on at the Radcliffe Institute, is set in New Bedford. Why there?
GOLDMAN: Well, first, it really just hit a chord — New England held so many literary resonances for me. “Moby Dick” is probably my favorite novel; Hawthorne in the Customs House in Salem, and the Lovecraft coast [author H.P. Lovecraft set many horror stories in fictional Massachusetts coastal towns]. So when I found out that it had also become the center of a Guatemalan and Maya immigrant community — many of whom essentially migrated here in the ’80s during the war — that just spoke to me so deeply. I just had to get to know it.
GAZETTE: What were some of your impressions?
GOLDMAN: On visiting New Bedford, I had this feeling of almost being in kind of a New England border town. Some of the elements that you associate with a Texas border town you’ll find in New Bedford, that sense of a place where people are crossing over to the U.S., goods but contraband, too, people from all over, a sense of danger, too. The fish-processing plans are something like maquiladoras [factories in Mexico run by foreign countries]. And of course, the omnipresent menace that is ICE. It’s like a New England border town.