THE WRITER Francisco Goldman first traveled to Mexico City in the early eighties. At the time, he was a correspondent for Harper’s in Guatemala, and he was running out of money. The only bank in Latin America that would accept wire transfers from Harpers’ bank was in Mexico City. But when Goldman arrived, all the banks were closed for the Christmas holiday. Penniless, Goldman wandered around the DF — as the city is sometimes called — waiting for the banks to reopen. He crashed on the couches of other young journalists, attended an elaborate party at the Soviet embassy, and kissed a beautiful stranger outside the Museo Rufino Tamayo. Goldman’s longstanding relationship with Mexico City had begun.
Over the next 30 years, he would return to the DF for a few days or a few months, sometimes longer. Eventually he adopted the city as his home. Aside from teaching at Trinity College for part of the year, commuting from his apartment in Brooklyn, Goldman spends the rest of his time in Mexico City. He and his wife Aura Estrada, a PhD student at Columbia, had once planned to raise their family in the DF. Aura was raised there and had attended college there. Her family was there, and in 2007, after a bodysurfing accident in Oaxaca, she died there. Say Her Name, Goldman’s award-winning novel, is a wrenching portrait of a marriage cut short.
The Interior Circuit: A Mexico City Chronicle (Grove Press) is Goldman’s latest book, a nonfiction account of the years following his tragic loss. The book chronicles the summers of 2012 and 2013 that Goldman spent in the DF. 2012 was an election year in Mexico. The PRI, a party synonymous with corruption and violence, was fighting to preserve its 60-year stranglehold on the country, while the streets flooded with protestors. It was also the year that Goldman decided to learn how to drive in Mexico City. He had planned to chronicle his experiences in an article for The New Yorker. That summer he wrote me an email in anticipation of this driving project, which ultimately grew into a book:
June 29, 2012. 1:11 p.m.
Sarah: Aura's fifth anniversary is July 25th. It is an important date. I will begin my driving project on the 26th. It's about overcoming personal terror, and also launching myself on an invigorating, if ludicrous, adventure. Use the Guia Roji like the I Ching, open to a page, put my finger down on a spot, and go there. I am dyslexic, I can't follow maps, I am useless with them. I learn or try to master this fear, and this overwhelming city. (I am almost sure to be robbed at some point, in a really bad neighborhood, if not car jacked.) My city, but mostly Aura's city. I write about the city, I write about grief, I write about the meaning of five years and willing yourself to try to get on with life though the heartbreak and terror of what happened will never go away. I do what I didn't do in Say Her Name. Somehow I incorporate, in my driving journey, both, Mexico City and Aura, into my life in a certain way that implies finally conquering, overcoming, something.
SARAH WANG: The Interior Circuit is both a deeply personal memoir that takes place five years after Aura’s death, and an account of the shifting politics of Mexico City. The book is part love story, part political reportage, framed by an Oulipian-like constraint of navigating the city while learning to drive. How did this book come together?
FRANCISO GOLDMAN: The seed of this book was in a magazine article I was talking about writing for The New Yorker. I was going to do the driving project as a piece for them. The summer of 2012 became an incredibly intense summer. I had had a few really rough years. I felt like I was dragging a heavy weight behind me. I felt imprisoned by it. I just couldn’t free myself of it. I was afraid of time passing. There was a sense that I had to make time move again. Time had stopped moving. Nothing ever changed.
This book emerged because I wasn’t ready to go back to fiction. I had a form of survivor’s guilt, I suppose. For me, writing imaginary fiction is an ideal. If I could write The Hobbit, I would. I felt like I didn’t have permission to do that again yet. I always want to write novels but, in the last decade especially, reality is always intruding into my life. Aura’s death was the boulder that crushed that impulse to live in an imagined reality. Annie Proulx once wondered if I would ever be able to not write about Aura again. But I felt I owed Aura another book.
A lot of important things happened in my life during that summer, including finally being in a relationship again, falling in love again. It was also a hugely transformative summer in the history of contemporary Mexico with incredible repercussions for Mexico City. That summer I was living very intensely.
Say Her Name came out in Spanish in 2012, and it was really a big hit in Mexico. It was a crazy thing; and it wasn’t easy for my girlfriend. I was constantly giving interviews about Aura. I was traveling to other parts of Latin America too, and I had to fly back to New York to teach my classes throughout the fall semester. I knew I wasn’t going to be doing any writing in the fall. Then in the winter, a cataclysm occurred. My girlfriend suddenly left me. It was a complete shock. It plunged me into a state of despair. It was as if all those trauma symptoms — my mind knew it wasn’t the same, but my body didn’t — all that craziness, the inability to sleep, all that bedlam inside me came flooding back.
The first half of the book chronicles the summer of 2012, when the driving project took place. I am reminded of a quote from Maurice Blanchot, which I can only partially recall. But he said something like — you have to allow yourself to become weary, you have to be brought back to a place where you’re weary. This is the condition of writing. This is the condition of possibility.
In some ways, it sounds like this is what happened to you that summer, hitting a nadir and reaching a threshold.
I knew that I couldn’t fall back into the abyss again. I couldn’t fall back into the abyss of loss that ruined my life for five years, and I couldn’t fall back into the self-destructive chaos — the march to the nadir as you say — that defined so much of that summer. I pulled myself out of it. I told myself, I’m not going to let this happen. It’s time to write this thing. I felt like I had finally emerged from the cave of grief, from the solipsism of grief, from the murk of grief. I had finally gotten onto a constructive path. I had finally begun to embrace life again and feel productive, like I was all right and in control of myself. I told myself, I’m going to write my way out of this. I’m going to do it by retracing my steps of the summer of 2012, by mapping my steps, mapping the ways in which I managed to recover myself from grief. And that’s what the first half of the book in so many ways is. It was a celebratory story fought onto a good path. I re-embraced life. I experienced a reawakening.
Mexico City was the setting, the place. It was an important part of everything that was happening to me. I finished the first half of the book the summer of 2012. And at that point I was thinking, let’s go ahead and publish this with the magazine pieces that Grove wanted me to publish in a book [a few previously published articles, including a New Yorker piece on the children of the disappeared in Argentina], but those pieces didn’t seem to have that much to do with what I’d already written. Then I looked around and realized that if in some ways what I’d written was a celebration of Mexico City — written with a kind of innocence, with a kind of romance; I was in thrall to the romance of the city — the city was changing right under my nose, changing in dangerous ways, or at least in ways I felt challenged to understand and chronicle.
By this time, it was the summer of 2013, when you began writing the second half of the book in real time. The first half of the book was written after all the events of the summer of 2012 had already taken place. How was the city changing in 2013?
The country was changing because of the election of the PRI and the election of Enrique PeñaNieto, the president of the PRI. I thought, I can’t just publish something about the summer of 2012, I have to write about the summer of 2013. My relationship to Mexico City was deepening then, too. 2013 was a summer in which I really pushed myself to know the city in a different way, with eyes wide open. I was getting to know it in a less innocent way, a more responsible way. For most of my life, writing about war and violence, I was seeing all that tragedy from the outside. After Aura’s death, I somehow became more able to see it from the inside.
The second half of the book is a departure from the first half, shifting focus from the driving project and reclaiming the city as your own after Aura’s death, to the kidnapping and murder of 12 people from a nightclub. What was the importance of that event in the context of the DF?
I think the second part of the book is very different, but there are many through lines. A new narrative begins in the second half of the book. That first summer is written from deep inside the bubble of the romantic Mexico City. People in Mexico City are always saying “We live inside a bubble.” But I was living within a bubble within a bubble. When people are going around saying that Mexico City is a bubble, they’re talking about the horrific tragedy of the narco violence and narco terrorism that has turned some two thirds of the country of Mexico into a tragic inferno — if Mexico City seems to be immune from that, those of us living in the Condesa and Roma neighborhoods are inhabiting a bubble within a bubble. In the first half of the book, I refer several times to an anxious awareness of the world of trauma that’s out there. Despite the fact that we feel we’re safe from it in some ways, living in Mexico City, we’re very aware of it, frightened by it; we sometimes feel frustratingly distant from it, yet relieved to be distant from it. In the second half of the book, that really tragic violence, in a really unprecedented way, came home to the DF with the kidnapping of the kids from the after hours club. I felt compelled to get as close to that as I could. In some ways my story of those two summers is one about a loss of innocence. I don’t regret romanticizing the city. That vision is not untrue. But at the heart of the book is a kind of spiritual journey. I achieved a sense of belonging in the DF while traversing a terrain of trauma.
You grew up in Boston and have lived in Guatemala, Mexico City, and New York City. You teach in Connecticut, live in New York during the spring semester, and spend the rest of the year in Mexico City. Can you talk a little bit about your sense of home in this book?
Home had always seemed like a place that had been lost. It was in some ways part of having a peripatetic adulthood, moving on from places. Guatemala could never really be my home. Massachusetts never really felt like my home. My mother was always telling me, “Your real home is elsewhere. We’re really from Guatemala.” We lived in a myth of a nonexistent home. I think that Mexico City really became my home in a way no place ever had because my wife died there. Aura and I fell in love in New York as much as we did in Mexico City. But she was from Mexico City, and she died there, and I think that was what made me feel attached to it — linked to it really intimately, spiritually linked to it — in a way I’ve never felt about any place else before. On one hand, that city where I was in love with Aura, that city where we intended to raise our kids, the city of her family, that’s a lost city too. That city can never come back. That city can never exist, and yet it was my sense of loyalty to that city, my terror of letting go of it, that made Mexico City a complicated and sometimes difficult place, and my home in a way that no place else ever had felt quite like home. Where does the concept of home emerge? According to some historians of, for example, New World colonists, it begins with the burying of your loved ones in that ground. As powerful and permanent as my love for Aura is, I no longer feel dominated by those feelings of loss, by grief. But that original feeling doesn’t go away.
What’s the tattoo you have on your forearm?
I got that ages ago. It’s an old [José Guadalupe] Posada engraving of a skeleton riding a comet. It seems really pathetic now. But back then when I got the tattoo, I was trying to get over another heartbreak. I felt like this girl had broken my heart. I felt reborn. I was the skeleton riding the comet.
The tattoo of the skeleton riding a comet seems in some ways relevant to this book, and what you’ve been going through in these past seven years after Aura’s death.
Yes. I think that’s pretty explicit in the book. Every July 25th there is a memorial mass for Aura. I had an epiphany in the second mass. It was the summer of 2013. I don’t want to give it away because I describe it the way I want it to be described in the book, but you're right, it’s not unrelated to the spirit of the tattoo. They say that Posada — I don’t know if it’s apocryphal or not — but Joseph Mitchell in the prologue to Up in the Old Hotel says that the phrase “black humor” was coined by André Breton when he saw Posada’s engravings; those famous engravings of skeletons getting married, skeleton priests hanging themselves, suicide, that really dark, bitter, ironic Posada death humor. I think that kind of graveyard humor is definitely something that sustains me now. It’s always been a part of my sensibility, but in a much more heavy way now.
Do you think your personal narrative of grief and loss in this book had rippled out in some way into the Heavens case? You were in a new relationship in the summer of 2013, and perhaps investigating the Heavens case was another way to hold on to Aura for a little longer, to seek out that painful yet familiar jouissance. Or maybe your involvement with the kidnappings arose from a sense of duty, the same reason you wrote The Art of Political Murder. You once said that no one else was going to write that book, and so you had to.
Though I didn’t have that kind of psychoanalytic language in my head — hey, I’ve come to Tepito in search of jouissance — it could have been something like that. The Heavens case was an enormous shock to the DF’s sense of security. At the time it seemed like the sign that what we most dreaded had finally arrived inside the city, and it augured more of the same. (Thankfully, its repercussions, so far, haven’t been so extreme.) There was a lot driving my curiosity and desire to get close to that case, not just any one thing. Part of it, like you said, was a visceral sense of duty. I think that Pablo de Llano, the young El País correspondent I teamed up with, and I really are the only ones who stayed with that case, and tried to give as complete an accounting of it as, given the available information, was possible, and we were definitely the only ones who focused on the victims, the families — most of them from the legendary rough market neighborhood of Tepito — who they were and what they were going through. The Heavens case was also a great lesson in the secret ways that the city works; in the ways that the city’s political powers, and organized crime, and the police, and even the Mexican media kind of collude there. For me, the Heavens case was a huge loss of innocence, of naiveté, about how the city works. And like you said, throughout the book I think the reader senses that I have my own reasons for wanting to get close to this sort of trauma, so characteristic of what people endure throughout Mexico every day, but that was much less common in the DF. The Interior Circuit is most of all a journey — into the community of violent death, but also to find life in that community of death. Get close to death to find life.
Your Mexico City and New York City therapists are influential in your path to recovering (as much as one can recover) from grief. How does the role of psychiatry function in this book?
Both my therapists were great and I just felt really grateful. It was nice in this book to be able to write about them a little, enough to show how important they were. I didn’t talk about them at all in Say Her Name, even though they are present. I don’t think the narrator talks about them at all, or maybe he did. I can’t recall. In any case, I’m more explicit about it in this book. Often people ask me, “Wasn’t it therapeutic to write that book? Wasn’t it cathartic?” Absolutely not, not even slightly. In some ways, writing that book worsened my situation because I wasn’t giving myself any fresh air to breathe. I was sinking down into that loss every day. I was also doing it out of a sense of obligation. I was very neurotic in my refusal to let go. It was a way of trying to keep Aura with me all the time when I was writing it. I remember Colm Tóibíntelling me, “When you finish that book is when the real mourning will begin.” I always say that I did my therapy where I had to do my therapy — with my therapist, not in my book. Both my therapists were great, but because of the timing — I’d never been to a therapist in my life — about a week after Aura’s death, Martin Solares’ mother in law said that I should really go see this woman (in Spanish they’re called tanatológicas). I will never forget that first meeting. She was such a regal, beautiful, warm, extremely intelligent woman. I adore her. That first meeting with her, I just sat down, keeled over and sobbed. I couldn’t even talk. And when I think about the conversation we have at the end of The Interior Circuit, how much we’d been through together, what she’d seen me go through in those years, it was incredible. I was lucky to have a therapist who wasn’t just a great guide. I felt she really cared about me, deeply — of course in a professional way — yet the way in which she cared was very human, too. It terrifies me to think what would have happened to me without her.
When I went to New York I needed to continue therapy because I was really in bad shape. My New York therapist was a really professionally disciplined woman, and she never indulged pity in our sessions. But I’ll never forget one day: I saw tears rolling from her eyes. Those were strangely consoling tears because they told me, this must be really bad. You’re not exaggerating if your shrink is crying.
You want to talk, you’re dying to talk, you need to talk, but you can’t talk to other people. It’s the most repetitive thing in the world. Do you know how repetitive grief is? The same thing; not just every day, every hour. The same thoughts, the same horrors, the same lost feelings, the same cycles over and over. Talk about the interior circuit; you’re endlessly circuiting, and you need to talk about it. You can’t impose that on anyone else other than someone whose profession it is, whose job it is to sit there and listen to you, and help you find a way to do something with it.
Sarah Wang is currently finishing a novel about immigration and exile in Los Angeles.