Francisco Goldman: Writing Astride Two Worlds: Raised between Conflicting Cultures, This Remarkable Novelist Weaves Threads of Journalism, History, and Fiction into Stories of Exquisite Detail

By Bach, Caleb | Americas (English Edition), July-August 2005 | Go to article overview

Francisco Goldman: Writing Astride Two Worlds: Raised between Conflicting Cultures, This Remarkable Novelist Weaves Threads of Journalism, History, and Fiction into Stories of Exquisite Detail


Bach, Caleb, Americas (English Edition)


Francisco Goldman possesses an almost boyish appearance that belies his fifty years of age. He also retains the enthusiasm, curiosity, and energy level associated with youth. These qualities were much in evidence as he talked in a friendly, open manner about his life and writing career: "I firmly believe what makes writers is something that happens way back in childhood," he says, "some sort of wound, something that disconnects them from ordinary reality in some way, and they spend the rest of their lives either trying to integrate themselves into that reality, or coexist in a parallel reality, constantly needing to make sense of themselves through storytelling, some way, everyday."

For Goldman, early childhood was spent in the Boston suburbs, the son of immigrants, a Jewish chemist father and a Catholic Guatemalan mother. Due to his parents' marital strife, though, the boy's life was marked by frequent trips accompanying his mother to her homeland, where he would live with members of her family for extended periods of time. "I might have stayed there," Goldman says, "but I got sick--tuberculosis--so I ended up being reunited with my father."

His first years at school were difficult: not just the confusion of English and Spanish, starting one and stopping another, but: "I was an oddity, ethnically, being raised in this very white, Irish and Italian neighborhood," he says. "I was a terrible student due to flaws of character, turmoil in our household, a lack of coherence--my parents' different backgrounds.... Eventually I got more socialized, came out of my shell, but even then I was a maladjusted kid, so I was always being forced to attend classes for underachievers," he says, laughing, "but I could always write stories, that was something I could do, something that was noticed."

By a "miracle," Goldman says, he was admitted to Hobart College in upstate New York, where he finally blossomed. While there he completed his first novel--"about being a messed-up teenager"--and left school for New York before his senior year. In 1979, after an absence of four years, Goldman returned to Guatemala intent on staying at his Uncle Hugo's house to write stories to gain admission to various MFA programs in the U.S. Only gradually did he become aware of the dimensions of the violence and repression then sweeping the country. He submitted a story based in Guatemala to Rust Hills, an editor at Esquire, who published the piece and encouraged him to cover other ongoing events in Central America. With this offer, Goldman abandoned his goal of an MFA program, instead cutting his teeth as a journalist both in Guatemala and then Nicaragua, where he filed pieces covering the Contra War, first for Esquire and later for Harper's. Much of the tragedy of those times ultimately led to his first novel.

Largely autobiographical, The Long Night of the White Chickens (1992) is the story of Roger Graetz, who grows up between two cultures. But its focal point is inspired by a real-life investigation that Goldman and a fellow journalist pursued regarding the murder of a young Guatemalan woman who had been the Goldman family maid when the author was a boy. In the story she is called Flor de Mayo Puac, and after graduating from college in the States, she returns to her homeland to direct an orphanage amid the chaos of civil war. The story is about love, not only Graetz's affection for his childhood companion, but also a passionate relationship between Flor and the other journalist, named Luis Moya Martinez in the novel. They fall for one another in a Chinese restaurant as workers deliver live chickens, struggling in pairs, hanging upside down. The image also serves as a metaphor for the lovers' own hopeless condition amid their strife-ridden reality.

"I wrote the book to save my own life!" says Goldman. "That sounds dramatic, but as a young writer I had an ambition to grow more, to know more, to bring my two worlds together. …

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