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Novelist Francisco Goldman Revisits His Difficult Childhood In 'Monkey Boy'

DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in today for Terry Gross. Our guest, Francisco Goldman, is a writer who grew up with a dual ethnic identity. His father was Jewish. And he was raised in working class suburbs of Boston. But his mother was Guatemalan. Goldman spent time with his family there growing up and did a lot of reporting on the Guatemalan civil war in the '80s and '90s. His book "The Art Of Political Murder" is about the assassination of a Guatemalan human rights activist. And it's now an HBO documentary.

He's also written four novels, including "Say Her Name," which is about his wife, writer Aura Estrada, and her tragic death in 2007 from injuries she suffered while body surfing in the Pacific off the coast of Mexico. He also told her story in a New Yorker article titled "The Wave." Francisco Goldman's books have been published in 16 languages. His latest is a novel which draws from his own experiences. It's told in the first person by a writer named Francisco Goldberg, whose life has much in common with Goldman's. It's called "Monkey Boy." Francisco Goldman joins us from his home in Mexico City. Francisco Goldman, welcome to FRESH AIR.

FRANCISCO GOLDMAN: Hi, Dave. It's an honor to be here. Thank you.

DAVIES: I really enjoyed this book. I mean, it got me in the first chapter and kept me interested. You know, in it, we - this writer, Francisco Goldberg, is in New York. And he's taken a train to visit his elderly mother at a nursing home in Boston. And over the course of the story, he recalls a lot of his life. And it's just fascinating. And as I read it, I realized, at some point, this voice that I'm hearing, the voice of the narrator, I'm thinking, is you, Francisco Goldman, not the fictional Francisco Goldberg. To what extent should we think that? Is this you?

GOLDMAN: Well, it's - you know, it's a classic, I think, narrative device often referred to as alter egos, you know? You think of all the Philip Roth alter egos. You think of Roberto Bolano's alter ego, Arturo Belano, Faye and the Rachel Cusk novels. So obviously, it's not directly myself. I'm trying to find a certain kind of distance from myself. I'm playing with myself. I'm turning myself into a fictional character, which implies that I really don't even know for sure what I'm going to do and say as we go. But - so it's a fictional interpretation of myself.

DAVIES: OK. But a fair amount of it is biographical, I assume?

GOLDMAN: Yes. Yes. Absolutely. Yeah.

DAVIES: And when I ask you - I'll ask you things about your life, perhaps, assuming that the book is telling the story. And you'll make the distinctions where we need to. The name of the book is "Monkey Boy." You want to explain that and tell us why you chose it as the title?

GOLDMAN: I chose it as the title because part of the source of the book was I wanted to go back and look at some very difficult years, my childhood and adolescence. You know, a couple of years ago, I had a fellowship at the Harvard Radcliffe Institute in Cambridge, which brought me back up to Massachusetts for the first time in years. And I got together with some of my old high school friends, people who played on that sophomore football team that you read about in the book. And one of them laughed and said to me, oh, yeah, I remember now. Everybody used to say you look like a monkey. And it sort of came back to me there, you know, that how much of my childhood and youth had been sort of shaped by these kinds of nicknames, which, you know, we can interpret in so many different ways in the course of the book.

You know, he - at one point, he's talking to a girl he was in love with in high school that - who you meet in the book. And she says, that was a racist nickname, wasn't it? And he almost a bit defensively says, well, you know, if you really think about it and think of all the kids we were in middle school with, I'm probably the one who looked most like a monkey. And she says, well, I didn't think you looked that much like a monkey. But that kind of bullying shaped his childhood in so many ways. I mean, there's no doubt about that.

DAVIES: You know, it interested me that - you know, today, you're 66 - that you're now choosing to write about this very, very early time in your life. Did it bring up memories that you had suppressed or forgotten?

GOLDMAN: Yes. I mean, you know, I - there's a lot of reasons I wanted to go back and write about this time in my life. One is I was thinking about, you know, the kinds of hierarchies I place on myself, right? Without a doubt, the - such a formative experience, the most formative period of my life, was the time I spent in my 20s covering the wars of Central America, Guatemala, writing my first novel. But, you know, being so close to that, you know, was, in fact, a genocide, a terrible, terrible war. The way that that takes centrality in your life, every time you sit down to write, you think, well, you know, really, that's the key experience. I owe that yet again, to go back there and find more meaning from that.

At the same time, I was thinking, you know, by doing that, in some ways, I've been shutting out the rest of my life, right? It's like I'm not really giving the rest of my life a chance to sort of breathe in my imagination. And I thought, well, how can - you know, how can I find a way to write about all the other stuff that happened in my life? And another part of this - I think the two most important experiences in my whole life that I've had are in 2007, the death of my wife, Aura Estrada, and in 2018 - and beginning in 2012 when I finally - when I fell in love again, marrying Joanna (ph), Jovi. And we just had a baby daughter three years ago.

And behind this whole thing was this question I was asking myself. You know, why did it take me so long to be able to really, finally, you know, have a healthy love, fall in love? How did I learn to love? And I realized that if I was going to ask that question, I had to go way back because there was a lot of damage back there. A lot of things happened back there that I've kind of spent my whole life overcoming, maybe, right? And I think that that's really part of - that's the real heart of Francisco Goldberg's story in "Monkey Boy." And so those are the reasons I decided to sort of go back there and dig into all of that.

DAVIES: Well, there's kind of two really important strands to some of the pain there. I mean, one is the...

GOLDMAN: Pain and joy. Yeah.

DAVIES: Right. Well, there's the abuse within your own family, which we'll talk about. But there's this - you know, the cruelty of adolescent kids. And, you know, it's painfully recounted in the book. Maybe you can just give us one example. I'm thinking about your friendship with this kid that you called Ian Brown.

GOLDMAN: The key incident, you know, that, really, when I look back at it, it sounds ridiculous, but it changed my life. I was in eighth grade. I was still this kind of sweetly naive kid who believed in romance, that romance could be for me. I think this is maybe the most, you know, absurdly catastrophic first kiss. You know, everybody romanticizes their first kiss. Well, this is my first-kiss story. And it changed my life. I was at a party. And, you know, I went off into the woods with another - with this young girl. And we went off. And we made out.

And I was so thrilled. I'll never forget that weekend. I thought, I'm going to have a girlfriend. Everything's going to change now. I'm going to be one of those kids that, you know, walks around with this girl. I'm going to spend all this time with her. And it's going to be just life-changing. And he gets to school - I walk into the school - I'll never forget - into my junior high school. I'm walking through those glass doors into that lobby area by the cafeteria. And everybody was waiting. It was like in a movie, you know, where, you know, the people - the other army is lined up across the field or something. And I heard all this sort of laughter and shouting. And people were calling - you know, saying jokes about a monkey and a banana. And I got close, and there was the girl I had made out with who in the book is called Arlene. And there was Ian next to her. They were neighbors. And it turned out that she had supposedly said that while we were making out, she had felt like she was being chomped on - she had felt like she was a banana being chomped on by a monkey.

And this joke had electrified the school, electrified it. She was obviously traumatized herself. She turned and ran away. It was obviously Ian who had put - made up the joke and put it in her mouth, so to speak, and told everybody that she had said that. And it was just, you know - turned - it was just a nightmare. You know, for days, I couldn't go anywhere without people imitating monkeys and imitating people chomping on a banana. And, you know, what was the result of that? I didn't try to kiss a girl again till I was in college.

DAVIES: Yeah, it's the kind of thing that is an adolescence nightmare.

GOLDMAN: A nightmare, yeah.

DAVIES: You just have to somehow kind of...

GOLDMAN: And shapes your life, you know? I mean, he notices in the book that because of that experience and because of this kind of bullying where - and you know, he really didn't look that much like a monkey. He was just - he had Latin features. He was browner. You know? When I got to college and everybody started telling me - thinking I was cute and things like that, some girls, at first I thought they were kidding me, they were, like, setting a trap for me because I had been so twisted by what had happened in high school. You know? It was - and for years afterwards, any time it was the moment when you had to kiss a girl - right? - that moment when you know this is the moment I have to - like, my hands would start shaking terribly. I mean, it really, really had an effect on me, you know? So I was - these were the kinds of things I had going back and digging out of the past.

And of course, it's really important to remember that as horrible as they are, they're funny, too. You know, when you look back on them, if you were to tell those kinds of stories with a kind of overly dramatic solemnity, I think that would be like putting the wrong sort of emphasis on them. They're also just heartbreakingly funny.

DAVIES: We need to take a break here. Let me reintroduce you. We're speaking with Francisco Goldman. His new novel, which draws heavily from his own life experiences, is called "Monkey Boy." We'll talk more after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE MOUNTAIN GOATS' "PEACOCKS")

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, we're speaking with writer Francisco Goldman. His new novel, "Monkey Boy," draws heavily on his own life experiences. This note for listeners - our conversation just ahead will include some descriptions of physical abuse Goldman suffered as a child at home.

There was another kind of set of kids that you had trouble with. You call them the Sacco brothers here. I mean, again, I'm assuming this is drawn from your life. And this was, again, more flat-out kind of ethnic hatred, right?

GOLDMAN: It was flat-out ethnic hatred. I mean, this is so nuts. You know, my mom had left my dad, like I said. And then my mother - my mother loved no one on Earth more than she loved her own mother, Abuelita, my grandmother, you know, one of the people I most loved in my life, too. But she was extremely Catholic. And the fact that my mother had married a Jew did not figure in at all in her being against divorce. I mean, you know, she was like one of those characters in a Graham Greene novel who think divorce is wrong no matter what. Right? So she was convinced, really, that my having gotten tuberculosis could even have been a divine punishment for my mother having abandoned my father. And so even though, as you know in the book, that's not a good marriage, we go back to Massachusetts. And my father, like, gambles in a sense and buys this little house to try to restore his family in this new suburban subdivision, very working-class subdivision. And here we are in this neighborhood of entirely, I would say, Irish Catholics and Italians, this funny, odd little family of a Jewish man who makes false teeth for a living and a young Guatemalan Catholic woman.

DAVIES: And you're their kid (laughter).

GOLDMAN: And this kid - this weird, skinny, big-eared kid (laughter). And those kids slaughtered me. I mean, they slaughtered me. It was every day. And it was war, you know? It was violence, like I say in the book. And I had some friends, you know. It was also kind of parochial school kids against public school kids. And so I had my big friend Wayne Nelson (ph). And when I look back on it, it was like daily rock fights. And rocks, you know, they can hurt you. You know (laughter)? And I remember - I mean, this really happened - where somebody - someone from the Saccos' backyard threw a rock, and it hit my sister in the middle of the forehead and practically knocked her out.

And then there was that awful incident that he remembers from when he was very small, which is a key incident in the book in terms of, again, you know, horrifying, but also funny, the way it's played out in the book. There's that memory, which - they way it's told in the book, my sister remembers it a lot better than I do 'cause that's another thing in the book. You know, sometimes really horrible things happen, and you kind of half-remember them and then realize that you're - that because my sister witnessed it, it had been so dramatically ingrained in her memory that she remembers it better than I do.

And it becomes the story she later tells my girlfriends about the day she saw those bully - those bully boys from our neighborhood almost murder me. She calls it the time I was almost murdered. And, you know, they sort of get me in a circle and start beating me up. And somebody punches me really hard in the neck so that my neck closes. And I think it was probably much more terrifying than it actually was because I really felt like I couldn't get any air and I was lying on my back, while they all ran away, gasping for air. It was just a matter of time for my throat to open up again and, you know, I was OK and I got up and walked home. And in my - and, you know, I'll tell you, this is true. I barely remembered that incident.

It was only a few years ago that my sister told Jovi, my wife, the story, and she came in and said, those boys almost murdered you? And I said, they didn't almost murder me. They weren't going to murder me. And then I, you know - and the more I thought about it, like, the memories came back. But what was so interesting to me about the story, too, was that my sister remembered it so much better that I did.

DAVIES: Well, apart from the humiliations and abuse you suffered from kids in the neighborhood, there was the issues within your own family and specifically an abusive father. I'm guessing that this was your experience. You know, without dwelling on this, can you just give us an example of when this would happen, what would trigger him and what would happen to you?

GOLDMAN: Well, a lot of things could trigger my father, right? He was just such a frustrated, tormented man, unhappy in his work, unhappy in his career, unhappy in his marriage, unhappy apparently in his children. And so, you know, like even me coming home late for dinner, you know, from playing out in the woods all muddy and dirty could be enough to make him beat me up, right? Sometimes I did things wrong that any kid would be punished for, like getting caught stealing money from his coin collection to go buy myself little Matchbox trucks. But maybe another parent would deal with it differently than, you know, beating the life out of me, practically, right?

DAVIES: I mean, this - he would hit you with his fists on the head, right?

GOLDMAN: Sort of open-handed cuffs, really hard cuffs. The worst were the kicks. He put me in the hospital once by kicking me in the spine so bad that my legs were temporarily paralyzed. That's a story that really shook me up. I told it in "Say Her Name," too. I'll never forget the way the doctor looked at him. The doctor seemed too suspicious and he lied. And he lied that - you know, the doctor said, what happened? And he said, oh, he hurt himself playing football. And I remember that moment. I don't think I ever forgave him, you know. I mean, something changed in me at that moment. Yeah.

DAVIES: And there was a point at which you fought back.

GOLDMAN: And finally in high school because, you know, there'd been that really horrible mean - you know, because I was a wild kid. I rebelled, right? I wasn't just - and so there's that horrible thing where I get taken to the police station, and I'm innocent. The police have wrongly accused me of something. And he comes in and he just beats me in front of the police instead of defending me, right? And he's my father. And I'm saying I was wrongly accused, Dad. I didn't do what they say I did. And he just beat me up in front of the police horribly. And so I knew it was, you know - and so one night, there he was. I was in - he chased me out of the house. Who knows what I'd done. I was barefoot. I was crouched in the front lawn. It was a snowy night. And I just had had enough. I was - and I saw - you know, my eyes focused on his skin. And I just shot up with all my might and got him right in the jaw.

DAVIES: Do you think being around the violence that you were in the neighborhood and at home made it easier or harder when you went out and covered political violence as a journalist?

GOLDMAN: I don't know. It's - that's hard to say, easier or harder.

DAVIES: Less rattled by it now.

GOLDMAN: Well, my whole upbringing - I think I was less rattled by it the way you take anybody from that Boston milieu, you know, where it's - and put them into a war situation, I think they're going to go, well, you know, I kind of - this feels a little familiar to me. But - although it's much more dangerous down there, I went because, you know, in my divided - I wanted to be a writer. And I was good around violence. People sometimes used to say, you know, in a dangerous situation, I would become incredibly calm. Things - I was one of those people who things would sort of slow down and move in slow motion. And I could see what was happening. And I wouldn't get scared until after. After the incident, you know, your knees start to shake. You feel all trembley. But in the middle of it, I was always icy calm.

DAVIES: Let me reintroduce you again. We're going to take a break here. We are speaking with Francisco Goldman. His new novel, which draws heavily from his own life experiences, is called "Monkey Boy." We'll be back to talk more after this short break. I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF DINO SALUZZI, ANTHONY COX AND DAVID FRIEDMAN'S "PENTA Y UNO")

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross. We're speaking with writer Francisco Goldman. His books include "The Art Of Political Murder," about the assassination of a Guatemalan bishop and human rights activist, which is now an HBO documentary, and "Say Her Name," a novel about his wife, writer Aura Estrada, and her death in a body surfing accident. His new book is a novel which draws heavily on his own life called "Monkey Boy."

You know, you write that your mom lived her life between two cultures. She was from Guatemala. She married this American Jewish man. Like a lot of immigrants, you know, she lived her life, you say, between two cultures and two countries. You really did, too didn't you?

GOLDMAN: Yes, I did. I kind of, you know, perversely followed her in the opposite direction, right? She came from Guatemala to the United States. And I've kind of gone in the opposite direction from the United States back to Guatemala and to Mexico. I need that balance in my life, you know, and it's very common now, right? And if you look at something from my father, who was also an immigrant but from the Ukraine - right? - once he came over and established himself in the United States - you know, he had been in the Jewish family that fled terrible anti-Semitism. And he wanted to forget the Ukraine ever existed, Russia ever existed. He made himself so American. But a lot of Latin American immigrants, you know, we're so close to our homes, right? And so it's so common for us to kind of continue to live in both cultures. My mother, you know, never felt entirely at home in the United States. Sadly, she couldn't go back to Guatemala nearly as much as she wanted to. I've never felt so at home with all my parts kind of at peace with each other as I do in Mexico City.

DAVIES: More than Guatemala?

GOLDMAN: Yes, more than Guatemala, I think, because I - you know, Guatemala - I love my family in Guatemala. I love Guatemala. I've been around almost the most extraordinary people in my life there. But Guatemala now is always feels a little dangerous to me, right? It's - I have so many horrible memories of things that have happened in Guatemala that I've seen or have been very close to.

DAVIES: And you've written things which would get attention, too.

GOLDMAN: I've written things that got attention, yeah, still - right? - still. I'm never comfortable in Guatemala.

DAVIES: Did your mom speak Spanish to you at home? I mean, did they want you to become assimilated into American life?

GOLDMAN: My father sure did. My mother, you know, she wanted to do what was right. But I remember when I was very small, she was called into the school and told to only speak English to me at home because I was mixing up Spanish and English, which is a common thing in that, you know, nowadays I think a school system would know, well, he'll get it, you know? They just moved here. You know, he'll learn to distinguish. They used to also take me out of classes and make me have pronunciation lessons to get rid of my Spanish accent. And my mother was the kind of mom if the school told her she had to do something, she would do it, right? But the people I always inevitably ended up speaking Spanish with were - well, we used to go back to Guatemala every summer, right? So Guatemala was always very present in my life.

And also my grandmother, to help my mother have a life and be able to go away and study and do the things she needed to do rather than divorce my father, which my grandmother would not allow, essentially, she used to send up these young Guatemalan girls to kind of help my mother with housekeeping and when I was small enough, like, sort of be our nanny. And these women are in "Monkey Boy." He visits two of them and thinks about the third a lot while he's on that trip, while I am on that trip home in the book. And they were very important people in my life, incredibly important people.

DAVIES: There's a moment in the book which kind of captures this dual identity that you have that I'm guessing is drawn from your life. It's where you published your first novel or the narrator of the book has published his first novel. It's successful. And he got a nice write up in the Boston paper. And then a reporter wants to come out and talk to him again. And he thinks, hey, great, they want to do a profile of me. But, no, somebody from your past has said maybe this guy's a phony. Tell us that - will you? - this story.

GOLDMAN: Yes. Well, I'll tell you. That really happened. Suddenly, I get this call that The Boston Globe reporter wants to speak with me. And we're very excited. We think it's going to be a profile. And I get out there to meet him. I meet him on the bridge, the Congress Street Bridge overlooking the Boston Tea Party ship, where I was a tour guide - right? - when I was about 20 years old. And I thought this would be a good chance to talk about that. Instead, he says, we got a letter from a girl who says you went to high school with her. She says that you're not Latino, that you're, in fact Jewish. And (laughter) you know, hello, yes, I've been hiding my Jewish identity behind my last name, Goldman. I mean, you must be kidding me, right? And I said did you even read my first book, right? It's about being from a family like mine.

And so I'd spent my entire youth trying to become the person who would write this novel - right? - you know, all those years in Central America. And here - it was just really remarkable. Here was high school reaching out to try to, like, get me. And it was ridiculous. But it was also the kind of thing that we talk about a lot in the book, you know? In the United States of America, which is obviously extremely tribalized and with often a very essentialist attitude towards identity, right? - a Latino has to be a Latino or Latina, you know, African American and Asian and a Jew, and people with hybrid identities have to learn to navigate between these very rigid categories. And strangely, you know, they awaken a lot of suspicion in people sometimes as if though we're trying to pull something over. And Jewish surnames, I've noticed especially, do that, right? They strike people as especially dissonant in a Latin American context. And so that's - that was a very extreme example of how that has been something I have had to learn to navigate my whole life.

DAVIES: We're speaking with Francisco Goldman. He's published four previous novels and two works of nonfiction. His new novel, which draws heavily from his own life, is "Monkey Boy." You know, my wife and I have a little bit of a personal feeling for you, in part because of something that happened to us. We were at a - we took a family trip to Costa Rica several years ago, and while we were swimming in the ocean, she was hit by a wave and it gave her a spinal injury and she was knocked out on the beach and immobilized and then was taken by ambulance across the country to an MRI. And fortunately, in the end, she is fine. But at the time, she recalled having read this story in The New Yorker a year before of this writer whose wife was killed by a wave, hit - again, a terrible spinal injury. This was, of course, you and your story, the story of your wife, the writer Aura Estrada. A lot of people know this story, many people, I'm sure, don't.

GOLDMAN: Oh, my. You know, Aura was so incredibly talented. But she was getting her Ph.D. in Columbia at the same time she was getting her MFA in creative writing at Hunter. And we had been looking forward to this beach vacation in Oaxaca. And yeah, the second day there, we were - she wanted to try bodysurfing. And she got a really bad wave. And she landed badly. And it was just like the scene you describe of your wife on the beach. There was no ambulances around. We put her on a surfboard. We took her to a little local hospital. From there - somebody stole my wallet in that hospital. It was such a thing. We finally got an air ambulance to take her back to Mexico City, where she, you know, died 24 hours after the accident. And it was just - you know, it ruined a lot of lives. It certainly was horrible for me. But worse, her mother's life was utterly shattered.

It was just the worst thing, right? And it took me - "Say Her Name," a book which is really dedicated to trying to recreate our love and write about her and get as close to who she was. So that it's really, in most ways, a joyful book. You know, it was part of the process of the next five years, though, as my friend Colm Toibin put it when I finished, he says, you know, now - you're going to see now your grieving really begins because as, when I was writing the book, it was the opposite of moving on. It was the opposite of letting go. It was keeping her very close to me, you know. And since then, we have a wonderful prize...

DAVIES: For young writers, yeah.

GOLDMAN: ...(Unintelligible) Aura Estrada that we give, yeah, for young female writers. It's a really important female literary prize in the Spanish language world now. We're really proud that we did that. It took me five years to move on a bit. I was very lucky. I'm the luckiest guy. You don't know anybody that - I met Jhoana Montes in 212. We were both - in our different ways, we needed each other. We're both kind of outsiders. And we have the most now extraordinary young daughter, Azalea (ph), who was born in - so here I am. Yeah. Yeah.

DAVIES: All right. Let me reintroduce you again. We are speaking with Francisco Goldman. His new novel, which draws heavily from his own life experiences, is called "Monkey Boy." We'll talk more after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and we're speaking with writer Francisco Goldman. His new novel, which draws from his own life experiences, is called "Monkey Boy."

You spent many years in Guatemala during the long, ugly civil war at which I think 200,000 people were killed, mostly civilians, mostly at the hands of the military and death squads. Your family was a prosperous family in Guatemala. How did you end up getting - writing about this? You know, you took trips back there when you were younger, but you weren't a journalist then.

GOLDMAN: Relatively prosperous, right? You know, solid middle class. I think my uncle did a little better. You know, I went down. It's a long story, but the short version is I wanted to send short stories to MFA programs to go get my MFA in creative writing. I was working in restaurants in New York, couldn't make the time to write. This is 1979. I go down thinking I will stay at our family cottage in Guatemala. My uncle says, you can't do that. There's a war going on. You have to live with us because the cottage was in a danger zone. And I spent a year there, '79, probably the most violent year in the history of Guatemala City. And inside that little cocoon of my family, which was a kind of right-wing family, you saw the war one way.

Bit by bit, the truth began to filter to me, you know, through going out into the streets. There was nothing in the newspapers. There was complete self-censorship in the newspapers. You couldn't write anything. It was a heavy, heavy dictatorship. Anybody left of center was in danger of being murdered. It was just life-changing. That's all I can say. I got - I wrote those stories that had nothing to do with Central America. I got into all the MFA programs. Esquire magazine bought two of the stories, so I didn't - decided not to go to MFA school. Esquire offered me a chance to go back to Guatemala and write about what was happening in Guatemala, and I did.

DAVIES: Among the little details that emerges there are things that people would do when they were concerned that they were under surveillance or perhaps even their lives might be threatened, ways that they would prepare their houses so that they could detect a break-in, like beer bottles underneath the windows, right?

GOLDMAN: Well, that was Jean-Marie and I. Yeah, that's - in "Monkey Boy," that's Petti Moore (ph), who was in "Long Night Of White Chickens" too. She is a fictionalized version of a really real person who was the most important human rights investigator in Guatemala. So that she wouldn't be killed, she had to do that very deep cover. So her cover was that she was just a photographer stringer for Time magazine. Deep down, she was doing all the reporting for Amnesty International and Americas Watch and living in my house.

And there was a period where they were going after human-rights-type people. They would literally go up the walls, Into the windows. And they'd got a Swedish woman who had been doing kind of activist stuff for the Swedish Embassy, and they raped her horribly, almost killed her. And we were terrified. And we had set up this alarm system of bottles on chairs under every window. Yeah. And in real life, Jean-Marie and I, they wanted to chase us out of the country. And a death squad, a real death squad, you know, did a fake assassination on us.

We were right outside in front of the house, a block down where there was a row of private ambulances parked on the side of the road. It was like the way you imagine what it would be like to suddenly be circled by a shark in the water. There it was, a Cherokee slowing down, following our footsteps. It stops. The men get out. They're reaching for their weapons in the backseat. At that moment - you know, at that moment, I pulled Jean-Marie down onto the sidewalk so that we had the ambulances between us and them. And a bus came along. And I pulled her up and ran along with the bus as a shield. And we jumped on the bus. And the men got back in the Cherokee and shot down the avenue through every red light.

And this is the crazy thing. When I went to the U.S. Embassy the next day to report it, as we're supposed to, the consul already knew about it. Their CIA guy - they already knew it had happened. And he said it was a heavy hand - he said it was what we call a heavy handed tail, meant to send a message. And he said, you should get out of the country. And I couldn't. I didn't want to get out of the country. And I had no money. I was very poor. I would live on a couple of freelance magazine articles a year. So, you know - and so we put the bottles up underneath everything. And it was terrifying.

DAVIES: All right. Let me reintroduce you again. We are speaking with Francisco Goldman. His new novel, which draws from his own life experiences, is "Monkey Boy." We'll talk more after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.

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DAVIES: This is Fresh AIR, and we're speaking with writer Francisco Goldman. His books include "The Art of Political Murder" and "Say Her Name." His new book, which draws heavily on his own life, is a novel. It's called "Monkey Boy."

Your book, "The Art Of Political Murder," was about the assassination of a bishop who was a human rights activist, Juan Gerardi. And he - maybe you can just explain briefly why he was important, why he became a target of the right wing in the military.

GOLDMAN: Because the army and the guerrillas in the peace accords - the army were the victors. The guerrillas were, you know, a very defeated force that was pulled into the peace accords and wanted to survive. They decided that there would be no accounting for the war's crimes, a war in which 200,000 civilians have been killed, that there be complete amnesty. And Bishop Gerardi already knew that that was not the way forward, that a country can't have peace with that kind of incredible crimes against humanity going unaddressed and unforgiven.

And so the church did its own report, which they published some years later. They did it, you know, through their parishes. The parishes are close to the people. And so it was through the parishes who could actually break those taboos of silence. And people came to tell their stories. And it was the first great accounting of what had happened in Guatemala. And it was - he published it in a cathedral sermon ceremony, announced - it's - the publication of this four-volume report. And two nights later, he was bludgeoned to death in his parish house garage. And it was, you know, because of that report, basically. That report was a threat to the army's position in society that could lead to trials.

DAVIES: It was a remarkable report. It actually listed by name 50,000 people who had been killed. It really made the case about what it - what had happened. Your book, "The Art Of Political Murder," really dealt with the trial more, I guess, and...

GOLDMAN: The trial and the investigation.

DAVIES: And the investigation, right. And people can see the film on HBO by the same name, "The Art Of Political Murder." And you can get the general sense of this. It's - he - it's kind of amazing that a prosecutor had the guts and gumption to pursue the evidence. And they actually convicted three members of the military for the killing. Probably those who ordered it still were never brought to justice. But you've made the point that out of that grew an institution which was really important and which is important to maintain as President Biden takes office. You want to explain this?

GOLDMAN: The Bishop Gerardi case, it showed Guatemalans that what they had thought was impossible and which usually is impossible could be done, that you could get justice for a crime like that in a country where - of complete impunity, where state crimes always go unpunished. And the courage of that prosecutor and the young people who investigated that day is like nothing I've ever seen or witnessed in my life. It's - it was the great honor of my life to be close to them and to work with them for so many years.

As the Cold War ended and the new era came in, it became clear that the army, which was holding onto its power - even though it was nominally a democracy, the army and powerful politicians and powerful people in the business sector were transitioning into what's the real game in Central America now, organized crime, narco trafficking and other things, right? And how are you going to fight this? Organized crime is transnational, so you need a transnational way to fight it. And out of the Gerardi case because the U.S. had actually - after they spent years and years of having backed the army in the wars, the U.S. actually tried to lend support to the investigation in the Gerardi case.

And they realized that if you could have international support for a team of prosecutors, you had a chance to fight some of these crimes. And so the International Commission Against Organized Crime - and Against Corruption and Impunity in Guatemala, backed by the U.N., heavily funded by the U.S., took office and over a number of years in Guatemala were incredibly successful in holding at bay the collapse of Guatemala into becoming a complete narcostate. You know, say it was a tie, (laughter) right? It was - and - but they battled so courageously from about - especially from 2013 to 2019.

DAVIES: So what you had here was an independent force for investigations with integrity of wrongdoing, of official corruption, all kinds of things. Hundreds of people were prosecuted. This was supported by the Obama administration. What happens when Trump takes office?

GOLDMAN: Yeah. I just want to say, it was supported - bipartisan support from every Congress since George W. Bush. Trump does not like prosecutors. Like, Trump wanted things from Guatemala, help on migration and so forth. He completely backed a very corrupt Guatemalan president and very corrupt political system and politicians who knew how to manipulate Trump and knew how to manipulate Senator Marco Rubio into basically presiding along with the forces of corruption in Guatemala to dismantle and drive out of the country, drive out of Guatemala, this incredibly dynamic, cutting-edge justice institution.

It plunged Guatemala into complete state of misery. The situation in Guatemala right now is so bleak. It really is right now, as we speak, a full force kind of narcostate. But it's maybe not too late. President Biden has - and the U.S. embassy in Guatemala have been really trying to support the Guatemalan prosecutors who remain who are trying - some of them who worked with CICIG in the past. And they're talking about reviving, on a regional basis, some kind of revival of the spirit of that kind of international investigatory force. And they're trying to find ways to do it. And they want to lend support to prosecutors. And they have a lot of other measures they're talking about.

DAVIES: Do you think this is - you know, there's been an awful lot of immigration from Central America into the United States, some of it driven by war and insecurity. Is this kind of investigative force, you know, an element that can bring stability to people so that they can remain and, you know, pursue productive lives in Central America?

GOLDMAN: Yeah. I think it's a key element because, you know, the wars of the 1980s, which were backed by the U.S. heavily, utterly destroyed the social fabric of those countries. And there was never any attempt to rebuild, really. There was no Marshall Plan. You have to fight corruption. If those economies and those democracies are going to have a chance to prosper, if you're going to have a chance to have political parties that come - that are truly - represent the people and not corrupt, elite interests, you have to fight corruption because they use corruption and impunity to hold onto their power. So it's that simple. If you're going to make these countries a place where people can actually feel invested, feel like they're part of, feel like they can take part in trying to make their countries better, you have to fight corruption. And right now, you know, because the corruption is so international, you know, from the way the cartel system works and so forth, you need international support.

DAVIES: Well, Francisco Goldman, thank you so much for speaking with us.

GOLDMAN: It's been a pleasure. Thank you, Dave.

DAVIES: Francisco Goldman's new novel, which draws heavily on his own life experiences, is "Monkey Boy." On tomorrow's show, actor Jean Smart. In the new series "Hacks," she plays a Vegas comic whose career is in decline who reluctantly teams up with a young-woman comic who was canceled on social media. Smart also costars in the HBO series "Mare Of Easttown." She costarred in "Watchmen," "Fargo," "Frazier" and "Designing Women." I hope you can join us.

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DAVIES: FRESH Air's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley, Kayla Lattimore and Joel Wolfram. Our associate producer of digital media is Molly Seavey-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.

(SOUNDBITE OF BRAD MEHLDAU TRIO'S "GREAT DAY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.