The Riddle of Who We Are

Throughout his fiction and nonfiction, Francisco Goldman has mapped the many border lines that pervade his life. Some of his novels have mined his Central American family connections. His journalistic work has uncovered the genocidal policies of the US government and its Guatemalan government collaborators. Sometimes he has adopted the detached demeanor of a forensic investigator looking into horrible crimes.

Other times he has reveled in arch wittiness or an achingly sad prose filled with regret about personal loss, the kind that every human feels. His portrayal of his mixed identity, however, is not mired in lament about his tragic, internally warring selves, but rather is defined by a celebration of the fully realized intersections that make up an individual. Guatemalan, Jewish, American, Latinx, widower, father, novelist, journalist, Northeasterner, Mexico City denizen—Goldman embraces them all.

With his latest novel, Monkey Boy, he returns to these many identities in an uncanny work of autofiction in which Goldman becomes Francisco Goldberg, a Jewish Guatemalan American novelist and journalist born in the Boston area and living in Brooklyn. Like most creatures of autofiction, Goldberg is not Goldman exactly, but he does allow Goldman to confront the trauma and pain that haunted the past of both of his parents as well as his own childhood. Like Goldman, Goldberg grew up in a Boston suburb, an “idyllic-seeming town off Route 128,” and is the product of a Jewish father who fled Ukraine because of its violent anti-Semitism and a Guatemalan Catholic mother forced into exile, as a result of US intervention and the country’s own pogroms. Monkey Boy is a way to confront, work through, and even embrace these dark and unhappy legacies, to find meaning and joy in them.

Monkey Boy has larger ambitions as well. It seeks not only to tell us a story set in “America”; it asks us whether there ever was such a place. Breaking Goldberg’s identity into its constituent parts—English- and Spanish-speaking, of Latinx and Jewish ancestry, residing in large cosmopolitan cities and in the suburbs of New England—Goldman’s narrative suggests that America has never been one thing or another, but rather a constantly shifting constellation of socially constructed affiliations, stitched together in memory and experience. Goldman has used the strategy of autofiction in the past, most notably in his novel Say Her Name. But in Monkey Boy, Frankie Goldberg is more than Goldman’s alter ego; he is a stand-in for a growing number of Americans who identify as multiracial.

Goldman came of age before there was much language to describe such a state, and, through Goldberg, he is determined to read this multiracial identity back into a childhood where he was not even sure if the fact that his classmates called him “Monkey Boy” was racist or something else. Like his Spanglish-purveying contemporaries Sandra Cisneros and Junot Díaz, Goldman ably maneuvers a skill set of bilingual expression, code-switching between English and Spanish, not to resolve the tensions found in his identity so much as to make the reader feel comfortable with navigating its contradictions. After all these years, Goldman seems to believe that his life, like many of ours, is a riddle, and that, he insists, is OK.

Monkey Boy takes place over five days and follows Francisco Goldberg’s return to the Boston area, where he catches up with an old girlfriend, an old family employee, and his estranged sister, while visiting his mother in a nursing home. His jokey musings give way to elegiac descriptions of his childhood in New England, dotted with references to the faceless towns off Route 128 and the grimy underpinnings of gentrified Boston, from Back Bay to South End.

Goldberg is an extremely fluid, knowing narrator. His grasp of Boston and of New York City, particularly the Upper West Side and Brooklyn, is that of an insider. Yet the cool, calm, collected way he moves through and describes these cosmopolitan and urban spaces only makes his revelations about his father’s cruelty all the more unnerving. As Goldberg slips backward and forward through the path of his life, as he moves from Boston and New York to Guatemala and Mexico, he also offers us a tale of his father’s violence toward him and his mother.

In one particularly disturbing passage, Goldberg describes being detained by police from a neighboring town after he and his friends crash a party. When his father comes to pick him up, rather than defending his son, he assaults him inside the police station. “I’d never felt such shame, such a helpless rage of my own, had never experienced anything so sordid as being on that police station floor being beaten up by my father,” Goldberg recalls with a kind of anguished nausea.

Goldberg’s narrative allows you to believe that this violence, alluded to several times, is at the root of his inability to reconcile his many identities. Apparently stemming from his father’s frustration with his mediocre career as a designer of false teeth, it also has deeper roots: The violence and terror his father experienced as a Jew in Ukraine during the pogroms in the early 20th century followed him to the United States, and he became the perpetrator of it at home.

But Goldberg’s father is not the only one who fled trauma and political upheaval. Goldberg’s mother, whose family had a toy store business in Guatemala City, was forced to stay in Boston after the CIA’s overthrow of Jacobo Árbenz set off turmoil in 1954. Once in the United States, his mother doesn’t reveal much about the darkness in Guatemala or her family’s ambivalent position as small property owners. But Goldberg embarked on a project of investigative journalism on the strength of his early fiction writing, moving to Guatemala and writing about what was happening there through the “eyes of [his] primas and their friends.” Later, he finds himself reversing the path of his mother’s migration, staying in Guatemala while writing investigative articles on the country’s civil war in the 1980s.

In these examinations of Guatemala’s past and present, Goldberg also explores a secret his mother and family had long hidden: the identity of a Black ancestor, his great-grandmother. It’s a different kind of violence, one often denied by Latin Americans in many countries, who have been socialized to believe that their mixed-race societies no longer need to confront issues of race and, in particular, the ways in which some families have sought to hide their own Black heritage. Goldberg recounts his mother “giggling” at his suggestion that her grandmother was Black; she responds by saying, “Ay Frankie, that’s not true.” With Monkey Boy, Goldman at once explains how trauma is passed on through his parents’ experience of mid-20th-century America and—particularly through his passionate rejection of its “American Dream” and the violence of American-backed dictatorship—offers an unsparing critique.

The end result of Goldman’s autofictional journey is a study of both the violence inflicted on his parents’ families and his own efforts to better understand this difficult past, which leads Goldberg to reject the American assimilation that his parents groomed him to embrace. Forgetting where one came from—once the model for the children of immigrants—was a strategy his parents used to escape the pain of their pasts. But for Goldberg, remembering is a way not only to honor his many identities but also to confront the United States’ foreign policy during the Reagan era and beyond.

To connect with his “difference,” Goldberg dedicates much of his energy to researching the genocidal anticommunist and anti-Indigenous campaigns of the 1980s in Guatemala. After several years away from journalism, Goldberg becomes absorbed in an investigation of the assassination of a human rights activist bishop by the Guatemalan government in 1998, mirroring the one in the recent HBO documentary The Art of Political Murder, based on Goldman’s reporting. The bishop story haunts Goldberg, and it follows him back in Boston too: Goldberg meets up with a friend of his family, María Xum, who works in a laundromat in East Boston, and finds himself disheartened as María tells him that a woman she knew was threatened by the henchmen of then-General Otto Pérez Molina, whom Goldberg refers to as “Cara de Culo” (“Assface”) and who is suspected of being responsible for the bishop’s murder. “;Now Cara de Culo sends his emissaries all the way up here to wait in a parking lot outside a supermarket in order to threaten to turn poor Zoila and her relatives into invisible murder clouds; they come with visas, welcome, enjoy your stay.” 

Goldberg’s investigation into Guatemala’s history also leads him to realize that his mother had long been living a double life, even in the United States: “My mother, like so many other immigrants, has lived her life between two cultures and countries.” Even “after enough years had passed, she may have felt that she didn’t quite fit in either, never in the United States, no longer Guatemala.”

Despite his mother’s efforts to help ease his path into an America working on an outmoded “melting pot” idea, Goldberg finds comfort in not belonging: “One of the strangest things I’ve done with my own life has been to follow her path, in a sense willfully divesting in order to pour myself into the mold of the divided, not quite belonging anywhere.”

Goldberg finds himself caught in a state of neither-here-nor-there transnationalism, an experience familiar to many recent Latin American immigrants and migrants, who can no longer expect the US to fulfill its postwar promise of a steady, unionized job and are confronted instead by the neoliberal ethos of gig-economy entrepreneurialism, exploitation, and constant migration.

Even if Goldberg’s ambivalence about his American identity is a central theme in the first two-thirds of the novel, it’s not until more than 250 pages into Monkey Boy that Goldberg directly engages with his sense of liminality, taking inventory of his many dualities: his Jewishness and Catholicism, his American and Guatemalan identities, the “whiteness” of his Jewish Ukrainian father and the “mestizoness” of his Latinx mother.

Goldberg recalls how in Brooklyn he was perceived as Puerto Rican and in Britain as a Pakistani, and how in Havana, Spanish tourists mistook him for a Muslim. Shifting from one marginalized identity to another—and none exactly his—Goldberg comes to identify with all of his identities at once and none in particular.

Goldberg’s most “genuinely religious” experience, he tells us, comes in a syncretic “widows’ Mass” in a Mayan town in the Central Highlands of Guatemala, where “hundreds of widows of men murdered in war” gathered secretly, with the Mayan priest performing the Catholic ceremony in his native K’iche’. Like the half-Catholic, half-Jewish writer Natalia Ginzburg, who claims to be “fully one, fully the other at the same time,” Goldberg declares himself to be “three-quarters Jewish and three-quarters Catholic,” keeping “a quarter secret only for myself.”

Goldberg’s rejection of his own binaries is refreshing. In American identity discourse, the use of “halfness” has so often been framed as a tragic dilemma of being divided into two. “Just as Jesus Christ was both fully a man and fully God, rather than the Son of God dressed up as a young Jew or anything like that,” he muses. “E pluribus unum implies a mestizo unity, neither a melting together nor an Ann Hunt library of white and a pushed-off-to-the-side infinity of separately shelved selves.” As much as white supremacy tries to reassert itself by insisting that we must be one thing or another, Goldberg insists that we can take control of defining our racialized selves and maybe come a little closer to the truth.

Yet even as Goldberg insists that he can find such liberation, he cannot entirely escape the past: The horror of Europe’s anti-Semitism and a genocidal military dictatorship cannot be fully erased, and they are also coupled with Goldberg’s own memories of his parents, who were unable to fully come to terms with these pasts. Goldberg is deeply moved by Proust’s claim that the second half of a man’s life could be the reverse of the first, and his rewriting of America’s immigrant narrative, as well as its racial one, serves that purpose. But by the end of the novel, we begin to realize that it is the parts of his life that he can’t control, and that he can only remember, that are the true zones of in-betweenness—zones of pain and regret but ultimately also of creativity. In his efforts to create an archive of the past where all the voices in his life speak at once, he finds not only the violence of his parents’ Ukraine and Guatemala, but also art. Here his various identities—Jewish, Catholic, Guatemalan, Ukrainian, and American—all can share a border.

[Originally published in The Nation on November 2, 2021]

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