John Pluecker

About John Pluecker

John Pluecker is a writer, interpreter, translator and educator. His work has appeared in journals and magazines in the U.S. and Mexico, including the Rio Grande Review, Picnic, Third Text, Animal Shelter and Literal. He has published more than five books in translation from Spanish, including essays by a leading Mexican feminist, short stories from Ciudad Juárez and a police detective novel. More info can be found at

An Interesting Stranger

October 11, 2011, by

In his reading at the UH Moore’s Opera House last night, Michael Ondaatje deftly collaged a variety of scenes and moments from his most recent novel,The Cat’s Table, to take us on a voyage across the oceans, through time and space. Before reading, Ondaatje addressed the question of the mix of autobiography and fiction in the book. While both he and the main character (also named Michael) took a journey on a boat called the Oronsay from Ceylon/Sri Lanka to England in the fifties when they were both 11 years old, he mentioned that in fact all he remembered of the voyage was the ping-pong table on the ship. Paradoxically, for him, this lack of memory freed him up to invent a new story, to create something more wild, more meaningful and more thrilling than reality could ever possibly have been. As he said, quoting Ornette Coleman about music, “What you begin with is the territory, what follows is the adventure.”

And adventure we did, as he began with the boys’ youthful highjinks on board then lead into a description of a proper Sri Lankan man, Dr. Fonseca, on his way to England. Ondaatje described him as “tentative and languid” with “a serenity that came with the choice of the life he wanted to live”—this serenity that the narrator had seen “only among those who have the armour of books close by” (and I couldn’t help but see a bit of the author himself here). Then Ondaatje skillfully took us to the deck of the ship during a storm, through the Suez Canal and then on to London years later as he attempts to reconnect with Cassius, one of his co-conspirators on the Oronsay. Ondaatje’s voice was surprisingly soft and gentle, a soothing monotone with clipped consonants and rapid flow. His tale was ethereal, carefully paced and surprisingly comforting. It turns out that Ondaatje’s focus in The Cat’s Table is not only crossing from Ceylon/Sri Lanka to London, but also traversing the smaller lines drawn across the ship itself, like the border he mentioned between the First Class and Tourist Class or like the silences between the characters themselves.

In the question and answer section with writer and UH professor Chitra Divakaruni, Ondaatje alternated between serious reflections on writing and quite funny anecdotes. A question from Divakaruni about the melding of non-fiction and fiction yielded the funniest one-liner of the night, as Ondaatje quoted famed Texas gadabout Kinky Friedman saying, “There’s a fine line between fiction and non-fiction, and I think I snorted it in 1976.”

On a more serious note, he also declared that, beyond jazz, the greatest artistic invention of the twentieth century was the collage. Its impact, he said has been felt across the arts from film to painting, from literature to music, and he spoke insightfully about his own process of writing his first book The Collected Works of Billy the Kid as a collagist approach. First, he wrote fifty poems, then the prose pieces and finally worked to collage them all together, creating connections between the different texts on the page, adding photographs and writing fake interviews with Billy himself. He contrasted that collagist writing with his more recent approach to The Cat’s Table, which, despite its chronological ebb and flow, was largely written straight from the beginning to the end.

There’s an evocative line in The Cat’s Table that seemed to sum up the evening for me: “We came to understand … our lives could be large with interesting strangers who could pass us without any personal involvement.” Hopefully, you had a chance to witness this particular interesting stranger last night. And if not, the armor of his books are a wonderful substitute.

At Home in Transit: The Cat’s Table

October 10, 2011, by

In Michael Ondaatje’s most recent novel The Cat’s Table, Ondaatje returns to the space he’s perhaps most at home. Several reviewers of the book have said this home is the island of Sri Lanka, formerly Ceylon, where the author grew up. Yet in fact, the novel does not really take place in the island nation, but rather in the space between Ceylon and London on a ship called the Oronsay making its slow three-week journey from East to West. There is an element of autobiography to the story; however, much like Francisco Goldman’s insistence on the word novel to describe his work, Ondaatje also steadfastly affirms the book as a novel, not as memoir. And this despite the fact that the main character and the author have a lot in common: both are named Michael, both leave Sri Lanka to go to England at the age of 11 and both eventually wind up as globally recognized authors. While perhaps frustrating for some, this mixing of fiction and non-fiction does not bother this reader in the least; in my case, I’ve always enjoyed this sort of wild intermingling of fact and fiction (that ultimately ends up questioning the very existence of fact). So in this novel, Ondaatje returns to his home of perpetual transit, writing about the small world that comes to life onboard the Oronsay.

As in many of Ondaatje’s novels, his focus is not on the powerful, but rather on those individuals whose lives are affected by larger world battles and happenings, but who have little control over the outcome. In this novel, Ondaatje focuses in on the lives of three young boys—Michael himself (nicknamed “Mynah”), the daredevil Cassius and the pensive, sickly Ramadhin—as they explore the ship and its motley assortment of adult passengers. The boys all sit at the Cat’s Table, the least prestigious portion of the ship’s dining room, far removed from the Captain’s table. But as always, Ondaatje is interested in what happens at the margins; as he says, “What is interesting and important happens mostly in secret, in places where there is no power. Nothing much of lasting value ever happens at the head table, held together by a familiar rhetoric. Those who already have power continue to glide along the familiar rut they have made for themselves.”

The fun of the book, its verve and power is derived from the adventures of these three boys as they voyage across the Indian Ocean, through the port of Aden, up the Red Sea, through the Suez Canal, into the Mediterranean and off to England. None of the boys will be the same after the voyage and the perils and precarious situations they live through will leave them forever altered.

Remember you’ll have an opportunity to hear Ondaatje read and answer questions this evening at 7:30pm at the Moores Opera House, University of Houston. Get your tickets now.

A Sri Lankan-Born Cowboy Comes Down to Houston

October 5, 2011, by

Some years ago, I was lent a copy of Michael Ondaatje’s book The Collected Works of Billy the Kid by a friend who knew of a project I was working on mixing prose, poetry and images. Unfortunately, as we’ve all experienced, sometimes a friend’s book recommendation can be entirely off, but in this case, it was the perfect book to read at that moment in my life. Ondaatje’s combination of poetic adventurousness and archive was invigorating.  At first, his investment in this deeply Western story seemed odd for this Sri Lankan-born, Canadian resident.  And yet, it shouldn’t have seemed strange at all, as artists are forever exploring, never confined to that which they have experienced or known (for contemporary examples, see Lars Von Trier’s American movie epics or Jorge Volpi’s Eastern European novels.) Unsurprisingly somehow, Ondaatje’s work on Billy the Kid is grounded in the childhood cowboy games he played while living in Sri Lanka.  In fact, Ondaatje says he was obsessed with Westerns ever since he was eight or nine years old. Even in Colombo, the myth of the American West had quietly taken root.

His obsession with the Western as a form and with Billy the Kid (and his raucous, violent twenty-one year long life) continued over the years as he moved from Sri Lanka to Britain and to Canada. Eventually he began to piece together this book, spending more time with Billy the Kid and his own imagination as he invented details of his life. He says in an Afterward to the book that he couldn’t afford to visit the West or Texas at  the time, so, ever the fan of writing in situ, Ondaatje drafted much of the book in an abandoned barn, and its locale⎯ “the dry smell of past animals, the cobwebs on my pencils…became important.” There were rats, he writes, in the stalls nearby and so that afternoon rats came into the novel. (Ondaatje has spoken in interviews about his predilection for writing in the locales where his novels are set⎯in Italy for The English Patient, in Sri Lanka for Anil’s Ghost, etc.) Eventually, in crafting the book’s final appearance, Ondaatje worked with a designer to include the fictional photography and images (as well as ample white space) that builds an airtight substructure for the book.

I’ve gone into all this detail about Billy the Kid for a few reasons.  First, because it shows that Ondaatje’s visit to Houston next week is a kind of imaginative home-coming, a chance to visit the Texas he never got to see while writing his book (though 2011 Houston arguably has even less to do with Billy the Kid than that Canadian barn where he wrote much of the book).  It’s also a chance to recognize a non-Texan author for what I consider one of the best lines ever written about the state; it’s become a kind of mantra for me: “The blood came down like river ride / long as Texas down his side.”

Also, I wanted to initially introduce Ondaatje as a poet.  He’s written far more books of poetry than of fiction, and yet he’ll forever be recognized as the author of the novel The English Patient, later made into the award-winning movie of the same name.  Despite his novelist fame, Ondaatje strikes me as a poet living and writing in a novelist’s world.  He has a poet’s love of language, forming it and deforming it, attentive to the most minute details of his artistic material.

Don’t miss your chance to see this Sri Lankan-born poet cowboy next Monday evening at 7:30pm at the Moores Opera House, University of Houston.

Writing the Spark of Life into the Mud

September 21, 2011, by

One of the most exciting things about art is the unexpected synergies and conversations that emerge when various works are placed next to each other, often at random.  Whether in the gallery or on a stage, suddenly links are established and connections are made visible.

On Monday night at the Wortham Center, the audience witnessed just such an auspicious pairing.  As Francisco Goldman and then Nicole Krauss took to the stage, the intimate details from each of their novels created a shared discussion about love, grief, longing, death and hope.  Rich Levy began the evening by saying that Goldman’s novel (Say Her Name), though it plumbs the depths of loss, actually emerges as a kind of celebration.  Before reading from a surprisingly funny chapter of his novel, Goldman enjoined the audience to giggle whenever they found something humorous; he gave everyone permission to experience a complex range of emotions and not simply a somber melancholy.  The chapter featured robotic rats in subway stations and litter twirling the night air like frozen bats, as he recounted several instances prior to the death of his wife Aura Estrada in which he experienced small moments of loss.  These were often seemingly trivial stories, typical mix-ups like a forgotten phone call provoking worry or misunderstood directions resulting in both of them standing alone on different subway platforms with a few stops between them.  These moments of temporary separation became tiny, absurd rehearsals of the larger absence haunting the narrative.  As Goldman joked, “Death doesn’t let you stop for hot chocolate.”  There was a sense of fun in the prose, but also a very palpable sense of ruin, of writing from the ruins of the day that was supposed to have been–“the ruins of the future,” as Goldman called them.

Both authors mentioned Bruno Schultz’s book The Street of Crocodiles as a text they kept close by during their writing process and a book that Aura Estrada also valued deeply.  Nicole Krauss mentioned it as she began her reading as a way of pulling out a thread that united her work with Goldman’s. Unexpectedly, Krauss’s reading also meditated strongly on the aftermath left behind by death. In the section she read from Great House, she used the first-person voice of a father to think about his relationship with his own son after his wife and the son’s mother had passed.

Themes of death and longing and hope reemerged during the discussion section thoughtfully moderated by University of Houston Honors College professor and novelist, Robert Cremins.  Cremins pointed out that all the characters in the book seem to be in a moment of crisis, brutally struggling within themselves.  These crises motivate the characters of both novelists as they attempt to grapple with intensely fraught situations.  Krauss talked about how, for her, empathy is the only reason to write, the opportunity to crawl inside the psyche of another person.  She also spoke about the inheritances that come down to us and “reverberate through the generations.”  Goldman spoke about his investigations into what Marcel Proust has referred to as “the mysteries of personality” (thanks to Lydia Davis’s recent translations).  At the end, Goldman returned to the Kabbalah and the Jewish mystical tradition as he talked about his mission as a writer as “getting the spark of life into the mud.”

In their writing, it seems that both Krauss and Goldman are working towards a similar mystical goal.

July 25, 2007

September 15, 2011, by

Time spirals around continually in Francisco Goldman’s novel Say Her Name.  Aura dies on the first page and then she is alive and then she is gone and always time is defined by where we are in relation to the date of her passing: July 25, 2007.  This narrative structure gives a sense of motion and movement and instability, all of which allow the reader to breathe a bit.  I was asking myself repeatedly: is this scene before Aura’s death?  Or after?  At the end we are suddenly in the moment on the beach in Mazunte, that fateful moment when a wave hit Aura at just the wrong angle and took her life.

As I read the book, I wondered how a person can focus in on this kind of awful, random horror for so long and with the diligent intensity that writing a novel demands. Slowly I began to see why Goldman kept on writing this book and why he labored to pull it out of his deepest depths.  I also understood what an intense experience reading the book is.  It becomes a communion of reader and writer and character.  We all participate in bringing Aura into the world of the living again and allowing her to think and write and breathe once more.

It is crucial to remember though that this book is still a novel, not a memoir.  There are parts that are highly fictionalized and even fanciful.  Perhaps unexpectedly, there’s also a good deal of humor in the book, both Aura’s humor and Frank’s.  I’m glad Goldman decided to write a novel and not a more traditional memoir, because the imagined elements of the novel move it to another level, to a place where pain and horror are transcended by humor, joy and even happiness.

It’s been a bit challenging for me to write these blog posts.  Writing through this mixture of the personal and the literary means dealing with a number of conflicting emotions and thinking about deeply difficult topics.  But then when I turn to the novel and think about the intense challenge its writing must have entailed, I’m left with even more respect (and awe) for Goldman as a writer.  And Frank as a person.

Don’t miss Francisco Goldman this Monday, September 19 at the Wortham Center at 7:30pm.

Bringing Aura Back to Life

September 11, 2011, by

When I first purchased Say Her Name some months back it was with a mix of anticipation and fear.  I was happy to have another one of Francisco Goldman’s novels, excited to be sucked into his always entrancing prose.  I knew the narrative would pull me in and not let me go, but, this time around, I wasn’t sure if I was ready.

The difficult thing is that Say Her Name is the story of how Goldman lost his wife Aura Estrada and his horrific personal journey away from the brink of real madness and through the process of writing about her life and their relationship.  But unlike my experience of other books that deal with grief in this personal, physical way, I knew the main actors in the drama.  This meant that reading this act of remembrance was also a trip through my own memories of this amazing person, Aura.  While I only spent time with her on a few occasions, those times were incredibly intense and, in the case of their wedding in San Miguel de Allende, overwhelmingly joyful.

Goldman has talked about writing this novel as a way of bringing Aura back to life, resuscitating her and living with her again through the writing process.  Aura does come back to life in the book, she becomes the same witty, smart, hilarious, vibrant person that she was in daily life.  And this is both a rush of joy and a bittersweet encounter.

Please make time to come see Francisco Goldman on September 19, 2011 at the Wortham Center downtown.

How Francisco Goldman Became Frank

September 1, 2011, by

Francisco Goldman was the first writer I realized was a human being. In the real world. Off the page. It’s odd it took so many years for me to recognize this very obvious fact. I was living in Tampico, Mexico, in 2004 and reading his latest book (at the time), The Divine Husband. The novel revolves around a brief period that the original pan-Americanist literary and political powerhouse, José Martí, spent in Guatemala. Goldman’s novel invents the story of a young woman, María de las Nieves Morán, with whom he’s said to have fallen in love, but the novel also delves into the stories of a panoply of characters around her, as she travels back and forth to New York and around other parts of the Americas. I’d read (and loved) all of Goldman’s previous novels before that: The Long Night of White Chickens and The Ordinary Seaman.

I spent two long days on the couch in our hot, sticky living room, enthralled by the novel. I slowly became more and more obsessive about the man who wrote these books, snooping around on-line and searching for any information about Goldman or Martí. I even got a copy of the complete works of José Martí in Spanish to deepen my quest. But suddenly, one day as I was cyber-stalking Goldman, I found out he’d be in Austin that following weekend. I talked it out with friends and decided in the end to take the risk. I got on a bus from Tampico and rode the sixteen hours or so north, all the while furiously writing out questions for the “author.”  I went to Goldman’s event and sat near the back, finally building up the nerve to ask one overly thought-out, frighteningly complex question. Afterwards, I struck up a conversation with the man himself and, surprise surprise, he was a human being.  And a friendly one at that.

Long story short, Francisco Goldman became Frank. He was smart (I already knew that), but he was also a raucously good time: funny, kind and incredibly open and welcoming. That weekend, I also met and fell for Aura, his girlfriend then, and a slew of his literary and not-so-literary friends. I did an awkward interview with Frank in a hotel lobby based on all the questions I’d pulled together on the bus. Rather than being scared (probably the more rational response), he was flattered and charmed. We ended up hanging out all weekend, drinking well into the morning, partying like literary rock stars, even swimming in a sparkling pool well after the bars had closed. On the bus back to the dusty, industrial neighborhood where I was living in Tampico, I was literally bouncing with joy. Who knew the people with their names on books were actual people?

Recently, Inprint asked me to blog about Frank’s most recent book, Say Her Name, and specifically about its mix of memoir and fiction. So each week for the next three weeks, I’ll be putting a new blog post up here. As I thought about what I would write, I realized that my experience of Francisco Goldman, the author, is impossible for me to separate from my experience of Frank, the friend. So these posts will also be a mixture of memoir and book review. And of course promotion for his upcoming event in Houston on September 19 at the Wortham Center downtown. Don’t miss it!  Get your tickets now!