Review: What You Have Heard is True by Carolyn Forche

What You Have Heard is True by Carolyn Forche (Penguin Press, 2019)

Reviewed by Allison McCausland

            History is written as much by the victors as it is by its witnesses. Witnesses are often responsible for giving voice to the unrecorded events and marginalized factions that history textbooks tend to gloss over. Poet Carolyn Forche served as one such witness to the beginnings of the Civil War in El Salvador, bearing witness to both atrocities and small glimmers of hope.

            Forche is a noted poet, known for her magnificent words, translations of foreign poets, and her work as an activist for human rights. Her memoir, however, takes readers back to her earliest days as a writer in the 1970s. Translating Central American poets, like Claribel Alegria, brought her profile to the attention of Alegria’s relative, Leonel Gomez, an activist and patriot for his native El Salvador. Thus, Forche finds herself the unlikely recruit of Gomez to travel to the country and use her gift of language to chronicle the struggles the country underwent in the early days of Civil War.  

            But why someone like Forche? Both Gomez and Forche answer this question early on in the book. Poets are held in high esteem in Central American countries. Gomez cites throughout the book how important it is for writers to be integral in the domestic and foreign affairs of their homelands, because they are able to capture the feelings and ideas of a nation in a way that politicians, businessmen, and military leaders cannot. The words of poets reach the heart of the people. Forche recounts how sacred the position of poet can be, especially in a country experiencing turmoil, as she details the history of persecution of different Salvadorian poets before Gomez brought her to the country.

            Although her poetry after her visit served to inspire interest in the situation in El Salvador, Forche’s memoir took the time between her initial visits in the 1970s and 1980s until the present day to properly describe her experience. Part of the act of bearing witness to history is knowing when to apply hindsight. Forche spends half of her book perpetuating just how much of a fish out of water she was when she first visited El Salvador. Gomez made it a priority to take her to the right people, such as other activists, religious figures, common civilians, and even retired government and military leaders so that she could decipher for herself the extent of the problems the country was going through.

            After seeing various desolate villages, learning of disappearances of ordinary people, and passing one too many tortured bodies strewn across the roads during her travels, Forche came to understand that Gomez not only wanted her to record what she saw, but to see how much of the destruction she could witness before feeling called to action. This turning point propels the second half of the memoir, as Forche chronicles how she began to take more initiative with the efforts of civilian activist groups and the Catholic Church’s missionaries and relief groups. When it became clear that it would not be safe place for outsiders to remain, Forche took her compassionate spirit back to the United States, using her next collection of poetry and further translations to make others aware of the plight in the country.

            Forche’s hindsight when writing about her involvement decades later is one of cultural humility. She takes care to note just how much of an outsider she was at the time of her travels, and tries to properly record the lives of El Salvadorans without presuming herself to be an expert or authority on the subjects she covered.

            Just before Forche has to leave for the United States, she feels she has so much more work to do on the ground in El Salvador. However, the political climate had been making it increasingly difficult for resistance and relief groups to help prevent the injustices of the time. Forche recalls listing her worries to Archbishop Romero, essentially concluding that she can help as someone relatively unknown in the country, while Romero experiences more danger as a public figure. Romero reassures her that her time will come to speak on behalf of the country, but at that moment her place is with her people as his is with those in El Salvador. Forche remembers these words years later as a week after he spoke them, Romero was assassinated during mass, and the chaos of his funeral caused many deaths at the hands of the Salvadorian authorities. However, by being able to leave and see what had happened to figures as revered as Romero, Forche found more fire to fuel her poetry and work as a human rights activist, which allows her to give a voice to the voiceless and those whose lives were unjustly cut short.

            A few years later, Forche recounts her conflicted feelings as an activist when she is asked to house a man named Alex, a Salvadorian soldier who was a member of one of the many death squads the military used to disappear people. Despite the importance of having a credible witness to testify against the human rights violations going on in the country, the terrible nature of Alex’s job and the possibility that he could have tortured and killed people Forche knew haunted her. However, Forche painstakingly details how conflicted Alex is about his past violence and how gentle he was while staying in her house. Nevertheless, his participation in the kidnapping and torture under penalty of death cannot be ignored, leaving a bittersweet sentiment in the use of Alex’s testimonies for a human rights committee and his arrest on US soil.

            Not all of history’s witnesses are forced to act, but Forche’s memoir serves as a well-crafted narrative of how someone on the sidelines can be called to action. The subhead of her memoir’s title reads: “A Memoir of Witness and Resistance” — perhaps to reconcile the two words and point out that they are not mutually exclusive. In Forche’s case, the situations she bore witness to required the need to take action against injustice. Her account not only demonstrates the power of words when recollecting the past, but how they can be used in the present to act as a catalyst for action.

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