A Review of
What You Have Heard Is True:
A Memoir of Witness and Resistance
Reviewed by Mark A. Jenkins
Poet Carolyn Forché lived and worked in El Salvador from 1977 to 1980, where she witnessed the worst human rights abuses imaginable. Civil War was coming. And Forché was brought there by Leonel Gómez Vides to document it all.
He showed up unannounced and unknown on her doorstep in Southern California. Surprisingly, this complete stranger convinced her to accompany him on what he called a “reverse Peace Corps” mission. It is this mysterious man, Leonel, whose spirit pervades her recently published memoir, What You Have Heard Is True: A Memoir of Witness and Resistance.
Recently, I had the opportunity to meet Forché briefly at the Literati Bookstore in Ann Arbor. She explained her somewhat unusual approach to memoir:
What I decided to do with this book is to take the reader with me through the journey that I took and the reader never knows more than I did at any given time. I wanted to replicate what it was like … to go through that time with him (Leonel). … It’s a whole cast of characters and it’s a strange memoir in that I’m the narrator but I’m not the main character.
All this makes for a memoir that, at times, feels like one is reading a novel or a thriller. In spite of knowing Forché is alive and well some forty years later, I hold my breath, as she describes her encounter with the escuadrones de la muerte (the death squads). My stomach turns as she comes upon the dismembered corpses of the desaparecidos (the disappeared). But the beauty of her language is of a sort seldom, if ever, found in such accounts. Forché is first and foremost a poet. And she brings the full range of her first-rate skills into play.
It is precisely because she is a poet that Leonel seeks Forché out. In a scene vaguely reminiscent of Moses’s pleas of inadequacy or Isaiah’s “I am a man of unclean lips,” Forché explains that, if he wants someone to whom the U.S. will listen, a poet is most decidedly not what he needs. Ours is not a country that pays attention to poetry, let alone poets. Leonel is relentless, a theme in the book that will become increasingly evident. “I don’t want a journalist. I want a poet. … In my country, and in the rest of Latin America, poets are taken seriously. They’re appointed to diplomatic posts, or they’re assassinated, or put into prison but, one way or the other, taken seriously.” (53-54) That statement doesn’t frighten her? One wonders if she hears or understands the danger he describes.
The danger is very real. Over much of the following three years, Leonel guides Forché through the hell of El Salvador, a modern-day Virgil, teaching and mentoring her at every step. He answers her questions with experiences not explanations. He introduces her to dangerous and corrupt military leaders, prisoners, the poor campesinos, even the U.S. ambassador. Such meetings expose her to the harsh reality of everyday life in his country. Additionally, they create what Leonel calls “the symphony of illusion,” leaving all sides wondering about who this quiet, watchful American is and why she is there. This illusion keeps her alive. She might be someone other than a poet. But Leonel’s real aim is to train her to pay attention to everything. “You have to be able to see the world as it is,” he tells her, “to see how it is put together, and you have to be able to say what you see. And get angry.” (274) A goal worthy of a poet. A worthy goal for all.
Forché’s encounters with Archbishop Romero are related in an almost reverent tone. But not cloyingly so. Believer or not, she never questions Romero’s sanctity. In her mind, then and now, he is a true saint of the church. But a saint and a man with whom she has broken bread. Perhaps, even more to the point, a saint and a man to whom she owes her life. Days before his assassination, Romero tells her it is time to leave and return to the United States. Unconvinced, she responds that it is much more dangerous for him in El Salvador than for her. “My child,” he replies, “my place is with my people, and now your place is with yours.” He continued, Forché writes, expressing “his wish that I speak about the sufferings of the poor, the repression and the injustice, that I would say what I had seen, and when I told him that I didn’t think I could do this, that I would have no opportunity, that I was only a poet and not a journalist or public figure, he assured me that the time would come for me to speak, and that I must prepare myself and I could do that best through prayer.” (329)
It took Forché decades to bring this story to print. Its completion is surely related to the current U.S. situation. There is much in its pages worth heeding. Consider:
“It isn’t the risk of death and fear of danger that prevent people from rising up,” Leonel once said, “it is numbness, acquiescence, and the defeat of the mind. Resistance to oppression begins when people realize deeply within themselves that something better is possible.” He also said that what destroys a society, a state, a government, is corruption—that, and the use of force, which is always applied against those who have not been convinced or included. (373)
Our southern order has been militarized. Refugees fleeing from extortion, kidnapping, and murder are detained. Asylum-seeking is criminalized, particularly for people of color. Families are separated or worse. And the book’s message is undeniable. These people come to us, seeking sanctuary from circumstances we helped to create. And, instead of offering them safe harbor, we turn them back or put them in jail.
Rare is the book that earns my unequivocal endorsement. This is one such book. Buy it. Read it. Mark it. Learn it. And inwardly digest.
 Transcribed from an unreleased recording kindly made available to me by John Ganiard, Event Director at Literati.
C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com