It’s as a 27-year-old Catholic-schooled writer teaching in Southern California that Carolyn Forché first opens her door to an enigmatic Salvadoran man, Leonel Gomez Vides. With his polymath mind and dimless passion for his country’s survival, he entices the sheltered young woman to follow him to El Salvador to see for herself what is happening to his country during the lead up to the Salvadoran Civil War, the years the stranger refers to as “the silence of misery endured.”
Renowned poet and human rights activist Forché’s new memoir, “What You Have Heard Is True: A Memoir of Witness and Resistance,” is a lyrical, potent book specific to a time and place. Its focus is the relationship between Forché and her mentor Gomez — a cousin of Claribel Algería whose poetry Forché was translating — that is the central pole on which swirls a cascade of often bizarre and cryptic meetings with corrupt high-level military officers, disenfranchised campesinos and endless safe houses. She becomes involved with movie plot-like intrigue, witnessing first-hand the murders, massacres, and relentless drone of violence that was El Salvador at that historical moment.
Gomez wants Forché to see, truly see his country. Of course, it’s not all dim violence; El Salvador is a geographically beautiful country, and there’s plentiful prose as Forché describes its famed volcanoes, black sand beaches, cane, cotton and coffee fields; its beautiful light and cathedrals, monkeys and iguanas as well as the papayas and coconuts even the thousands of desaparecidos — the disappeared — once took comfort in.
Forché’s subsequent and formidable career in both human rights and poetry grew directly from these Salvadoran experiences and it is years later when she coins the phrase “poetry of witness.” This term is now used to describe poets who pen lyrical dispatches as witness to the tsunami of barbarity that was the 20th century, prior and now beyond. She would edit two such volumes of witness poetry: “Against Forgetting: Twentieth-Century Poetry of Witness” (1993) and “Poetry of Witness: The Tradition in English, 1500-2001” (2014).
By the end of the war (Forché makes multiple trips back to the country but is not there for the years of the official conflict) 75,000 were killed, more than 550,000 Salvadorans had been internally displaced with 500,000 becoming refugees. Many relocated to Los Angeles where a thriving Salvadoran community exists today.
Throughout the necessary grisly recounting of what she witnessed, we hear Gomez constantly admonishing Forché to: “pay closer attention. Someday you will be talking to your own people. Writing for your own people. I promise you that it is going to be difficult to get Americans to believe what is happening here. For one thing, this is outside the realm of their imaginations. For another, it isn’t in their interest to believe you. For a third, it is possible that we are not human beings to them.”
The question remains: Why did she go? Even by the end of the story we are still not certain; as Forche readily admits it’s something she ponders all these decades later, even though it’s this one decision that gave trajectory to her life’s work.
“It was as if he had stood me squarely before the world, removed the blindfold, and ordered me to open my eyes,” she says. This remarkable book is the world she saw.
Penguin Press, 400 pp., $28.00