WHAT YOU HAVE HEARD IS TRUE
A Memoir of Witness and Resistance
By Carolyn Forché
It is the late 1970s and Carolyn Forché is a 27-year-old poet with one published book of poetry, teaching at a university in Southern California. One day Leonel Gómez Vides, 37, arrives at her door with his two young daughters, claiming that he’s driven all the way from El Salvador just to talk to her. Forché has never met Gómez, though he’s a cousin of Claribel Alegría, whose poetry Forché, despite her rudimentary Spanish, wants to translate, and whose home in Mallorca she has visited. (Alegría’s daughter is a close friend.) There she heard Gómez warily described as a man involved in dangerous things, possibly even working with the C.I.A.
Gómez’s plan is to spend just a few days in California, and then drive home. It’s unclear to Forché why he’s come. He gives her a crash course on Salvadoran history from the pre-Columbian era to the present, when the tiny country, marked by staggering economic inequality, is ruled by a corrupt military that steals millions of dollars every year in United States aid, murders priests and political opponents, and tosses disappeared torture victims, including an American, from helicopters into the Pacific. It’s a country also increasingly terrorized by the right-wing death squads of Mano Blanco, the White Hand.
Looking back on Gómez’s visit in “What You Have Heard Is True,” a memoir of the consequences of that encounter, Forché reflects that he was translating “not only between languages, but also from one constellation of understanding and perception to another.”
He wants her to come to El Salvador. “What are you going to do, Papu?” he asks, confidently appropriating a private nickname without her permission. “Write poetry about yourself for the rest of your life? And if you’re going to translate our poets, don’t you think you should know something about Central America?”
But Gómez wants more from Forché than just better translations of his cousin’s poems. War is coming to El Salvador. Americans aren’t paying attention; she will be the one to tell her country what is happening in his. But she’s not a journalist, she protests, she’s a poet. He wants a poet.
Forché arrives in El Salvador during a fraught and uncertain moment. Political repression is increasing. People aren’t sure if the guerrillas are a rumor or a reality. The administration in Washington has a new policy that stresses human rights, which has Salvadoran military officers confused. Is the policy meant seriously, or is it just rhetoric?
Gómez goes everywhere, to places he believes it’s strategic to be seen — the United States Embassy, Salvadoran military headquarters, his own coffee farm — and other places where he surely hopes not to be. He’s a kind of behind-the-scenes power broker, always gathering information. He knows the value of “a good piece of information,” but also of its limits. He has relations with the Catholic Church, but has a rule against going inside churches. “I believe with my life,” he explains.
And what is that life? When Forché confronts him about his rumored ties to the C.I.A., he responds indignantly: “Do I work for those sons of bitches? What do you think?”
Gómez sets up meetings for Forché with Salvadoran military officers who seem to believe she may be connected to the American government and have a message to convey about the bothersome new human rights policy. “I didn’t understand what was happening, why we were driving all over the country, stopping here and there to talk to people, all kinds of people. … I would be introduced as a poet from the United States, or else nothing would be said about who I was, to the point of awkwardness.” A visit to “a village with no running water or electricity, talking by the light of a cook fire,” is followed by one to the elegant home of a coffee farmer, where on the terrace she talks to “the lady of the house … about her children, away at school in Switzerland or the United States.”
“What You Have Heard Is True” is not just an account of a young woman’s encounter with horrific human suffering and resistance in a foreign country, and her resulting political awakening; even in the hands of a poet who writes prose as beautifully and powerfully as Forché does, that would be a familiar story. The memoir is also a portrait of Gómez, a singular dynamo, and of their complex relationship. Early on, he is the unquestioned mentor. But this is not a Pygmalion story, or one about a student who rebels against her teacher. They are clearly fascinated by each other; there is romantic tension in their banter, some of it charged with a grim humor. Gómez puts Forché in difficult positions, even in danger. When he takes her to meet with a powerful general, she protests: “But you used me, and I don’t even know for what.” He responds: “I did not use you, I gave you a rare opportunity. …You are now a mysterious person of some importance, and that might save your life.”
Forché has to learn to negotiate Gómez’s occasional paternalism. Yet he is always urging her to be independent too — to “make your own decisions.” She forms friendships with women who say: “Please don’t tell anyone where I live. …Don’t tell anyone that you know me.” They, too, repeatedly urge Forché to become her own person. These women — a nun, a doctor who treats the poor, a woman who entertains death-squad assassins in her living room while Forché and another woman hide upstairs — lead her deeper into the country’s harsh realities; it is with her female friends that she has two terrifying near escapes from death squads.
Gómez tells Forché: “Look, Papu. Look at this. Try to see.” Learning to see — how to see better and what to do with what you see — is a recurring motif in the memoir. “I wrote down in pencil what I saw, what I heard. …I have heard it said that to write is to dream on paper. In these notebooks from the time of El Salvador there are no dreams.”
One recovered incident, person, landscape and image at a time, the narrative advances, accruing tremendous authority and emotional power. It amounts to almost a shamanistic transmitting of Forché’s experience into our own. (Only during a brief sojourn in Guatemala, which Forché doesn’t know as well as El Salvador, does the writing become folkloric; it isn’t true that the “Mayans don’t distinguish between past, present and future,” for example.) The familiar polemics and slogans that spread through so many other testimonial writings from that time, like a dull gray dye, here barely intrude. Gómez is a kind of pragmatic, nonideological revolutionary; he presciently reflects that the guerrillas must not be seen as Marxists, in order to prevent the blood bath that will ensue if the United States backs the Salvadoran military. When Forché learns that one of her heroes, the Salvadoran poet Roque Dalton, was murdered by his guerrilla allies, she writes in her notebook, “This will tell you something about them.”
Writers like Roberto Bolaño and Horacio Castellanos Moya have described the disillusionment and sense of betrayal of a generation that paid a devastating price for its revolutionary idealism and bravery; Forché’s memoir returns us to the realities from which such youthful rebellion emerged. Much of what she describes is horrifying: the body dumps of the death squads; a disemboweled corpse by the roadside, “the man’s entrails stretched out across the road maybe carried across by carrion birds.” Recently in our culture there’s been much discussion about whether the sufferings of “others” can be evoked without descending into unethical appropriation or a pornography of victimhood and violence (as in many narco movies and novels). Forché justifies a fundamental conviction that sometimes you have a duty to try to describe what you’ve witnessed; if the motives are unethical, that will be apparent in the work.
“I promise you that it is going to be difficult to get Americans to believe what is happening here,” Gómez tells Forché. “For one thing, this is outside the realm of their imaginations. For another, it isn’t in their interests to believe you. For a third, it is possible that we are not human beings to them.” Those insights seem as perceptive now as then, as Americans confront the continuing repercussions of unaddressed social ills and unabated violence and corruption in El Salvador and neighboring countries in the form of waves of young refugees arriving on our southern border. None other than Archbishop Óscar Romero, a future saint of the Catholic Church, soon before his murder, urges Forché to go home and tell what she has seen.
That is what Forché has dedicated much of her life to doing — in her poetry, activism and teaching. What Leonel Gómez was really offering when he lured her down to El Salvador was the chance to become Carolyn Forché. Anyone who reads this magnificent memoir will partake of that luminous transformation.