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What You Have Heard Is True: A Memoir of Witness and Resistance

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The powerful story of a young poet who becomes an activist through a trial by fire What You Have Heard is True is a devastating, lyrical, and visionary memoir about a young woman's brave choice to engage with horror in order to help others. Written by one of the most gifted poets of her generation, this is the story of a woman's radical act of empathy, and her fateful encou The powerful story of a young poet who becomes an activist through a trial by fire What You Have Heard is True is a devastating, lyrical, and visionary memoir about a young woman's brave choice to engage with horror in order to help others. Written by one of the most gifted poets of her generation, this is the story of a woman's radical act of empathy, and her fateful encounter with an intriguing man who changes the course of her life. Carolyn Forché is twenty-seven when the mysterious stranger appears on her doorstep. The relative of a friend, he is a charming polymath with a mind as seemingly disordered as it is brilliant. She's heard rumors from her friend about who he might be: a lone wolf, a communist, a CIA operative, a sharpshooter, a revolutionary, a small coffee farmer, but according to her, no one seemed to know for certain. He has driven from El Salvador to invite Forché to visit and learn about his country. Captivated for reasons she doesn't fully understand, she accepts and becomes enmeshed in something beyond her comprehension. Together they meet with high-ranking military officers, impoverished farm workers, and clergy desperately trying to assist the poor and keep the peace. These encounters are a part of his plan to educate her, but also to learn for himself just how close the country is to war. As priests and farm-workers are murdered and protest marches attacked, he is determined to save his country, and Forché is swept up in his work and in the lives of his friends. Pursued by death squads and sheltering in safe houses, the two forge a rich friendship, as she attempts to make sense of what she's experiencing and establish a moral foothold amidst profound suffering. This is the powerful story of a poet's experience in a country on the verge of war, and a journey toward social conscience in a perilous time.


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The powerful story of a young poet who becomes an activist through a trial by fire What You Have Heard is True is a devastating, lyrical, and visionary memoir about a young woman's brave choice to engage with horror in order to help others. Written by one of the most gifted poets of her generation, this is the story of a woman's radical act of empathy, and her fateful encou The powerful story of a young poet who becomes an activist through a trial by fire What You Have Heard is True is a devastating, lyrical, and visionary memoir about a young woman's brave choice to engage with horror in order to help others. Written by one of the most gifted poets of her generation, this is the story of a woman's radical act of empathy, and her fateful encounter with an intriguing man who changes the course of her life. Carolyn Forché is twenty-seven when the mysterious stranger appears on her doorstep. The relative of a friend, he is a charming polymath with a mind as seemingly disordered as it is brilliant. She's heard rumors from her friend about who he might be: a lone wolf, a communist, a CIA operative, a sharpshooter, a revolutionary, a small coffee farmer, but according to her, no one seemed to know for certain. He has driven from El Salvador to invite Forché to visit and learn about his country. Captivated for reasons she doesn't fully understand, she accepts and becomes enmeshed in something beyond her comprehension. Together they meet with high-ranking military officers, impoverished farm workers, and clergy desperately trying to assist the poor and keep the peace. These encounters are a part of his plan to educate her, but also to learn for himself just how close the country is to war. As priests and farm-workers are murdered and protest marches attacked, he is determined to save his country, and Forché is swept up in his work and in the lives of his friends. Pursued by death squads and sheltering in safe houses, the two forge a rich friendship, as she attempts to make sense of what she's experiencing and establish a moral foothold amidst profound suffering. This is the powerful story of a poet's experience in a country on the verge of war, and a journey toward social conscience in a perilous time.

30 review for What You Have Heard Is True: A Memoir of Witness and Resistance

  1. 4 out of 5

    Kenny

    “It was as if he had stood me squarely before the world, removed the blindfold, and ordered me to open my eyes.” What You Have Heard Is True: A Memoir of Witness and Resistance ~~ Carolyn Forché I was so angry when I closed the cover of this book. Like the author, I felt like my eyes had been opened. Who & what do you believe in? No, who & what do you trust in? Why was the United States meddling in El Salvador in the first place? My European & Asian friends tell me Americans are blind, “It was as if he had stood me squarely before the world, removed the blindfold, and ordered me to open my eyes.” What You Have Heard Is True: A Memoir of Witness and Resistance ~~ Carolyn Forché I was so angry when I closed the cover of this book. Like the author, I felt like my eyes had been opened. Who & what do you believe in? No, who & what do you trust in? Why was the United States meddling in El Salvador in the first place? My European & Asian friends tell me Americans are blind, naive. Sadly, I believe it. Forché's memoir, written over 15 years, is the story of how she came to be educated on what happened during her journeys in El Salvador. This memoir is really the story of a young woman's education. 1977 ~~ Carolyn Forché is teaching at a university in Southern California. Unexpectedly, Leonel Gómez Vides shows up at her door with his children in tow. He's come from El Salvador just to talk to her or so he says. Forché has never met Gómez; he is a cousin of Claribel Alegría the Spanish poet Forché hopes to translate. There she heard Gómez described as a dangerous man. He may even a C.I.A. agent. And so our adventure begins. Forché came to El Salvador on a Guggenheim fellowship to work with Amnesty International. She traveled to El Salvador often between 1978 and 1980. These trips resulted in her writing eight poems, published as The Country Between U); they depict rape, mutilation, torture, and horror. Together, Forché & Gómez meet with high-ranking military officers, impoverished farm workers, and clergy desperately trying to assist the poor and keep the peace. These encounters are a part of Gómez's plan to educate Forché, but also to learn for himself just how close the country is to war. As priests and farm-workers are murdered and protest marches attacked, Gómez is determined to save El Salvador, while Forché is swept up in his work and in the lives of his friends. Pursued by death squads and sheltering in safe houses, the two forge a strong friendship, as she struggles to make sense of what she’s experiencing in a world filled with suffering. This is the powerful story of Forché's experience in a country on the verge of war. What You Have Heard is True: A Memoir of Witness and Resistance is a beautiful piece of writing that gets at the heart of what it means to be human and what it means to be a human who takes action. My only concern with this book is does Forché's beautiful writing poeticize the horrors of war? Early on I wasn't sure if I was reading a memoir or a Hemingway novel. I was swept up in Forché's beautiful prose initially. Forché's trips to El Salvador shape the rest of her life. This book is a labor of love, memory, witness-- and exquisitely crafted.

  2. 4 out of 5

    Numidica

    6 stars. Monsignor Oscar Romero, who was beatified as a Saint last year by Pope Francis, said, upon being told that his sermons were angering the El Salvadoran military, and that he was taking too many chances: “One does not need to be fearful. We hear from Jesus Christ that one should not tempt God, but my pastoral duty obliges me to go out and be with the people; I would not be a good pastor if I was hiding myself and giving testimonies of fear. I believe that if death encounters us in the path 6 stars. Monsignor Oscar Romero, who was beatified as a Saint last year by Pope Francis, said, upon being told that his sermons were angering the El Salvadoran military, and that he was taking too many chances: “One does not need to be fearful. We hear from Jesus Christ that one should not tempt God, but my pastoral duty obliges me to go out and be with the people; I would not be a good pastor if I was hiding myself and giving testimonies of fear. I believe that if death encounters us in the path of our duty, that then is the moment in which we die in the way that God wills.” Oscar Romero was assassinated by the military while he was celebrating mass one week after he spoke these words in his last interview. Carolyn Forche’, a poet, and a well and truly lapsed Catholic, recorded the interview, and said that she really thought she saw a light coming from his eyes and his hands as he spoke. Romero and his followers were a force for peace, and he was the best advocate the people of El Salvador had; as Forche’ said: “I found myself surrounded by these wonderful souls who had all accepted the preferential option for the poor, which is of course the understanding that if you are going to put yourself at the service of the poor, you must also accept their fate. You have to be fully with them, including in their manner of death.” The sad and shameful truth is that the scum who killed Oscar Romero were funded, directly or indirectly, by the United States government. Carolyn Forche’s book is a powerful, vivid testament of and indictment of the brutality toward, and the oppression of the people by their government. It is honest and graphic in the extreme. I recommended this book to a friend who worked for the Peace Corps in Honduras near the El Salvador border, and she said she couldn’t get very far into it before she had to set it aside – it was too raw for her. She said she would read it in bits. I served in Honduras with the U.S. Army in 1984. I went to Honduras as a member of a Ranger Battalion when Reagan’s Central American interventionist policy was at its height. We went there with live ammo, and we were told to be ready for attacks by FMLN guerillas; in fact, the FMLN was only in El Salvador, and it never operated in Honduras. It quickly became clear to me that the only armed people we needed to be careful of were the “patrones” who owned the immense ranches near our base. The day we arrived in Honduras (secretly, or so the theory went), over 100 Hondurans were waiting for us at our camp. They were sick, or had children who were sick, and they knew that U.S. Army had medicine. One man had carried his son on his back for two days to obtain treatment from us. Our Battalion Physician’s Assistant surveyed the crowd (actually a very orderly line of people), set up a camp chair, and started treating patients at about 8:30 in the morning. When I arrived back in base camp from field exercises just before dark, Doc Donovan was still sitting on his camp stool, treating patients, but he had run out of many medicines, so he called back to the US asking for a complete re-supply of meds on the next plane, which was due at 6AM the next morning. Doc and I briefly made eye contact, and he smiled slightly. He had treated nearly 100 men, women, and children that day, and he looked dog tired. I was never more proud of the U.S. Army than at that moment. And yet, we were on the wrong side of history. The part of Honduras where we operated was, if anything, poorer than the areas described by Carolyn Forche’. All dwellings were huts that had wattle and mud walls, thatched roofs of palm fronds, no doors, no windows, and dirt floors. The chickens and pigs ran in and out with the children. It was the poorest, most third-world place I have laid eyes on in my life, and I’ve traveled a bit. And it was a complete waste of time, money, and resources to deploy US forces under the guise of “fighting insurgents”. Most of the inhabitants were close to starving. They needed better nutrition and healthcare, land on which to farm, and education, not protection from non-existent insurgents. The title of the book comes from the line of a poem Ms. Forche' wrote soon after leaving El Salvador: "The Colonel" "WHAT YOU HAVE HEARD is true. I was in his house. His wife carried a tray of coffee and sugar. His daughter filed her nails, his son went out for the night. There were daily papers, pet dogs, a pistol on the cushion beside him. ……………………… There was some talk then of how difficult it had become to govern. The parrot said hello on the terrace. The colonel told it to shut up, and pushed himself from the table. My friend said to me with his eyes: say nothing. The colonel returned with a sack used to bring groceries home. He spilled many human ears on the table. They were like dried peach halves. ………………………. I am tired of fooling around he said. As for the rights of anyone, tell your people they can go fuck themselves. He swept the ears to the floor with his arm and held the last of his wine in the air. Something for your poetry, no? he said. Some of the ears on the floor caught this scrap of his voice. Some of the ears on the floor were pressed to the ground." As the subtitle says, this is a tale of witness, witness to one of the worst wars in the Americas. About 100,000 people died in El Salvador during the civil war there, out of a population of about 5 million. For perspective, proportionally that would be like 6 million Americans dying in a war. The brutal, vicious military government of El Salvador was the greatest purveyor of terror in the country, and they were supported from start to finish by the U.S. government. Aside from the immorality of this, it was just stupid, because the “insurgency” only existed as a reaction to the bestiality of the Army. And the consequence of pumping weapons and military training into these small countries has been the emergence of the most violent societies in the Americas – El Salvador and Honduras. This has in turn fueled the flow of immigrants to the U.S. from these countries and others in Central America, fleeing the conditions created by the violence. On top of everything else, much of the weaponry provided by the U.S. to Central American dictatorships ended up in the hands of the drug cartels, sold to them by Colonels eager to become rich through re-direction of US aid. Think what might have been accomplished if US aid had been in the form of medical supplies or farm implements instead of weapons. As Leonel Gomez, Forche’s mentor, said while touring a Salvadoran hospital and noting some shiny new Swedish medical instruments, “The Swedes always provide great medical equipment!” My thought was, why wasn’t that American equipment? I found the book riveting reading. Forche’ sticks to her personal experiences as much as possible, so we don’t hear much about the geo-political context, except as explained by Leonel Gomez to Carolyn. As Forche’ sees more and more in El Salvador, and worse and worse, culminating in the early part of the book with a horrific visit to a prison, she becomes a member of the resistance, though in a peripheral way. The “movement” mainly wanted her to be a voice for the Salvadoran people in the US, but she also participated in other activities for the resistance. Forche’ knew Archbishop Oscar Romero and UCA President Ignacio Ellacuria, both of whom were assassinated by the military. Her personal situation, vis a vis the military, ultimately became so dangerous that Oscar Romero told her she had to leave the country. This is a moving, powerful book, not for the faint of heart, but it is important. Ms. Forche’ has followed the path of her duty in writing this account. It should be required reading for American politicians.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Vivian

    Forché, a poet invited to bear witness to the events evolving in El Salvador during the seventies onwards: the Resistance, the brutal and savage repression by the military, and the plight of all from Church figures to campesinos. Death squads. Young men recruited with the promise of highly specialized military careers and the benefits of such to find they walked into a trap; there is no escape. Quick death is the best hope. "What am I trying to say with these declarations? What can be done with Forché, a poet invited to bear witness to the events evolving in El Salvador during the seventies onwards: the Resistance, the brutal and savage repression by the military, and the plight of all from Church figures to campesinos. Death squads. Young men recruited with the promise of highly specialized military careers and the benefits of such to find they walked into a trap; there is no escape. Quick death is the best hope. "What am I trying to say with these declarations? What can be done with the truth of one person?" - "Alex" Forché spends a good deal of time relaying her observations; having not read her poetry I came to this unaware of her. Having grown up in the Caribbean, much of this was not surprising. Yes, the extent, the sheer numbers of the missing and dead and the warnings are different. But, as a child I knew people who were marked for death, little black dots beside their name on lists. The rampant inequity, the glib boasting of the favored young fleeing Haiti after Baby Doc's downfall and the refrigerated parlors where women could wear their fur coats. None of this is a surprise. I don't photograph corpses unless there are people nearby, living beings, unless the photograph can have some meaning. This is brutal in description. I was surprised with how unprepared Forché seemed, like a blank page. Throwing up at the sight of her first corpse. How strange it seemed. But your first brush with real fear--when you walk the edge--you never forget and it reemerges again when tested. That visceral connection Forché does well. I suppose if one knows nothing this is shocking. If anything, it was like watching the naive walk through a minefield--yes, I know someone who did that too. Sometimes, what you don't know will save you, only sometimes. Sometimes, it will kill you too. Overall, powerful in an understated way. It provides an understanding for how America's actions affect other nation states. Even the photos included provide context not voyeuristic consumption. I am surprised that there wasn't poetry. I shall look for it elsewhere. "You believe yourself to be apart from others and therefore have little awareness of interdependices and the needs of the whole." Re: America, Leonel Gomez Vides This is worth reading. 3.5 Stars

  4. 5 out of 5

    Jackie

    I won this in a giveaway. An interesting story about a woman I knew little about

  5. 5 out of 5

    Julie Christine

    Carolyn Forché was twenty-seven when she traveled to El Salvador for the first time in 1978. She was already an established poet, and a professor of poetry, at a university in southern California, but relatively naïve in world events when one morning, a stranger knocks at her door, holding the hands of his two little daughters. He clears a space on Forché's dining room table and begins to graph the history of El Salvador, in pictures and in tumbling, insistent words. The man was Leonel Gómez Vid Carolyn Forché was twenty-seven when she traveled to El Salvador for the first time in 1978. She was already an established poet, and a professor of poetry, at a university in southern California, but relatively naïve in world events when one morning, a stranger knocks at her door, holding the hands of his two little daughters. He clears a space on Forché's dining room table and begins to graph the history of El Salvador, in pictures and in tumbling, insistent words. The man was Leonel Gómez Vides, a cousin to the exiled Salvadoran poet Claribel Alegría. Forché had spent the previous summer in Spain translating Alegría's poetry, and Gomez determined that he wanted a poet to bear witness to the coming civil war in El Salvador. Specifically, he wanted Forché. Forché's searing, remarkable memoir is both a reportage of the brutal recent history of El Salvador, and the recounting of how an activist is created. Gómez, whose force is personality compels Forché to travel with him, is a wealthy owner of a coffee plantation in El Salvador with a shadowy reputation. Some think he is a CIA operative, others certain he is leading the resistance movement. Whatever his standing, he loves his country with a fierce and reckless intensity, and his charisma opens doors to the most dangerous and sacred of spaces. After just a few days, he convinces Forché to travel with him, directing her to “See as much as you can. Memorize everything. Especially the layout and the locations of everything you think human rights groups should see.”. Gómez takes Forché to remote villages where she sleeps with strangers who live in the most dire poverty, yet who feed her and offer her shelter; to a prison where she sees men in solitary confinement literally boxed up in walled cages; she witnesses a death squad vanish a young man from a city street in broad daylight; she attends mass led by famed Archbishop Oscar Romero, whose assassination launched the official war. And she sees bodies, grisly encounters with the tortured and dismembered, that offer her just a glimpse of what this eventual twelve-year war, largely funded by American money and American military training, would exact on this tiny, beautiful country. 75,000 were killed, more than 550,000 Salvadorans were internally displaced with 500,000 becoming refugees. The reverberations of the conflict are felt today, in the refugees who continue to flee poverty and political terror in Central America. What Forché learns about herself as an observer and recorder of the human experience is the subtle subplot to this astonishing narrative. The writing shifts throughout the book, starting out as lyrical and distant and transforming to crisp, urgent reporting. The young woman is transformed, and the reader is transformed with her. “It was as if he had stood me squarely before the world, removed the blindfold, and ordered me to open my eyes, she writes of Gómez's influence on her understanding of the world. Haunting, vital, unforgettable. A chilling and necessary read.

  6. 4 out of 5

    Patricia

    Forche is a phenomenal poet, and her poetry has long hinted at a raucous and rebellious life lived just beyond the margins, just out of sight of an ordinary existence. This is the story of that life, written with the poet's eye and ear for stark detail and with a born storyteller's narrative instinct. Immerse yourself in this woman's life. It will change the way you live your own.

  7. 4 out of 5

    Joshua Buhs

    As a true life story--almost unbelievable: like something out of a nineteenth century novel, random appearances of distant connections setting the protagonist on a journey of self-discovery. As biography, simultaneously acute and vague. This is Forché's story of how she transformed herself into a political poet (and wrote one of the most famous poems of the late twentieth century, referred to int he title, but not directly in the text). She has a clear vision of herself, and weaves together severa As a true life story--almost unbelievable: like something out of a nineteenth century novel, random appearances of distant connections setting the protagonist on a journey of self-discovery. As biography, simultaneously acute and vague. This is Forché's story of how she transformed herself into a political poet (and wrote one of the most famous poems of the late twentieth century, referred to int he title, but not directly in the text). She has a clear vision of herself, and weaves together several strands relatively well. She also captures life in El Salvador during the late 1970s and early 1980s--the violence, paranoia, fronting and affronting, and constant acting. But the real mainspring of the story, Leonel, remains always a cipher and so the story never culminates as one expects: there is no revelation, no pay-off to all of his gnomic pronouncements rather a kind of petering out into extended themes and, issues, and stories. These don't rob the early parts of the book their drama, nor the urgency of the politics, however.

  8. 5 out of 5

    Reneesarah

    Listening to Carolyn Forche read this book (through Audible) was an incredible experience. I felt honored to listen to the author read her own words. I can see the history of El Salvador and the United States as it was when Carolyn Forche was there, as the war began; and can see some ways history is playing out in current events today. This history, the lack of lesons learned, the lack of compassion and the lack of taking responsbility is a tragedy for El Salvador, for the United States and the Listening to Carolyn Forche read this book (through Audible) was an incredible experience. I felt honored to listen to the author read her own words. I can see the history of El Salvador and the United States as it was when Carolyn Forche was there, as the war began; and can see some ways history is playing out in current events today. This history, the lack of lesons learned, the lack of compassion and the lack of taking responsbility is a tragedy for El Salvador, for the United States and the world. I really thank Carolyn Forche for speaking out so eloquently and giving us such a fine example of what it is to bear witness.

  9. 5 out of 5

    Brianna

    Wow

  10. 5 out of 5

    Pauline Lemasson

    I read her poem "The Colonel" at a masterclass and was astonished at how much could be said in 20 some lines of poetry. Reading this memoir puts all the context behind that poem. Incredibly important read and written with a searing eye at the scale of human and moral devastation.

  11. 5 out of 5

    Anatoly Molotkov

    When called upon to face the world with clear eyes, what does one do? A moving, suspenseful, important book.

  12. 4 out of 5

    Csimplot Simplot

    Excellent book!

  13. 5 out of 5

    Kathleen Gray

    Fascinating. Forche had no idea what she was getting into when she went to El Salvador. Many of us have forgotten what happened in that country during the period of this memoir (and younger readers might not know at all). For that reason alone, this is a good read. Beyond that, and more importantly, Forche has a wonderful way with words. I'd not read her poetry but be assured that she brings a gorgeous rhythm to her prose. Thanks to Edelweiss for the ARC.

  14. 4 out of 5

    Cindelu

    I won this book on Goodreads. It was rather long but worth it. The beginning was slow but necessary. A really enlightening story that will touch all of us. The horrors of the world are there and we, in this country are so safe and secure that we are completely unable to fathom the monsters that exist. This will open your eyes.

  15. 5 out of 5

    David Curry

    Disturbingly absent for the most part from most discussions about the crisis at the U.S. southern border is the fact that the insufferable conditions refugees are fleeing from in Central and South America are conditions that misguided or ill-willed U.S. foreign policy helped to create. This makes Carolyn Forche’s What you Have Heard Is True: A Memoir of Witness and Resistance a book that needed to exist — an experience that informs, inspires, and frequently devastates the reader. Forche is an Ame Disturbingly absent for the most part from most discussions about the crisis at the U.S. southern border is the fact that the insufferable conditions refugees are fleeing from in Central and South America are conditions that misguided or ill-willed U.S. foreign policy helped to create. This makes Carolyn Forche’s What you Have Heard Is True: A Memoir of Witness and Resistance a book that needed to exist — an experience that informs, inspires, and frequently devastates the reader. Forche is an American poet who early in her career was invited to El Salvador by the enigmatic Leonel Gomez Vides to witness the cataclysmic 1970s in that country and learn its history. Some of the details of atrocities committed by the dictatorial military Salvadoran government are hard to take but need to be brought into the light. Here’s Forche recounting some of what Leonel brought to her attention: “Well then, there might be other things that you don’t know. Such as when these sons of bitches interrogate someone, they tie the man to a chair, put his hand on a table, cut off one of his fingers, and they flush it down a toilet before asking the first question. “And our friend Colonel Chacon has a friend he works with, and this friend claims to be a doctor but I don’t know. The doctor injects the spine of a victim with anesthetic, then he slices through the person’s abdomen with a scalpel, reaches in, and starts pulling out guts while the person is conscious and can see what is happening. And then the colonel gets to his first question.” More from Leonel: “ … The man I’m telling you about, who chops off fingers and has people disemboweled? Where do you think he gets his foot soldiers. It has been sixteen years since the Bay of Pigs and those Cubans (Cuban exiles in the U.S.) are still angry, and if they can’t overthrow Fidel, they’ll work for any hijo de gran puta (son of a whore) who hates Communists.” Forche witnesses the extreme poverty of most Salvadorans, who work from dawn to dusk for little pay and live in cardboard shacks that disintegrate when it rains and have to be reconstructed. According to Leonel, one out of every five children dies before the age of five. When Forche visits the American consulate, which is officially U.S. property, she notes that even the air seems carpeted. When she returns to Leonel, waiting in his car blocks away from the consulate, he greets her with “Welcome back to El Salvador .” Writing of a visit to a “body dump” during the time of the death squads, Forche notes: “ ‘Yo lo vi,’ Goya wrote beside his sketches. ‘I saw it, and this, and also this.’” “Papu, listen to me, “ Leonel says to Forche at one point. “You have to be able to see the world as it is, to see how it is put together, and you have to be able to say what you see. And get angry.” This remarkable book in which Forche has compellingly responded to Leonel’s charge is dedicated in memory of him.

  16. 4 out of 5

    Mike

    This brilliant book is Carolyn Forché's memoir, concentrating on the time she spent in war-torn El Salvador in the late 1970s, and how, incredibly, she became involved in that country. Most people who have heard of Forché will have read her brilliant poem "The Colonel", (https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem...). This is not a book of poetry, it is the story of how a poet becomes active in the fight against a brutal military dictatorship, how she became a “poet of witness”. I was pretty much unaw This brilliant book is Carolyn Forché's memoir, concentrating on the time she spent in war-torn El Salvador in the late 1970s, and how, incredibly, she became involved in that country. Most people who have heard of Forché will have read her brilliant poem "The Colonel", (https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem...). This is not a book of poetry, it is the story of how a poet becomes active in the fight against a brutal military dictatorship, how she became a “poet of witness”. I was pretty much unaware of the civil war in El Salvador until seeing the moving film Romero thirty years ago - it depicts the life and death of the charismatic Oscar Romero, Archbishop of San Salvador. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8G27j...) Forché was at home in her apartment in southern California, when a complete stranger, accompanied by his two daughters, knocks on her door, having driven from El Salvador specifically to meet her. At the time, Forché was “a one-book poet in her 20s”. The stranger, Leonel Gómez, turns out to be a cousin of a friend of Forché. He proceeds, over three days, to educate her on the history of central America, drawing stick figures and pencil maps on butchers paper on her dining table. Gómez tells her that a war as big as Vietnam is about to erupt in El Salvador, and that he wants her, as a poet, to witness and record the events. Amazingly, Forché agrees to go to El Salvador. This book is the story of what she witnessed. Even at the end of the book, it is not 100% clear who Leonel Gómez is. He appears to have a foot in both the military and the guerrilla camps, whilst both sides suspect him of being a CIA agent. He deliberately cultivates uncertainty by being seen to spend time with ambassadors, politicians, churchmen, nuns, campesinos (the poor farmers struggling to survive under near starvation conditions) and members of the resistance. In turn, he encourages Forché to cultivate the same air of mystery as a means of discouraging attack on her by the right wing death squads that roam El Salvador. What she does know is that Gómez is a coffee farmer, and a man determined to open her eyes to what is going on in front of her. Through Gomez she is able to meet officers in the highest levels of the military, to visit sites of massacres, to narrowly avoid being shot on several occasions, to spend time with the nuns, priests and hierarchy in the Catholic Church who are speaking up against the repression of the campesinos. As usual, the role of the U.S.A. in propping up the brutal right wing military regime as a bulwark against supposed communism, is central to the chaotic situation. This is a gripping and moving memoir for anyone interested in the history of Central America, the terrible disruption caused by U.S.A. foreign policy and the role that poetry can play in bearing witness to awful events.

  17. 5 out of 5

    Richard

    This may be the best memoir I've ever read, because it is about so much more than the author. It's a book every one of us Facebook revolutionaries ought to take to heart. When Carolyn Forché was 27 years old, a poet, translator, and teacher, a camper van pulled into her driveway, and out came a man and two children. They came to her door, and Carolyn, finally convinced the man was not a serial killer, let them in, and thus began a life adventure that is the subject of this story. Leonel, the man, This may be the best memoir I've ever read, because it is about so much more than the author. It's a book every one of us Facebook revolutionaries ought to take to heart. When Carolyn Forché was 27 years old, a poet, translator, and teacher, a camper van pulled into her driveway, and out came a man and two children. They came to her door, and Carolyn, finally convinced the man was not a serial killer, let them in, and thus began a life adventure that is the subject of this story. Leonel, the man, was a 33 year old Salvadoran revolutionary - the absolute real deal, a scholar, analyst, organizer, and mentor whose life was a strategy for survival, and a quest for a better life for the campesinos of El Salvador. He convinced Carolyn to meet him in El Salvador, and with his constant refrain of "pay attention, keep your eyes open, remember what you see," introduced her to farmers, miners, revolutionary cadre, death squad members, generals, religious, and even St. Oscar Romero, Bishop of El Salvador. Leonel knew everybody, talked to everybody, and used all he garnered to move his cause forward. And, here's why Hollywood will have a hard time with this true-life adventure, Leonel and Carolyn were not lovers. This is a story of what it really takes to move the dial on social justice, and it takes place in a country where repression, jail, and torture were the rule, and no one was safe. Terror and murder were the tools of the government's trade, and the great perpetrators had been trained by the United States at the infamous School of the Americas, run by the US Department of Defense at Ft. Benning, Georgia. Our tax dollars at work. Carolyn Forché casts herself as the innocent led to experience. Her descriptions pull no punches. She is perceptive, honest, kind, and willing to learn. She's also a hell of a writer. I couldn't recommend this more highly.

  18. 5 out of 5

    Nicole

    Carolyn Forche grabs you along for an amazing, frightening adventure. She's incredibly brave. I kept wondering what I would have done, in her shoes, and I don't think I'd have gone along for that ride. She was coerced into an incredible adventure and kept her end of the bargain, to witness. This book is her testimony to the recent El Salvadoran civil war. She's a great witness, relaying the facts without much personal interpretation. The sensation is that of watching the events unroll, through Carolyn Forche grabs you along for an amazing, frightening adventure. She's incredibly brave. I kept wondering what I would have done, in her shoes, and I don't think I'd have gone along for that ride. She was coerced into an incredible adventure and kept her end of the bargain, to witness. This book is her testimony to the recent El Salvadoran civil war. She's a great witness, relaying the facts without much personal interpretation. The sensation is that of watching the events unroll, through her eyes. She's a poet, which comes across in her writing, especially in the "written in pencil" sections. These sections felt as if she were next to me, grabbing my arm and desperately whispering a free-flow stream of words, whispered, written in pencil, the unimaginable. Included photos, which were taken while she was there, or to which she had a close connection, add to the tragic, confused feel of war. She did ask that I keep this arrangement to myself, and especially not speak with anyone outside the pueblo about it, particularly the anthropologist who showed up regularly. 22 I found this quote amusing. Also, this one: "this is Coffea arabica, so it is susceptible to rust blight. I wish the Peace Corps would send someone here who knows something about rust blight. Instead they send us anthropology majors." 99 It was as if he had stood me squarely before the world, removed the blindfold, and ordered me to open my eyes. 384

  19. 4 out of 5

    Jared Levine

    Most gente de los Estados Unidos still don’t really know what happened in El Salvador, or talk about it at really, and render the country as a vague place on a map. They don’t really talk about the war that happened there, where the vast majority of the country was deeply impoverished, systematically oppressed, under intense fear that extended beyond death, into mutilation and torture, where thousands upon thousands of people were disappeared by the death squads funded and trained by the United Most gente de los Estados Unidos still don’t really know what happened in El Salvador, or talk about it at really, and render the country as a vague place on a map. They don’t really talk about the war that happened there, where the vast majority of the country was deeply impoverished, systematically oppressed, under intense fear that extended beyond death, into mutilation and torture, where thousands upon thousands of people were disappeared by the death squads funded and trained by the United States. Carolyn Forché is genius poet of witness behind the legendary poem The Colonel, from the acclaimed collection of poems The Country Between Us. This is story of how she was brought to El Salvador to witness the beginning of a war that had already begun. This book represents the journey in which Carolyn is brought before the world, as most people live in it, and forced to come to consciousness about it. We see this country from Carolyn’s eyes, as readers and come to our own form of consciousness. This book is a must read. ~ I think this book would have benefitted from another round of edits, as there are areas in which it feels bulky—would love to see that happen in future editions. Still, this book was so so good. Jared, City Lights Bookstore

  20. 5 out of 5

    Katherine

    I had not heard of Carolyn Forché nor read any of her poetry before a review prompted me to read her memoir. I know basically nothing about El Salvador's history and part of the reason I wanted to read the book was to gain a better understanding of the war through her experience (plus I assumed her writing would be good, which it was). I'm not sure I came away with a clear understanding of the history of the war (I think this is also exacerbated by currently reading Say Nothing about The Trouble I had not heard of Carolyn Forché nor read any of her poetry before a review prompted me to read her memoir. I know basically nothing about El Salvador's history and part of the reason I wanted to read the book was to gain a better understanding of the war through her experience (plus I assumed her writing would be good, which it was). I'm not sure I came away with a clear understanding of the history of the war (I think this is also exacerbated by currently reading Say Nothing about The Troubles in Northern Ireland and the history seems much clearer; by contrast the historical narrative was weaker to me in What You Have Heard is True). However, that is to be expected in that she was writing specifically of her experience and she herself had much to learn and understand when she first arrived in El Salvador. Her writing and story still clearly conveyed the violence and terror of the time and the conditions that helped give rise to the conflict. It was interesting to read about her experiences (especially how she ended up there - which seemed fairly happenstance) and to follow her through her time in El Salvador on the brink of war.

  21. 4 out of 5

    Ginny Short

    What You Have Heard is True is a remarkable story of a remarkable time. When I was a grad student, one of my mentor advised me, as a writer of nonfiction, to "Think like a poet, Write like a novelist and to tell the truth." Ms. Forche's book does all of these so beautifully. The story is about her meeting with an enigmatic and charismatic man who takes her on a journey of discovery to El Salvador where she witnesses the country as it falls into chaos. Witness, here, does not mean a bystander or What You Have Heard is True is a remarkable story of a remarkable time. When I was a grad student, one of my mentor advised me, as a writer of nonfiction, to "Think like a poet, Write like a novelist and to tell the truth." Ms. Forche's book does all of these so beautifully. The story is about her meeting with an enigmatic and charismatic man who takes her on a journey of discovery to El Salvador where she witnesses the country as it falls into chaos. Witness, here, does not mean a bystander or onlooker. Forche experiences this country as it spirals into war. It is not an easy book to read, given the current situation, but it is timely. The events of the story took place in the 1970's, but the suffering that she witnessed is universal and it makes one wonder shy so many people are still fleeing this country. Beautifully written, in spite of the difficult subject, I had a difficult time putting it down. This is a must read.

  22. 4 out of 5

    Mary Ellen Sanger

    How can a book centered on so much struggle be so engaging? How can poetry bring such difficult truths to the world? Carolyn Forche's memoir is a walk/crawl/hide/run/question/find/note with her through her time in late-70s pre-war El Salvador at the behest of Leonel Gomez Vides -- a story of how a knock on her door changed her life. [I knew Leonel Gomez Vides briefly -- and the story he told of his meeting with Carolyn was what led me to wait 15 years for this memoir. WELL worth the wait!] Ms. For How can a book centered on so much struggle be so engaging? How can poetry bring such difficult truths to the world? Carolyn Forche's memoir is a walk/crawl/hide/run/question/find/note with her through her time in late-70s pre-war El Salvador at the behest of Leonel Gomez Vides -- a story of how a knock on her door changed her life. [I knew Leonel Gomez Vides briefly -- and the story he told of his meeting with Carolyn was what led me to wait 15 years for this memoir. WELL worth the wait!] Ms. Forche, for me -- is a kind of icon. An example (a la Jane Goodall) of how a woman embraces a chance meeting to continue in a life-changing direction that comes to define her to a wide audience. Since her experiences in Central America, Ms. Forche has been the leading voice is what she has shed light on as "Poetry of Witness." Do follow up this reading with "The Country Between Us" to experience the stark poetry that came from this experience. I haven't read a book this compelling in years.

  23. 4 out of 5

    Dana Berglund

    This was unexpected. Carolyn tells the story of her younger self, pulled in to the roiling pre-war tension of 1978 El Salvador by a charismatic activist. He somehow convinces Carolyn to repeatedly leave her start up life as a poet-professor in California to come to El Salvador to bear witness to the increasing danger and death, and try to understand some of the many sides and perspectives. She is wide eyed and innocent when she first meets Leonel. She had escaped death and seen more corpses than This was unexpected. Carolyn tells the story of her younger self, pulled in to the roiling pre-war tension of 1978 El Salvador by a charismatic activist. He somehow convinces Carolyn to repeatedly leave her start up life as a poet-professor in California to come to El Salvador to bear witness to the increasing danger and death, and try to understand some of the many sides and perspectives. She is wide eyed and innocent when she first meets Leonel. She had escaped death and seen more corpses than she could count by the time she returned to a “normal” American life in 1980. This was not an easy or light read, but an important one. She quotes the Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz: “ If a thing exists in one place, it will exist everywhere.”

  24. 5 out of 5

    Leslie

    I'm thankful for hearing Carolyn Forche speak about her book on MPR that one morning about a month ago. My first thoughts were, "Hmm. I don't know much about El Salvador. Perhaps this book should be next on my must-read list." I finished the book today thankful for the opportunity to hear about Forche's experiences in El Salvador, thankful to hear about the Campesinos' experiences, and thankful she took the 15-year journey to write this memoir. I'm inspired to learn more as well as to "Write. Wr I'm thankful for hearing Carolyn Forche speak about her book on MPR that one morning about a month ago. My first thoughts were, "Hmm. I don't know much about El Salvador. Perhaps this book should be next on my must-read list." I finished the book today thankful for the opportunity to hear about Forche's experiences in El Salvador, thankful to hear about the Campesinos' experiences, and thankful she took the 15-year journey to write this memoir. I'm inspired to learn more as well as to "Write. Write, and do not waste time." (p. 188). I am thankful Forche's pen did touch the paper and that she was neither bored nor abstracted. She created a wonderful memoir that I hope many will read.

  25. 4 out of 5

    Todd

    A harrowing story that might feel like a memoir of a young woman awakening into a consciousness of socioeconomic forces, war, and solidarity, but, in the end, feels like a commemoration and remembrance of the enigmatic man who sparked and nursed that awakening. Readers looking for the "real story" "behind" Forche's famous poem "The Colonel" may be disappointed since that incident is barely mentioned. However, the riches here are far more important. As one might expect, the writing is carefully cr A harrowing story that might feel like a memoir of a young woman awakening into a consciousness of socioeconomic forces, war, and solidarity, but, in the end, feels like a commemoration and remembrance of the enigmatic man who sparked and nursed that awakening. Readers looking for the "real story" "behind" Forche's famous poem "The Colonel" may be disappointed since that incident is barely mentioned. However, the riches here are far more important. As one might expect, the writing is carefully crafted. The structure effective, moving from lengthy opening sections of exposition to breathlessly brief sections--some barely edited jottings from a journal--to a satisfying denouement.

  26. 4 out of 5

    Susan

    I've never read a book like this extraordinary book by Carolyn Forche, a poet who was compelled to travel to El Salvador shortly before the civil war by a coffee plantation owner and political activist. He believed that the story needed to be told in the US of what was happening to the peasants and the poor of El Salvador, and how much worse it was going to get. Those of us who remember those terrible times - and those younger who do not - will find this an incredibly sad and important book abou I've never read a book like this extraordinary book by Carolyn Forche, a poet who was compelled to travel to El Salvador shortly before the civil war by a coffee plantation owner and political activist. He believed that the story needed to be told in the US of what was happening to the peasants and the poor of El Salvador, and how much worse it was going to get. Those of us who remember those terrible times - and those younger who do not - will find this an incredibly sad and important book about the power of wealth and corruption. And inhumanity.

  27. 5 out of 5

    Adrianne

    A riveting, moving testament to a time that needs to be revisited and reassessed -- American government interventionist practices have become a truism, but this memoir speaks to what refuses to be cynical, or in the face of such speaks back to the work (underlined) of hope, of what has made for any kind of progress in this world, namely a people's resistance and the individual's ability to commit to those values that advocate for a better tomorrow. Read this memoir.

  28. 4 out of 5

    Alison Hicks

    Amazing book about forche's experience in El Salvador in the lare 1970s and 1980s, and a portrait of the man who brought her there, Leonel Gomez Vides. Those who devoured Forche's saecond books of poetry, The Country Between Us, will appreciate reading the story of the life that underlies that book. Forche is a wondereufl writer, and her prose her maintains the high quality that her poetry exhibits.

  29. 5 out of 5

    Sam

    An essential memoir that reads like a novel. An emotionally vivid and deeply human account of antebellum El Salvador through the eyes of a poet. Carolyn Forché’s stirring patchwork of memory rings more true than any factual retelling. It’s been a long time since I finished a book in less than five days, but this one propelled me forward, leaving me with open eyes and a sense of gratitude to a brave poet.

  30. 5 out of 5

    Tim

    A sobering recounting of just one of the Central American countries that were the arena in the 60-80s for the Cold War to be played out. The legacy of the El Salvadoran civil war still influences the new flashpoint of 2019 - attempts to move north to the US from this and other Central American countries. One phrase still sticks with me in particular, "Don't believe anything until it is officially denied."

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