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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. 5 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

  2. 5 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.

  3. 5 out of 5

    Jackie

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

  4. 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.

  5. 4 out of 5

    Brianna

    Wow

  6. 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.

  7. 4 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.

  8. 4 out of 5

    Anatoly Molotkov

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

  9. 5 out of 5

    Csimplot Simplot

    Excellent book!

  10. 4 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.

  11. 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.

  12. 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

  13. 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.

  14. 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.

  15. 5 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.

  16. 4 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.

  17. 5 out of 5

    Kd

    Very interesting. Sometimes the author's play at 'innocence' annoys, but only at moments. The glimpses into the other players makes me want to know more about them. The author had an incredibly unique experience during a crucial time in El Salvador's history, very interesting and horrifying story.

  18. 5 out of 5

    Sharon

    The memoir Forché has written gives us the horrific details of her long-ago journey to El Salvador that propelled her to write her extraordinary book of poems The Country Between Us from 1982. The inhumanity continues today, both in Central America and in our own government’s policies against refugees from there. Money from our government also continues to flow to the perpetrators of crimes against the innocent. The origins of all this madness are clearly portrayed in Forché’s steady voice.

  19. 5 out of 5

    Keiko

    This is such an important book for all people particularly those of us in the United States to read to grasp the impact our policies have in other countries especially in Latin America. Let me know if you want to borrow a copy

  20. 4 out of 5

    Gail Golden

    One of my favorite poets ,Carolyn Forche, has written an incredible account of her years of involvement with El Salvador. Courageously lived, passionately experienced, amd beautifully written.

  21. 5 out of 5

    Lexi Namer

    Evocative, elegant, eye opening. An absolute must read. Immediately went to the library to get her other books.

  22. 4 out of 5

    Elliot Stoller

    The bravery of Carolyn during her time in El Salvador is amazing. And the story of her time with Leonel, her guide to what is happening in El Salvador, is unforgettable.

  23. 4 out of 5

    Carol

  24. 4 out of 5

    Dan Thalkar

  25. 4 out of 5

    Dana

  26. 4 out of 5

    Scott Cairns

  27. 5 out of 5

    Simeon Berry

  28. 5 out of 5

    Josh Leifer

  29. 5 out of 5

    Tess

  30. 4 out of 5

    Nimra Nisar

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