Carolyn Forché – What You Have Heard is True
At a pivotal moment in my favorite film, V for Vendetta, V addresses the whole of London, urging them to open their eyes to the immoral, corrupt, violent regime that calls itself the government:
If you’ve seen nothing, if the crimes of this government remain unknown to you, then I would suggest that you allow the fifth of November to pass unmarked. But if you see what I see, if you feel as I feel, and if you would seek as I seek, then I ask you to stand beside me, one year from tonight, outside the gates of Parliament, and together we shall give them a fifth of November that shall never, ever be forgotten.
In this fictional film about revolution over fascism, the crisis of government is really a crisis of willful ignorance, of people purposely and consciously choosing the comfort of unknowing or ignoring blatant immorality in our leaders and government over the more difficult work of seeing, verifying, acknowledging, acting, atoning, reconciling, and creating a morally just, ethical government. Ignorance leads to fascism, while knowledge and acknowledgement opens space for democracy.
While I was reminded of this scene from the film many times during the course of my reading Carolyn Forché’s (2019) book What you Have Heard is True, the closing line of the book parallels the fictitious scene captured above. In talking about her longtime friend, the political activist Leonel Gómez Vides, Forché (2019) states:
It was as if he had stood me squarely before the world, removed the blindfold, and ordered me to open my eyes. (p. 384)
Forché’s (2019) book is non-fiction, accounting for her time spent in El Salvador between 1978 – 1980, at the start of that country’s long and bloody Civil War. Forché’s departure from the United States to El Salvador arises in the beautiful space of youth and artistic risk-taking. One day, Leonel, a man she has never met (who is, however, in her consciousness through her artist friends), arrives unannounced at her door in California. Leonel has heard Carolyn is a poet, and after a three-day crash course on the history of central America, Leonel asks Carolyn to come to El Salvador to witness the start of the war. Poets are the best witnesses, Leonel insists. Carolyn takes the risk and departs, telling only a small handful of people where she is going.
As usually happens in a life of reading and full-on intellectual curiosity, texts, films, podcasts, and music all fall into your consciousness at very particular moments, entangling to give you a greater understanding of larger forces being revealed to your consciousness. There is a revelatory quality to these moments as an intellectual, and it was no different here. I finished Forché’s (2019) book on Saturday morning, the 11th of January, 2020. By Saturday evening, I was re-reading Raoul Peck’s (2017) notes and screenplay for the film I am Not Your Negro in preparation for teaching my upcoming undergraduate seminar on James Baldwin. This film is wholly constructed using the words of James Baldwin, and at one point in the film Baldwin discusses the important role of witnessing, and why it is important to write about what we witness:
I was to discover that the line which separates a witness from an actor is a very thin line indeed; nevertheless, the line is real. . .I had to accept, as time wore on, that part of my responsibility – as a witness – was to move as largely and freely as possible, to write the story, and to get it out. (Baldwin, cited in Peck, 2017, pp. 30-31)
Forché’s (2019) book vividly documents her role as witness in the lead up and start of the Civil War in El Salvador. It strikes me as non-coincidental that an epigraph opening the book comes from James Baldwin: “For the strangest people in the world are those people recognized, beneath one’s senses, by one’s soul – the people utterly indispensable for one’s journey.”
Like Baldwin, the line between being an actor and a witness is quite thin within Forché’s experience. Leonel takes Carolyn far and wide throughout El Salvador. She meets with members of the military, leaders of the dictatorship, Congressional delegations sent from the United States to examine potential human rights abuses, and various leaders of different guerrilla military factions. She also sees the countryside, spends time and lives among the campesinos of El Salvador, experiencing the dire poverty of the poor. She works alongside priests and nuns in churches, and doctors in rural hospitals devoid of basic medical supplies. She watches the “death squads” abduct and disappear people. Leonel is somehow connected to all these people, and his precise role in navigating and gaining access to these many players in the country is not entirely clear through most of the book. He is a mystery, with many rumors swirling about who, precisely, he is or who he works for. Carolyn learns to not ask questions.
In the United States, ignorance reigns supreme. As V states in V for Vendetta, we are a people quite comfortable “ignoring the crimes of this government;” I would say this is conscious and willful for most people in this country. This was even true of Forché, who admits early in the book that “although I had a college education, I knew very little about the rest of the world” (p. 33). The role of the United States in the lead up and subsequent Civil War in El Salvador figures quite prominently in this book. Forché’s (2019) book, for many readers in the United States, will appear unbelievable – not only because of our role in the atrocities that were committed, but also because of the atrocities themselves. Leonel understands this, and chooses Forché for this very reason:
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 interests to believe you. For a third, it is possible that we are not human beings to them” (p. 313).
With a specificity of language available to poets, Forché’s (2019) book will expose readers to the dire living conditions, fear, anguish, heartbreak, and rampant dehumanization that opens space for war crimes and human rights abuses. These are the mental images conjured through language of mutilated corpses, sacked and burned countryside villages, prisoners in solitary confinement, shit-and blood-filled holes in the earth, and bodies washing up on the shores of beaches and riverfronts. These are the mental images of trees adorned with the flesh and hair of recently murdered campesinos, and the actual photographic images of military soldiers standing behind those they killed, guns drawn, smiling and proud. These language-based visual and photographic images are difficult to endure at times. But, Forché’s (2019) book asks us as readers to face these images, to take that which is outside “the realm of [our] imaginations” and witness ourselves. Then, the book asks us to think critically about the role the United States government had in making possible such atrocities.
While we must witness atrocity and human rights abuse, we must also witness hope. There are other mental images, as well. These are the beautiful images of resistance and documentation. Forché (2019) describes the photo books, compiled by church and human rights organizations, documenting the disappeared. She paints the visual imagery of El Salvador’s countryside. She provides photographic evidence of Monseñor Oscar Romero, who was murdered; and a beautiful image of Leonel, smiling and laughing. These images demonstrate human resilience, spirit, and hope for something better to emerge. People, Leonel argues, only resist oppression when they “realize deeply within themselves that something better is possible” (Forché, 2019, p. 373). The juxtaposition of mental and visual imagery in the book opens space to “hope without hoping. We must hope when we have no hope” (Forché, 2019, p. 336).
One might read Forché’s (2019) book and wonder why it took 40 years to write. Why raise this consciousness now? Some of this may be personal – to protect those who may still be living with the consequences of decisions they made during the war. Some may simply be time and research – it takes incredible energy to write a book as comprehensive as this. It may be the post-traumatic stress of witnessing itself. Forché (1982) has previously published a book of poems about the war in El Salvador – The Country Between Us – and though I have not read this book of poetry, a member of my book club read to us a haunting poem that arose from this text called The Colonel.
But to me, this book is about eye-opening. It comes at a particularly ominous time in our world and the United States. A time when, despite our worldwide web and wide access to knowledge, we are as willfully and consciously ignorant as ever. Forché (2019) is issuing a warning, particularly to the people of the United States. As Leonel did for her, she is urging us to open our eyes and ears – to the crimes of our government at home and abroad, and to the rising threat of fascism that arises through blind, conscious, and willful ignorance. She reflects on Leonel’s political understanding, 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” (p. 373). Forché (2019) is “bringing the sin to the eye” (p. 373) and asking us to listen more critically and closely to the “symphony of illusion” (p. 140) that tells us this world, and this government, is all that is possible.
In the closing pages of the book, overt political hopefulness is put on full display: “I once asked him what it would take to make the United States a good country,” Forché (2019, p. 378) writes. “‘You believe yourselves to be apart from others and therefore have little awareness of your interdependencies and the needs of the whole,’” Leonel replies (p. 378). “‘You could green the hemisphere. . .you have the resources and the capacity’” (p. 378). Keep in mind this was in the late 1970’s. Nobody was talking about a Green New Deal then, but Leonel knew.
What you Have Heard is True, it seems to me, is required, indispensable reading. It asks us to be witnesses to history and its ongoing impact on our present lives. Once we’ve been witnesses, we can imagine a different world, and begin the collective resistance to the oppressive forces that open space for new tomorrows of interconnectedness, human rights, and love.
I want to make two more points about this book that I could not neatly fit into the narrative structure of my overview above. I cannot remember when I started picking up on this in my reading life, but I find the inclusion of references to music, film(s), and other books within books to be worthy of attention. Writers are sending us a message by including such details.
In Forché’s (2019) book, music becomes vitally important. Often, this music presents itself as Carolyn and Leonel drive through the country – it operates as background noise, making it more difficult for potentially unfriendly ears to hear what is being said in a conversation.
One musical figure who is consistently cited in the book is Silvio Rodríguez. Song citations, such as A donde van?, “about the transience of all things” (Forché, 2019, p. 196), or Playa Girón, are clearly included to make commentary on political ideologies and visions. There is a strong undercurrent in the book regarding Marxism, communism, and leftist, humanist ideology. Much of the U.S. government’s involvement in Central and South America centers on fears about communism and socialist political visions. The songs and artists who appear in this book, which also includes Edith Piaf, Mercedes Sosa, and Rubén Blades clearly center the voices of the “common man,” the worker, the poor, and those in mourning. These artists are also central to the hopeful vision Leonel holds for El Salvador: “the power of the poor to change to change the course of history is the world’s one last hope” (Forché, 2019, p. 373). I encourage readers to listen to these artists, which figure so prominently in my reading of the book.
My last comment on this book also comes with a request for other careful readers. I did not pick up until later in the book that there seems to be a structuring device used by Forché (2019) around lessons. There are, so far as I can tell, six lessons Leonel provides to Carolyn. These can be viewed as lessons on witnessing and resistance, and I think they are worthy of some larger dialogue to those who may engage the text. These lessons are:
- “Lesson Number One: I did not use you, I gave you a rare opportunity. And we accomplished many things, more than I’d hoped. You are now a mysterious person of some importance, and that may save your life” (p. 74). The lesson here is about interacting with many types of people and listening to what they have to say. Throughout the book, Forché (2019) emphasizes the importance of being seen in certain places, and remaining somewhat covert in your overall intentions, aims, and goals. A witness must be covert, to a degree, and take advantage of opportunities presented to them.
- “Lesson Number Two: Please don’t ask me who people are. They wouldn’t want me to tell you” (p. 80). The lesson here is about protection. Many people, for protection, utilized pseudonyms. This is about protecting your sources.
- Lesson Number Three – MISSING. There is a reference to lesson three on p. 80, but this comes more in the form of a small argument between Leonel and Carolyn. I cannot find subsequent reference to lesson three in the book, so any reader who does, please e-mail me: firstname.lastname@example.org
- “Lesson Number Four: If someone promises to do great things, ask them first for something small, like a bridge or a cow” (p. 211). This is about trust building, and also resources needed to resist. Readers will understand the reference to the bridge and the cow.
- Lesson Number Five: It is best not to forget things like that” (p. 215). This is about remembering all the details in order to understand the larger picture and complexity of the situation you are witnessing.
- “Lesson Number Six: Not everything is a matter for the individual to decide, and this decision especially will not be yours to make” (p. 325). This is about the ways we sometimes must remember our individual role in larger processes of witnessing and resisting. Sometimes the decision about our role is not up to us, but up to a larger force and the collective.
Forché, C. (1982). The country between us. New York, NY: Harper & Row.
Forché, C. (2019). What you have heard is true: A memoir of witness and resistance. New York, NY: Penguin Press.
Peck, R. (Ed.). (2017). I am not your negro. New York, NY: Vintage Books.