Carolyn Forché places human rights at the forefront of her memoir What You Have Heard Is True (Penguin Books, 2019) and her newest poetry collection In the Lateness of the World (Penguin Books, 2020). Both books are highly poignant in the way they present human suffering and the political corruption that reinforces it. They also speak to each other in ways that are layered with heartfelt perspective and deeply lived experience. Finalist for the 2019 National Book Award, What You Have Heard Is True is structured around the time Forché spent in El Salvador in the late seventies with Leonel Gómez, who invited her to visit the country to be not only a witness to the events leading up to war but to closely observe the horrific conditions created by the military dictatorship and how it was reinforced by the U.S. government through military and economic aid. In the Lateness of the World takes up similar themes the memoir addresses from a poetic perspective: war, history, violence, and personal experience. However, the texts are linked by one overarching theme: truthfulness. Forché is brutally honest as a memoirist and a poet; in both texts she portrays herself and humanity with sincerity and compassion and does not shy away from the reality of political violence.
Forché gives ample space to Leonel Gómez, a mysterious man who showed up at her doorstep and invited her to come to El Salvador for a few months. She translated poetry for a relative of his who was living in Spain and specifically wanted her to visit the country because she was a poet; he believed her poetic sensibilities would provide the most authentic expression of the oppressive violence the El Salvadorian people had suffered at historic levels. It isn’t until the end of the memoir that Forché is able to give a succinct description of Leonel: “Early in his exile in the United States, when asked about himself, Leonel answered that he was a coffee farmer, and later, when they took his coffee farm away, he would describe himself as a social critic and political exile and, finally, an investigator of crimes against humanity.” Leonel became a threat to the El Salvadorian government precisely because of the ways in which he exposed the violent system of oppression that caused severe poverty, disease, and unhealthy living conditions for a good portion of the population. He did this by having Forché accompany him on his day-to-day dealings. He took her everywhere: the poor camps where people lived like slaves, the rich areas where important government and military officials lived, the U.S. embassy, a hospital with no supplies, and an unsanitary prison. He also took her to nature sites that had become dumping grounds for dead bodies that had been murdered and mutilated by death squads. Leonel was especially interested in a man named Ronald Richardson, an American who was murdered by the El Salvadorian government, the U.S. government’s sudden interest in human rights, and what they intended to do about the terrible conditions people were living in. Leonel had a very astute understanding of what human rights actually meant to the U.S.:
The people in your embassy will tell you, when you meet them, that you must view conditions here in a context. What they mean is that poverty in countries such as this should be considered to be normal, the way of the world, something that cannot be helped. They will ask you how many so-called Third World countries you have visited, so as to suggest that there is nothing special about this one, and also to imply that you are naïve. They will tell you to view the situation in El Salvador in context, so that is what I hope I have provided.
Leonel was hyperaware of the social structure of the country and how its own people sought to uphold the inequalities that set the rich apart from the poor. In one instance, he arranged to have a group of campesinos (poor people who preform slave-labor) meet a group of businessmen who were going to explain to them how they intended to improve economic conditions:
Okay, so we go into this carpeted conference room where graphs and charts have been set up. The businessmen were more nervous than the peasants, but finally we got started. After the presentation, the campesinos asked some questions, but the businessmen directed their answers at me rather than at the campesinos. It was almost like they wanted me to translate for them. They said tell the men this and tell the men that. Then the campesino who had ridden with me thanked the businessmen on behalf of the others and said: ‘What we really need at this time is a cow. We need milk for our village.’ The businessmen looked at one another, then at me. ‘A cow?’ one of them said. ‘We cannot give these people a cow.’ I asked why not. ‘You know why not,’ he said to me. ‘If we give them a cow—we can’t be setting that kind of precedent.’
Leonel was also interested in armed resistance—not because he believed it was an acceptable solution, but because he was primarily concerned with how oppression might be eliminated. He believed there were nonviolent ways of doing this, but he recognized that in order for oppression to be destroyed it had to start with educating the citizens, showing them that they could have a better life, and instilling that desire within them. He explained this very poignantly to Forché, who he referred to as Papu, a nickname given to her by a Native American couple she spent time with in New Mexico:
‘Revolutions do not go according to plan,’ he went on. ‘There must be thinkers among the commanders who understand the tactics of the battlefield, who can think strategically, and whose plans can be executed successfully so that they may command loyalty and respect. There must develop a strong bond among the fighters so that they will risk their lives for one another, not once but every day. And these fighters, who will nevertheless be hungry and thirsty, wounded and in pain, must respect the lives of the people, must not steal from them or harm them. And when the enemy is captured, he must also be respected and not harmed. Those captured must be housed and fed and clothed and treated for their wounds. None of this is easy,’ he said. ‘Armed uprising is one way to attempt to lessen repression and begin building a just society, Papu, but it is not the only way, and it is, without question, the most difficult, and when it is over, and let’s say you have triumphed, you must guard with great vigilance against becoming an oppressor yourself. This is the greatest danger. If you are defeated,’ he went on, ‘that’s another story. Waging a guerrilla war takes something more than waving red flags with hammers and sickles at the bull.’
Forché is very candid about her struggles in regards to the constant danger she was in as she experienced a country in severe political turmoil and intense poverty, Leonel’s refusal to give her details about his intentions and whereabouts, and his insistence on showing her what he needed her to see and expecting her to recount what she witnessed as accurately and as detailed as she could. She often felt like she was not suited to be the type of observer Leonel needed her to be, but eventually she recognized that her perspective was necessary:
…from now on, I would pay attention, and try to see as much as I could, not the world as imagined in my continuous waking dream, but as it was, not only the obvious but the hidden, not only the water cántaros but their weight, not only their weight but why it was necessary to carry water such distances. I would try to learn from Leonel how to listen to what was said but also to what was not said, and I would also try to learn how to detect deception in others, which, he assured me, is a skill that can be acquired. I would learn to review my experiences for the missed details, and to keep in mind that while I was observing others, they were also observing me, and I would become less (how did he put it?) readable, and when necessary, I would attempt, in his words, to “manage the perceptions of others” so that, of the “five versions of the truth,” in any given situation, mine might prevail.
Forché became so devoted to the human rights crisis in El Salvador that just before her second visit to the country, she started filling duffel bags with supplies, namely medical supplies that were sorely needed at the hospital where she had assisted Dr. Vicky: “I have no lab, no X-ray machine, no supplies of whole blood, plasma, or antibiotics, no anesthesia or medicines, no autoclave for sterilizing instruments. I have to boil them. The forceps are rusted. I have had to perform emergency caesarian sections without anesthesia.” In her attempt to obtain medicine, Forché explains that “The doctors’ offices that I called couldn’t help me with the penicillin, or any other prescription medicines for that matter. One suggested that I look in the Dumpsters behind health facilities as things were always being thrown away. The Dumpster was my best bet, they thought.” During her first visit to El Salvador, Leonel took her to a prison to observe the conditions the prisoners were living in. She was given a tour of the facilities by a man named Miguel whose sentence had been extended for his repeated attempts to orchestrate prison uprisings. He took her to a dark room and asked her to walk in and make her observations:
What I saw were wooden boxes, about the size of washing machines, maybe even a little smaller. I counted the boxes. There were six, and they had small openings cut into the fronts, with chicken-wire mesh over the openings. They were padlocked. As I stood there, some of the boxes started to wobble a little, and I realized that there were men inside them. Fingers came through one of the mesh openings.
Miguel explained to her that she had just observed solitary confinement: “Sometimes men are held in there for a year and can’t move when they come out because of the atrophy of their muscles. Some of them never recover their minds. Tell them on the outside, tell them.” Leonel also arranged for Forché to pay multiple visits to the U.S. embassy. In one such visit, she met with the newly appointed ambassador who Leonel describes in great detail:
He’s a graduate of War College. A Catholic. Before this, he was posted to Colombia, Uruguay, Chile, Portugal, the Dominican Republic, and Venezuela. He’s a seasoned career foreign service officer, as they say, which means that he has read not only his briefings, but also the back files….The thing to keep in mind is that this man is afraid. The right wanted him dead even before he got here, and they wanted to blame his death on the left. Now they are saying that some on the left would like, possibly, to kidnap him for ransom money, even though it is common knowledge that the U.S. government never negotiates abduction cases.
During another visit to the embassy, Forché met with the health programs officer who explained some of the programs the U.S. government had implemented to show that they were interested in improving the lives of the campesinos. One such program encouraged them to use the hospitals. Forché had visited the hospitals and knew they were in deplorable condition:
“Have you visited the local health facilities?”
The health programs officer patted her stiff hair and stared at me.
“The clinics,” I prodded as gently as I could. “Have you visited them?”
“Well, there are only so many hours in a day, and as you can see, I have plenty of work to do right here at my desk.”
The health programs officer also explained that they had programs “for population control and latrinization” which consisted of giving men condoms and providing campesinos with latrines: “She handed me leaflets for these programs, with cartoon instructions for how to put on a condom and how to set up and use a latrine. There were no words to accompany the cartoons.” One of the most intense situations Forché experienced was being called to a seminary—along with an American photographer named Harry who she would eventually meet up with again and marry—to protect a group of refugees that the El Salvadorian military was planning to kill. It was believed that the presence of Americans would prevent them from killing their own people:
I left the water and stepped outside, as did the photographer, until we were visible to the open trucks where the soldiers rode standing, pointing their rifles at the clouds, the engines idling. I heard a whir and click, whir and click. Click click click. The American was taking photographs, so I opened my notebook and started to write nonsense, looking at the soldiers as if I were taking down names. You could hear the din of the courtyard from the street: crying, shouting. The soldiers seemed all to have mastered a certain demeanor: set mouths, hard eyes, helmet straps over their chins. The photographer was still photographing. I didn’t want to go any closer, but they could plainly see me writing in the notebook. And then, just like that, one after another, the trucks wheezed into the road and drove away.
At the end of the memoir, Forché discusses meeting Harry again after returning to the U.S. They settle down together in Washington D.C. and have a son together. Not long after that, an investigator friend introduces them to a man named Alex, who ends up staying with them for a short time. Alex escaped from one of the death squads and was brought to the Capitol to tell his story. Forché often found him attempting to tell his story into a tape recorder:
…because of the times, I took refuge in military service. They promised me a special training for special work. I was to join an elite group, they said, and I was proud because of it, proud before my father and proud of what my intelligence had made possible for me. The training we received was very precise, very specific. At first it was about codes and code breaking, and then about surveillance techniques, and by the time it was about interrogations and disposing of people, it was too late.
When Forché asked Alex who he thought he was killing, he explained that “I was told they were persons of interest, and also that they were Communists and subversives and so on. You know, subversivos. They were all subversivos. But I had no idea.” He also came to a profound observation:
I’ve been making these declarations in the offices on Capitol Hill, and I have realized something. The Americans already know what’s going on, and have known for a long time. What’s going on is fine with the Americans, so what am I doing here? Yes, I tell them, we introduced civilians into the black-windowed vans. Yes, we were out of uniform when we did this. The people were hooded and bound and had no chance whatsoever to save themselves. We were under orders. So now the Americans know the truth….So it doesn’t matter now if they put me in prison. I feel much more tranquil. The information is released. I feel tranquil. And I don’t care whether the tape recorder is on or off.
After Alex gave his testimony, he moved to California where he was apprehended by a group of federal agents, deported to El Salvador, and imprisoned. What is important to note about Alex is the fact that he was removed from U.S. soil and refused asylum by the very country that funded the military dictatorship that coerced him into murdering innocent civilians. What You Have Heard Is True is not just a compelling memoir, but a retelling of a particular moment in history when the U.S. government willingly supported military dictatorships in order to prevent Communist uprisings. They were not interested in human rights; they were interested in economic superiority. Alex eventually began to realize, as he taped himself talking, that the people being interrogated were actually telling the truth; they had no valuable information to provide. Their murdered and mutilated bodies were used to instill fear and terror on a population with no political or economic power. Forché’s memoir is brilliant in the way it exposes U.S. governmental violence through its decision to uphold oppression rather than to provide tangible assistance to a country riddled with poverty, disease, and violence.
In the Lateness of the World is Forché’s strongest poetry collection to date particularly because of the way in which she fuses lived personal experience with poetic expression. This has always been Forché’s primary strength as a poet—her ability to translate the world around her into a poetic reading experience that is powerfully intense. This collection takes that strength to new levels. In the first poem “Museum of Stones,” the speaker gives an impressive account of the ways in which various stones have been obtained by the person being addressed:
These are your stones, assembled in matchbox and tin,
collected from roadside, culvert, and viaduct,
battlefield, threshing floor, basilica, abattoir—
stones, loosened by tanks in the streets,
from a city whose earliest map was drawn in ink on linen,
schoolyard stones in the hand of a corpse,
pebble from Baudelaire’s oui,
stone of the mind within us
carried from one silence to another
The first part of the poem sets the scene for the entire collection; readers are gently placed in the middle of an environment filled with political turmoil and their only tangible references are specific locations: “roadside,” “culvert,” “viaduct,” “battlefield,” “threshing floor,” “basilica,” “abattoir,” “streets,” “schoolyard,” “Baudelaire’s oui,” and “the mind within us / carried from one silence to another.” This is an interesting progression because it suggests that what is seen can only be truly made visible by the mind that internalizes it. What is seen becomes unspeakable between those who share the trauma of what they have experienced. The stone itself becomes the only physical object that can represent this type of suffering:
stone of cromlech and cairn, schist and shale, hornblende,
agate, marble, millstones, ruins of choirs and shipyards,
chalk, marl, mudstone from temples and tombs,
stone from the silvery grass near the scaffold,
stone from the tunnel lined with bones,
lava of a city’s entombment, stones
chipped from lighthouse, cell wall, scriptorium,
paving stones from the hands of those who rose against the army,
stones where the bells had fallen, where the bridges were blown,
those that had flown through windows, weighted petitions,
feldspar, rose quartz, blue schist, gneiss, and chert,
fragments of an abbey at dusk, sandstone toe
of a Buddha mortared at Bamian,
stone from the hill of three crosses and a crypt,
from a chimney where storks cried like human children,
stones newly fallen from stars, a stillness of stones, a heart
What is important to note about these stones is that they don’t catalogue a specific geological location, but rather, encompass a feeling that is universally felt among those who have inhabited war-torn areas throughout the world. The stones also primarily come from places where people who are fleeing political violence typically take refuge. In this sense, the stones represent spiritual comfort, what is left after war has destroyed the landscape. The ending of the poem is suggestive of this through a shift of perspective:
concretion of the body, as blind as cold as deaf,
all earth a quarry, all life a labor, stone-faced, stone-drunk
with hope that this assemblage of rubble, taken together, would become
a shrine or holy place, an ossuary, immovable and sacred
like the stone that marked the path of the sun as it entered the human dawn.
This poetic shift describes a desire to turn the stones into a symbol of human suffering so that the suffering itself can be cleansed from the political violence that created it. In this poem, Forché masterfully unifies the concept suffering through political oppression as it is experienced in different cultures and uplifts it as a way in which to achieve healing and enlightenment: “immovable and sacred / like the stone that marked the path of the sun as it entered human dawn.” Here, the stone is transformed once more into a symbol of newness, of possibility, of brightness.
“The Ghost of Heaven” is another important poem in the collection because it specifically connects to What You Have Heard Is True. Forché wrote the poem in memory of Leonel and it catalogues her experiences in El Salvador from a poetic perspective. It consists of ten parts all written in short narrative and lyrical bursts. Here are parts 6 and 8:
Bring penicillin if you can, you said, surgical tape,
a whetstone, mosquito repellent but not the aerosol kind.
Especially bring a syringe for sucking phlegm,
a knife, wooden sticks, a clamp, and plastic bags.
You will also need a bottle of cloud for anesthesia:
to sleep like the flight of a crane through colorless dreams.
Such experiences as these are forgotten
before memory intrudes.
The girl was found (don’t say this)
with a man’s severed head stuffed
into her where a child would have been.
No one knew who the man was.
Another of the dead.
So they had not, after all,
killed a pregnant girl.
Part 6 is a poetic account of the supplies Forché began collecting before her second trip to El Salvador. It is mostly a list, but the items are suggestive of something deeper: one person’s attempt to take on a humanitarian crisis situation that no one person can possibly solve, nor should they have to. Here, she takes on a burden that is not hers to carry; the governments responsible for El Salvador’s intense poverty are the entities that should be providing for the people they have crippled and terrorized, but aren’t. Part 8 is also a direct reference to a moment in the memoir where Leonel tells Forché why she can’t talk about the girl that was found with a man’s severed head inside of her:
…you can’t say it. You can’t write it. Even in a poem. If you had a photograph of the goddamn thing no one would believe you….Someday you will be talking to your own people. Writing for your own people. I promise you that it is going to be difficult to get Americans to believe what is happening here. For one thing, this is outside the realm of their imaginations. For another, it isn’t in their interests to believe you. For a third, it is possible that we are not human beings to them.
Forché gives space to this particular type of violence because it encapsulates more than what a military dictatorship is capable of. It points to deeply embedded inequalities that stem from racism: this type of violence is inconceivable to Americans because they cannot conceive of El Salvadorians as human beings. Their existence—and therefore their suffering—is outside the realm of American consciousness. El Salvadorians simply don’t exist. As a result, the violence inflicted upon them is not real. Here is part 10:
If they capture you, talk.
Talk. Please, yes.
You heard me the first time.
You will be asked who you are.
Eventually, we are all asked who we are.
All who come
All who come into the world
All who come into the world are sent.
Open your curtain of spirit.
This reads as direct advice from Leonel and it is empowering. Talking takes power away from the interrogator and gives it to the person being interrogated. It flips the script and allows the interrogated to maintain control of their conscious thought—which is precisely what interrogators attempt to seize power over. “Eventually, we are all asked who we are” is a liberative statement because it asks the person being interrogated to bypass the interrogator and communicate with a higher entity who has the ability to intervene in powerful ways. In this sense, talking is life affirming. “Open your curtain of spirit” is highly poignant because it encourages the interrogated to bare their souls as a way to diminish the interrogator and connect with their divinity which might ultimately save them from not just physical death, but from spiritual death.
In What You Have Heard Is True, Leonel makes an important declaration to Forché: “You want to know what is revolutionary, Papu? To tell the truth.” Readers of Forché’s work know that she has always strived to be a truthful storyteller in her poetry. In both of her newest books, she has taken that desire to be truthful into deeper and more poignant territory and it is an aspect of her work that should be commended. What You Have Heard Is True and In the Lateness of the World took Forché years to write and it is understandable to see why: she is dealing with intense psychic trauma on a personal and collective level. The memoir and the poetry collection both expose political violence in nuanced ways, but they also highlight a female speaker who has the courage, compassion, and boldness to present the world from her perspective. Carolyn Forché is an influential poet and memoirist for that reason: she inspires others to find authentic and creative ways to speak their truth, regardless of subject matter. For Forché, much of her work has always been concerned with history, war, and politics, but it is the way she presents these subjects through her unique and powerful point of view that gives it deeper meaning, which is precisely what Leonel was looking for when he invited her to El Salvador: a poet whose vision is clear and goes beyond the physical.
August 9, 2021