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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

    William2

    “The horror, the horror.” —Joseph Conrad The model here is Dante. Author Forché’s Virgil is Leonel Gómez Vides. He came to her home in California when she was in her twenties, accompanied by his two teenage daughters, on a mission he called the reverse Peace Corps. Though he was never so direct, he wanted Forché to bear witness to the forthcoming civil war in El Salvador (1979-1992). It hadn’t started yet, but it would very soon. Leonel foresaw it, and so felt it was important to have someone a “The horror, the horror.” —Joseph Conrad The model here is Dante. Author Forché’s Virgil is Leonel Gómez Vides. He came to her home in California when she was in her twenties, accompanied by his two teenage daughters, on a mission he called the reverse Peace Corps. Though he was never so direct, he wanted Forché to bear witness to the forthcoming civil war in El Salvador (1979-1992). It hadn’t started yet, but it would very soon. Leonel foresaw it, and so felt it was important to have someone around afterward who could speak to what it was truly all about. The hard part though, she must survive it.It was a civil war of the 1980s, one that pitted leftist revolutionaries against the alliance of countries, oligarchs, and generals that had ruled the country for decades—with U.S. support—keeping peasants illiterate and impoverished. It was a bloody, brutal, and dirty war. More than 75,000 Salvadorans were killed in the fighting, most of them victims of the military and its death squads. Peasants were shot en masse, often while trying to flee. Student and union leaders had their thumbs tied behind their backs before being shot in the head, their bodies left on roadsides as a warning to others. —Raymond Bonner, The Atlantic Leonel and Forché visit the dirt poor peasants, campesinos, Indians almost entirely. One day she watches Monseñor Óscar Romero perform the Roman Catholic Mass. She sees him off and on after that, sometimes dining with him in a group, and she is present at what she believes to be his final interview before his assassination; and on one occasion before she is about to leave, for the coup d’état has occurred and the danger is great, they speak, quite memorably. She is shown a rural hospital by a woman doctor which has no equipment or medicines. She spends the night in a peasant’s home and learns how the men go to the mountains to sleep at night to avoid the death squads who naturally work exclusively under the cover of darkness. She is a witness every bit as observant as Victor Klemperer in his two-volume I Will Bear Witness. But Klemperer was a Jew with an “Aryan” wife who suffered under the Nazis. Until the middle of the memoir, Forché is just a teacher in El Salvador on a fellowship grant. She’s compassionate but somehow not fully invested, if that’s the right word, in the crimes happening around her. Then Leonel sends her on a tour of a government-operated prison. Inside she’s shown to a special room by a trustee named Miguel 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, and I realized that there were men inside them. Fingers came through one of the mesh openings. Blood rushed to my ears, as I stood, trying to orient myself so that I could know not only where the room was but also which wall the boxes were against, and then I walked slowly towards the light of the open door and into the hallway, where Miguel was standing against his crutch. Miguel tells her: ’That’s the oscura, the darkness, solitary. 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,’ and then, raising his voice he said, ‘Carolina, it has been nice to see you again. Give my love to Anna and Carlos [his parents].’ (pp. 159-160) This is a watershed experience. Not even finding dead bodies in the street one night moves her as the prison does. Leonel continues to introduce her to various Salvadoran military officers. He coaxes her to visit the American Embassy and meet the new ambassador, for whom she gets talking points. Foremost among the points is the name of one Richardson, an American killed by a Salvadoran death squad leader named Chacón. Then there is an incident of brazen chicanery when Forché and Leonel meet with one old Salvadoran honcho, also to discuss Richardson, who may think Forché is the next U.S. ambassador. You have to read it. This section is just through the roof brilliant in its pacing—as is the entire book. Then Forché returns to the U.S. to take care of her academic responsibilities. Some weeks later Leonel calls her there to say Chacón has been killed. Are the seeds she helped to plant with both the honcho and the ambassador in whole or in part responsible for this outcome? Written in pencil: When someone joins a death squad he is in for life if you quit you might talk and no one wants to be fingered later for these crimes the first time such a man goes out on an operation he is tested by the others they tell him he must rape the victim in front of them and cut off certain pieces of the body they want to see if he has the stomach for this after that he is as guilty as the others and ... his reward is usually money why isn’t it enough to kill a victim why must each also suffer mutilation the death squad members must all be guilty of every murder so one rapes another strikes blows another uses the machete and so on until it would be impossible to determine which action had caused the death and the squad members are protected from each other by mutual guilt also when mere death no longer instills fear in the population the stakes must be raised the people must be made to see that not only will they die but die slowly and brutally. (p. 261) Then comes an extraordinary moment. She’s in San Salvador with her friend Margarita who gets a call. The government’s cohesiveness has broken. “Several hundred campesinos had fled the army and had been given sanctuary by the church.” Forché’s presence is needed at the sanctuary for it is believed that if American journalists are present, the army will refrain from massacring the AWOL soldiers. She goes, posing as a journalist, which she clearly isn’t. The people who had crowded into the courtyard were refugees from the combat areas of San Vincente and Cabañas, severing hundred of them.... I was giving a woman water when a child told me that someone was at the door and asked me to come. An American stood there, gaunt and exhausted, with two cameras hanging from his shoulders.... His Spanish was fluent, almost natively so. He was with Time magazine, was all he said, but “never mind that.” We had been told that as soon as the people were given refuge, a rumor flew around that the soldiers were coming and they were going to kill everyone.... I don’t remember that we exchanged another word. As one by one we heard the trucks pulling up near the entrance, engines thrumming, a seminarian who had been trying to calm someone down told me that it was time. I left the water and stepped outside, as did the photographer, until we were visible to the open trucks which the soldiers rode standing, pointing their rifles at the clouds, 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. ‘Well, that was close,’ I heard the photographer say under his breath. (p. 306) Here she thwarts multiple live weapons, a small army, with her pen—and the tired photographer, whom she later marries. The danger Forché puts herself in will set your hair on fire. Her simple style minimizes it, or seeks to. But she is permeated by the overwhelming selflessness of her fellows. So many people so willing to die. The US’s culpability—as it is also depicted in Thomas Hauser’s Missing and Neil Sheehan’s A Bright Shining Lie and elsewhere—is sickening. It’s clear to me that I have never really understood the Salvadoran civil war before. My new grasp of the truth is the gift of this fine book.

  2. 5 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, naive. Sadl “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.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Numidica

    6 stars. Monsignor Oscar Romero, who was beatified as a Saint last year by Pope Francis, was told by friends who loved him in 1980 that his sermons were angering the El Salvadoran military, and that he was taking too many chances. He replied: “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 6 stars. Monsignor Oscar Romero, who was beatified as a Saint last year by Pope Francis, was told by friends who loved him in 1980 that his sermons were angering the El Salvadoran military, and that he was taking too many chances. He replied: “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.” He was assassinated by the military while he was celebrating mass one week after he spoke these words. Carolyn Forche’, a poet, and a well and truly lapsed Catholic, was present at the interview and recorded it. Romero and his followers were a force for peace, and he was the best advocate the people of El Salvador had. As Carolyn 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 to, and an indictment of the brutalization and oppression of the Salvadoran 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 Salvadoran 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 ammunition, and were told to be ready for attacks by FMLN guerillas; in fact (as the CIA knew perfectly well at the time), the FMLN was only in El Salvador, was weakly armed, 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 for him. 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. Doc and I briefly made eye contact, and he smiled. 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, despite the good intentions of men like Doc, we were on the wrong side of history. The part of Honduras where we operated was, if anything, poorer than the Salvadoran regions described by Carolyn Forche’. All dwellings were literally mud huts that had thatched roofs of palm frond, 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 for the United States, it was a complete waste of time, money, and resources to deploy US forces under the guise of “fighting communist insurgents”. Most of the inhabitants were close to starving; indeed I saw many Honduran children with reddish hair and pot bellies, the visible markers of severely malnourished children. They needed better nutrition and healthcare, land on which to farm, and education, not protection from non-existent insurgents. Though they also needed protection from the patrones. 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. To put that in perspective, proportionally that would be the equivalent of 6 million Americans dying in a war. The brutal, vicious military government of El Salvador was by far 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 Salvadoran Army. And the consequence of pumping weapons and military training into these small countries has been the creation 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, people fleeing the conditions the U.S. helped create. 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? Reading this book made me angrier and angrier, because I went to Honduras as an American soldier in good faith, believing what I had been told about communist insurgencies in Central America. And it was all bullshit, and my government knew it while it was feeding it to us. 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 that put her at risk. 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, if not to save her life, then at least to tell the story of what was happening there to the American government and people. But in the early 1980's, America was not ready to listen. This is a moving, powerful book, not for the faint of heart, but important. Ms. Forche’ has followed the path of her duty in writing this account. It should be required reading for American politicians.

  4. 4 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.

  5. 4 out of 5

    Kathleen

    National Book Award Shortlist for Nonfiction 2019. Wow! This is a book about men and women exhibiting extraordinary courage and perseverance in El Salvador just prior to their twelve-year-old civil war (1979-1992) that the UN estimated killed 75,000 people. The memoir begins with a stranger knocking on Carolyn Forché’s door with his two daughters. She is a poet, having just recently won the Yale Younger Poets Prize from Yale and subsequently, a Guggenheim Fellowship. The assistant professor also National Book Award Shortlist for Nonfiction 2019. Wow! This is a book about men and women exhibiting extraordinary courage and perseverance in El Salvador just prior to their twelve-year-old civil war (1979-1992) that the UN estimated killed 75,000 people. The memoir begins with a stranger knocking on Carolyn Forché’s door with his two daughters. She is a poet, having just recently won the Yale Younger Poets Prize from Yale and subsequently, a Guggenheim Fellowship. The assistant professor also worked on translating the poems of Nicaraguan-Salvadoran Claribel AlegrÍa, whose work she studied in Mallorca. The guy on her porch is Claribel’s cousin. Leonel Gómez Vides convinces her over the course of a couple of days, to come to El Salvador and bear witness to El Salvador’s coming war—a “Vietnam from the beginning”. Forché is intrigued and eventually undertook seven extended stays between 1978 and 1980. On her first trip, Gómez drives her around in his white Toyota Hiace to meet with campesinos (peasant farmers), the US Ambassador, a lieutenant colonel at El Salvador’s military headquarters, and many more key people. He tells her again and again—“pay attention, keep your eyes open, remember what you see.” Bit-by-bit, Forché learns about the country and it is her talent as a writer that the reader feels her sense of disorientation through the process. The memoir includes Forché experiencing military curfews, observing horrendous prison conditions, watching vultures peck at mutilated bodies alongside the road, and even surviving two car chases by death squads. And everywhere are whispered secrets, corruption and fear. She met Archbishop Mensegnõr Romero [canonized as a saint by Pope Francis in 2018], interviewing him a week before his assassination by a right-wing death squad. She spent time with Margarita Herrara, an advocate for the ‘disappeared’. Not surprisingly, these experiences resulted in Forché becoming a life-long activist on behalf of human rights and a ‘poet of witness’. Who was Gómez? He was a social critic, a coffee farmer, a decorated marksman, an intellectual, a chameleon, and a charismatic pot-stirrer. Once the war started, he survived 8 assassination attempts, was exiled and received political asylum in the US. Importantly, he helped to broker the Chapultec Peace Accords in 1992. Gómez explains why he chose a poet rather than a journalist to bear witness: “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.” Highly recommend this moving memoir.

  6. 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 wi 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

  7. 5 out of 5

    Matt

    7.5/5 stars. This is one of the best books I’ve ever read and it has sunk its claws in me in a way I hope I never shake. What You Have Heard Is True is a memoir of poet Carolyn Forché's time in El Salvador immediately before the outbreak of the Salvadoran Civil War in 1980, after the assassination of the now-sainted Archbishop Óscar Romero, though in fact, the country was already at war with itself. (Briefly, before discussing the content, I should say that this book is beautifully written, poetic 7.5/5 stars. This is one of the best books I’ve ever read and it has sunk its claws in me in a way I hope I never shake. What You Have Heard Is True is a memoir of poet Carolyn Forché's time in El Salvador immediately before the outbreak of the Salvadoran Civil War in 1980, after the assassination of the now-sainted Archbishop Óscar Romero, though in fact, the country was already at war with itself. (Briefly, before discussing the content, I should say that this book is beautifully written, poetic yet tense as a thriller, vital, empathetic, intelligent, humble, challenging, complex, heartbreaking, with unforgettable images and characters. The audiobook, read by Forché herself, is a revelation.) The story begins with an unexpected invitation from Leonel Gómez Vide, a friend of a friend, to come to El Salvador, to learn about the situation so Forché "could come back [to the United States], and when the war begins... be in a position to explain it to the Americans." In a phrase, to bear witness. And so Leonel shows Forché El Salvador. She meets the campesinos, the peasant workers who exist on the edge of starvation. She meets with members of the Salvadoran military and tours a prison. She witnesses a young man, a student of about 18 years, be abducted by a death squad in broad daylight. She narrowly avoids the death squads herself. Many of the individuals she meets won't be so lucky. In What You Have Heard Is True, everything true counts. Leonel teaches Carolyn to hold the whole picture in mind. Leonel's efforts to get the US ambassador to take interest in an American citizen murdered by a high-ranked member of the Salvadoran military matters. So does his attempts to draw attention to the wanton brutality of the US-backed military dictatorship and its death squads. But the search he undertakes for one missing child counts too. So does the duffel bag full of Pepto-Bismol Forché brings on her second visit to El Salvador, where dehydration due to diarrhea is a leading cause of death. National politics and every individual life matter and must be considered because both are true. The gift, and responsibility, that Leonel gives to Forché is that of seeing, of imagining, without dogma (when Carolyn asked Leonel if he is a Marxist, he replies "I told you, I'm not religious"), clear-eyed, without looking away. One of the most profound details Forché records is Archbishop Romero's weekly reading of the names of "the disappeared," those taken and killed by the death squads. The reading is broadcast by radio across the country. The act of naming, remembering, mourning, and praying, publically, is an act both of political protest and an invitation to imagine the lives behind the statistics. Saint Romero bore witness, and What You Have Heard Is True follows his lead: it offers readers that same gift and responsibility, a call to imagine, to remember, to speak, and to act. I've wrestled with this review for hours now, and I know I'm failing to do justice to the maturity, beauty, and provocation of the book Carolyn Forché has written. Carolyn was about my age when she was asked to come to El Salvador, and during the first half of the book, I found myself longing for a similar invitation, for someone to show up at my door and present me with something vital to spend myself towards, a way to work for justice and peace, to save lives. But as I read on I realized that What You Have Heard Is True is itself that invitation, more open-ended, perhaps, and without the direct guidance of someone like Leonel. But an invitation just the same. That's the part of the book I can't shake; don't want to shake; am afraid to shake.

  8. 5 out of 5

    Jackie

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

  9. 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. 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.

  10. 5 out of 5

    Caroline Yoo

    I was really disappointed in this book after seeing the glowing reviews. It was especially a struggle to get through the first 100 pages, which focus on a man who shows up at Carolyn's place and spends a few days telling disjointed stories while he illustrates on butcher paper. This man is essentially a stranger, but she agrees to accompany him to El Salvador where there is impending war, and it is never even clear to me why she felt compelled to go. Carolyn is often lost and confused about what I was really disappointed in this book after seeing the glowing reviews. It was especially a struggle to get through the first 100 pages, which focus on a man who shows up at Carolyn's place and spends a few days telling disjointed stories while he illustrates on butcher paper. This man is essentially a stranger, but she agrees to accompany him to El Salvador where there is impending war, and it is never even clear to me why she felt compelled to go. Carolyn is often lost and confused about what she is doing and why; as the reader, I subsequently also often felt lost and confused about what was going on. It made me feel like there wasn’t a real purpose for writing about many of the events she chose to write about, like the random people she was meeting or places she was going. Her story is interesting, no doubt, but I felt like there was no real structure or direction to her writing. So much of what she wrote was vague and repetitive. I understand that Carolyn may have been attempting to draw the reader into her own disorientation, but you don’t need 200 pages to do this. There is a poor page to substance ratio in the entire first half of the book. As the story continued, I found it concerning that Carolyn met with multiple military or political figures without really seeming to understand the consequences of these meetings or what kind of initiatives she may be contributing to. After meetings, Leonel (the activist she accompanied to El Salvador) would tell her things like “You did a great job,” and she would have no idea what he was talking about. These are supposed to be life changing events, and she can't even tell you what she was doing or what role she was playing. I was looking forward to reading this story because it starts when Carolyn is twenty seven - what an exciting age to go out into the world and explore morality, humanity and self-discovery. With that being said, why doesn’t she ask more questions about what she is getting involved in? This is a memoir. Where is the introspection? The last hundred pages are much better, but overall, this book just lacked way too much cohesiveness for me. Upon finishing, my impression was that this was a great story with an inadequate author.

  11. 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.

  12. 4 out of 5

    José Peñate

    I am a bit torn about writing a review for this book. On the one hand, I do appreciate that an author has chosen to write a book with El Salvador as the background. There aren't that many books with this background and it does give the plight of the country a small spotlight. On the other hand, I think the book is largely self-serving. The background could have been any war-torn country. Let me put it this way: This is a "fish out of water" story but it's not a comedy. It's a tragedy. Obviously I am a bit torn about writing a review for this book. On the one hand, I do appreciate that an author has chosen to write a book with El Salvador as the background. There aren't that many books with this background and it does give the plight of the country a small spotlight. On the other hand, I think the book is largely self-serving. The background could have been any war-torn country. Let me put it this way: This is a "fish out of water" story but it's not a comedy. It's a tragedy. Obviously it's a tragedy for the people of the country that have no way of getting out but the kicker is that the author makes it a tragedy all about her. It's all about the horrors she saw and how she felt (ME, ME, ME). In the end, she reflects on the tragedies she saw but ONLY as they related to her son... (ME , ME, ME). I don't even think this person did anything to change anything at all. She went to see the tragedy as a poet and ended up writing a novel about her experiences (as they relate to her). Look at the cover of the book: it's a picture of her (a glamour shot). Maybe you can tell a book by its cover! Not cool. Not cool at all. I wish I never read this book.

  13. 4 out of 5

    Heidi

    I finished it, but was disappointed given the high ratings others have given the book. I would summarize the book as: Carolyn is in a hot Toyota van going somewhere with a guy she doesn’t know very well, meeting people and not knowing why any of it is happening. It bothered me how heavily she relied on “not knowing why” and it just wasn’t credible to me. Annoying that Leonel mansplains things in dialogue without ever saying much at all. Whatever they were doing there was never, exactly, explaine I finished it, but was disappointed given the high ratings others have given the book. I would summarize the book as: Carolyn is in a hot Toyota van going somewhere with a guy she doesn’t know very well, meeting people and not knowing why any of it is happening. It bothered me how heavily she relied on “not knowing why” and it just wasn’t credible to me. Annoying that Leonel mansplains things in dialogue without ever saying much at all. Whatever they were doing there was never, exactly, explained and by the end of the book I felt as hot and dusty as if I’d been along on their endless van rides. There are a few moments in the book that I appreciated very much, but if you’re looking to go deep on what happened during the coup, don’t bother.

  14. 5 out of 5

    Esther Espeland

    Ugh okay much to say! So this book was great! Gotta give it to her Carolyn is a poet and her prose is beautiful! But reading this book was very special given my own experiences. When I was a second year at Obie I visited/learned from a radical activist community in northern Cabañas that was hit very hard by the civil war. For about a month I heard testimonies from survivors of the war and learned from young activists who were risking their lives in political/protest movements that were the 21st Ugh okay much to say! So this book was great! Gotta give it to her Carolyn is a poet and her prose is beautiful! But reading this book was very special given my own experiences. When I was a second year at Obie I visited/learned from a radical activist community in northern Cabañas that was hit very hard by the civil war. For about a month I heard testimonies from survivors of the war and learned from young activists who were risking their lives in political/protest movements that were the 21st century continuation of resistance to North American imperialism. Truly one of my most important life experiences. Like Carolyn, this is experience politicized me and woke me the f up to the role the US plays in funding Latin American dictatorships! Like we are taught diddly squat abt how we fund and train death square that murder indigenous communities! We know nothing omg it makes me so mad that people think of Ronald Reagan affectionately when he was responsible for so much death So this book, written from the perspective of a young white woman who by the intervention and care of radical Salvadoreñosis awakened to the realities of the world, really hit home for me! This was a special read. This book would be a great primer for people who know little to nothing abt US involvement in Latin America, and it is easy to step into carolyns shoes and follow her journey, because this book is about people who know nothing being carefully and thoughtfully taught how to wake up and smell the coffee! I thought she did a great job crediting and honoring those who guided her and awakened her. Like this is her memoir but it isn’t about her in the slightest. It is about resistance and bravery and community care and I could go on! Ugh reading this I was flooded with mems! Eating tortillas, beans, crema, and platanos for breakfast, being consistently challenged in how I think, and calling every stray dog “chucho” Basically I could go on but in sum I thought this was a great book and everyone should read.

  15. 4 out of 5

    Dan

    This memoir conveys the horrors of the Salvadoran Civil War from 1989 to 1993. I did not love this book and a lot of it stems from the memoir aspect. I think if the author had conveyed the story in the past tense and more from a historian point of view it would have been more meaningful. She is an observer after all, she was not a victim of the Civil War. I really struggled to learn any details or historical reference until the end of the book some twenty years after her time in El Salvador. Thi This memoir conveys the horrors of the Salvadoran Civil War from 1989 to 1993. I did not love this book and a lot of it stems from the memoir aspect. I think if the author had conveyed the story in the past tense and more from a historian point of view it would have been more meaningful. She is an observer after all, she was not a victim of the Civil War. I really struggled to learn any details or historical reference until the end of the book some twenty years after her time in El Salvador. This was the part of the book that I really enjoyed. Her 3rd person writing is actually quite good. The story around Leonel, the man who plays a prominent role in the book, who recruited Carolyn to come to El Salvador was a little too mysterious or at least a little too much 'inside baseball' for my liking. 3.5 stars.

  16. 5 out of 5

    Megan O'Hara

    I have a feeling that if I read this at a time when my brain worked I would give it 5 stars.

  17. 4 out of 5

    Ashley

    I read it carefully, slowly, and closely for almost 1/2 the book before I started skimming it.... I kept trying to “get into it”. To understand what her purpose was in writing it... but... I couldn’t find joy in it at all. It simply isn’t good. She’s an American who apparently “translated Spanish poetry” yet didn’t speak Spanish. An American who is visited by a stranger who forces her to listen to his version of the history of El Salvador. Then, he tells her to go to El Salvador to “observe” with I read it carefully, slowly, and closely for almost 1/2 the book before I started skimming it.... I kept trying to “get into it”. To understand what her purpose was in writing it... but... I couldn’t find joy in it at all. It simply isn’t good. She’s an American who apparently “translated Spanish poetry” yet didn’t speak Spanish. An American who is visited by a stranger who forces her to listen to his version of the history of El Salvador. Then, he tells her to go to El Salvador to “observe” with her “poet’s mind”. Then she goes, because “what else is she going to do”... no joke, she actually says something like this. So, she gets there, knows nothing of her real reason for being there, is driven around by that stranger guy, and is put in supposed “dangerous” situations. She whines often, references lots of details about what she sees or had experienced in the past (which doesn’t really apply to anything) and that’s about it. I’m so annoyed I paid so much for what seems to be a self-centered mess. (She is “writing” about the violence of El Salvador, yet has her glamour photo on the cover. I mean, come on.) However, I’m going to give it a second chance at a later date and then update this original experience. We shall see...

  18. 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.

  19. 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. 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.

  20. 4 out of 5

    James Smith

    My review here: https://imagejournal.org/article/the-... My review here: https://imagejournal.org/article/the-...

  21. 5 out of 5

    Sam

    The first thing I thought of while reading Forché's narrative was the Oates story,Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?, from the collection of the same name. In Forché's case the influence was benign, but Forché leaves a sense of question as she relates the events in the memoir sequentially, from the appearance of a stranger at her door, showing hints but little foreknowledge of what is to come. The stranger, Leonel Gómez Vides, has heard of Forché through a cousin acquainted with her, and The first thing I thought of while reading Forché's narrative was the Oates story,Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?, from the collection of the same name. In Forché's case the influence was benign, but Forché leaves a sense of question as she relates the events in the memoir sequentially, from the appearance of a stranger at her door, showing hints but little foreknowledge of what is to come. The stranger, Leonel Gómez Vides, has heard of Forché through a cousin acquainted with her, and he has driven from El Salvador to persuade her to come to El Salvador because she is a poet. The memoir is his story as much as hers. Forché did go to El Salvador and experienced it under the tutelage of Vides. What resulted were poems like The Colonel, https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem... and this memoir. I found the memoir fascinating, but especially interesting in view of the Me Too movement. Vides had patronizing behaviors that would have made me cringe were I a woman, and Forché recounts these without explanation, defense, or contemporary criticism, keeping the focus on the story she wished to tell which I found admirable.

  22. 4 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.

  23. 5 out of 5

    Cynthia F Davidson

    Don’t Read This Book Alone Like the author says, in her final line of this searing memoir, “It was as if he had stood me squarely before the world, removed the blindfold, and ordered me to open my eyes.” Carolyn is writing of the man, Leonel Gomez Vides (1940-2009), who turned her into a witness of the horrors in El Salvador in the 1980’s. He was hoping ‘Papu’ would tell the world. She has honored that sacred contract. This book will remove the blindfold from your eyes, in case you still have any Don’t Read This Book Alone Like the author says, in her final line of this searing memoir, “It was as if he had stood me squarely before the world, removed the blindfold, and ordered me to open my eyes.” Carolyn is writing of the man, Leonel Gomez Vides (1940-2009), who turned her into a witness of the horrors in El Salvador in the 1980’s. He was hoping ‘Papu’ would tell the world. She has honored that sacred contract. This book will remove the blindfold from your eyes, in case you still have any illusions. It is best to have someone with you, like she did, when this happens. Being horrified, disgusted and enraged all at the same time is difficult. ‘With every increase in wisdom comes an increase in sorrow’ warned some sage long ago. We may feel so overwhelmed to learn the truth about what the author saw in El Salvador, we might not be able to function for a bit. At least we have the filter of her poetic sensibility to assist us whereas she could only hold a hanky over her nose and gag at the smells and sights of rotting, bloated corpses being picked over by vultures too fat with human flesh to fly. Carolyn translates the horrid into cold hard facts. The coercion, collusion and corruption of the US gov’t & Central American dictators is all here. But you can close the book and put it aside when you can’t bear to know anymore. What are the campesinos supposed to do? I hope you never look at the military, migrants or asylum seekers the same way again. Better yet, I hope you will be inspired to DO something. We can no longer allow our tax dollars to support the teaching of torturers and ‘counterinsurgency’ techniques. Resist. Or else.

  24. 5 out of 5

    Jill

    When I first heard about this book I wanted to read it because my son, Joel is currently living in El Salvador as a missionary for our church and I thought it would be a good way to learn a little about the history of the country where he is serving and the people he has already grown to love. It ended up being so much more than that. This is one of those books that has changed me and the way I see the world. It is beautiful and horrifying and courageous. I really enjoy memoir as a genre in gene When I first heard about this book I wanted to read it because my son, Joel is currently living in El Salvador as a missionary for our church and I thought it would be a good way to learn a little about the history of the country where he is serving and the people he has already grown to love. It ended up being so much more than that. This is one of those books that has changed me and the way I see the world. It is beautiful and horrifying and courageous. I really enjoy memoir as a genre in general, but I have a friend who dislikes memoirs and sees them as inherently dishonest because of the fallibility of human memory and people’s tendency toward hyperbole. I disagree. I think there is still value in learning from other people’s points of view. Do we dislike fiction because it is a lie? No. We recognize it has value as a story. We can still relate to the characters and learn from the human experience. I don’t see this as an issue at all with this book though because Forché mentions the journals and notebooks she kept of her experience several times throughout the text. In this way she is almost like a journalist (which she also points out that she IS NOT several times). Forché is a poet and to read the accounts of what she witnessed through her lens is to see the beauty, the tragedy, the heart-break, and the horror of this little country on the brink of its civil war. I feel like having a son who lives there has made me love this country (that I never really thought about and knew nothing of before six months ago). Forché’s love of El Salvador has only served to strengthen this in me despite the bullet-strewn and troubled history of its past.

  25. 5 out of 5

    Julie

    This was a much harder read than I thought it would be. I knew going into it that the author was writing about her time in El Salvador prior to the civil war; I wasn't thinking it would be a lighthearted fluffy memoir. Naive me however, wasn't prepared for the disturbing graphic violence. Do not read this while eating! Not that the memoir is like a Saw movie or anything but it included enough explicit violence - beheadings, disembowelings, corpses eaten by animals, dismemberments etc - that this This was a much harder read than I thought it would be. I knew going into it that the author was writing about her time in El Salvador prior to the civil war; I wasn't thinking it would be a lighthearted fluffy memoir. Naive me however, wasn't prepared for the disturbing graphic violence. Do not read this while eating! Not that the memoir is like a Saw movie or anything but it included enough explicit violence - beheadings, disembowelings, corpses eaten by animals, dismemberments etc - that this is not suitable for reading either with meals or right before bedtime. I had to turn to a celebrity memoir & read about Anna Kendrick's wacky hijinks as a young actress in Hollywood in order to clean my palate before sleeping. I appreciated the book, and was moved by it, the farther into it I read. It started off oddly. I didn't like how Forche kept the reader as in the dark and confused as she initially was. I get her motivation as the author for that structure, for not playing the omnipotent narrator explaining what was happening, but it bothered me emotionally. Forche the character in the book came across as passive, acquiescing to Leonel's demands, and generally acting irritatingly unassertive. As the book continued, Forche grew into her own woman and stopped playing the role of the ingenue to Leonel's swashbuckling adventurer. They both become more well rounded and human and less two dimensional. It seems like that is what Forche the author was intending, but it started me off on the wrong foot, pulling me out of the story by being dismayed at Forche's odd obedience. One thing I would have appreciated as a clueless American unfamiliar with Central American geopolitics would be the inclusion of annotations/notes about things she was referencing. Yes, I have a phone and the ability to google but doing that stopped the flow of my reading. It would have been nice to have read a brief clarification within the book itself. Forche doesn't pretend to have the answers to the issues surrounding the civil war. As repeatedly stated by Leonel, she is present to observe, to transmit her experiences to others so people know what is happening. She does that vividly, immersing the reader into the country. It wasn't dry facts she was imparting as much as emotions, moods, sensations. Forche is a beautiful writer and I thank her for giving me some insight into what happened leading up to the civil war. #popsugar challenge 2020/a subjectI know nothing about

  26. 4 out of 5

    Claudia Putnam

    How interesting that listening to this Audible book about witnessing horrific atrocities committed in El Salvador with US support was easier than listening to today's news. Most harrowing image: women's screams for mercy echoing through the jungle. Via the wild parrots. I wonder if those parrots have passed those cries on to their offspring, and if the women's screams can still be heard today? Second most harrowing image: men in solitary confinement, crammed into packing crates, and left there f How interesting that listening to this Audible book about witnessing horrific atrocities committed in El Salvador with US support was easier than listening to today's news. Most harrowing image: women's screams for mercy echoing through the jungle. Via the wild parrots. I wonder if those parrots have passed those cries on to their offspring, and if the women's screams can still be heard today? Second most harrowing image: men in solitary confinement, crammed into packing crates, and left there for years without relief, so that they cannot walk or unfold ever again. I was an international affairs major in college in the early 80s. El Salvador, Nicaragua, and South Africa were our causes during that time. Forche's poetry has been important to me for my entire adult life, and the piece whose title this memoir borrows is something I've read maybe a hundred times, and taught. It was hard, however, to endure the "young" Carolyn I-refuse-to-connect-a-single-dot Forche on her journey to El Salvador alongside the legendary Leonel Gomez. I suppose she was presenting herself as a stand-in for Americans in general, but really, could a poet in the Academy, with ex-pat Salvadoran poet friends, REALLY be that dense? And unobservant? I mean, a poet. As the story builds, young C does begin to bring her poet's eye to what she sees, but for a long time Gomez is asking "what do you see," and it's pretty much nothing. It's true I was in college specifically studying political science in general, international politics in particular, and it's true I started college in 1981, so there was more information out and about, thanks partly to Forche. But still--do you think it's a reasonable generalization that poets are more literal than fiction writers, who have to be concerned with subtext? At one point she actually resolves to pay attention to subtext, but I was amazed she didn't do this automatically, that she had to keep asking where people lived, who they really were, and why this and why that, and couldn't seem to grasp why they didn't want to tell her. Because you could be captured and tortured, duh. I actually yelled at her a few times, listening. And her age is no excuse. Twenty-seven was not that young back then. My son, now 29, would have had more sense in that environment than she had. It was hard to be patient with her. My neighbor, a former campesino, is not as impressed with Gomez, due to his aristocratic upbringing. "He was who the peasants were rebelling against," he says. "And maybe he paid his workers $2 more than everyone else, big deal." But people can't help what they were born into, and he does give Gomez some credit for how he dedicated his life. I would like to have learned something about how the peace held up, and what it's like there now--are the campesinos better off than they were? Less likely to be murdered? I think maybe a little, but I'm not sure the wealth really got redistributed. Also, Gomez was so interested in the tactics for fighting a Vietnam-like war, but does he agree with Vietnamese/Chinese approaches to land reform? There were some confusing moments. For example, Forche leaves El Salvador after about only 6 mos, but some of what she writes about the development of the war make you think she was there again. I don't know, maybe keeping this stuff straight was a hampered by listening to it rather than reading it. I didn't understand why she didn't recognize "the photographer" immediately when she met him later (more lack of observation?), and why she never mentions him by name, when he's quite famous. Why not give him credit? The characterization of ex-death-squader Alex was extremely powerful. After 9/11 people went around asking why America was hated abroad. The US has a lot to answer for, I would say, and our role in El Salvador is beyond disgusting. By the 80s, the communism boogeyman was quite ridiculous. I went to the USSR for a summer of language study in 1985 and could see quite clearly that a country that had peasants driving horses and wagons 10 minutes outside of its major cities was not a credible threat. There is no way our analysts could not have figured this out. The place was all for show. To take our supposed fears of Russia/Cuba and use that as an excuse for what we did in El Salvador and Nicaragua was cynicism at its highest. I wonder how the US participants in the death squad "advisory" groups could justify what they did. The information about their atrocities was available to the American public and certainly to college students in the early 80s. So, if you're in your 20s, and someone invites you, slow study that you might be, to go traveling through a verge-of-war Central American country, would you go? I'd like to think I would, though I was pretty tied down with husband, house, and kids at 27. Leaving that aside, I'd like to think I would. I believe I would have earlier, at 21, 23. Would you? So, full credit to Forche for going, for trying to make sense of it no matter how limited her perspective at the time. And for growing as an artist as a result. For making "poetry of witness" more possible in a time when the American poetry scene was unclear on whether it wanted to embrace work with political themes. (There are STILL debates about this.) The other poet to read along these lines is James Scully. His focus/experience was Chile. He took his whole family when he went.

  27. 4 out of 5

    Glenda

    When I began reading Carolyn Forché’s brilliant book “What You Have Heard is True: A Memoir of Witness and Resistance,” I thought I was reading a book that would tell me how to think about and make sense of El Salvador’s bloody history. I was wrong. What Forché asks of readers is to consider the valuable role artists play in recording history, which she began doing when as a 27 year old poet she agreed to travel with Leonel to El Salvador and learn: “It was as if he had stood me squarely before When I began reading Carolyn Forché’s brilliant book “What You Have Heard is True: A Memoir of Witness and Resistance,” I thought I was reading a book that would tell me how to think about and make sense of El Salvador’s bloody history. I was wrong. What Forché asks of readers is to consider the valuable role artists play in recording history, which she began doing when as a 27 year old poet she agreed to travel with Leonel to El Salvador and learn: “It was as if he had stood me squarely before the world, removed the blindfold, and ordered me to open my eyes,” Forché writes. The story, then, is as much the narrative of Forché’s relationship—her friendship—with Leonel as it is a witness to American policy in El Salvador. Importantly, through her recounting of events leading to war in El Salvador in 1979 and following to the peace treaty of 1992, Forché challenges readers to pay attention to actions our government takes in our name, something we don’t do well. Without saying it directly, Forché argues that American foreign policy in Central America has a cause-effect relationship, and we should realize what that means. The book is itself poetic in Forché’s prose, and it is a text I will return to often as a mentor text for its lovely language.

  28. 4 out of 5

    Lorrie

    This book is absolutely fascinating. It is marketed as a memoir, and technically it is about Forche's time in El Salvador just before the twelve year civil war that started in 1979. However, it is much more about Leonel Gomez and how this individual knocked on her door and brought her into his complex, political life. I listened to this as an audiobook. It is tough to fully understand how Forche ended up where she did, but we are all better for her poetic observations of settings and situations This book is absolutely fascinating. It is marketed as a memoir, and technically it is about Forche's time in El Salvador just before the twelve year civil war that started in 1979. However, it is much more about Leonel Gomez and how this individual knocked on her door and brought her into his complex, political life. I listened to this as an audiobook. It is tough to fully understand how Forche ended up where she did, but we are all better for her poetic observations of settings and situations that very few U.S. citizens would have been privy to, despite behind the scenes financing and political meddling from the U.S. government. Now if we (as a country) could learn from her cautionary words.

  29. 5 out of 5

    Lisa Allen Thakur

    A powerful, compelling account of a poet's witness to atrocities in El Salvador. The author's lyrical prose and the immediacy of the telling made this memoir an excellent read. I learned about the lead-up to the Salvadoran Civil War, which I don't recall learning in school, and the horrors Forché witnessed have a universal feel to it -- man's inhumanity to man. I would not have had her bravery, but I thank her for it. At one point the author quoted another poet, a Polish poet named Milosz: "If a t A powerful, compelling account of a poet's witness to atrocities in El Salvador. The author's lyrical prose and the immediacy of the telling made this memoir an excellent read. I learned about the lead-up to the Salvadoran Civil War, which I don't recall learning in school, and the horrors Forché witnessed have a universal feel to it -- man's inhumanity to man. I would not have had her bravery, but I thank her for it. At one point the author quoted another poet, a Polish poet named Milosz: "If a thing exists in one place, it will exist everywhere." Humanity may never learn that lesson, but I'm starting to.

  30. 5 out of 5

    Amy

    This is a book that takes some patience. The first half is fairly slow and somewhat repetitive, and a lot is unclear. But I had the sense the author had a reason for that, and I think the book turned in the second half and became terrifying.

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