Learning to See: Carolyn Forché’s What You Have Heard Is True

What I think I’m doing here: Can’t stop thinking about this book. The post below will hopefully give you a taste, without giving too much away (it’s a book that rewards going in a little bit blind).

“Do you have any coffee? I’ve been driving for three days. I’m dead. And can you clear this stuff off the table? There are some things I need to show you. We have work to do.” Work? I remember thinking then, What work? But he was already pushing my papers aside and unpacking his woolen bag, woven with symbols and animals, among them an openmouthed wildcat about to pounce.

The story begins and ends in two American living rooms. The first room, in a 1970s townhouse in California, is occupied by a day-bed and a red papier-mâché horse. It’s bare, a place where a young poet and her roommate eat Chinese takeout and grade college papers. The second living room, years later, is in Washington D.C., “a rented stucco house on a leafy street.” It is a family room, its floor covered with Lego, marked by a purposeful domesticity, a photo of Oscar Romero on the wall. Both living rooms are visited by strangers from El Salvador. Carolyn Forché’s memoir, What You Have Heard Is True, a book I have not been able to stop thinking about, describes the journey from one living room to the other.

Although, in fact, the first scene in the book describes a dead body, cut to pieces, on the side of a road in El Salvador, foreshadowing the journey Forché (and we, her readers) are about to embark on. But, it is those two living rooms and what happens in them that make the story work. The reader is slightly bewildered when Leonel Gómez Vides appears unannounced on a poet’s doorstep in 1977 with drawing paper, the story of a dead American drifter in El Salvador, and his two young daughters in tow. Forché is no less bewildered, but is nonetheless willing to listen, willing to get on a plane to El Salvador, willing to sit in the passenger seat of Leonel’s Hiace as he takes her through a country on the brink of war.

“I was twenty-seven years old,” says Forché, “too young to have thought very much about the whole of my life, its shape and purpose.” The story she tells in her memoir, published when she was in her late sixties, is one in which a life takes shape and purpose is defined. From the beginning of her time in El Salvador, Leonel repeatedly urges Forché to pay attention, to see – and it is this seeing, a difficult task, which ultimately begins to define and shape Forché’s life. On her first trip into the countryside the following scene takes place:

He stopped the jeep in the middle of the road. “Papu, what are you seeing?” “What do you mean? A road. Trees.” He put the jeep into reverse and began backing up. “What are you doing?” He kept backing up. “No, really, Leonel, did we miss a turn?” … “Okay, we will try this again. When you see something besides trees, tell me and I’ll stop.” We drove slowly forward, so slowly that the jeep seemed to be struggling. Then I saw, through a sparse stand of corn stalks, a glint of metal, and what appeared to be a rubber tire, and finally a shack with walls made from the corrugated metal used for security gates. “Lámina,” I would learn it was called, a beautiful word I would write in my notebook, perhaps someday to use in a poem. Farther along, there was a cluster of shacks that appeared to have walls made from newspaper, could that be so? Palm leaves hung over the other shacks that were made of woven twigs. Then, although I hadn’t seen them the first time we drove up the road, the shacks were everywhere among the trees. “Wait. I see dwellings, I think.”

“When you see something besides trees, tell me” – this learning to see and then tell the truth about what she has seen is what Forché learns to do over the course of her time in El Salvador. The skill of her telling is that the reader learns to see alongside her – there is a sense of immersion as slowly a world begins to come into focus. The reader is not learning how to pick out a shack among the trees or identify potential assassins among the congregants at Mass, but to see the complexities and reality of what, for most readers, is a poorly understood conflict marked by immense suffering. In the process, readers are given the opportunity to see themselves and the ways in which they are implicated in what happens in places far away, to the citizens of so called “shithole” countries (to use a contemporary term), who too often dissolve into a single undifferentiated mass. Alex, the second stranger who visits Forché in Washington: “People think that what happens to someone else has nothing to do with them. They think that what happens in one place doesn’t matter anyplace else.”

As El Salvador descends into ever deepening horror Forché sees more and more clearly what she had been blind to before. And so does the reader. But, seeing more clearly does not necessarily bring comfort and nor does the greater clarity necessarily entail coherence. Things get more and more violent and chaotic as they come into focus. The details don’t fit a neat narrative. As the book continues, we start to read sections marked as “Written In Pencil” – notes of Forché’s in-the-moment observations that are snatches of nightmare – written in faint, erasable pencil, but impossible to forget. It is not an easy journey and I don’t try and summarize it here, because it is best to read it for oneself.

Years later, having seen what she had seen, and done her best to tell the truth of it, in poetry and otherwise, we find Forché living a more “normal” American life, married, with a young son in Washington, D.C. But, into this scene of normalcy steps Alex, former member of a Salvadoran “death squad” who comes to stay with Forché and her family. He is a young man who confesses to having done terrible things. He records himself late at night on tapes: “‘Hello. My name is Alex.’ PAUSE. ‘This is Alex speaking.’ PAUSE. CLICK. ‘This is Alex. When I was seven years old, I was a normal child of that place, without ideas and without a future.’ CLICK. … ‘What am I trying to say with these declarations? What can be done with the truth of one person?'” He has escaped the death squad, but no one wants to hear his story. It is a terrible story. At one point, he asks Forché: “‘Do you think I killed some of your friends?’ ‘What do you mean?’ ‘You’re looking at me as if you think I killed some of your friends.'”

There is no easy lesson to be derived from these final scenes in that living room in Washington D.C. There is no uncomplicated moment of reconciliation or redemption (Alex is eventually deported back to El Salvador and imprisoned). Instead of providing resolution, these final scenes place the chaos and horror of what happened in Salvador into an American living room covered with Lego and forces us to see it; to see the reality of what happened “over there” right here. It also speaks to the formation of Forché, her willingness to look even this full in the face, to invite this man into her home, to provide what she could.

Forché concludes her book:

People ask me now what it was like to work with [Leonel] in the early days before the war. Some still want to know who he really was, of course, but that is now becoming apparent to friends and also to enemies, as he knew it might one day. This is what I tell people now: It was as if he had stood me squarely before the world, removed the blindfold, and ordered me to open my eyes.

Forché’s memoir functions in a similar way, removing blindfolds, and asking her readers to open their eyes, even if they might not like what they see.

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