Melissa Batchelor Warnke | Longreads | May 2019 | 14 minutes (3,668 words)
“What you have heard is true. I was in his house.” So begins one of the most famous poems of the late twentieth century, Carolyn Forché’s “The Colonel,” which was part of an early body of work that seemed to contemporary admirers as if it had “reinvent[ed] the political lyric at a moment of profound depoliticization.” The poem describes a meeting Forché had with a Salvadoran military leader in his home in 1978, a year before the coup that sparked that country’s extraordinarily brutal civil war, which lasted for more than twelve years. The poem’s power lies in the quick juxtaposition of quotidian details — the colonel’s daughter filing her nails, a cop show playing on TV, mangoes being served — with his sudden sadistic flourish:
…………..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. There is no other way to say this. He took one
of them in his hands, shook it in our faces, dropped it into a water
glass. It came alive there. I am tired of fooling around he said. As
for the rights of anyone, tell your people they can go fuck them-
selves. 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?” the colonel says next. The implication is clear; the young human rights advocate’s writing is pointless, the colonel’s position will forever afford him impunity.
Censorship is a constellation of disparate but related experiences. Censorship can come from within, a feeling that your interpretations of reality are not worth speaking aloud; and from without, the knowledge that you will suffer for having spoken them. These types reinforce one another: you imagine that what you wish to say will not be received without backlash by another party, whether it be your community or the government, and so you do not say anything, or say something different, something you believe less or do not believe at all.
Censorship has long been a central concern for those who make their lives in the field of expression, and influential figures like Toni Morrison, Susan Sontag, Christopher Hitchens, Paolo Friere, and Salman Rushdie have detailed its corrosive effects. Morrison’s latest book, The Source of Self-Regard, contains an essay titled “Peril”; by virtue of its position (it is the first in the collection) and its framing (“Peril” is the only essay that stands alone; the others are grouped), it is granted unique significance. Morrison begins:
Authoritarian regimes, dictators, despots are often, but not always, fools. But none is foolish enough to give perceptive, dissident writers free range to publish their judgments or follow their creative instincts. They know they do so at their own peril. They are not stupid enough to abandon control (overt or insidious) over media. Their methods include surveillance, censorship, arrest, even slaughter of those writers informing and disturbing the public. Writers who are unsettling, calling into question, taking another, deeper look. Writers — journalists, essayists, bloggers, poets, playwrights — can disturb the social oppression that functions like a coma on the population, a coma despots call peace, and they stanch the blood flow of war that hawks and profiteers thrill to.
Censorship is, of course, pervasive in police states, where comprehensive data gathering and a foundational lack of justice circumscribe citizens’ movements; a 2015 PEN America report found 61% of writers living in authoritarian countries admitted to engaging in self-censorship, as did 44% of those living in semi-democratic countries. But their counterparts in liberal democracies share many of the same concerns, with 34% reporting they’d avoided writing or speaking on a particular topic, or seriously considered it, because of government surveillance.
Gómez has keys to every room, while Forché and the reader struggle to discern from what material such insider keys might be made.
There is a substantive call for greater writing and accounts of life from within marginalized communities, which would ideally include the inhabitants of authoritarian states and societies. But the perspectives of police state insiders are something an outsider by definition cannot, whatever effort they may expend, offer a comprehensive account of. Outsiders change the dynamics of a room when they enter it. What outsiders can do is relate what they have seen; they can tell us if what we have heard is true.
The first line of “The Colonel” became the title of Forché’s latest book and first book of narrative nonfiction, What You Have Heard Is True: A Memoir of Witness and Resistance. The celebrated American poet and human rights advocate has lived a dynamic life, working across the globe, but What You Have Heard Is True is somewhat mislabeled as memoir — a fact Forché addresses in the acknowledgements tucked at the end. In this book, she has sought to tell the story of what she saw, rather than the story of who she is or what she’s done.
In fact, What You Have Heard Is True’s subject, it slowly becomes apparent to the reader, is not Forché, but her mentor and friend, the famed Salvadoran advocate Leonel Gómez Vides. The narrative’s central frame is El Salvador between 1978 – 1980, where Forché lived on a grant in the lead-up to, and eventual explosion of, civil war; the book contains only circumspect glimpses into the rest of her life. The reader first learns, for instance, that Forché had previously been married when she dispassionately drops the phrase “my former husband” on page 196. She reserves the bulk of her precision for the Salvadoran advocates soon to be forced into exile; depraved military officers affecting superficial courtesies, like the subject of “The Colonel”; and, most exactingly, her courageous, complex shepherds: Gómez, Archbishop Monsegñor Romero, and advocate for the desaparecidos — the disappeared — Margarita Herrera.
There are innumerable examples of writers who have assumed the role of observer and performed dreadfully, and much of the ‘outside’ writing about countries in conflict remains paternalistic, obtuse, exploitative, or small-minded. (Years later, I still shudder to recall the opinion piece Bono published in the New York Times, in which he writes that a displaced 10-year-old Syrian kid “has the wisdom of the ages in his eyes.” Love to romanticize PTSD.) But Forché’s account shows how, in an environment where insiders’ abilities to speak about the conditions they’re being subjected to are severely constrained, the outsider can play an essential role. In her own anti-didactic, atmospheric manner, she implies that we who are able are obliged to play it — carefully. (For the purposes of this piece, ‘outsider’ refers to a person who, while they may also have citizenship in an authoritarian country, maintains citizenship in a freer country, while ‘insider’ refers to one who possesses citizenship exclusively in an authoritarian country. Simple language, while necessary, is necessarily reductive.)
The role Forché is concerned with, more precisely, is that of the witness. Forché told an interviewer she is reticent to “fall back on the foregrounding of a self having experiences.” And so as narrator, the Carolyn of What You Have Heard Is True is a blurred object, the motions of which are largely determined by the whims and decisions of others. Such a choice works to center Gómez, to whom Forché is the listener, and El Salvador, of which she becomes an observer.
“Witness” is a fundamental, oft-revisited theme in Forché’s work. In What You Have Heard Is True, she recalls carrying the words of poet and French Resistance member René Char in her notebook: “The poem rising from its well of mud and stars, will bear witness, almost silently, that it contained nothing which did not truly exist elsewhere, in this rebellious and solitary world of contradictions.” She includes the term in three of her book titles: What You Have Heard Is True: A Memoir of Witness and Resistance, and two acclaimed anthologies, Against Forgetting: Twentieth-Century Poetry of Witness and Poetry of Witness: The Tradition in English, 1500-2001. “Try to see, Leonel had said. It was what he was always asking me to do,” Forché writes. “Try to see. Look at the world, he’d say, and not at the mirror.”
Salvadorans repeatedly invite her to not only see but to relate the story of their struggle. “My child,” Monsegñor Romero says as she prepares to leave El Salvador after she is nearly killed, “my place is with my people, and now your place is with yours.” Upon her return to the United States, Forché published The Country Between Us, which the Poetry Foundation deemed “that most-rare publication: a poetry bestseller,” then traveled the United States speaking to “anyone who would listen” about its central subject, El Salvador’s political climate. She attended Congressional hearings and a meeting at the United Nations with Amnesty International. “We hoped to prevent U.S. military intervention, to provide sanctuary for refugees, and bring the war to the end, but every year U.S. military aid for the war increased exponentially, and so for most of that time, we believed ourselves to have failed,” she writes. She has taught, spoken, written about, and returned to El Salvador in the intervening years.
In What You Have Heard Is True, Forché, who is now in her late 60s, writes, “I hope I have at last fulfilled [Gómez’s] only request: that I write about what happened.” It is a testament to Forché’s humility that she feels she has not yet, across these forty dedicated and prolific years, done so. During the lobbying period, Forché remembered other words of Monsegñor’s, who had by then been assassinated: “We must hope without hoping. We must hope when we have no hope.”
Forché spends the bulk of her time with those who are doing organizing and documentation work in El Salvador, whose experiences are related through a mélange of scenes in cars and churches, colonias, casitas, and champas. She conveys the words of the Salvadorans she speaks with or observes in such places in threads of exacting, albeit often translated, dialogue.
What You Have Heard Is True begins in earnest when Gómez — insider social critic, coffee farmer, hobby motorcyclist, decorated marksman, omnilegent intellectual, veritable chameleon, charismatic shit-stirrer — arrives unannounced on Forché’s doorstep in Southern California, having driven from his isthmus country, two daughters in tow, to meet her. Forché is twenty-seven, working as a poet, assistant professor, and translator. She is established, having won the Yale Younger Poets prize for her first collection Gathering the Tribes and received a Guggenheim Fellowship, but, writing about this period of time, she does not name her decorations; instead, Forché tells the reader she was “too young to have thought very much about the whole of my life, its shape and purpose.” After Gómez proves he is the cousin of a friend, the poet Claribel Alegría, whose work Forché studied in Mallorca, she invites him in.
Forché intentionally relays context as it is relayed to her: interpersonally, often confoundingly, as if filtered through a broken sieve.
Gómez proceeds to spend the coming days — or perhaps weeks; time, as it often does in What You Have Heard Is True, blurs here — restlessly dictating the history of El Salvador, starting in 3114 BC and using, among other tools, maps, pamphlets, pencil drawings, Congressional reports, and inscrutable non sequitors. He then invites Forché to visit, insisting that such a trip will provide “the education that you missed in your U.S. schools,” insight into how conflicts spark and fester, and an opportunity to improve her Spanish. In exchange, she will tell her countrymen what she has seen. “War is coming, and the United States is going to play a pivotal role, as it always does in our region, and what the United States decides will determine how long the war will have to be fought,” Gómez tells her.
Gómez later sends a plane ticket in the mail, which Forché accepts. In El Salvador, the political climate is threatening and repressive. Forché and Gómez are told of, directly experience, or, yes, witness signs of the war to come: military curfews, wretched prisons, near-deaths, vicious murders, car chases, corruption, whispered secrets, and fear. Gómez has keys to every room, while Forché and the reader struggle to discern from what material such insider keys might be made. Though Forché admires, is even devoted to, Gómez, What You Have Heard Is True is not hagiography; the reader trusts that Gómez is a madman, never suffers under the illusion that he’s a saint, and, until the very end, doesn’t know whether his circuitous, sometimes bewildering, occasionally self-interested or apparently self-defeating efforts amount to anything.
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It is only later that we come to understand, and Forché understands, who Gómez was in a broad sense. He was neither CIA nor a member of the guerilla forces; his profound access was rooted in the fact that he could move between disparate groups, and that he’d talk to anyone, even the guys he hated. Ultimately, Forché learns from a source, “it was Leonel, working tirelessly for years, who ‘put the peace talks together,’ as they said, and brought about the end of the war.”
In a pivotal scene, Gómez brings Forché to a barrio to meet with a group of young Salvadoran poets. Uncharacteristically, Forché asks to cancel the meeting. Gómez exposes Forché to shock immersions and trauma as a matter of practice, but after he has led her to a room where prisoners are padlocked in wooden boxes, something within her snaps; she sobs, vomits, and grows angry. Eventually, though, she relents and speaks with the poets, in a small, bare home where a baby has just been born. They read, thank her for coming, and share their revista, which contains some political poems. Forché writes:
“We were hoping that if you translate and publish them in the United States, you will be careful not to say who gave them to you. These aren’t our real names, but there are other ways of finding out who we are, and we don’t know all of these ways. It’s just that we — we trust you, of course, but…”
“I’ll keep your poems safe,” I said.
That night I knew that something had changed for me, and that I wasn’t going to get tired or need a shower or want to call something off so I could rest, and I hoped that if I forgot this I would somehow remember Alma [the newborn] in the cardboard box in the barrio, and the mimeographed poems.
I never saw the young poets again. I don’t know what happened to them, if they survived or are among the dead. Shortly thereafter I wouldn’t want to know who people really were or where they lived, where they were going, or who their friends were.
Those whose sole citizenship lies with an authoritarian state cannot take the risks that more privileged outsiders can. They may be fired or fined, dismembered or disappeared. If they expose the truth, who will listen? Their media outlets are often government-owned. An outside byline could result in the loss of their livelihoods or their lives. Activists and advocates assume these risks regardless, like Gómez did. After eight assassination attempts, he was exiled and received political asylum in the United States, though he eventually returned to El Salvador. (Gómez and Forché remained confidants and colleagues for the rest of his life.) When Gómez died in 2009, his daughters, their mother, and Forché scattered his ashes high on the slope of the Guazapa volcano. She writes:
People ask me now what it was like to work with him 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.
Many of the Salvadorans Forché introduces the reader to are murdered for speaking aloud what they see, while others, often narrowly, survive. “Tell them on the outside, tell them,” Gómez implores Forché. Many outsiders have worked or are working at present to tell critical stories about authoritarian countries on an international stage. The risk an outsider assumes when attempting to bear witness is that the insider’s government, which traces its citizens’ thoughts and actions, will identify those whose thoughts and actions the outsider describes. The young barrio poet’s insight that “there are other ways of finding out who we are, and we don’t know all of these ways” is even truer now, as surveillance technology becomes increasingly advanced. Consent may be offered, but unless that consent is deeply informed, the responsibility for the insider’s protection should rest heavily on the outsider.
One way around this tangle is to write elliptically, as Forché has now done in myriad poetry collections; to fully anonymize sources, not just in name, but in context, as Forché has also done; or to let significant time elapse between the witnessing and the telling, as Forché does here.
Forché is neither a journalist nor interested in playing one, as she repeatedly tells both the reader and the Salvadorans she encounters. As such, she intentionally relays context as it is relayed to her: interpersonally, often confoundingly, as if filtered through a broken sieve. What You Have Heard Is True is remarkable for many reasons, not least of which is that in guiding us through an authoritarian country, where citizens’ accounts are necessarily shifting or stilted, Forché simultaneously mirrors and rejects such a country’s conditions. She cultivates confusion, even anxiety, but will not tell us how to think.
Bearing witness is not a passive act. One can see without witnessing. There are hotel pools across the world strewn with those who came to pursue a PhD, or aid work, or write a book, ambitions long forgotten in the plush comfort a developing country’s cost of living might afford Westerners. Now, the extended visitors hold cold beers, swim slow laps, take air-conditioned cars from those hotel pools to their air-conditioned homes round the bend. An outsider can breathe the air of another place without generating meaning.
With rare exception, the norteamericanos Forché and Gómez encounter in El Salvador are useless. One of Gómez’s pursuits — in which he has enlisted Forché who, as a young, white American writer, functions as witness, calling card, and occasional shield — is investigating the convoluted story of an American who Gómez believes was tossed alive from a helicopter into the sea on the order of a Salvadoran military official, and whose alleged murder was never brought for justice. When Forché raises the issue, the U.S. Ambassador tells her he regards the case as “unsolvable and hence closed.”
A few days later, Leonel heard back from someone in the embassy regarding my meeting, and it was “good news.” Apparently, I must have upset the ambassador quite a bit. “Congratulations, my dear,” Leonel said, “the ambassador said he was appalled by you.”
Needless to say, no action is taken on the case.
Once, Forché and Gómez visit an American hippie named Greg, who lives deep in the countryside, yet doesn’t speak a word of Spanish. Gómez asks Greg for help building a portable bridge, which would enable Salvadorans to access rural cooperative farms in the rainy season. Greg, Gómez knew, had been an engineer and when they arrive, he offers his help. “Just tell me what you want me to do,” he says. But after Greg realizes genuine assistance would require concrete action, he declines. “I studied engineering, but it was boring. I don’t, you know, want to get involved with all that stuff anymore. I came here to get away from all that,” Greg says.
Bearing witness is not a passive act. One can see without witnessing.
Another time, Forché meets with an American health program officer, whose flagship program is to encourage Salvadorans to utilize their dilapidated local hospitals and clinics. Forché, who knows how desperate these facilities are, asks if the officer has visited them. “There are only so many hours in a day, and, as you can see, I have plenty of work right here to do at my desk,” the officer replies, gesturing to a pile of papers.
This serves as useful, if unsurprising, context. The outsiders were barely present; the outsiders who were present largely did not help. Later in the book, Gómez says to Forché regarding a man she’d seen behaving strangely, and whom she suspected of being a bomber:
If you had a photograph of the goddamn thing no one would believe you. As for your man in the basilica, your observations are imprecise. Next time pay closer attention. 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 doesn’t strain to connect past to present, nor does she need to. The connections make themselves. The Chinese government interns an estimated million Muslims in concentration camps and Western diplomats barely bat an eye; it is going to be difficult to get Americans to believe what is happening here. A historic revolution occurs in Sudan and largely misses U.S. media; this is outside the realm of their imaginations. Central and South American children are stored in cages on U.S. land; it is possible that we are not human beings to them.
What You Have Heard Is True is powerful both for technical reasons — the book is a gorgeous literary achievement; it took Forché 15 years to write, which somehow seems a bargain — and human ones. The principals of Forché’s memoir are Salvadorans driven by the belief that they can, even in the context of pervasive censorship and surveillance, create more just societies. “It isn’t the risk of death and fear of danger that prevent people from rising up,” Gómez tells her. “It is numbness, acquiescence, and the defeat of the mind. Resistance to oppression begins when people realize deeply within themselves that something better is possible.” As witness, Forché sketches a world of both astounding cruelty and absolute possibility, a world that asks our full engagement.
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Melissa Batchelor Warnke is a writer living in Los Angeles. Her work is focused on gender, power, and pop culture.
Editor: Dana Snitzky