Photo from What You Have Heard Is True (Harry Mattison)

Carolyn Forché is a poet, editor, translator, and human-rights activist. In 2013, Forché received the Academy of American Poets Fellowship, which is awarded for distinguished poetic achievement. In 2017, she became one of the first two poets to receive the Windham-Campbell prize. Forché is a University Professor at Georgetown University and lives in Maryland with her husband, the photographer Harry Mattison. She recently spoke with Commonweal’s Nicole-Ann Lobo about her most recent book, What You Have Heard Is True: A Memoir of Witness and Resistance. The interview, which was recorded for the Commonweal Podcast, has been edited for length and clarity. You can also listen to the segment below. 




Nicole-Ann Lobo: To start with, could you tell us a little about the period in your life the memoir focuses on?

Carolyn Forché: Yes. Well, I was in my twenty-seventh year. In the summer, I traveled to Spain with my friend whose mother was a Salvadoran-Nicaraguan poet named Claribel Alegría. We wanted to translate Claribel’s poetry into English. I spent that summer doing that and I heard them talk about a very mysterious relative of theirs who lived in El Salvador. They presented him very curiously—as a sort of a Robin Hood. He was intelligent and mysterious and he was a motorcycle-race champion and he had all these different interests, but they weren't quite sure who he was. They didn't know whether he was involved somehow with the developing guerrilla movement, or whether he was working for the CIA, or what he was doing. And that fall in November, he showed up on my doorstep with his two daughters and spent three days at my house—remember I was only twenty-seven, I didn't know anything about El Salvador except Claribel’s poems—and he talked to me for three days. His idea was that war was coming to El Salvador and he very much wanted a poet from the United States to come and learn as much as she could about the situation there so that, when the war began, this poet could somehow explain it to the American people, because he believed that the policy of the United States would be crucial.

Cover of What You Have Heard Is True (Penguin)

NAL: When I read your description of how you first met this man, Leonel Gómez Vides, I was completely shocked at how courageous and open-minded you were just to say yes to him. I was wondering what you think accounted for this decision.

CF: Well, you know, during that previous summer I felt really ignorant of Central America. And the people who were gathering every day to talk about politics and literature at Claribel’s house were very intriguing and compelling, and they had fled murderous military regimes in Argentina and Chile, Uruguay, Paraguay. I was very curious. I wanted to do something. I didn't want to just be a passive North American. And also, like many young people today, I wanted to do some good in the world. I wanted to join the Peace Corps, and I'd never done that. I had all sorts of ideas about what I might do with my life. And this was a moment when someone was actually opening a door, and presenting an opportunity to me. I knew that if I didn't walk through that door, if I said no, I could never really view myself the same way again. I could never tell myself I'd never had the chance. So for me, it was something I just had to say yes to.

NAL: It must have been difficult to relive so much of what you write about in this book. It's jarring to read so many descriptions of death and decay and violence all around. What made you decide to publish this book now?

CF: Well, it took me a long time to even begin writing it. I left El Salvador in March 1980. I did go back at the end of the war and several times since then, but I didn't begin my memoir until 2003—twenty-three years later. It took me that long to mature and to process my experience. I had written a few poems, as you know, about that time, but nothing else. I had to process it. I had to mature. I had to think about it and have some distance on it. And also during those early years, I was traveling around the U.S., giving poetry readings and talking about El Salvador and trying to help build a sentiment toward anti-intervention in Central America and toward sanctuary and toward witness for peace.

When I finally began writing, it took me fifteen years. I always wondered, will I ever finish this and are these events receding and far in the past? Will they still matter? To my surprise, at the moment when the book was finally published, we had the situation of the refugees fleeing the horrors and the dangers of Central America for our borders, and seeking refuge.

And so once again the story has become important to us—only this time, in another way. And so I was hoping to write a story that would allow young readers in particular, but really anyone, to go through the journey that I went through, to take that journey with me, and somehow come to understand how my activism was born and how my consciousness was formed, and also learn something about what these people are running away from, what the refugees are fleeing. Because of course people don’t just pick up their children in their arms and grab a rucksack with a few possessions and run thousands of miles through a desert. They don’t do that. They don't leave their homes unless what they’re running from is more frightening than anything they can imagine in their future.

NAL: You write in one passage that you would “never again feel the fear that [you] felt in those days, even in other countries at war.” And that there was “a special quality to the fear” that you experienced in El Salvador. Could you say more about this?

CF: Well, for one thing I would say that it was a fear that everyone felt. It was a fear that was in the air, it permeated life, it was the ground of our being, really. Because the time when I was there we refer to now as the “time of the death squads.” The war had actually begun, but it wasn't being called that yet. And at that time it was a war of terror against the civilian population—in the cities as well as in the countryside.

You know, the death squads were everywhere. They were apprehending people, people were disappearing. They were killing people. At the time I was there, I would say at its height, they were killing a thousand people a month in the capital city alone. So the quality of the fear was that you never knew. You couldn’t sleep, because most people were abducted or taken from their places of residence in the middle of the night. Or you’d be grabbed from the street. So if you were walking somewhere, or driving somewhere, or just in your room at night...anything could happen to you at any moment. So it wasn’t like being in a war where you’re either in an area where the fighting is occurring or you’re not.

The population of El Salvador was being preyed upon by squads of killers, who not only killed people, but killed them slowly and brutally and engaged in mutilation. It was very, very difficult. I never lived again in an atmosphere where every moment of daily life was permeated with fear.

Romero wasn’t unafraid. He was courageous, which means you’re afraid but you do it anyway.

NAL: Toward the beginning of your memoir you write about the Catholicism of your youth. Later, you met Óscar Romero, and you write that you had the feeling then that you were in the presence of a living saint. You describe a soft light seeming to emanate from his eyes and skin; you call it the light “sanctity bestows.” How did your experiences in El Salvador affect your personal faith or your spirituality?

CF: You know, that’s a really interesting question because I went to Catholic school for twelve years as a child and I was taught by Dominicans, and after my formal schooling in a Catholic school ended, I went out into a secular university and out into life, and it was during the time of the Vietnam War and the civil-rights movement. I drifted away from practicing Catholicism. It wasn’t that I was no longer spiritual, but I didn’t practice Catholicism and I had that sort of questioning attitude that all high-school students develop. And then I find myself in El Salvador and suddenly there’s the popular church, and people having Masses on boulders in the middle of the countryside, and I’m meeting these wonderful priests who are deeply committed to the poor and wonderful nuns also deeply committed to the poor, and I’m introduced to the principles of the theology of liberation.

And there is of course Msgr. Romero at the heart of everything. He is the one voice in the country that has any institutional power that is speaking back to this barbarity and this butchery. And you know, despite what it eventually might cost him, he was brave. They were all brave, these nuns and priests. I saw faith practiced in a living way. In a way that I think Christ would have approved of. I had never been in a community like that. I had never met Catholics like that. And I’m not saying that the whole church was that way because of course there was still the old, established, hierarchical, conservative church in El Salvador, but the vibrancy of the popular church was not to be denied.

So I tiptoed back into Catholicism through this. I said, “I’m not a good Catholic,” and Monsignor Romero gave me Communion anyway. Nobody cared if I wasn’t a good Catholic. Nobody asked me when the last time I went to confession was, because I’d have to be truthful; it had been years. 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.

One thing that really impressed me about the Salvadorans that I was with then was how they were really willing to die for each other. Many of them did die. So I saw fully a living church. And when you come back, and you lose touch with that living church, you feel it, you mourn it. It’s something you grieve the loss of.

I don’t really think I’ll ever see that again really, maybe it was also partly due to the fact that we were in such an intense situation. But it was alive. And Monsignor Romero? He was a human being. He said his knees used to wobble or shake when he was afraid. So he wasn’t unafraid—he was courageous, which means you’re afraid but you do it anyway. You’re afraid but you stand up anyway.

And I saw that light around him, or thought I did, the last time I was with him, which was about a week before he died. The light I saw around him was when he was thinking about his answers to a journalist’s questions. And I taped what I think is the last interview he ever gave, which was in response to those journalist’s questions.

And then after that, we went to supper in the kitchen of the Convent of Divine Providence where he lived—he had a little casita there—and Leonel and myself and Madre Luz and a few younger nuns and Monsignor all had supper. And that was when Monsignor said that I really had to leave the country, and I spent my time trying to persuade him to leave because he was in great danger, and we were all very worried about him.

And he said to me “No, my place is with my people. And I’m staying here. My place is with my people, and now, your place is with your people. You must go home and you must tell Americans about our situation.” I wasn’t quite ready to leave, and I was upset that I couldn’t persuade him to leave. But of course he had to stay, and of course I had to go…. We’ve all known he’s a saint for a long time, and I’m happy that the Vatican now knows it.

Nicole-Ann Lobo, a PhD student at Princeton University, was Commonweal''s 2019 John Garvey Writing Fellow. She currently helps organize the Democratic Socialists of America’s Religion and Socialism Working Group and lives in New Jersey.

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Published in the May 3, 2019 issue: View Contents
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