2019 National Book Award Finalist
"Reading it will change you, perhaps forever.” —San Francisco Chronicle
“Astonishing, powerful, so important at this time.” --Margaret Atwood
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.
APPLE BOOKS REVIEW
This harrowing memoir opens like a thriller and concludes as an elegy for humanity. When poet and teacher Carolyn Forché travels to El Salvador alongside a man she barely knows, she gets an up-close-and-personal lesson in Central American politics, bearing witness as the country teeters into civil war. Reading about this topic is intense and grisly—a meeting with a colonel who shows off his collection of severed ears is pure nightmare fuel—but Forché’s observations and interspersed poems find something close to beauty beneath the bloodshed. Offering a painful and unblinking depiction of state-sanctioned genocide, What You Have Heard Is True is a powerful reminder of how books can make sense out of the most senseless experiences.
Poet Forch (Blue Hour) writes intensely about her visits to El Salvador as the country edged toward civil war in the late 1970s. A poetry professor in Southern California, Forch knew little of El Salvador and its "silence of misery endured," until Leonel G mez Vides a friend's cousin, coffee farmer, and rumored CIA operative "too mysterious for most people" appeared on her doorstep in 1977 and, inspired by her writing, invited her to visit and learn about his homeland. Arriving in El Salvador four months later, she and Leonel met with political and military figures saying she was a poet, journalist, and professor on a fellowship to the country to create an illusion of influence, which he explained "might save your life" as the nation slid into chaos. Working alongside an overtaxed rural doctor with few medical supplies, farmers barely subsisting off the land, and a wealthy socialite involved in the resistance, she documented the growing brutality, hoping to translate it into poetry, spurred by Leonel's insistence that "This place is a symphony of illusion... and an orchestra needs a conductor." These notes became the basis of The Country Between Us, her 1981 poetry collection that addressed the atrocities in El Salvador. Forch 's astute, lyrical memoir offer glimpses into life in a war-torn country and contextualizes her early works of poetry.