Witnessing War, with Carolyn Forché

Witnessing War, with Carolyn Forché

The author of What You Have Heard Is True talks about her political education in El Salvador.

Carolyn Forché at Georgetown University in April 2018 (Wikimedia Commons)

Booked is a series of interviews about new books. For this edition, Patrick Iber spoke with Carolyn Forché, author of In the Lateness of the World and What You Have Heard Is True (Penguin Press).

The poet Carolyn Forché’s engagement with El Salvador stretches back to the late 1970s. In the 1980s, she toured extensively in the United States, reciting poetry and raising awareness about the role that the U.S. government was playing in the country’s civil war. Her now legendary poem “The Colonel” describes a harrowing dinner with a Salvadoran military officer. More recently, she wrote a memoir of her political education during those years, which takes its title from the first line of that poem: What You Have Heard Is True. The book, a finalist for the 2019 National Book Award, is now out in paperback, and Forché’s first poetry collection in seventeen years, In the Lateness of the World, was published in March. In February, I spoke to Forché about her work and career in poetry and politics. The interview has been edited for length.


Patrick Iber: How did your journey to El Salvador begin?

Carolyn Forché: I could begin with the day I heard a vehicle in my driveway and was not expecting anyone. But it really begins earlier, when I befriended a young woman who was married to a colleague of mine at San Diego State University. She was the daughter of a poet and kept telling me to read her mother’s poetry. Finally I did, and I was astonished to learn that although her mother’s poetry had been translated into a number of other languages, it had never been translated into English, and she was quite a formidable poet from Central America.

Iber: This was Nicaraguan-Salvadoran poet Claribel Alegría.

Forché: Yes. [Her daughter Patricia] and I decided to translate her together, which presented significant challenges not so much because of my Spanish (which was not very good) but because of my unfamiliarity with living conditions under dictatorships in Latin America. So Patricia suggested that I come with her to Majorca, Spain, to stay with her parents. Her mother would tell us the stories behind the poems and help us to come to an English translation that we felt did justice to the Spanish versions. That summer was really transformative for me. I spent my afternoons on Claribel’s terrace sitting just outside the circle of her various guests, who gathered every afternoon to talk about politics and literature. From them I learned a great deal about the dirty wars in Argentina and Chile, and much that was going on in Paraguay and Uruguay at the time. Many of her guests were exiles from those countries, so I was just trying to keep up, both with Spanish and with the realities that were opening to me. I began to realize that there was a common denominator in these stories: the support of the U.S. government for these military dictatorships.

I went home feeling frustrated. I was happy teaching, but I felt that there might be something more that I could do. At that moment a visitor arrived at my door with his two young daughters and turned out to be the cousin of Claribel Alegría. He stayed in my house for three days with his daughters. He covered my table with paper and began talking to me—he talked nonstop for three days and way into the night, stopping only to eat (which he was very fond of doing). He began with the whole history of Central America. By the end, he was proposing that I, as a poet, come to El Salvador soon because he believed that a war was going to begin in three to five years. This was 1977.

Iber: So he was right. [The Salvadoran Civil War lasted from October 1979 to January 1992.]

Forché: He was pretty good about when it would begin. I had no idea what he would want with a poet, especially a young poet whose Spanish wasn’t very good. He assured me that this wasn’t a problem and that I would be working with various friends of his, many of them women, who were doctors or social workers, and he would introduce me to people from all walks of life and show me the entire country. His idea was that I would draw my own conclusions and I would develop an understanding of the conditions out of which he believed this war would begin. He believed that poets, through their language, could touch human hearts. He believed that when the war began the U.S. policy concerning it would be decisive, and he was also right about that, it turned out. The book explains how I finally arrived at the decision, packed my bags, and arrived at the airport on January 4, 1978, with no clue about what was ahead.

Iber: This man, Leonel Gómez Vides, provided you with something like the political education that he intended to provide, and you take the reader on the same journey. One of the curious things about your experience is that as someone slightly out of place, you’re often suspected of being an agent of the U.S. government. You’re given entry to talk to some important figures in the military or in the government who think that you’re a channel to power. How did you think about that experience at the time?

Forché: I don’t think it was something that Leonel was quite anticipating. First of all, I had no idea it was happening. When I finally realized who they thought I was, I was horrified. I said, “You have to tell them that I have nothing to do with the U.S. government. I’m a poet.” And he said, “They’re not going to believe that. They’ll believe what they want to believe.” They were desperate to make contact with American authorities because already one of the colonels was receiving payment from the United States for his information and his knowledge, and others wanted this same benefit. And they were furious that President Carter had initiated a human rights policy, which required them to be certified as respectful of human rights in order to receive U.S. government aid. This had never happened before and they were insulted by it. How do you comply with the American demand to keep order and security on the one hand, and on the other hand comply with human rights? They saw these two things as more or less irreconcilable. What they wanted was for me to deliver a message to the White House. It was a dangerous time because while the war had not yet begun, the death squads were operating not only in the countryside but in the cities. By the time I left it was estimated that they were killing 1,000 people a month in the cities: these were civilians, students, labor leaders, priests, nuns.

Iber: The infamous “Be a patriot! Kill a priest!” pamphlet circulated around that time.

Forché: I believe I have one of those.

Iber: And Archbishop Óscar Romero [the Archbishop of San Salvador who was shot while delivering mass] was killed one week after you left. No one was really safe if they demonstrated any care for social conditions.

Forché: You didn’t even have to be truly committed to anything to wind up dead. It was enough that you were there. For example, housekeepers of people who were killed, such as the Jesuits [killed by a death squad in 1989], were also killed. A young altar boy with a priest was also killed because he was there. It was indiscriminate killing. And there was torture before the killing and mutilation following the killing. There was a kind of strange madness, and it did have a method: it was meant to instill terror and it did that.

Iber: Let’s talk briefly about one of your most well-known poems from that period: “The Colonel.” This is a man who, at a dinner, dumped a bag of human ears on the table.

Forché: He was fed up, he was angry. I imagine he wanted to shock me. He wanted to demonstrate that this is what it takes to keep order. As far as appeals for human rights are concerned, he told me where to go, as they say. He wanted me to tell President Carter where to go, because he believed that I worked for the U.S. government.

Iber: When did you decide to use the first line of that poem as a title of the memoir?

Forché: I have to give my husband (who I met in El Salvador) credit for that. I didn’t want a title that would sentimentalize anything, and I didn’t want one that would foreground me. I thought of it as Leonel’s story and the story of Salvadorans in general. I couldn’t come up with the title; my husband suddenly blurted out: “What about the first line of the Colonel poem?” I toyed with the idea, and I realized that it would announce this book as a testimony, and it would expand, elaborate, and clarify what happened in that poem, in a larger sense and over a longer period of time. That poem has puzzled people in the United States for a long time, and I’ve received so many questions, the most common of which is, “Is it true?” This title announces the book as an answer to that question, and many others. It was much more than a dinner party with a bag of ears.

Iber: As I was reading the book, I kept thinking about the parallels to Dante’s Inferno, with Leonel as Virgil, guiding you through the circles of hell.

Forché: Leonel said that! He said, “You are Dante!” I didn’t put that in the book, but I said, “So that makes you Virgil, right?” and he said, “Yes, my dear.”

Iber: One of the interesting things about the Inferno is that Dante continues on to purgatory and into paradise, but Virgil has to stay.

Forché: And Virgil did stay.

Iber: I wonder if your experiences after going to El Salvador and then traveling extensively across the United States, talking about these almost unbelievable stories that are nonetheless essential to communicate, was a kind of purgatory period for you?

Forché: One of the problems was incredulity. A lot of Americans did not want to believe some of this. And as some of us began to disseminate information about what was happening, the U.S. government opposed us. Journalists were accused of lying, for example, about the El Mozote massacre [in which a U.S.-trained battalion wiped out a village of hundreds of people]. I was accused of lying. I didn’t understand at the time that there was actually a concerted disinformation campaign against people who were providing alternative versions of Salvadoran reality that conflicted with U.S. policy. That said, people who had been active during the Vietnam War or had been in the Peace Corps or were involved in social movements were very responsive to the anti-intervention effort. I traveled to forty-nine states, mostly to give poetry readings, but also to talk about the situation. It was a relentless road trip, but I was very heartened by the response of U.S. citizens, most of whom had never been in Central America but whose commitment was immediate and was profound. This kept me going, and so did the thought of all the Salvadorans who were still in peril there.

Iber: Alma Guillermoprieto, one of the journalists who broke the Mozote story, has said that the U.S. embassy tried to cast doubt on the reporting about the massacre, without even visiting the site. To leave the embassy would have forced a confrontation with the violence that was perpetrated by the military and the government in its attempt to defeat subversion. And so the only way that they could process what they were doing was to block it out and sit at their desks all day long and not see the bodies.

Forché: They had to block out the reality in order to execute the policy. The other factor was that they were, frankly, afraid. It was horrifying to me that the U.S. government would maintain the fiction that these massacres were fabricated.

Iber: In Against Forgetting, you brought together what you describe as the “poetry of witness.” You compiled the work of many twentieth-century poets for whom the state had failed or turned against them: they were facing exile, state censorship, political persecution, torture, imprisonment, and so on. One of the things that is very notable about the book is that it includes witnesses of all kinds of violations. There are those who are facing repression under Communism in Eastern Europe, and their work is paired very directly with those who are facing repression under anti-Communism, many of them in Latin America. Can you talk to me about the choice to put those two things together, where some people might see some tension?

Forché: If you’ve politicized human rights then you would see them as opposed, but I was formed by an early membership in Amnesty International, which championed political prisoners and opposed torture and capital punishment regardless of the regime inflicting these atrocities. For me, regardless of the ideology of the guilty regime, one had to oppose this treatment of human beings across the board, in all cases.

Iber: To me it seems that it expresses a really important truth about the twentieth century, which is that many people did genuinely suffer under Communism, and that people did genuinely suffer under anti-Communism. But the whole point of Cold War propaganda was to convince you that only one of those things was true and mattered.

Forché: It was a Manichean view. The problem we’re having now is that our young people are discovering that, actually, we’re not wearing the white hats in much of the world. The issue really is ideology and ideological rigidity and the capacity of any ideologically rigid institution to inflict harm to protect itself. There are dangers inherent in any ideology, regardless of its aspirations, regardless of its articulated values. One gift that Leonel gave me was that deep understanding.

Iber: In addition to the memoir, you also have a new collection of poetry, In the Lateness of the World, your first in seventeen years. How did you experience the difference between writing now and writing in the 1980s?

Forché: In the United States it used to be anathema to write about politics at all, even about war. Poets who wrote about the Vietnam War were criticized for doing so. When I published The Country Between Us in 1981, it was immediately labeled as a political book. I was shocked by this because I thought it was simply first-person lyric narrative that had to do with my own experience. I hadn’t quite internalized yet how much my experience had changed, and this was reflected in the subject matter. Happily, poets are no longer constrained in that way. Poets can now write about warfare, racism, persecution, misogyny, and in fact, there’s almost a pressure on poets to write about those subjects in this time.

Iber: Does the poetry of witness in the twenty-first century need to be different from the poetry of witness of the twentieth century?

Forché: One thing I would say is that the work, poetry of witness, is not an identity; one is not a poet of witness. One writes out of one’s deepest convictions, obsessions, and experiences, and if those happen to be marked by horrific things, then the work will reflect that. I don’t think the twenty-first century will look much different than the twentieth century in that regard, except that humankind is now awakening to planetary peril and to environmental collapse and possibly biosphere death. It’s almost like you can’t write about nature anymore; there’s no such thing as the pastoral.

Iber: The poem that hit me the hardest in the new collection is “Water Crisis,” which goes directly to that. It begins: “They have cut off the water in the sinking metropolis / Do not wash clothes! Bathe only with small buckets! / Meanwhile, cisterns on the roofs of the rich send it / singing through the pipes of the better houses.” But in comparing the subject matter of the old and new work, it may be that the oppressive force of the state gives the “poetry of witness” a kind of power. The nature of state oppression may now be different.

Forché: It is different, because the state is different. Throughout the world, the institution of the state is withering and becoming simply an instrument of security. It has ceded much of its authority to larger economic forces. I’m not an economist nor am I a political scientist—this is just something that I’m observing. For example, in the United States we are seeing attempts to delegitimize environmental activism, even criminalize it. That effort is coming from extraction industries. Economic interests want to quash this kind of opposition.

Iber: Why did you decide to write this book now? Part of it is Leonel’s passing, but that was in 2009.

Forché: I started it in 2003, and it was my first prose book, so it took me a while to figure it out. I was interrupted by two catastrophes in my life that took me away from the writing. But why now? My father, who is now ninety-seven years old, said, “Why are you writing about this? It happened so long ago, who is going to be interested?” Then, around the time I began to finish it, people from El Salvador were arriving as families, seeking refuge at our border. They were fleeing conditions created not only by the war but by the failings in the aftermath, by the dissolution of the society. They were doing so in great numbers as I was finishing the book, and I thought, “It’s not over. It’s never going to be over.”

Carolyn Forché is an American poet, translator, and memoirist. Her books of poetry are In the Lateness of the World, Blue HourThe Angel of History, The Country Between Us, and Gathering the Tribes. Her memoir, What You Have Heard Is True, was published by Penguin Press in 2019.

Patrick Iber is assistant professor of history at the University of Wisconsin and the author of Neither Peace nor Freedom: The Cultural Cold War in Latin America. He is a member of the editorial board of Dissent.