Review of What You Have Heard Is True
By Carolyn Forché
Penguin Press 2019
Review by Ginny Short
A mentor in one of my nonfiction workshops at Regis, University once advised me to “Think like a poet, write like a novelist and tell the truth.” I’ve thought about this often, sometimes with puzzlement, sometimes with despair. How does one do this?
Then I read this book. Carolyn Forché succeeds so well in this prescription that I could not put the book down. The story is that of a young woman who is recruited as a witness during the civil war in El Salvador. Conscripted is the right word, and yet it is not. Ms. Forché was approached by an El Salvadorian National, Leonel Gomez Vides in 1977, who invited her to come to see his country. It is a puzzling and interesting relationship. When asked why he was approaching her he responded, “Because of your poetry book, and Maya’s letter. She told me all about you.” Because she is a poet.
In my view, this book justifies his choice of a poet for his witness. The book is a beautifully told story of her experience of El Salvador and its people, the country and the human rights violations that she witnesses. She tells her story and that of the people she Leonel introduces her to. The elusive Leonel (“…too mysterious for most people,” says Maya. “…it is also possible that he is with the CIA” Maya’s father opines) approaches her and invites her to visit El Salvador, a crazy idea that Forché is drawn to. Once in El Salvador – and not always certain why she is there – she is taken step by step into seeing the world around her.
This is a book about seeing, and isn’t that what witnessing is? To see and attest to a fact or event, someone who knows something, sees something. It is easy to forget – as we are surrounded by our SUVs and country gardens and Starbucks on every corner that not everyone lives the way we do. In these days of rising tempers around the issue of migration, it is good to remember that other places are not like ours. This witness is not limited to time, but is as relevant today as it was to the events Ms. Forché is drawn into.
The world she is drawn into is both beautiful (From the high steps, the market stalls were a flotilla roofed by market tents like sails, white and hard to the wind, luffing at the edges, bright and taut, and beneath them people moved like schools of fish in the swells of commerce) and terrifying (“What happens to the unlucky?” “What happens? They are disappeared. The become desaparecidos. We don’t know after that, unless the corpse is found and even then we don’t know because they are, how do you say it? Beyond recognition”).
Forché’s text is lyrical and moving, and she brings to us the reminder the power of story. This one reminds us of the need to be aware, to pay attention, and to not take our lives for granted. She brings to the conversation the need for empathy, the need to remember that we are all part of the same and that we are responsible, we are part of the problem. She impresses with the need to witness, more than the fact of her own act of witnessing.
 Maya was a friend of Ms. Forché’s and Leonel Vidas’ cousin.