Thursday, October 08, 2020

Review: What You Have Heard Is True: A Memoir of Witness and Resistance

I finished Carolyn Forché's What You Have Heard Is True: A Memoir of Witness and Resistance a couple of weeks ago and I'm still processing what I heard. Here's what I've sorted out so far.

First, it's a remarkable book about remarkable people engaging in a remarkable exercise. One part of the team is Forché, a poet with the perfect mix of curiosity, naivete, resilience and taste for adventure. The other player is Leonel Gómez, a peace activist that's equal parts professor, philosopher, profit, statesmen and James Bond.

Gómez appears to want, as the title of the book suggests, a witness to the events unfolding in late 1970's and early 1980's in El Salvador. He's not after a journalist to chronicle the world as he sees it. He's after an individual he can give a sort of Master Class on El Salvador to. From its poorest villages, to its most opulent homes. From the heart wrenching clinics and prisons to the sanitized US Embassy. From the depravity of death squads to the natural beauty of the land. The person Gómez seeks would have to have incredible patience, trust and fortitude to be able to process this experience. Gómez finds just the right pupil in Forché.

Forché for her part is willing to put up with Gómez's non-traditional teaching methods. At first she finds herself in merely uncomfortable circumstances, the likes of which would send the majority of us running home. But it's not long before her role as witness takes on significant danger. She's operating in a country that regularly finds its population tortured and murdered for reasons that are often a mystery. She's playing with the most dangerous kind of fire. Yet she perseveres.

I really enjoyed the way Forché has written her memoir. She delivers her story as it unfolded to her, often in a cloud of missing information. As a reader, I frequently wondered the significance of various actions or statements, yet no explanation is given. I believe that's because she didn't, or perhaps even now, doesn't know these answers herself. This lack of verbosity helps underscore Gómez's methods and we appreciate just how clever and risky his undertaking was.

I'm also struck by the horror of Salvadoran history. As an American, the conflicts we've fought on our own soil have been reduced to nearly black and white affairs. It was the colonists vs the British or North vs. South. But in El Salvador, the situation was far more complex. The Government was clearly responsible for human rights violations. But in many cases, the guerrillas were no better. The US backed the government, often making things worse. What is clear is that the people are the ones who suffered, often in unspeakable ways.

And somehow Lionel Gómez managed to navigate this hornet's nest to advocate for peace. In part, he did this by stoking the confusion around his own allegiances. Did he support the government? Maybe. Was he CIA? Maybe. Was he friendly to the guerrillas? Maybe. This campaign of misdirection didn't just let him pursue peace, it kept him alive day to day.

While Forché's book is powerful, perhaps intentionally I'm left with an awful lot questions about the Salvadoran Civil War. Yet, what the book lacks in historic details it more than makes up for in chronicling a most remarkable friendship and endeavor.

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