"I am trying to check my habits of seeing, to counter them for the sake of greater freshness. I am trying to be unfamiliar with what I'm doing." - John Cage

Wednesday, August 28, 2019

How to know what we don’t know: a writer’s response to What You Have Heard is True: A Memoir of Witness and Resistance by Carolyn Forche´

 “What are we looking for?”
Carolyn Forche´ asks this question in the first 15 minutes of her new memoir.

About 20 minutes later, she is asked,

“What do you know about military dictatorships?” 

“Not much,” she answers.

“Good, I’m glad you know what you don’t know.”

Why is this memoir, What You Have Heard is True, describing her travels to El Salvador in the late 70s, so relevant today? 

Where do we begin our stories about immigrants arriving at the US border with Mexico? With their arrival and detention by ICE?

What if we started their stories with the story of El Salvador in the late 70s, and the history that stretches from then to now? What is the story of the parents of these parents?

Here in Tahoe we are lucky to have frequent opportunities to meet Forche´ and hear her read and discuss her work, as she has taught for the Sierra Nevada College Low-residency MFA in Creative Writing.

The title of her memoir is the first line of one of her arguably most well-known poems, “The Colonel”. Her writing, poems and prose, challenges her reader to pose their own questions, to know what they don’t know.  She presents the physical experience of her presence as she met this individual in his house:

 “ears on the floor pressed to the ground”
 “like pressed peach halves”
“there is no other way to say this” (“The Colonel”)

The only way for her to say it is to help us experience the visceral present through her use of language. She asks us to “read for witness”.

The moment in her memoir that stands out to me the most after finishing her book is from a surreptitious visit to a prison. She walked into a dark room in which small boxes were lined up with small wired windows.  She could see hands inside holding onto the wire.  These were prisoners who sometimes were held in the box for a complete year. When they were released, they could no longer stand as their bodies had atrophied.  

Here in 2014 she reads two poems from her second book of poems, The Country Between Us. Her poem “The Visitor” seems to recall this prison visit. The image of the hands repeats in this poem and echoes the image of the hands I was so moved by in her memoir, written 20 years later.

“The Visitor” by Carolyn Forche´

In Spanish he whispers there is no time left.
It is the sound of scythes arcing in the wheat,
the ache of some field song in Salvador.
The wind along the prison, cautious
as Francisco’s hands on the inside, touching
the walls as he walks, it is his wife’s breath
slipping into his cell each night while he
imagines his hand to be hers. It is a small country.

There is nothing one man will not do to another.



Forche´, Carolyn. What You Have Heard is True: A Memoir of Witness and Resistance. Penguin, 2019.

---. The Country Between Us. Harper Perennial. 1982.



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