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

4.46  ·  Rating details ·  1,578 ratings  ·  270 reviews
The powerful story of a young poet who becomes an activist through a trial by fire

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 encou
Hardcover, 400 pages
Published March 19th 2019 by Penguin Press
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Start your review of What You Have Heard Is True: A Memoir of Witness and Resistance
“The horror, the horror.”
—Joseph Conrad

The model here is Dante. Author Forché’s Virgil is Leonel Gómez Vides. He came to her home in California when she was in her twenties, accompanied by his two teenage daughters, on a mission he called the reverse Peace Corps. Though he was never so direct, he wanted Forché to bear witness to the forthcoming civil war in El Salvador (1979-1992). It hadn’t started yet, but it would very soon. Leonel foresaw it, and so felt it was important to have someone a
Jun 19, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: politics, people
“It was as if he had stood me squarely before the world, removed the blindfold, and ordered me to open my eyes.”
What You Have Heard Is True: A Memoir of Witness and Resistance ~~ Carolyn Forché


I was so angry when I closed the cover of this book. Like the author, I felt like my eyes had been opened. Who & what do you believe in? No, who & what do you trust in? Why was the United States meddling in El Salvador in the first place? My European & Asian friends tell me Americans are blind, naive. Sadl
Jun 08, 2019 rated it it was amazing
6 stars.

Monsignor Oscar Romero, who was beatified as a Saint last year by Pope Francis, was told by friends who loved him in 1980 that his sermons were angering the El Salvadoran military, and that he was taking too many chances. He replied:

“One does not need to be fearful. We hear from Jesus Christ that one should not tempt God, but my pastoral duty obliges me to go out and be with the people; I would not be a good pastor if I was hiding myself and giving testimonies of fear. I believe that if
Julie Christine
Carolyn Forché was twenty-seven when she traveled to El Salvador for the first time in 1978. She was already an established poet, and a professor of poetry, at a university in southern California, but relatively naïve in world events when one morning, a stranger knocks at her door, holding the hands of his two little daughters. He clears a space on Forché's dining room table and begins to graph the history of El Salvador, in pictures and in tumbling, insistent words.

The man was Leonel Gómez Vid
Forché, a poet invited to bear witness to the events evolving in El Salvador during the seventies onwards: the Resistance, the brutal and savage repression by the military, and the plight of all from Church figures to campesinos. Death squads. Young men recruited with the promise of highly specialized military careers and the benefits of such to find they walked into a trap; there is no escape. Quick death is the best hope.
"What am I trying to say with these declarations? What can be done wi
Nov 02, 2019 rated it it was amazing
National Book Award Shortlist for Nonfiction 2019. Wow! This is a book about men and women exhibiting extraordinary courage and perseverance in El Salvador just prior to their twelve-year-old civil war (1979-1992) that the UN estimated killed 75,000 people.

The memoir begins with a stranger knocking on Carolyn Forché’s door with his two daughters. She is a poet, having just recently won the Yale Younger Poets Prize from Yale and subsequently, a Guggenheim Fellowship. The assistant professor also
7.5/5 stars. This is one of the best books I’ve ever read and it has sunk its claws in me in a way I hope I never shake.

What You Have Heard Is True is a memoir of poet Carolyn Forché's time in El Salvador immediately before the outbreak of the Salvadoran Civil War in 1980, after the assassination of the now-sainted Archbishop Óscar Romero, though in fact, the country was already at war with itself.

(Briefly, before discussing the content, I should say that this book is beautifully written, poetic
Jan 31, 2019 rated it really liked it
Shelves: giveaways
I won this in a giveaway. An interesting story about a woman I knew little about
Dec 30, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Forche is a phenomenal poet, and her poetry has long hinted at a raucous and rebellious life lived just beyond the margins, just out of sight of an ordinary existence. This is the story of that life, written with the poet's eye and ear for stark detail and with a born storyteller's narrative instinct.

Immerse yourself in this woman's life. It will change the way you live your own.
Caroline Yoo
Mar 29, 2020 rated it it was ok
I was really disappointed in this book after seeing the glowing reviews. It was especially a struggle to get through the first 100 pages, which focus on a man who shows up at Carolyn's place and spends a few days telling disjointed stories while he illustrates on butcher paper. This man is essentially a stranger, but she agrees to accompany him to El Salvador where there is impending war, and it is never even clear to me why she felt compelled to go.

Carolyn is often lost and confused about what
Apr 05, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Listening to Carolyn Forche read this book (through Audible) was an incredible experience. I felt honored to listen to the author read her own words. I can see the history of El Salvador and the United States as it was when Carolyn Forche was there, as the war began; and can see some ways history is playing out in current events today. This history, the lack of lesons learned, the lack of compassion and the lack of taking responsbility is a tragedy for El Salvador, for the United States and the ...more
José Peñate
Dec 30, 2019 rated it it was ok
I am a bit torn about writing a review for this book. On the one hand, I do appreciate that an author has chosen to write a book with El Salvador as the background. There aren't that many books with this background and it does give the plight of the country a small spotlight. On the other hand, I think the book is largely self-serving. The background could have been any war-torn country. Let me put it this way: This is a "fish out of water" story but it's not a comedy. It's a tragedy. Obviously ...more
Esther Espeland
Ugh okay much to say!

So this book was great! Gotta give it to her Carolyn is a poet and her prose is beautiful!
But reading this book was very special given my own experiences. When I was a second year at Obie I visited/learned from a radical activist community in northern Cabañas that was hit very hard by the civil war. For about a month I heard testimonies from survivors of the war and learned from young activists who were risking their lives in political/protest movements that were the 21st
Sep 26, 2020 rated it liked it
This memoir conveys the horrors of the Salvadoran Civil War from 1989 to 1993. I did not love this book and a lot of it stems from the memoir aspect. I think if the author had conveyed the story in the past tense and more from a historian point of view it would have been more meaningful. She is an observer after all, she was not a victim of the Civil War.

I really struggled to learn any details or historical reference until the end of the book some twenty years after her time in El Salvador. Thi
Megan O'Hara
Dec 28, 2019 rated it really liked it
I have a feeling that if I read this at a time when my brain worked I would give it 5 stars.
Joshua Buhs
May 19, 2019 rated it really liked it
As a true life story--almost unbelievable: like something out of a nineteenth century novel, random appearances of distant connections setting the protagonist on a journey of self-discovery.

As biography, simultaneously acute and vague.

This is Forché's story of how she transformed herself into a political poet (and wrote one of the most famous poems of the late twentieth century, referred to int he title, but not directly in the text). She has a clear vision of herself, and weaves together severa
Dec 15, 2019 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
I finished it, but was disappointed given the high ratings others have given the book. I would summarize the book as: Carolyn is in a hot Toyota van going somewhere with a guy she doesn’t know very well, meeting people and not knowing why any of it is happening. It bothered me how heavily she relied on “not knowing why” and it just wasn’t credible to me. Annoying that Leonel mansplains things in dialogue without ever saying much at all. Whatever they were doing there was never, exactly, explaine ...more
Kathleen Gray
Mar 16, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Fascinating. Forche had no idea what she was getting into when she went to El Salvador. Many of us have forgotten what happened in that country during the period of this memoir (and younger readers might not know at all). For that reason alone, this is a good read. Beyond that, and more importantly, Forche has a wonderful way with words. I'd not read her poetry but be assured that she brings a gorgeous rhythm to her prose. Thanks to Edelweiss for the ARC.
Nov 22, 2019 rated it really liked it
The first thing I thought of while reading Forché's narrative was the Oates story,Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?, from the collection of the same name. In Forché's case the influence was benign, but Forché leaves a sense of question as she relates the events in the memoir sequentially, from the appearance of a stranger at her door, showing hints but little foreknowledge of what is to come. The stranger, Leonel Gómez Vides, has heard of Forché through a cousin acquainted with her, and ...more
Jun 24, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: 2019
This may be the best memoir I've ever read, because it is about so much more than the author. It's a book every one of us Facebook revolutionaries ought to take to heart.

When Carolyn Forché was 27 years old, a poet, translator, and teacher, a camper van pulled into her driveway, and out came a man and two children. They came to her door, and Carolyn, finally convinced the man was not a serial killer, let them in, and thus began a life adventure that is the subject of this story.

Leonel, the man,
Cynthia F Davidson
Jul 23, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Don’t Read This Book Alone

Like the author says, in her final line of this searing memoir, “It was as if he had stood me squarely before the world, removed the blindfold, and ordered me to open my eyes.”

Carolyn is writing of the man, Leonel Gomez Vides (1940-2009), who turned her into a witness of the horrors in El Salvador in the 1980’s. He was hoping ‘Papu’ would tell the world. She has honored that sacred contract.

This book will remove the blindfold from your eyes, in case you still have any
Feb 03, 2020 rated it did not like it
I read it carefully, slowly, and closely for almost 1/2 the book before I started skimming it.... I kept trying to “get into it”. To understand what her purpose was in writing it... but... I couldn’t find joy in it at all. It simply isn’t good.

She’s an American who apparently “translated Spanish poetry” yet didn’t speak Spanish. An American who is visited by a stranger who forces her to listen to his version of the history of El Salvador. Then, he tells her to go to El Salvador to “observe” with
May 20, 2020 rated it really liked it
This was a much harder read than I thought it would be. I knew going into it that the author was writing about her time in El Salvador prior to the civil war; I wasn't thinking it would be a lighthearted fluffy memoir. Naive me however, wasn't prepared for the disturbing graphic violence. Do not read this while eating! Not that the memoir is like a Saw movie or anything but it included enough explicit violence - beheadings, disembowelings, corpses eaten by animals, dismemberments etc - that this ...more
Claudia Putnam
Jun 23, 2020 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: memoir
How interesting that listening to this Audible book about witnessing horrific atrocities committed in El Salvador with US support was easier than listening to today's news.

Most harrowing image: women's screams for mercy echoing through the jungle. Via the wild parrots. I wonder if those parrots have passed those cries on to their offspring, and if the women's screams can still be heard today? Second most harrowing image: men in solitary confinement, crammed into packing crates, and left there f
Jan 11, 2020 rated it it was amazing
When I first heard about this book I wanted to read it because my son, Joel is currently living in El Salvador as a missionary for our church and I thought it would be a good way to learn a little about the history of the country where he is serving and the people he has already grown to love. It ended up being so much more than that. This is one of those books that has changed me and the way I see the world. It is beautiful and horrifying and courageous.
I really enjoy memoir as a genre in gene
Dec 15, 2019 rated it it was amazing
When I began reading Carolyn Forché’s brilliant book “What You Have Heard is True: A Memoir of Witness and Resistance,” I thought I was reading a book that would tell me how to think about and make sense of El Salvador’s bloody history. I was wrong. What Forché asks of readers is to consider the valuable role artists play in recording history, which she began doing when as a 27 year old poet she agreed to travel with Leonel to El Salvador and learn: “It was as if he had stood me squarely before ...more
Mar 07, 2020 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
This book is absolutely fascinating. It is marketed as a memoir, and technically it is about Forche's time in El Salvador just before the twelve year civil war that started in 1979. However, it is much more about Leonel Gomez and how this individual knocked on her door and brought her into his complex, political life. I listened to this as an audiobook. It is tough to fully understand how Forche ended up where she did, but we are all better for her poetic observations of settings and situations ...more
Lisa Allen Thakur
Mar 29, 2020 rated it it was amazing
A powerful, compelling account of a poet's witness to atrocities in El Salvador. The author's lyrical prose and the immediacy of the telling made this memoir an excellent read. I learned about the lead-up to the Salvadoran Civil War, which I don't recall learning in school, and the horrors Forché witnessed have a universal feel to it -- man's inhumanity to man. I would not have had her bravery, but I thank her for it.

At one point the author quoted another poet, a Polish poet named Milosz:
"If a t
May 10, 2020 rated it it was amazing
This is a book that takes some patience. The first half is fairly slow and somewhat repetitive, and a lot is unclear. But I had the sense the author had a reason for that, and I think the book turned in the second half and became terrifying.
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Carolyn Forché was born in Detroit, Michigan, in 1950. She studied at Michigan State University and earned an MFA from Bowling Green State University. Forché is the author of four books of poetry: Blue Hour (HarperCollins, 2004); The Angel of History (1994), which received the Los Angeles Times Book Award; The Country Between Us (1982), which received the Poetry Society of America's Alice Fay di C ...more

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