Sometimes you don’t want to read a book because you know it will make you unhappy. You know you will be taken to a place without your full consent, made to see things, and then left alone there. Seduced and abandoned.
You know there will be cruelty, and evil, and devastating sorrow, because some basic facts of the story are familiar to you: death squads, murdered priests, raped nuns, assassinated Archbishop; the tortured and the torturers.
You read the newspaper. You think you know things. That’s how you hold knowing at bay.
It is likely I would not have read Carolyn Forché’s What You Have Heard Is True: A Memoir of Witness and Resistance if she were not coming to my university. But she is, and I did, and I now find the book lives in me, generating strange weather.
The story is startling. One day, a man drives up in a van to Forché’s house in San Diego. He is related to exiled El Salvadoran poet Claribel Alegría, whose work Forché had been translating. Leonel sends his two young daughters to play with the rabbits in the back yard, then tapes butcher’s paper to the kitchen table and begins a days-long barrage of visual storytelling, history lessons, interrogations—all designed to convince Forché that she must travel to El Salvador because dangerous and momentous things are about to take place there that she must see with her own eyes.
He says Forché must be a witness without saying why it is she, particularly, who must witness. This is never explained. She resists this buttonholing. (This, too, is part of her story of “witness and resistance”). But she goes.
Once in El Salvador, Leonel pursues an inexplicable course of action with Forché in tow. He has, in effect, appropriated her. He tells her to go use a latrine—so she can she what a latrine is like in El Salvador. He tells her to look again at the side of the road, so she will learn to see not just the crops, but the campesinos hiding in the crops. He takes her to black sand beaches to view the bodies of the murdered. He leaves her, often, with people she has never met. He tells her what to wear—put on a nice dress to go meet this military general. He poses her, so that she will appear to be various things: a woman, a gringa, a spy. She is young, and “innocent”—her fine features making her seem more naive than in fact she is—and she is a powerful sign, if used in the right way. Forché tells him a story of her time with an elderly Navajo couple, and the secret name they gave her there: Papu. This, too, Leonel appropriates. His aggression is sometimes shocking—not least because Forché accedes to his every request.
The “resistance” of Forché’s subtitle refers to the forces of insurrection against the ruling power. And we see some of that in her memoir. But we see much more a different dimension of resistance—a personal, psychological, and moral resistance to having one’s eyes opened and one’s position explained. This resistance of Forché’s is not willed: quite the contrary. She often comments she wishes she were better able to see things. But this kind of resistance cannot be gainsaid. It is a moral condition behaving like a physical one—inertial.
If I had declined to read the book, that would have manifested resistance as well.
I don’t think I’m playing with words. One of the startling things about this book is how it unspools complex moral and political realities at the level of individual experience, and almost only there: this is how you might slide from an understanding of resistance as organized political and armed to resistance as the aversion or cowardice a person might feel in the face of violence or upbraiding. Forché has given a lot of thought to this. She addresses the issue in Against Forgetting Twentieth-Century Poetry of Witness:
“We are accustomed to rather easy categories: we distinguish between ‘personal’ and ‘political’ poems…The distinction…gives the political realm too much and too little scope; at the same time, it renders the personal too important and not important enough. If we give up the dimension of the personal, we risk relinquishing one of the most powerful sites of resistance. The celebration of the personal, however, can indicate a myopia, an inability to see how larger structures of the economy and the state circumscribe, if not determine, the fragile realm of the individual.”
The individual, in this case the poet (one of the mysteries of this book is how seriously the figure of the poet is taken, not by the poet herself but by those around her) is both a site of resistance, both a giving and a withholding, and a “fragile realm.” The self is sturdy and ephemeral, obdurate as a rock, breakable as glass.
Towards the end of the memoir, Leonel says to her, “When you ask a question, I try to place you in a situation in which you might find your answer.” Given that Leonel typically produces the situations before Forché has any questions, this seems of a piece with his high-handed and charismatic seduction of Forché, a seduction that becomes more powerful by not being sexual.
Leonel’s comment has a deep truth to it, though. I know of no way to say this other than that Leonel is a novelist and Forché is his character. Novelists often testify to the strange autonomy of their fictional creations. They claim to have “found” a character who intrigues them, and then to want to see what that character becomes, how that character sees the world. So they invent situations to which the character must respond. Novelistic characters often feel both arbitrary and inevitable—somehow both flimsy and inescapable. Their world becomes real by being first surreal.
Forché has written a memoir of herself as a character in a fiction that is at first surreal, and then all too real. A world in which she has no option but to witness.