December 20, 2019

Some passages from What You Have Heard Is True

Some passages from What You Have Heard Is True by Carolyn Forché:


I was at the time quite young, with a romantic view of the world, and I was also an American, which made this worse.


“I don’t think you understand Leonel. I’m a poet. Do you know how poets are viewed here? We’re seen as bohemian, or romantics, or crazy. Among the poets I admire, there is one who waved good-bye before jumping from a bridge, another who put on a fur coat and gassed herself in her garage. Great American poets die broke in bad hotels. We have no credibility. Although this isn’t true of every poet, and I’m giving you the dramatic examples, when poetry is mentioned in the American press, if it is mentioned, the story begins with ‘Poetry doesn’t matter,’ or ‘No one reads poetry.’ No matter what else is said. It doesn’t matter.”

He appeared surprised. “Well, you’ll have to change that. In my country, and the rest of Latin America, poets are taken seriously. They’re appointed to diplomatic posts, or they’re assassinated, or put into prison but, one way or the other, taken seriously.”


From childhood I had experienced bouts of depression, and my mother had also suffered this during her child-raising years. I would find her in her room sometimes, crying and staring at nothing. She told me that I would understand when I was older, something she said about many things. In my own life, this darkness descended always unexpectedly. That is, it did not seem caused by particular events. The sadness arrived, stayed for a while, and just as unexpectedly lifted.

Something could, at times, push against it. Work did, and also the urge to do something in the face of some wrongdoing or injustice against another, and this urge swelled during the conversations on the terrace in Mallorca that summer, as I sat on the edge of the circle taking things in, until, toward the end, I also worked at being invisible, because it seemed, from what I understood from these conversations, that injustices of a political nature were not historical accidents, and that most injustices in Latin America were supported or made possible by the United States, or that was my impression. One of the visiting writers had even responded to my plaintive question regarding ways I might get involved with something like: There is nothing you can do, my dear. Change your government. Enjoy your summer.


Margarita had insisted that I be my own person. Leonel was also adamant that I think for myself, that I let go of my preconceptions, although I hadn’t, until then, been aware of having any. But all right, I thought. How to do that? Leonel had complained of my daydreaming, that I wasn’t paying proper attention to things around me in my waking life, so from now on, I would pay attention, and try to see as much as I could, not the world as imagined in my continuous waking dream, but as it was, not only the obvious but the hidden, not only the water cánteros but their weight, not only their weight but why it was necessary to carry water such distances. I would try to learn from Leonel how to listen to what was said but also to what was not said, and I would also try to learn how to detect deception in others, which, he assured me, is a skill that can be acquired. I would learn to review my experiences for the missed details, and to keep in mind that while I was observing others, they were also observing me, and I would become less (how did he put it?) readable, and when necessary, I would attempt, in his words, to “manage the perceptions of others” so that, of the “five versions of the truth,” in any given situation, mine might prevail.

“This place is a symphony of illusion,” Leonel often said, “and an orchestra needs a conductor.”


“Revolutions do not go according to plan,” he went on. “There must be thinkers among the commanders who understand the tactics of the battlefield, who can think strategically, and whose plans can be executed successfully so that they may command loyalty and respect. There must develop a strong bond among the fighters so that they will risk their lives for one another, not once but every day. And these fighters, who will nevertheless be hungry and thirsty, wounded and in pain, must respect the lives of the people, must not steal from them or harm them. And when the enemy is captured, he must also be respected and not harmed. Those captured must be housed and fed and clothed and treated for their wounds. None of this is easy,” he said. “Armed uprising is one way to attempt to lessen repression and begin building a just society, Papu, but it is not the only way, and it is, without question, the most difficult, and when it is over, and let’s say you have triumphed, you must guard with great vigilance against becoming an oppressor yourself. This is the greatest danger. If you are defeated,” he went on, “that’s another story. Waging a guerrilla war takes something more than waving red flags with hammers and sickles at the bull.”

He wasn’t exactly talking to himself, but he certainly seemed to have said all of this before, and possibly many times, but to whom?

“As Sun Tzu teaches us, ‘the supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting.’”

“Leonel, are you a Marxist?” I wanted to know this because it seemed to matter so much here.

“Marx was a great social philosopher.”

“But are you a Marxist?”

“I have told you, I’m not a religious man.”

The bus had pulled to the shoulder to disgorge passengers. The women bent down to hoist the water cánteros back onto their heads, and the men swung large sacks over their backs.

Perhaps to dissociate myself from those he considered ideologues, I might have said something critical about the Soviet Union at that moment. It hadn’t yet been a decade since the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia, and that is the lens through which I viewed the Soviets: from the kitchen table where Anna sat, listening to the radio with a handkerchief over her eyes. The Soviets had crushed the Prague Spring. They had sent their writers to the gulag.

“Remember that the USSR lost twenty million people during the Second World War. Twenty million. Leningrad was under siege for nearly nine hundred days. They were pulling wallpaper from the walls to eat the wheat paste. And, remember, they won that war in Europe for you. Without the Soviets, Hitler would have been victorious. What? You look surprised.”

“No, not surprised. Well, maybe a little.”

“Don’t get caught up in the rhetoric. If the Salvadoran campesinos fight, and I think they will, they must win. If they do not win, they will suffer for another two hundred years. But to win, they must defeat the Salvadoran military, and if, in this engagement, they are perceived as so-called Communists, the Salvadoran military will have the backing of the largest military force in the world. So. If you are going to wave a red flag around, you had better know where is the bull.”


“Let me give you a little history. Several years ago, some campesinos came to me and wanted to farm this land, which, as I said, had been abandoned for lack of infrastructure in the area. Who wants to grow crops when there is no way to get them to market? So I said yes, and we settled on the percentage I would be paid. Fine. At the end of each harvest I would visit, make arrangements to collect my rent, and it went on like that. Soon, there were a number of families farming the land. One year, the crops failed. I don’t know why. Maybe blight or drought or some such fucking thing –”

“You were charging people to farm your land?”

“This is the system here, but wait. That year, when I visited, I decided to cancel their debt because of the failure. Remember – I was learning something too. I told them that if they formed a cooperative, I would charge half what I had been charging. If they opted to stay on their own, the price would remain the same. The next year, I went back, and guess what? All but three had formed a cooperative. So I made good and charged the cooperative members half. The next year, everyone was a member. At that year’s meeting, I suggested they might want to do something for the children. I didn’t say what. You decide, I said – but do something. That is how the school appeared. And as each year passed, the people became more secure. If the cooperative continued, it was always half price, if the crops failed, no charge, and each year when I visited, there was something else to show me: the clinic, the playground, the new road, and then they began to paint the houses. I realized that the one factor, the one difference, and maybe the only difference was this: The people felt secure. They made decisions together, they took risks together, they shared the risk, and, very important, they knew I wasn’t going to kick them off the land.”

The engine heaved and pulled and the sun bore down on us. We were off the dirt road now and onto the paved highway that led toward the coast. There was salt in the air. I was smoking again and drinking from the warm canteen.


“That all sounds fine,” I said, “but – ” The water was almost hot.

“But what?”

“It’s your land. You are the one who visits. You are the one who makes suggestions, and you are the one who collects the money. You make the rules. Why don’t you just give them the land? They are the ones doing all the work.” I crushed the butt into the ashtray and leaned back, folding my arms across myself. “That’s what I think.”

We drove, listening again to the engine.

“I can’t give them the land.”

“Why not? Of course you can. You’re the padrino! This is paternalism, Leonel, pure and simple. You’re the jefe. Well, good for you!”

I pressed my bare feet into the dash, leaned back, and closed my eyes. “Maybe that was a little harsh. I liked your village. But it’s yours.”

This sounded smug and self-righteous and I knew it, but I didn’t know how to save the moment. The wind in the Hiace buffeted us because of how fast we were going on the paved road.

“I can’t give it to them,” he said again, flatly. “They have to take it from me.”


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