» Interview

Finding the Final Sentence: A Conversation with Carolyn Forché

* This interview was conducted at the Miami Book Fair in Miami, Florida on November 19, 2023. The interview has been edited for length and clarity. The interview concerns the memoir What You Have Heard Is True: A Memoir of Witness and Resistance (Penguin Press, 2019), a 2019 National Book Award Finalist.


Chelsea Alice: Something I love about your memoir What You Have Heard is True is how present we are in the moment with you as we’re reading. Could you talk about what that process was like for you to write in that way?


Carolyn Forché: I wrote four versions of this memoir. And the first two, I just completely had to tear apart and put away. They weren’t what I wanted. I didn’t know what I wanted, but I knew what I didn’t want. And I realized, after I’d written the other two versions, that I wanted to bring the reader with me on the journey. So, I made a decision that I would never let the reader know more than I knew in any moment. I tried not to interrupt the dream of the experience by intervening and making commentaries from my present self. I tried to recreate my twenty-seven-year-old self and reenact the journey with Leonel [Goméz Vides] and everything that happened along the way. I included all of her confusions and guesswork and misgivings. I wanted the reader to feel what it was like to go through that particular transformation, that education.


It helps, when you’re writing a book-length work of prose, to make decisions that give you some boundaries about what you will and will not be doing. For example, that decision helped me enormously. And had to do with pacing. I decided not to write long, sustained narrative chapters. I decided to write almost prose poems and self-contained units of prose. I was then able to move them around, where they would appear, so that, for example, the book doesn’t begin with the doorbell ringing. The story begins with the doorbell ringing, but not the book. I include a scene from well into the experience as the beginning. Once you get through that, those first two pages, the doorbell rings, and you’re following the journey as it unfolds.


Chelsea Alice: How was it for you to revisit all of those memories?


Carolyn Forché: Those were the two most vivid years of my life because of the heightened emotion I was feeling while I was living them. I’ve learned since that memory registers more deeply and indelibly when the experience is accompanied by an intensity of feeling. I had that, but for years I put it off. I didn’t want to write the book. I knew I had to write it someday. I promised I would, but I always told myself I wasn’t ready. I just didn’t know enough yet. The war was still going on, and I wanted to be careful. I always had a reason. The real reason was that I knew I was going to have to relive the experience. And I knew that it was going to be hard to do that, especially after Leonel died. It was going to be painful.


I didn’t know anything about writing prose, and I didn’t know about structure. I loved writing sentences, and I would write sentences and polish them because I was a poet. I was used to polishing things and writing short things I could work with in an intense way. And this was a 400-page sustained work. For me, the process involved getting rid of the first braided narrative because it shouldn’t be braided. With the second narrative, I took out even more. Then I had to amplify and include things that weren’t yet there. By the fourth version, I tried to recreate myself as I was then and not as I am now. All of my impatience, my stupidities, and my petulance and arguing with him, all of that had to be there. I had to show my flaws because I did not yet know what I know now.


And I wanted to capture Leonel because he was a remarkable, intriguing, amazing, mysterious, terribly funny guy. He’s alive in that book. You really meet him as he was. And, for me, that is the book’s best accomplishment. Over the years, Salvadoran students, at universities at which I taught, would ask me to tell them what happened. Their parents had brought them to the United States and wouldn’t talk about it with them. Parents didn’t want to talk about the horrors of that time. I don’t blame them, but the kids wanted to know. So, the other reason to write this was to tell the Salvadoran students some of what their parents went through in those years.


Until I wrote the last sentence, I worried I wouldn’t be able to accomplish the portrait, you know, that the book wouldn’t be good enough and that I would never finish. I took a writing residency for two weeks, and I gave myself a deadline: finish the book in two weeks or put it in a box and admit I couldn’t write it. The second to the last day before I left, I found the last sentence.


Chelsea Alice: I’d like to ask about “The Colonel” because that was a poem that someone recommended I read before I went on a trip to Peru. I read it on my way down, and the poem resonated with me. On my way back, six days later, I reread it, and it was very different that time. The poem resonated with me in a more powerful way, having experienced Peru.


Carolyn Forché: I understand.


Chelsea Alice: I wondered when you wrote that poem in relation to these four different versions of the memoir.


Carolyn Forché: I finished that poem in 1978, decades before the memoir’s first version, before any version. I wrote the poem to capture the details of that evening because I thought, well, this will be for the prose book someday I will write. I intended it to be a paragraph. Then it got mixed up with my poetry manuscript. And a poetry mentor of mine told me I had to leave it in the poetry manuscript. So, this thing that I wrote to be prose wound up as a poem, accidentally. And it was published everywhere, that poem. I decided not to put it in the memoir because it already had a life of its own. But I put a little passage that alludes to the poem and has Leonel tell me something more about that night, so there’s something of the poem in the book, but not the poem itself.


Chelsea Alice: How has the completion of the memoir impacted your life now?


Carolyn Forché: It’s very interesting questions you’re asking because you consider the same things I think about it. You’re asking me what I would ask myself. I didn’t know how it was going to feel to finish the book, but, finishing, I felt lighter. The whole story was now outside of me, not inside of me, and I didn’t have to carry it around anymore. It has a life of its own in the world. It lives in a book, and the book will outlive me. It took fifteen years to write, and I was scared all the time that I wouldn’t be able to write it. I’d wake in the middle of the night thinking about it. It was an intense fifteen years.


I was relieved when it came out. And I didn’t anticipate that. It hadn’t occurred to me that I would be relieved.


Chelsea Alice: Has the book been published in Spanish?


Carolyn Forché: Yes, there is a Spanish edition. It’s published by Swing Capitan [Capitán Swing Libros: Madrid, Spain]. It’s a beautiful translation. [The Spanish title is Lo que han oído es cierto.]


Chelsea Alice: I’m interested in translations in general. I like to interview translators when I can because the difference culturally and linguistically is beautiful, and I love to see that bridge. This is such an impactful memoir, and I’m curious as to what you think the cultural impact for readers will be here versus in El Salvador.


Carolyn Forché: Salvadorans who’ve read it have been wonderful. Those I’ve talked to feel that a part of their history is now out in the world. They’ve been very supportive of me writing this. They recognized that I wasn’t trying to be Salvadoran, and I wasn’t trying to be something I wasn’t. This is the account of a North American young woman encountering their culture. And I love so many people in this book. Those who are in the book were like, How did you remember all of this? Because when they read it, they remembered it, and they were happy.


In North America, I get different responses sometimes. They’re very nice, very good responses. Sometimes people say: “I don’t understand. Why wouldn’t you just have gone home right away when it got dangerous? Why did you stay there?” And I’m not going to be able to explain that. I’m sorry, but I wouldn’t have dreamt of leaving. I didn’t even want to leave when I left. I went kicking and screaming.


Everybody wants to be safe, as though that’s the most important thing. There are cultural gaps there. But that was the one question that North Americans had most often. That, and: “Why did you trust this guy? You didn’t even know him.” That was the other question.


Chelsea Alice: Taking a leap of faith is not a big part of American culture anymore.


Carolyn Forché: No, not anymore. People are skittish. They’re worried. And they regard other countries as dangerous.


Chelsea Alice: As dangerous and not their problem.


Carolyn Forché: Right. And when Americans travel, even to Western Europe, they’re scared. I’m much more scared in the United States than I am in most places. We have the guns and the mass killings and the craziness, which you don’t have in many other countries. You worry about pickpockets in Paris. You worry about machine guns in American cities.


Chelsea Alice: How was your experience different with the memoir versus everything else you’ve written?


Carolyn Forché: I’ve written since I was nine years old. I have lots of notebooks, lots of poetry. I’ve published five collections of poetry, and I’ve published plenty of essays. But the memoir was, of course, the most challenging, the most sustained, my first book-length prose work. And I’m writing a second that has nothing to do with this subject. This next one is about friendship and poetry, and a lot of it takes place in central Europe, where my family is from.


Chelsea Alice: And is this nonfiction?


Carolyn Forché: Yes. It’s nonfiction again. I would love to try a novel someday.


Chelsea Alice: I want to talk about your experience with the Spanish translation. How much of an active role did you take?


Carolyn Forché: None. I was surprised. When I’m translating the poetry especially, I get all kinds of questions from translators. With the memoir, they didn’t get in touch with me, and I worried about that because the translators were not Salvadoran.


Chelsea Alice: This was in Spain.


Carolyn Forché: Yes. I worried that they might not get the flavor of the culture, the special qualities of Salvadoran culture because, as you know, every country in Latin America is distinct, and all are distinct from Spain. So, I worried about that, and I wondered whether they would understand all of the terms. As it turned out, I had nothing to worry about. I opened the book, and it was my dream Spanish. They caught the tone, voice, everything. They were professional. They didn’t make any mistakes.


The book is now being translated into Mandarin in China. I can’t imagine how the Mandarin will be. I’m just hoping they find an equivalent way of conveying this memoir.


Chelsea Alice: I’m interested in the cultural reception in China as well.


Carolyn Forché: China’s changing now. I don’t know how it will be. I wonder how they’ll respond to it. It was a twelve-year civil war that was beginning as I left El Salvador. Twelve horrific years, but also twelve years in which people opposed a dictatorship collectively. And there was a lot that was very moving about that. What I was trying to show in my memoir is what led up to this civil war and why it was inevitable that they would take the action they took.


Chelsea Alice: When I was growing up, when they taught us about World War I or World War II, they said, “Oh, well, this world war started because someone shot someone else.” And it’s like, really?


Carolyn Forché: Right. No, no.


Chelsea Alice: There has to be more.


Carolyn Forché: They leave everything out. They like that. They like that assassination in the carriage, you know, they like that. But that’s not why wars start. That might be the last thing that happened before a formal declaration, but that isn’t why.


Wars are distinct. They’re not alike. They feel alike in their suffering. In a certain period, they feel alike in the kind of munitions that are involved. But they’re about failures, really, a series of accumulative selfishness, accumulative intransigence and stubbornness, and accumulative unwillingness to respond to the pain of others. I’m describing Salvador specifically.


A sense of uprising doesn’t come from nowhere. People don’t leave their countries, leave everything behind, the graves of their parents, everything, easily. They don’t make the decision to walk through Mexico to our border easily. This is their last resort, the last thing they can do.


People don’t take up arms against their government lightly either. It’s very dangerous. It’s a process. There are many factors, and it isn’t fun. It’s not. Imagine what it would take to do something like that, and you’ll understand how complicated it is to come to a decision like that, a grave, consequential decision. These things are complex, and they happen for a long time before they burst into our awareness. They don’t happen overnight, ever, though they seem to. We love to say, war broke out. It’s a strange expression, when you think about it, like describing the weather. That’s not what’s happening.


Chelsea Alice: In my experience growing up, any time we watched a film or read a book about the Cold War, the stress that you feel watching or reading those stories that you can’t quite pinpoint the reason for, that’s often due to the setting, the time period. Living through such times reminds me of your memoir and the years leading up to war.


Carolyn Forché: They’re stressful. You feel it. Right now, we’re in that kind of period. We’re in a period of foreboding. Something worse might happen, we suspect. And we don’t know what. But the future doesn’t look terribly bright.


Carolyn Forché is the author of five books of poetry, most recently In the Lateness of the World(Penguin Press, 2020), a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, and also Blue Hour (2004), a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award, The Angel of History(1995), winner of the Los Angeles Times Book Award, The Country Between Us(1982), winner of the Lamont Prize of the Academy of American Poets, and Gathering the Tribes (1976), winner of the Yale Series of Young Poets Prize.

She is also the author of a prose book, What You Have Heard Is True: A Memoir of Witness and Resistance(Penguin Press, 2019), winner of Juan E. Mendez Book Award for Human Rights in Latin America and a finalist for the National Book Award. Her anthology, Against Forgetting, has been praised by Nelson Mandela as “itself a blow against tyranny, against prejudice, against injustice.”  She was one of the first poets to receive the Windham Campbell Prize from the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale University, and in 1998 in Stockholm, she received the Edita and Ira Morris Hiroshima Foundation for Peace and Culture Award.


Chelsea Alice

Chelsea Alice is a correspondent for The Drunken Odyssey: A Podcast About the Writing Life.