CAROLYN FORCHÉ’S story begins more than 40 years ago, when the then-27-year-old poet opens her apartment door in California to a stranger from El Salvador. Leonel Gómez Vides—“Leonel,” as she refers to him throughout her book—spends several days outlining the situation in his country and making his case for Forché to come witness the roots of a revolution.
That Forché accepts such a calling, from January 1978 through March 1980 and for more than 40 years beyond, attests not only to her grit but also to her belief in the sanctity of the human spirit and the power of truth.
An awakening usually connotes a positive state of consciousness, yet Forché’s experience calls her to a grim, nightmarish landscape. Once her plane touches down in Ilopango, El Salvador, she ventures into a world in which nearly one in 10 children dies before the age of 5 and 80 percent of the population has no running water, electricity, or sanitation. To read Forché’s rich prose is to travel alongside her through the jungle, where she learns to squat over open pits to relieve herself, and follow her into palatial, private quarters, where she washes away the filth of the road before meeting with the military and civic leaders who want her dead. Beyond the poverty, the country devolves into a hell wherein mutilated bodies appear in the streets and political prisoners are kept in small cages, like animals.