A Conversation with Poet Carolyn Forché

Posted By on December 8, 2019

– All right, well, good
afternoon, everyone. (audience murmuring) It’s wonderful to be with all
of you for this conversation in our ongoing series
on faith and culture, and we’re deeply grateful to be joined by a distinguished member of
our faculty, Carolyn Forche. Carolyn, thank you for joining us today. For 11 years now we’ve gathered for this faith and culture series under the leadership of Paul Elie, who serves as a senior fellow at our Berkley Center for Religion,
Peace, and World Affairs, and Paul, we’re grateful to
you and to our Berkley Center for providing these moments
for us to be together. I’d like to express my gratitude to our Office of Mission and Ministry, which has partnered with us on this Jesuit Heritage Month lecture as we remember this week
the 30th anniversary of the Jesuit martyrs in El Salvador. Father David Hollenbach,
a member of our faculty, a senior fellow at our Berkley
Center, who’s with us today, will join Paul and Carolyn
during their conversation to share his reflections on the
context of this remembrance. Over the course of the past
decade we’ve had the privilege of welcoming a number
of authors and artists, scholars to the hilltop, individuals whose work
explores the intersection of religion, art, literature, and society, from Colum McCann and Martin Scorsese to Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, earlier this semester
Sister Helen Prejean. When we launched this
series in April 2008, Paul offered the opening lecture that reflected on Flannery
O’Connor’s lecture entitled “The Catholic Novelist
in the Protestant South,” which was her final public address, which she presented here at Georgetown in October of 1963. In that address, Flannery O’Connor sought to define a new vision
for Catholic literature, saying, and I quote: “In the novelist’s case, “prophecy is a matter
of seeing near things “with their extensions of meaning, “and thus of seeing far
things close up,” close quote. Well, there’s perhaps no one more capable than Carolyn Forche of enabling us to see far things close up, to explore, in her words,
“a poetry of witness.” Carolyn tells us, quote, “When
poetry is read as witness, “the poem is judged by its truth as a poem “and what this truth does in the reader.” This is what she sought to capture in a 1993-edited work,
“Against Forgetting,” which she edited and compiled, and it is the spirit that
permeates her new work, “What You Have Heard Is True: “A Memoir of Witness and Resistance.” While her travels have
taken her around the world from Beirut to South Africa, her memoir focuses on her time as a young adult in El Salvador in 1978. “What You Have Heard Is True” is a finalist for the National Book Award. The award ceremony will be just a little later
this week in New York, and we’re very proud of
Carolyn for her nomination. Over the course of her career, her writings have documented, motivated, articulated our shared humanity, even in the darkest and
most troubled places. An acclaimed poet, author
of four books of poetry, she is also a gifted
translator, teacher, activist. In 1998, she was presented with the Edita and Ira Morris Hiroshima Foundation Award
for Peace and Culture. She’s received a Guggenheim Fellowship, multiple fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts. Her first collection of
poetry, “Gathering the Tribes,” received the Yale Younger Poets Award. Her fifth, “In the Lateness of the World,” is due to be published next spring. She’s university professor
in our Department of English, and previously served as director of our Lannan Center for
Poetics and Social Practice, and we’re honored to
have Carolyn here today, and to join her in
conversation with Paul Elie, who, in addition to
serving as a senior fellow at our Berkley Center, Paul’s the author of “The Life
You Save May Be Your Own,” which won the PEN/Martha Albrand Award for first non-fiction. He also is the author
of “Reinventing Bach.” His essays appear in “The
Atlantic”, “The New York Times”, “The New Yorker,” “Vanity
Fair,” “Commonweal.” This past April, he
published in “The New Yorker” on the crisis facing the Catholic Church, and a year ago a long-form
article in “The Atlantic” on the canonization of Oscar Romero, and prior to his time at Georgetown, Paul worked for two
decades in book publishing for many years as a senior editor at
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, so Paul and Carolyn, I wanna thank you both for your presence. I know I share with everyone here how much we look forward
to your conversation. It’s now my pleasure
to turn it over to you. (audience applauding) – Thank you very much, President DeGioia. Thank you to Jerry Hayes and other members of the Jesuit community for opening the Jesuit
Heritage Month at this event, and thank you especially to David, who will join us in a little while, and thank you very much, Carolyn, for joining us for this event. In some ways, I’ve looked forward to having
this conversation with you as a colleague for years, and didn’t expect that it
would take place this way, but what better way? I can’t imagine a better
way than to do it than this. One of the pretexts for the
event is the 30th anniversary of the murder of six
Jesuits in El Salvador along with a woman who
worked as their housekeeper and her daughter, so before we begin, I’d just like to read
their names into the record one more time. Ignacio Ellacuria, Ignacio Martin-Baro, Segundo Montes, Juan Ramon Moreno, Joaquin Lopez y Lopez, Amando Lopez, Elba Ramos, Celina Ramos. Rest in peace. That was a very dark day in
the history of El Salvador, of the hemisphere. It’s your witness to those dark days that runs through your work. I’ve asked you to open the conversation by reading your account from the new book of a particularly dark day that you witnessed in El Salvador. – We were somewhere near
the unfinished cathedral and the plaza where, for a few hours in the
afternoons and also at night, vendors sold holy cards,
ice cream, and open sodas from stalls that closed
with rippled security gates. I was with Monsenor Ricardo Urioste, a quiet, studious priest whom I knew as a friend
of Monsenor Romero’s. He was walking calmly but with long steps, and I walked beside him,
but it was hard to keep up. The weather was white
with the coming rains. We had been talking about the views of the religious community toward the armed struggle when suddenly he fell silent, holding his hand out
before him, palm down. He had stopped walking and had fixed his gaze on
the street ahead of us. I tried to see what he was seeing but saw only the traffic,
bumper to bumper, brightly painted buses
with their black exhaust and sacks tied to their roofs, cars nosing behind them with windows down and radios blaring. The voice in the
commercial was calling out, “Domingo Domingo Domingo,” then the horns, voices, and
motor scooters died down. The cars had stopped too, many of the drivers now seeing
what Monsenor Urioste saw. A panel truck had stopped just
ahead of us in the street, and men were leaping from the back. Two of them grabbed a teenager
wearing a student’s rucksack and wrestled him into the vehicle. Everyone stopped, or moved
away from where they had been, some ducking behind the buses, and right beside me a security gate was suddenly
slammed into the sidewalk. Monsenor Urioste crossed himself as others around us vanished
into alleys and shops. There was a stillness then and the truck peeled away
with such a scream of tires that the sound seemed to stay in the air after it could no longer be seen. “We must pray for that boy,”
Monsenor Urioste whispered. This was the first and only
time I witnessed an abduction, the moment when someone
is made to disappear, to become desaparecido. Before and after this, I encountered the desaparecidos
only in the body dumps, in the morgue, on the
roadside, and along the beach, or I would study their faces in the photographs
provided by their families and ask, sometimes aloud, “Where are you?” Over the years these faces
have grown younger and younger. – That’s an extraordinarily vivid passage. Nearly 40 years ago that took place. How does that memory,
if I could call it that, how does that exist in your imagination? Do you have to recall it? Is it right there at hand? Is there some reconstruction involved? What… – Well, this book begins, more or less, in the autumn of 1977, and most of the book takes place in the two years following that, and they are the most
vivid two years of my life. I have a strange, very
indelible memory of it, but in writing it, it wasn’t
enough to remember it. I had to I had to go through it again. I had to relive it to remember it in precise terms, so that made it a bit
difficult to accomplish, which might be why it
took 15 years to write it. I kept stopping and not
wanting to go any further, not wanting to write certain scenes, so I procrastinated a lot. That was one thing that
happened, but yeah, it was, I had to go through it again. – [Paul] And what was
it like to go through it compared to what you felt the first time? You felt something different, or… – Well, the first time I was 27 years old. I was very young, and I was a young 27, I
think, in a lot of ways, and I was seeing that
world for the first time. I was seeing a manifestation
of evil for the first time. I saw a saint for the first time. All of this happened when I was young, and so when I was recalling
it I’m much older person because I waited 23 years
to even begin writing this, so it’s really took its time, partly because I didn’t
feel prepared to write it at first. It took a long time for this
experience to mature within me, and for me to understand,
not really understand it, but have a perspective on what happened, and have some glimpse into who I was at the time, and to see her from a distance, to have a perspective
on her, too, and all her all her foolishness, and… Because I was actually very I was terrified often in El
Salvador, really terrified, and so when people ask me why why I stayed anyway, I have a couple of answers that I give, but part of me can’t answer that. My older self. I would sometimes be typing, and I’d be thinking, “What were you thinking,
Carolyn?” you know? (chuckles) Why did you do that? And answering those
questions was difficult, too. – I’m sure it was, and for the people around you, and people at the college
where you were teaching, but the effect on the reader,
on this reader anyways isn’t that at all. You’ve laid out that
this is, in some ways, your chance, that you’ve known from childhood about that evil exists, that people suffer, that there’s a need for
a human response to that, and suddenly, and we’ll
go back to that, I hope, but you then walk into a situation in which the things that
you’ve known since childhood are happening right before your eyes, and I know as a reader I thought this is
exactly where you belong, or you made me feel that way. – Thank you, I hope. I feel that way about it now. When Leonel came to my door,
I was correcting papers. I was teaching four sections
of freshman composition, and they were very large classes, so I was always grading papers, and I was alone at the time, and I had spent the previous summer translating the poetry of
Claribel Alegria in Spain. Her daughter was one of my best friends. We had decided to do
this translation together even though neither of us had ever translated anything before, much less poetry, and I had the mistaken
notion that I would only need the very thick Spanish-English dictionary and the 500 verbs conjugations, but that wasn’t my problem
with Claribel’s poetry. My problem was that she
had grown up in El Salvador under military dictatorship
and all that that implied, and so I struggled with the poems. I struggled to differentiate literal from figurative meaning, and so Maya took me to her mother’s house
in Spain for the summer and said, “Mommy will explain everything,” (audience chuckles) which Mommy tried to do, but I learned a great deal that summer. It was really an inspiring
summer, also a depressing one because writers from
all over Latin America were coming through Spain at the time. Franco had just died,
and Claribel had a house, and they would come and
stay with her for a while while they were resettling, fleeing the dirty wars in Chile, and Argentina, Paraguay, Uruguay, many of them from the Southern Cone, and I would sit at their feet, and listen to them
talking in the afternoons. They would have these discussions about politics and literature, and what I was hearing was horrific, and I slowly came to realize
that my own government was supporting those
military dictatorships, and that was something I took back home with me to California. Joined Amnesty International. Started writing letters. Wanted to do something; Didn’t know what, and I’m home alone, and the doorbell rings. You shouldn’t really start a
book with the doorbell rings, you know, because…
(audience chuckles) So I started with another scene instead, but it’s what happened, so
I had to write the doorbell, and at first I didn’t wanna open the door because I didn’t know who it was, and there were El Salvador license plates, and I’d heard a lot about El Salvador, but my curiosity got me, and so the book begins with this visitor who’s predicting war in El
Salvador in three to five years, and what does he want? He wants a poet to come
to El Salvador right now because it’s very important for a poet to see this right now. That’s when I started wondering about him because who would ever think of that? Who would ever want a poet
for anything. (laughs) (audience laughing) I tried to tell him, you
know, you have to understand how poets are viewed in the United States, and his idea was that this poet would learn all about the country, and then, when the war began, the poet could explain it
to the American people, so the American people would have a better sense
of what was happening, so I explained that
poets weren’t consulted on foreign policy decision-making, (audience laughs)
and that we don’t get to talk to the American
people, practically ever, except in small coffee houses, and we’re viewed as a fringe
element in the society, kind of bohemian, unstable
element, artistic, not at all to be consulted
on matters of foreign policy, so he said, “Oh, that’s too bad “because in Latin America we
take our poets very seriously. “We either send them to diplomatic posts “or we put them in prison, but (audience laughs)
“we take them seriously,” and I thought this is not oh, really? So he said, “Well, you’re just
going to have to change that. “You’re going to have to change
what a poet is in the U.S.” So there were a number of reasons why one could begin to doubt his proposal, that being one of them: his
faith in poetry and in poets, and their ability to change things at all, but it was intriguing,
and he was brilliant, and the three days went a long way to answering questions
I’d had during the summer, and he assumed I would come. I don’t know why. I think he assumed he
was terribly convincing, and therefore (chuckles) you know? So I don’t wanna I wanna know your next questions, but that really it was about saying
yes, and I told every after he he stayed with me for three days, and talked, and talked,
and talked, and talked, and he had his two little girls with him, and the only time he stopped talking was to take them to eat,
take himself to eat, and by the end he asked me a question no one had ever asked me before. You know, people ask, when you’re in college they
ask what you’re majoring in, or they ask what you want
your profession to be. He asked me what I had planned to do for the rest of humanity in my life. Since no one had ever asked me that, I didn’t have a ready answer, but he was right about one thing: that was one of the buttons
he could push in me, and he said, “I’m offering
you an opportunity, “and you don’t have to accept it, “but it would help us
if you could accept it,” so after he left I told all
of my friends about him, and I tried to make him
sound, you know, fine, and my friends, to a person, did not think this was a good
idea for my Guggenheim grant. They said I would get malaria, or they said, “You don’t know this man. “You’ve only talked to him for three days, “and even his cousin, Claribel Alegria, “which is how he found me, “doesn’t really know who he is.” There were lots of rumors about him. He was a champion marksman. He was a champion motorcycle racer. He was a small coffee farmer. He could be with the guerrillas, but many people think he’s with the CIA, so nobody was resolving any of this, and so I couldn’t get anyone to agree with me that I should go until one person from college said, “How many people have you asked?” and I said, “Everybody,” and he said, “I think you wanna go, “and I think you’re going
to keep talking to people “until someone thinks it’s
a good idea,” he said, “so let me be that someone. “I think you should go. “Go.” Yes! I got on the phone. I got my ticket. Yeah, that was it. I just needed one person. – This all unfolds in the book, and this character, Leonel
Gomez, dominates the book and our apprehension of what’s
going on in El Salvador, and there are comic aspects to it that you’re bringing out here, but part of the beauty of the
book is the road not taken, that Leonel wants to suggest
that Carolyn’s young, and we Americans are all young. Carolyn needs to be educated. We Americans all need to be
educated, and it’s all true, but that’s not the movement
of the book, really. The way you go into the material is as someone who begins
with this deeper intuition that the right question is the kind of Rilkean question, you know? You must change your life. What are you gonna do with it? Where did that come from? You describe having nightmares
about people being tortured when you were a girl
looking at “Life” magazine and asking your mother… – That was pictures of the Holocaust, of the camps in 1955 in “Look” magazine. I found the magazine in a
pile of “Look”s in the garage where such magazines wind up, and I opened it up, and my
mother was making dinner. I’m the oldest of seven children. They were babies all around, all the time, and I asked my mother to
explain the photographs while she was stirring at the stove, and I was really young, must have been I mean, I think in my mind I– – [Paul] Young enough
to kinda look up at her – Yeah, I had to, oh yeah,
– while she was at the stove. I was definitely looking
up, and she looked at me, and she said, “You’re not
supposed to have that. “You’re not supposed to see that, honey. “Give that back to me,” and I so I pressed, and she
said, “Those are Nazis.” “What is a Nazi?” She said, “I will tell
you when you’re older,” meaning I had to go get the magazine, and hide it under my mattress, and take it out all the time because it was a mystery. – That’s so, to me, reflective of what, I mean, I wasn’t around. I’m a little younger, but of what ran through the
Catholic culture of America at that time. The church, on the one hand, was there reminding us
of the existence of evil, of our weakness, our proneness to sin, and on the other was
encouraging our parents to protect us from all this stuff and make sure that we
didn’t find out about it except for their way and at what time they deemed appropriate. – Well, Catholic parents,
and I think most parents, I was raised by we were raised by war
veterans of World War II. Almost everyone’s father
had been in the war, and none of them talked
about it, especially with us, so there was a silence
in these households. They would sometimes refer to the war. Often they referred to it, but
they never told us about it. It was, “During the war,” or, “before the war,” or, “after the war,” but never any information about it, so this was also something
in our childhoods that, and I think that their
silence was to protect us, partly. They didn’t want us to know, and they thought they could
start over and build a new life, and they thought there would be that wouldn’t happen again. – But I guess I think that, and it’s not exclusive
to Catholics, of course, but to be Catholic in that moment was to know that the post-war shiny world of prosperity and forward thought was not really the real world, and that some intuition about that is why you wound up in San Salvador. – Yeah, I think it was, and
then, of course, I came of age. I went to college between 1968 and 1972. I majored in the anti-war movement. (Paul chuckles)
(audience chuckles) We all did, and so I knew that, but he confronts that, too, with me in an interesting way, and interrogates that, and
he pushed that button, too. He said, “How much did
you know about Vietnam “when you were out marching?” and I said, “I probably
didn’t know very much at all “except that I wanted the war to end, “and that I,” and he said, “Would you like
to see one from the beginning?” I didn’t believe him, partly, and partly I thought yes, I did want to because of my history with that conflict, and I was a teenager during
the civil rights movement, which I think had a lot to do with why the anti-war
movement grew so quickly, and because we were all teenagers watching the water cannons
deployed against black Americans who were marching for civil rights. I think those were all formative. – Right, this huge post-war
baby boom generation suddenly mass media, television, and magazines like “Life” and “Look” were putting this
material in front of you, and you can see what’s
happening out there, and then, when Leonel says
to come to El Salvador it’s this time you get to see it first-hand and not mediated through
television, through magazines, et cetera.
– Right, right. – And then Leonel, who’s such a character that when I learned that
people in this room knew him I was astonished. You know, wow. You know, originally I was impressed that you knew Oscar Romero, but I came away from the book impressed that others
here knew Leonel Gomez. That’s how well you succeeded in making him real to
the reader in the book. – Thank you. – And what he does is
introduces you to other people, and one was the Jesuit rector– – Ellacuria, Padre Ellacuria, yeah. Well, I went to… Father Ellacuria was brilliant, he was. My friend Margarita, who was my closest woman
friend in Salvador, she worked at La UCA,
the Jesuit university, and she knew them very well, and she would take me to
talk with Padre Ellacuria, and everyone would joke
that no one understood him because he was so above
everyone intellectually, and he would try very
hard to explain to us his concepts of praxis
and his various ideas, but he was so brilliant, and so I had conversations
with him primarily. I met some of the others, not all of them, but he was, he was formative for us. He was a guiding intellect among everyone who was working for human
rights and social justice, and anyone working on behalf of the poor or allied with the poor in any profession: teaching, nursing, anything, they were all labeled
subversives, everyone, so everyone was eventually vulnerable to violent death,
or torture, or disappearance. It wasn’t just a few people. It was everyone, so anyone who it was so easy to be to be fearful of the death squads. The period that I write about is the period we called the
time of the death squads. This is before the war, actually. Nobody really can pinpoint
exactly when the war started, but some time after Monsenor
Romero’s assassination, so this book, my time in El Salvador in the period that I’m
writing about mostly ends one week before his
assassination, when he… I had supper with him in the in the Divine Providence Hospital convent, and I was informed by Leonel and Monsenor that I had to leave the next day, and I didn’t want to do this, so I talk in the book about the conversation
I had with Monsenor, urging him to leave, and he he said, “My place is with my people now.” He was aware, completely aware
of the danger that he was in, and he said, “And now
your place is with yours.” I’d never thought of
myself as having a people. You know, we didn’t think we don’t think in those terms, and– – So a saint tells you that you have a people.
– Yeah, a saint tells you you have a people, and
then you have to go home, but Leonel was really close
friends with Monsenor, something very few
people knew until after, really until after both of them were dead. – Leonel would always say
that he wasn’t religious. – “I’m not religious.”
– He wouldn’t go into a church.
– “I don’t, no, no.” “Never go to church, no.” He said, “I believe with my life. “I don’t go to,” I would
ask him all the time. He’d drop me off at the
cathedral to go to Mass, and then he’d, “I wait
for you outside,” he said, and I would go in, and he really wanted me to know Monsenor, and to listen to him, and
to go and hear the homilies, but he didn’t he wouldn’t come with us. – Because of your work with witness, and because you’ve thought in such a sustained way about witness, I trust your witness even
more than I would otherwise, so when I read you testifying, really, that “there was a special kind
of light coming off Romero, “silvery, coming from his eyes, his skin, “even his fingernails, “an emulsion of light
such as sanctity bestows,” I’m inclined to trust that,
so can you tell us about what was it like to be in the presence of someone that you’re saying there was a tangible aura
of sanctity around him? – I didn’t see that until
the end, toward the end. I mean, I saw a wonderful,
gentle, studious, somewhat theologically,
doctrinally conservative man. – [Paul] And he was hurried.
He was always going somewhere. – He was always going
somewhere, and he was he wouldn’t take any security guards. He drove himself around in his car. He wasn’t self-protective at all. He wrote his homilies on a big IBM Selectric machine, which was practically the
only object in his room, and– – [Paul] He lived with some nuns in– – Yeah, he had a little casita on the grounds of Divine
Providence Hospital, very tiny room, single bed,
cross on the wall, that’s it. He didn’t want to live in
the bishop’s house, so but– – [Paul] Sound familiar? – The time that I that I saw this thing I’m
describing as his light, we were in an interview with
a Venezuelan journalist, and it was going along, and
Monsenor was very patient. He was answering all the questions, and the journalist sort of wanted, my impression was the journalist
was trying to trap him into making statements
about the guerrillas, and Monsenor was very careful not to get involved with that. You know, he saw his role as a shepherd, and so he was deftly sidestepping these pointed questions and keeping himself from being trapped, and he was tapping this Bible that he was carrying with him, it was like a King James Bible with leather cover or
something, little, small one, and he was just tapping it, and I looked at his fingernails, and I saw that he was sort of
giving off this strange light, and it was on him. It was on his face. It was in his hair. It was in his eyes. I saw it during this interview, and then he still had it when he sat down at the
table in the convent kitchen right after the interview, and I thought, “I’ve
never seen this before. “I’ve never seen this before,” and I thought, “I think he’s a saint,” you know, “I think he’s,”
just came to my mind. A lot of people already
thought he was, but I saw it. I saw his tranquility. I know he was scared. He said he was scared. He said his knees would
wobble, or turn to, you know, his knees would
shake when he was scared, and even standing at the
altar, or he was afraid, and he was very fearful that morning, the morning he was killed he
was very depressed and fearful, and Madre Luz, who was the mother general, the mother superior of the– – [Paul] The Order of
Divine Providence was the – Right, Carmelite,
– order that housed him. – Calcest Carmelites, and yes, and she said
to him, “Don’t worry. “You’re not going to
die before your time,” and he said, “Oh, yes, right, “I’m not going to die before my time,” so that calmed things down. You might think that it’s illogical to have things calmed down
by a statement like that, but she seemed to know what to do. She always knew what to do. She is the nun who crawled
out after the gunfire, blasted through, we think amplified by the
microphone on the altar possibly, but it was very, very loud, and Monsenor fell backwards, and had the altar cloth in his hand, and she said, she crawled. Everyone else hid under the pews, and she just went right
to Monsenor and held him, and so she was with him
in his last moments, and she said he died a holy bishop. She was very moving, her account of it. She was also a saint, I believe, although she hasn’t been
recognized at all yet by the Church in any official
way, but I think she is. – Well, hearing you speak, I’m thinking of these men at various Vatican dicasteries who held up the canonization of Romero for a third of a century, and I wish that they could
have heard what you just said. Maybe we can at least make
sure they hear it about Luz. – Yeah, this was all political. You know, the people of
Salvador had pictures of him with halo around him in
their houses long time ago. He was already a saint for them. The Vatican was just confirming
what they already knew, and as they already venerated him, and it was strange because they finally did
finish the cathedral, and the wealthier people would go to Mass in
the cathedral upstairs, and I went, going there, knowing Monsenor was there, buried there inside the cathedral, I went up into this
fancy Mass and (mumbles), and someone saw how I was dressed, and came up, and tapped
me on the shoulder, and said, “You wanna go down
to the Mass downstairs.” (audience laughs) “You belong downstairs,” so they helpfully showed
me to the side to go down, and there was the sort of basement church where the theology of
liberation Mass was in progress, and I finally found my right Mass, and there was where Monsenor’s coffin was. His tomb was down there, and so but the people knew. They did know. – I’m hearing what you’re
doing as an act of witness right for our eyes and ears, but I also am thinking of
the very powerful expression that President DeGioia read out about what poetry does to witness. How was it, and then I’ll ask Father
David to come up and join us, but how is it to do an act
of literary witness in prose, and in a memoir? And is that a different challenge than the one you’ve done
to this point in poetry? – Well, this is my first prose book. I’m 69 years old, you know. I mean, I’m not like a
spring chicken or anything, but I know it took me a long time. It’s kind of a lifetime work, but I had to learn how to write it because a prose work has
to be structured, you know. It’s a book-length thing, so I made a decision early on that I felt that I
wanted to take the reader on this journey with me, and the reader would never know
more than I knew at the time because I was thinking of younger readers, and the Salvadoran kids whose parents brought
them here during the war to escape the war, who would come into my
office at university and tell me about the war:
“My parents won’t talk.” Something familiar to
me from World War II, so what I wanted was
to show these students what it was like to be young, and to go through something like this, and to have this formation and education, and so it had to be written that way, and then I found some notebooks that I kept while I was there, and there are passages in the book that are titled “Written in Pencil” because the notebooks are in pencil, but also because this
language is very strange. It’s not like my calm narrator writing voice in the book. They are rushed, and no punctuation, and intense, and they’re just describing scenes there that were happening as they happened, and they were, some of
them, really horrible, so I decided to put them intact, verbatim into the book, and label them all “Written in Pencil” to alert the reader that this
kind of language is different, and for me it seemed to reflect the condition of extremity more than a calm narrating voice would, so there are very few appearances of the woman in her 60s
writing this in the book. She doesn’t come and
explain what’s happening or meditate on events. She doesn’t get an appearance
until the very end. – It’s as very brave omission, too, and to have the voice
of your 27-year-old self merge with the narrative
as we’ve been reading it, it’s a tremendous effect when it happens, and those who have read it
will have that experience, and those who haven’t, it’s
something to look forward to. You mentioned the people
who’ve left El Salvador. Half a million people left the country. Many of them came here. Father David Hollenbach
is especially adept in explaining some of those circumstances and what the situation in
El Salvador at that moment, how it… It’s not just echoes, but many of its effects are
being replicated in our time, and at our border. Dave, would you join us on stage now? And I just invite the two of you to – It’s great to see you.
– to bring the story up to the present. – [Dave] Great to see
you, Carolyn, thank you. – I’m really happy to see you again. – I’m happy to see you, too. Thank you. Well, two things I would say just in immediate response. One is I wanna thank Carolyn for this extraordinarily moving book, which captures the
situation in El Salvador in the years that you were there, the time that you were there, in an extraordinarily vivid, concrete, illuminating way. I knew Ignacio Ellacuria a bit. We worked together on a
project on human rights that was conducted here at Georgetown, and I could only say that he’s probably the most passionate
intellectual I’ve ever met because he was both extremely passionate and extremely intellectual,
as you have said, and your book explained to me, or portrayed to me where the passion that
he felt was coming from because he knew what the reality of the
people was all about. In terms of Paul’s question
about the situation today, sad to say, although the United States spent huge quantities of money funding the Salvadoran military, when the civil war ended and
the Moakley Commission repeated finished this report and the UN Commission on Human Rights finished its report, the U.S. pulled out, military came home, and we basically just left people in the state that we
had helped create there where there was continuing poverty, continuing urgency for need of help. Many of them migrated to the
United States as refugees, and then now we’ve been in the process of deporting them and sending them back, and that’s creating… Part of the process of the deportation that’s been taking place is that we have been managed
to deport gang conflict from Los Angeles to El
Salvador, to San Salvador. The conflict that’s going on there today that’s producing huge
migrations to this country is, in some way, an inheritance of the war that you describe, or of the death squad
situation you describe, the war that followed it, and of what we did when we sent all these people
back from the United States, and they took conflicts with them, and we’re taking away, or our government now wants to take away temporary protected status
from the Salvadorans who are in this country now
and send more of them back, which could send more conflict back.
– 200,000 people. – Yeah, send more conflict
back to El Salvador, so the story is not over, and the reason for both serious passion about the needs of the people there and serious intellectual analysis of what needs to be done
has not ended, and we need we need that right today too, I think. – I’m really happy you
brought up the refugees. I consider the families at the border who came in the so-called caravans, they’re not migrants;
they’re refugees of war, that war, that was 12 years
long, and its aftermath, as you describe. – The murder rate in El Salvador is the highest in the world. – Yes, now, and they suffer from extortion, kidnapping, violent death, torture. That’s what they’re running away from, and they’re so fearful that anything they can imagine happening during their journey to the
U.S. or when they reach the U.S. cannot possibly be as bad
as what is behind them, so they’re terrified, and this our response has been our response has been
horrible, and we owe a great I think we have a grave responsibility towards Central Americans, and as I try to explain to people, if every single man, woman, and child in Honduras, Guatemala, and Salvador all came here, as a thought experiment,
which would never happen, the population of the United
States would increase by 9%. It is not a crisis for the United States. It is a crisis for them. They are the ones who
are in crisis, not us. We do not have an immigration problem. We have an ethical, moral problem. – I think your portrayal of the reality that you describe in the
book in such vivid ways can help us understand not only what happened
when you were there, but can help us
understand, to some degree, what is happening there now, and so, despite the fact that we are no longer involved in Salvador the way we were militarily, we are deeply engaged, morally, with what’s going on there now. – Yeah, that’s right.
– You mentioned younger readers, Carolyn,
and I think many, many people were educated about what was
happening in El Salvador, younger people, through
the country between us, and so the thought that this book would now do the same
for another generation that’s seeing a different manifestation of the same problems, it’s a very powerful thought, so let’s hope that good things happen later
in the week in New York, and the book goes on to have
that life with younger readers. – I can’t
(audience applauding) I can’t think. I feel Leonel here somewhere. He’s very mischievous, always has been. He’s up to something. That’s what it is, yeah, and– – There must be questions
from the audience. Yes? – [John] Quick question. Beautiful witness with Leonel. I’m John Tutino. I teach Latin American
history here at Georgetown. – At last we meet, (chuckles) yeah.
– Yes. You and I communicated a while back, and when I was a very young,
not so young, faculty member at Carleton and St. Olaf
Colleges in Minnesota in 1985, Leonel came to a big regional conference on the crisis in Central America. It was laden with diplomats, journalists, scholars, et cetera, and he was among those invited to speak about the crisis in El Salvador, but the highlight of the event was a large young man from El Salvador raised up and, kinda like
me, asked for the microphone, and he started to tell the story that he had been dragged into
the military in El Salvador, and he had been sent out
to kill family and friend, and he was watching his own allies being forced to kill people
who were his family and friend, and this young man, whose name I have totally
forgotten, I’m sadly say, just started to shake and break totally. He couldn’t carry on. Leonel Gomez left the stage, walked down to the audience, put his arm around this young
man who had been in Minnesota working on a farm for a couple of years and was just learning English. Leonel put his arm around this young man and said, “I’m with you. “Keep talking, and if you need
be, I’ll translate for you,” and he enabled this young man to share his story about living and dying at the center of life
and death in El Salvador, and I wanna say all
the famous journalists, authors, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera, became second-rank humans, and I had heard of Leonel Gomez previously ’cause he shows up in academic studies, et cetera, et cetera, but I discovered him as this amazingly powerful, caring, facilitating human,
so I just wanna add that to this conversation.
– I wanna add that Georgetown really
helped Monsenor Romero with a honorary degree, and probably bought him two
years of life in so doing, and that Leonel knew Father Healy. They spent, my husband
is here in the audience, and he was there in El Salvador as well, and he’s in the book as well, and we were married here at
Dahlgren Chapel 35 years ago, and Father Healy and Leonel spent the whole wedding reception just talking, talking, talking, (audience laughs)
so, you know, completely engaged with each other, and so I wanna thank
Georgetown University for that, for their support, their support of Monsenor Romero, and the friendship to Leonel, too. It was really important. – Yes? – [Rose] Thank you. I’m Rose Berger from
“Sojourners” magazine, which you thank you, Rose Berger
from “Sojourners” magazine, and we’ve known Carolyn for a long time, and worked with you in the past. I’m wondering, you
mentioned this a little bit, but I’m wondering about the impact of such trauma at such an early age on your voice as a writer. I mean, clearly you have made you were able to write poetry out of the midst of some of that horror, but there’s another kind of voice that comes up in the memoir that I think I sometimes see writers never get back to that voice after having been through direct traumatic experiences, and I just wonder if you
have any reflections on that. – I’ll just say that when I
first came back from El Salvador I was quite driven to speak, and I had a poetry book published, and all of a sudden because
of two newspaper columnists, I got invitations, as Monsenor predicted. He said, “You’re going
to speak in the U.S. “you just have to be prepared,” but I got invitations to colleges, and churches, and
synagogues, and all over. I went to 49 states. I didn’t think I was traumatized. I thought everyone else was traumatized and that what we had to do was stop American military intervention, cut back the aid, help Americans to understand that the origins of this war
were in oppression and poverty. Well, it was a long time before I knew registered at all that I had been profoundly
changed by that experience, and that I wasn’t the same person. I knew I had become boring to people because I was talking
about this all the time, and I would see the eyes, kind of, at dinner parties and things. Here she goes. We’re gonna hear about
El Salvador all night. I understood that I was had become somewhat obsessive, but I didn’t admit to any profound change. I didn’t realize that when you
cross that bridge, when you when you make that kind of journey, you don’t get to come back. Someone else comes back who’s not you, so when I started trying to
recreate myself at that age, I realized what had happened. In the writing of this I
realized what had happened, and my theory about trauma is there’s one thing that really helps it, more than medications,
more than anything else, and that’s work on behalf of suffering people who are adjacent, somehow, to the trauma, so, for example, I know
some Vietnam veterans who came back severely PTSD, trauma, and they made a work of
providing prosthetics, arms and legs, to Vietnam after the war, before relations were established
between the two countries, and they went forward in their lives with surviving the PTSD by doing this kind of work, and I mean, there are many, many examples, but for me, I think what
saved me was talking, and going around the country, and trying to build
the sanctuary movement, and the witness for peace movement, and the various solidarity movements. I tried to stay not to be member of any of this because I wanted to be a
different kind of voice, and Leonel had also said, “You’re a poet. “You be a poet. “You don’t have to be an activist. “You don’t have to be a journalist. “Just be a poet,” but then I had to reconceive
what it meant to be a poet and to have a voice to
bring it through poetry, so I would only say that
if people are traumatized, try some kind of really intense work, volunteer, not, whatever it is, something that you do, you know? It helps. – We have time for one
more question over there. – Just one more, okay, that’s it. – [Michelle] I was one
of those audience members (coughing drowns out speech) steps. I was 20 years old,
Minnesota, Mankato State, probably 1980-something. – Part of Robbins. – [Michelle] Part of the Prairie Women’s, and I was an undergrad, major
in English and women’s studies because when English departments were too conservative and crazy-making I’d go to women’s studies, and when that was too crazy-making I’d go back to English and double-majored, and I’ve been a huge fan ever since then. I went to Latin America. I learned Spanish. I think the ripple effect that can be felt in this room, and felt around the country is, and the world, quite frankly, and definitely in the Americas, is not to be underestimated, and I hope that you get hundreds and hundreds of these testimonials, like mine, and I hope that I’ve done something with the work that I’ve done and that I do every day teaching English as a second language to people who come to the U.S.,
and wanna come to the U.S., and wanna leave the
U.S., or whatever, right? Whatever the relationship is, and I just really want you to know that, and to know that probably everyone, – Thank you.
– whether they’ve only read the book over the summer, or whatever it might be, those ripples are going to continue to go on and on and on and on. – Thank you. Are you teaching English
as a foreign language here in the city? – [Michelle] I’m teaching
at Georgetown Law to – Bravo, bravo.
– foreign-trained lawyers from all over the world, and I’ve taught in the trenches with the undocumented population, and everything and everyone in between, and I say now that I teach the lawyers, who I hope represent my
former students that I taught, who were– – What is your name?
– Michelle. – Michelle, thank you so much
for this, and for your work. – [Michelle] Thank you, thank you. – And for being at Georgetown. Okay. – Thank you to everyone. Thank you, Carolyn. Thank you, David. Thank you, President DeGioia and everyone else who took part. – Thank you.
(audience applauding) – Thank you. Great to be with you. – I’m so glad you’re here. – I’m glad to be here for you.

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