There are two books on my bedside table, one of them read a month ago, and one of them my current reading as I close the curtains and prop myself up with 3 pillows after dark. What You Have Heard is True: A Memoir of Witness and Resistance, by Carolyn Forché, remembers the arrival of the relative of a friend, at her door in California, and his compelling invitation to join him in El Salvador in 1978. Forché, whose poetry I began to read in the mid-1970s, accepted the invitation and becomes educated in the workings of death squads and political upheaval. When she arrives in El Salvador, the place she stays was once the home former dictator, General Maximiliano Hernández Martinez, president of the country from 1931-1944. “Your bed belonged to the man responsible for those thirty thousand dead. Or eighty thousand, depending on your source.”
The second book, the one I’m currently reading, is a novel, Lost Children Archive, by Valeria Luiselli. A mother, a father, and two children leave their home in New York City set out on a road trip across America in summer, the father to pursue a project on Apacheria and the mother to try to locate children detained at the border. Both parents have been involved with a team of people recording “the keynotes and the soundmarks that were emblematic of the city: subway cars screeching to a halt, music in the long underground hallways of Forty-Second Street, ministers preaching in Harlem, bells, rumors and murmurs inside the Wall Street stock exchange.” Their job specifically was “surveying the most linguistically diverse metropolis on the planet, and mapping the entirety of languages that its adults and children speak.” In a way, the trip they embark on continues this work. The couple, nameless in the novel, as their children are nameless also, carry their recording equipment but gradually begin to use it in ways that shadow the unravelling of their relationship, the singularity of each evolving purpose. The husband is obsessed with the Apache leader and medicine man Geronimo and uses his boom to try to catch sounds that might remind us what has been lost. An inventory of echoes. The woman collects sounds, images, and stories that she hopes might become an elegy for children lost in the terrible struggles of those heading north from countries terrorized by militias, death squads, the work of their own governments. The back of the family car holds banking boxes, each a particular archive. And the two children, the boy (10) and the girl (5), listen to stories and songs and develop their own personal versions of what they hear.
When I was reading What You Have Heard is True, I realized that the book provides a profound background to the current border crisis. Forché’s account is clear and deliberate. The title comes from “The Colonel”, a poem in The Country Between Us.
WHAT YOU HAVE HEARD is true. I was in his house. His wife carried
a tray of coffee and sugar. His daughter filed her nails, his son went
out for the night. There were daily papers, pet dogs, a pistol on the
cushion beside him. The moon swung bare on its black cord over
the house. On the television was a cop show. It was in English.
Broken bottles were embedded in the walls around the house to
scoop the kneecaps from a man’s legs or cut his hands to lace. On
the windows there were gratings like those in liquor stores. We had
dinner, rack of lamb, good wine, a gold bell was on the table for
calling the maid. The maid brought green mangoes, salt, a type of
…The colonel returned with a sack used to bring groceries
home. He spilled many human ears on the table. They were like
dried peach halves. There is no other way to say this. He took one
of them in his hands, shook it in our faces, dropped it into a water
glass. It came alive there. I am tired of fooling around he said.
It is not only El Salvador’s violent history that she shines a light on but her own country’s complicity in the terror.
Lost Children Archive is so intricately structured that I keep stopping and asking myself how a particular element fits into the larger schemata. How birdsong, country music, and the voices of the children in the backseat are part of the inventory of echoes. How the boy who has received a Polaroid camera for his 10th birthday is learning to record the lines of children filing onto a plane to be flown back to an unsafe country, how he is also learning what happens when an accepted social contract dissolves.
Both books speak to terror, to violent political action, and to people who do what they are able to do to bear witness, to record in whatever ways possible the lives and losses, and they remind us that an individual might not be able to do much but to do nothing is far worse. Something like 70,000 children were held in detention at the American border over the past year, a record number. Most of them arrived from Central American countries. Separated from their parents, at risk for every kind of abuse imaginable (and unimaginable), they deserve more from all of us, as part of the human family.