Carolyn Forché

Posted in 2020-2021 Readings and Talks

Carolyn Forché headshot

April 13, 2021 at 7PM ET
Moderated by Penn Szittya (Lannan Foundation)

From What You Have Heard Is True

Over the years, I have asked myself what would have happened if I hadn’t answered the door that morning, if I’d hidden until the stranger was gone. Knowing him as I came to know him, he would have sensed my presence and continued ringing the bell. On that day, I had been at my typewriter a heavy IBM Selectric that a friend would later complain sounded like a machine gun. There were stacks of papers everywhere: human rights reports, students’ essays and poems, unfinished manuscripts, unanswered correspondence. A sea wind passed through the screens, lifting some of these papers into the air and sailing them to the floor. The finches were singing atop their bamboo cage, as its door was usually open, leaving them to fly about the house, perching on ceiling fixtures and open doors. In those days, I could type faster than I could think—my father saw to that when I told him I wanted to be a poet. I would need to be able to “fall back” on something, he’d said. Fall from where? I had wondered to myself at the time. The typewriter was set on the kitchen table, and most days I worked there, the ocean almost audible, the air scented by the fields of nearby flower farms. As it was late morning, the harvesters of Encinitas had already left for lunch, having begun their work at dawn. At first, I might not have noticed the sound of the van pulling into the driveway, but its engine remained idling, so it wasn’t simply turning around. Then the engine died and the doors were opening.

It was not my habit to answer the door when I was alone. My mother had been strict about this with her seven children. She couldn’t watch all of us at once, she would say, so there were rules. Not opening the door to strangers was one of them.

We had moved to this town house hurriedly, my housemate and I, from an apartment we had also shared, after receiving mail from a town to the north of us, an envelope that contained lewd photographs of a man, with a note telling us that he was “coming to visit” and we were “not to contact the police.” The police had said that there was nothing they could do until “something actually happened,” and therefore it might be best for us to move somewhere else. So here we were, in a new, unfurnished town- house rental nearer the ocean, as far from the city as we could reasonably live and still commute to the university where I taught and Barbara studied. Twenty-eight miles—far enough.

The vehicle that was not turning around was a white Toyota Hiace. From the window, I could see a man get out and sling a tote bag over his shoulder, with papers escaping from the top. Then the back panel door slid open, and two very young girls climbed down and stood beside him. I remember reassuring myself that an ax murderer probably wouldn’t travel with two young girls. When the man looked up at my window, as if he knew I was there, I moved away and cowered against the wall. The dust-covered Hiace had El Salvador license plates.

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