Chapman Presidential Fellow Carolyn Forché on National Book Awards Longlist for Nonfiction

Update: The National Book Foundation announced on Tuesday, Oct. 8, that Carolyn Forché’s book “What You Have Heard is True” is now one of the five finalists for its 2019 non-fiction award.


A memoir by poet and Chapman University Presidential Fellow in creative writing Carolyn Forché has earned a spot on the 2019 National Book Awards Longlist for Nonfiction.

“What You Have Heard is True” is Forché’s witness to the violence and horror of El Salvador’s civil war, in which thousands of civilians, including priests and nuns, died at the hands of the military.

book cover for "What You Have Heard is True" by Carolyn Forché
“What You Have Heard is True” by Carolyn Forché is among just 10 books included on the National Book Awards Longlist.

The book has been widely praised by critics. “Written with a thriller writer’s knack for narrative tension and a poet’s gorgeous sentences and empathy,” said NPR reviewers. Novelist Margaret Atwood tweeted:  “Astonishing, powerful, so important at this time.”

Forché was a newly published 27-year-old poet living in Los Angeles when she was drawn to El Salvador by the relative of a friend who implored her to see firsthand what was happening there and write about it so the world’s eyes would be opened to the country’s miseries.

The poet poured the experiences into her writing, which included the acclaimed prose poem “The Colonel.” In it, she recounts the evening a military man concludes a dinner of lamb, good wine and mangoes by dumping a sack of human ears onto the dining table, a grim warning to human rights activists challenging the military-led government.

She returned committed to what she called “poetry of witness,” a term she coined in her 1993 anthology “Against Forgetting.”

At Chapman, Forché is in residence during the spring semesters. She speaks to classes and MFA creative writing students, comments on manuscripts, and presents public readings of her work.

“She’s become integral to our program as an amazing poet, memoirist, and mentor and also because of her generous spirit,” says Anna Leahy, Ph.D., director of the the MFA Program in Creative Writing.

Additionally, many students throughout other programs benefit from her time on campus, too,

“Carolyn has also talked with numerous undergraduate classes in English, Peace Studies, History, War and Society, and other areas about her experiences as a poet of witness. For many of these students, she connects what they are studying with the larger world far beyond the classroom, and that’s especially exciting and meaningful,” Leahy says.

The National Book Foundation will announce the five finalists on Tuesday, Oct. 8, and the winner on Monday, Nov. 11.

Dawn Bonker

Dawn Bonker