Seeking a New You: Speaking with Mariela Griffor

Mariela Griffor

Once an underground Chilean revolutionary of the Manuel Rodriguez Patriotic Front (FPMR) who risked death to overthrow Pinochet’s dictatorship, MARIELA GRIFFOR went through perils to stay alive after her fiancé, Julio Santibáñez, was murdered in 1985. Barely twenty-four, her life changed overnight. Escaping to Sweden, she spent the subsequent twelve years in exile. After her marriage to an American mathematician, she moved to Grosse Pointe Park, Michigan in 1998, together with their two daughters.

Griffor pursued her studies in journalism. She went on to co-create The Institute for Creative Writers at Wayne State University, and embarked upon an independent publishing venture, Marick Press. Two decades after Santibáñez’s death, she penned her memories of a lost love and homeland in two books of poetry, Exiliana and House, while continuing to write and translate in Spanish and English. Her website is

“I believe a writer is an eye, a pervasive eye that sees the reality that surrounds us, as well as the impression it makes on our souls. It reacts — or does not react — by putting it on paper.”
— Mariela Griffor

Out here, the snow is an insider,
it’s the haute couture of my days.

I invent a friend to pour out
remembrances of the old country.
Out here, I invent new sounds, new men, new women.
I assassinate the old days with nostalgia.

I don’t see but invent a city and its people, its fury, its sky.
I don’t belong to the earth but to the air.
As I invent you, I invent myself.

— “Prologue,” FROM Exiliana (Luna Publications, 2007)

There is a saying: You are never you when you travel. I would imagine even less so for an exile, for instance. Tell me about this you that you’ve grasped in Spanish, as well as in your languages of exile, English and Swedish. How do you create room in a landscape for these different lyricisms?

The fact that I could not talk about my experience with other people forced me to invent a you through my writing. This you is an unsettling force that helps me to emerge anew from any hostile, dislocated, nomadic, dimension of life.

I remember once that a friend recommended that I see a therapist just to release the emotional experience of dislocation. I went a few times to this therapist, but I could not open myself. I couldn’t trust the ‘ear’ of anybody else. I didn’t believe — even if I told my story — which was much more complicated than I admitted to myself — that I could find that kind of empathy within it. An expatriate first looks for empathy among those who are not like them, and then we are ready to take the next step: to open ourselves with our most terrible secret; that is, we look at those who are not in exile with resentment — because they feel and sense — while we, the exiled, are always out of place.

We are not in exile because we chose to be in exile, but because we were pushed or born into it. The indifference to our reality translates into a nationalism or an exaggerated sense of solidarity with conational hostility against outsiders. Sometimes it takes years before we are ready to ‘come out.’ And in my case I invented a friend in my writing — without being completely conscious of it, of course. I needed a friend so badly that I had to invent this you to survive. It was clear to me that this you became a form of survival, and that it could fulfill some of my emotional needs.

It was in Michigan that I wrote the poem “Prologue.” Writing that poem was like summarizing the last fifteen years of my life, and it was the end of my crying. I saw with clarity what was going on in my life and how the next few years would develop. I did have the opportunity to choose despite all the adversity. I decided if I would be the expatriate I was becoming, I would profit from it, do as much as I could to survive. I was also terrified by the fact that the tools I needed to write were disappearing and there was nothing I could do to keep to the old ‘possessions’ like my culture, my language, family traditions, and people I thought I loved deeply. Suddenly I realized I could survive. Not only that, I could also create and invent whatever I needed, including friends. My writing could evolve into something more valuable. I could create very sophisticated tools to communicate. Poetry is my most firm and unconditional love and faith.

I finally accepted that writing had taken the place of a relationship for me. I was always very bad at handling my relationships. In some way I was always better at expressing my complicated self in writing than in speaking. Verbal communication was never my strength, even if I managed – barely – to hold some public positions at some periods.

I was in exile for many years in Sweden; this you helped to deal with that reality. In the U.S. I don’t feel that way, I feel like an expatriate but it is funny how this you has evolved into ‘something’ very sophisticated in my writing, something that is not a painful part of myself but a good companion and listener.

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