Seeking a New You: Speaking with 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 www.marielagriffor.com.
“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,
I invent a friend to pour out
I don’t see but invent a city and its people, its fury, its sky.
— “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.
From the Publisher:
“House is a love affair between the poet and Chile. While making real the struggles of war, becoming an expatriate and the alienation that accompanies the immersion in a new culture, Griffor also conveys the beauty and nostalgia she feels for her home country. She commands our attention, and we share her sadness, compassion, anger and hope. Influenced greatly by the American lyric tradition, Mariela’s poems play softly and skillfully; the smooth strum lingers in the readers’ ears.”
Both Exiliana and House rest on a solid personal voice. Are you looking forward to expanding beyond autobiographical wellsprings in your new works?
Autobiographical writing is a period in the life of a writer; I found that I woke up as a writer very late in life. I wrote extensively nonfiction, articles and essays. I do a lot of translation and only now, after fifteen years of writing, would I say I’m comfortable with writing fiction.
Sometimes I thought that I should have started with fiction long ago. Poetry was necessarily the first thing to come out of me; I don’t think I will ever stop writing poetry. My new poetry comprehends historical events. It is also more a product of imagination than autobiographical, unlike my first two books. I also commit to other projects such as anthologies, translations, and a novel in which I include other characters than myself.
How much of an uncompromised political voice can you appreciate in poetry aesthetics?
I happen to be one of those writers who believe that the role of a writer as politically neutral is nonexistent. At some point, any serious writer will be in the middle – whether deliberate or not – of a political dilemma.
I can appreciate good poetry from Emily Dickinson and Sylvia Plath, or others who didn’t need to define themselves in terms of political standpoints… Ultimately, I would imagine that the quality of a writing will survive or surpass any past or current political need.
Whether apathetic or unfelt, an individual sensibility is necessarily molded by collectivity and history. Your thoughts? For someone like you who believes that writing can serve a community, how would you keep the strings between both ends delicate yet taut?
This is so simple. We are one, the collective consciousness and the individual. We are alone and create alone, but we go out into the world, and bring with us our own experience. We “stamp” it in our collectivity or community.
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. Many may decide to take a step forward and become active in changing certain realities. Other writers withdraw themselves into isolation and writing. There they try to recapture some of the truth they have experienced.
Personally, I see myself as a part of a community. I like to be alone, too — I enjoy the music of the silence and the hours I spend alone in contemplation. But I do need an alternative, the noisy interaction with others — with a world that I can and sometimes cannot understand. We have discussed so much about art only for the sake of art, but I don’t believe that a person, who has a great amount of talent, can be unconscious of the responsibility for those talents. If talents can only be individuals’s hands, the collective consciousness would not be able to appreciate its truth. I don’t think we partake of community so as to avoid being alone, but rather to extend our reach — to return to ourselves as if to return to the primitive sense of ourselves. It is like a dance, some people know how to do it, some people don’t. Even if you master technical skills, you need a contact with the environment, just as you need contact with yourself.
How do you write silence?
There is nothing more provocative or powerful in literature than silence. The most powerful words are no words. Don’t you remember what Shakespeare wrote in Othello, “From this time forth I will never speak a word.” It is easy to write silence and perform in plays. You can provoke silence, like in Pinter’s plays.
I’m speaking in another voice, which is absolutely powerful.
On the other hand, how can we write silence in literature? This is something of a higher hierarchy; I would say it is a subversion of the language. It is funny, because as long as I have to speak in other languages, I will be in silence. But the paradox is: this “silence” becomes an extremely powerful tool that can be used against the politics of exile or torture, or diminishing any kind of violence that deprives us of our natural, fine selves. As long as I have to speak in other languages that are not mine, and that I have not chosen, I’m in silence. But I’m speaking in another voice, which is absolutely powerful.
Would it therefore be just to say that your ability to inscribe cultural orientation/disorientation has served — beyond imprinting a writing identity — as a sort of therapeutic catharsis? Given that writing and publishing are two acts in one for your creative life, are you aware that such catharsis may be a public act?
Catharsis? Hmm… to a certain extent.
Publishing being a public act is true, but writing is purely private. I write for myself. Writing is a private act, and publishing is the public element of the natural process of writing. I do have the need to write, it was always there, even long before I went into exile. In high school, I studied French and English, and that opened the door to very important writers. I studied Spanish Literature later on in college, and that solidified my interest for Spanish authors. Writing has been always present in my life, but I would say that going into exile was the catalysis that made clear the role of writing in my life. I always wanted to “do” things like researching literature, being a journalist, etc., although I never thought about using writing to play a role in society. To be a writer was very abstract then.
Writing has been always present in my life, but I would say that going into exile was the catalysis that made clear the role of writing in my life.
Now I see it as a blessing, a gift that we need to share if we can. The act of publishing is a public act. There is nothing wrong with that unless you write secret letters to yourself. I would say that writing and publishing are two different tasks. You don’t write to be published, you write to become better every day in your writing; either because you want to write better poems, or because you have a certain dream of writing something that is bigger than yourself. Whether what you’ve written is being published or not, it is another different task.
I used to struggle with my identity; it was very simple when I was in Chile. Families and relatives don’t move from one place to another. My father, for instance, lived in his house from the time when he was 23; he married and raised his children in the same place. The man who shaped my mind most was my grandfather. His father was a landowner in Temuco, in the south of Chile. His property included thousands of acres, from the mountains to the sea. It included the Fundo Santa Celia and a gold mine. But my grandfather wanted to have a different life… My grandmother’s origins, on the contrary, were more modest. Chile is a class society, you belong to the upper class or the lower class, the middle class was completely destroyed under the military dictatorship. We grow up vulnerable to these kinds of changes, but once we’ve chosen our side, we are uncompromising. Catalytic event, lyric or confessional, who cares? It can be both.
It is true, that in the beginning, my poetry was more confessional or cathartic, if you’d like to call it so, but it has evolved to work that consciously mixes emotions, poetic rules, and images. I write for myself. It gives me pleasure and I don’t know if I am good at it, but I would like to get better.
Tell me, what is on your reading desk at the moment?
Just now, I am reading Reflections on Exile by Edward Said. I discovered him when I was working with a friend on Voices of Other, a collection of essays on exile.
I’m also reading Slow Man by Coetzee. It had taken a year for me to read that book, not because it is boring, but because the author goes so deep into the mind of his character, and the relationship he (platonically) has with his nurse… that I was inspired in-between to write or read something else. This had never happened to me before. Slow Man is not the best work of Coetzee, I think. I read everything he wrote, but this book is different — the protagonist’s dry personality is so familiar to me that I got very curious: how would a man like him fall in love? What propels him into action? Most of the time, he is thinking (unless he is bicycling), but after the accident he doesn’t “move” anymore, at least not in the same way.
I also have the American Heritage College Thesaurus. A great treat!
At the same time, I’m reading Parallel and Paradoxes by Said. Very interesting book about society and music, and how music can heal or help communication. To a huge extent, music is a tool that helps us to communicate. I don’t get the entire point of the book, since it is an interview with Daniel Barenboim and Ara Guzelimian, but it is Said who interests me. When I discover a writer, I don’t jump into a new book by another.
As a reader, I’m a different in the sense that while I often see the bookshelves of friends with one book of many authors, mine comprises of many books — in some cases, all the books — of one author. How can someone understand a writer’s mind with one book?
In any case, both Coetzee and Said are very prolific; I had been reading Coetzee for years. Said is somebody new to me. I also discovered not so long ago Charles Simic. I was visiting a friend in Boston who had all of Simic’s books. I took one, and could not stop reading. I thought he was good. I had often heard his name in poetry circles, but never bought one of his books, until now. I read many authors at one time; I can too, read many of their books at one time. Of the poet friends, I really enjoy writings by Ilya Kaminsky, Franz Wright, Raul Zurita, and Alicia Ostriker.
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