About the author
Mariela Griffor was born in the city of Concepcion in southern Chile. She attended the University of Santiago and the Catholic University of Rio de Janeiro. She left Chile for an involuntary exile in Sweden in 1985. She and her American husband returned to the United States in 1998 with their two daughters. They live in Grosse Pointe Park, Michigan. She is co-founder of The Institute for Creative Writers at Wayne State University and Publisher of Marick Press. Her work has appeared in periodicals across Latin America and the United States. Mariela Holds a B.A in Journalism and a M.F.A. in Creative Writing from New England College. She is the author of Exiliana (Luna Publications) and House (Mayapple Press).She is Honorary Consul of Chile in Michigan.
Interview with Bonnie Caprara, November 1, 2006
- You have led a remarkable life, one that could be compelling as non-fiction
book or a movie. Why did you choose to share your experience through poetry?
I did not choose to share my experience through poetry. Poetry chose me. When I was aware that I could write about things I couldn’t talk in a compact way, with rhythm and cadence and in a different style than prose I wanted to be better at it and I wanted to find a new, bigger, voice in the world, the universal voice of poetry that speaks to everyone without the barriers of culture or language.
Like other groups, such as mathematicians, that share a common language, unique, personal but, at the same time, know to all of them, I wanted to belong to the group of people who speak poetry: the poets. The reasons are many: My grandparents introduced me to poetry when I was a little girl. My grandmother made me memorize Neruda, Mistral, Garcia Lorca and then perform it in front of relatives when they came for a visit during the weekend. Why did she do that? I don’t know, it could be because there was nothing better to do or because she really loved the work of these writers. I never asked, maybe it was for some more personal reason - she never talked about it. She could be in tears when she read Mistral. Gabriela Mistral has some of the most powerful and beautiful poems written to her dead lover in “The Sonnets of Death”. Her lover committed suicide and that broke her apart. She turned into this inward person, a rural teacher in the South of Chile where she was completely unknown until she won the Nobel Prize. The last, very painful memory I have regarding Mistral and Neruda’s book was on September 11, 1973 when my grandparents burned all our books, including all the books that my grandmother bought for me through the years. Pinochet took over the government, assassinated Salvador Allende or pushed him into it and through a violent coup d’etat imposed a military dictatorship that put more than a million Chileans into exile. Poetry is like air in Chile ; every time you take a walk you meet a poet. I think it is because we Chileans are neurotic and spoiled. Neurotic because we want to express ourselves through the arts and we want to be heard even if we are at the end of the world. Spoiled because we have such a beautiful country. Mountains on one side and ocean on the other, like California except California everywhere. Cooler in the South but as beautiful since the Patagonia is one of the last beautiful remote places where people can live in the middle of nature.
- Along with Julio, you were very committed to the mission of Democracy, yet your poetry is apolitical. Why is that? It was a time when my life was 100% shaped by the politics of my country and the economic, social and political issues of all of Latin America. Uruguay, Argentina, Chile, Brazil were dominated by dictatorships. I knew from a very young age that my life under those circumstances was not worth that of peoples in democratic countries. I was member of a political party, at age 15. I knew I would dedicate my life to taking a stand against that. If you ask me why, I would say it is because it is the right thing to do. It doesn’t matter where we come from and where we are heading. I think we need to always be careful to be on the right side. It was the right think to take a stand against Pinochet and many others did the same kind of things I did to preserve our democratic values. To take a stand against a tyrant is not a simple think but at that time, at that moment we were not analyzing or thinking very deeply, we were not military strategists, we were simple people with an enormous need for freedom and some people need less than others. I recognized that that wanted to change the system. In some ways we did. I cannot tell how many of the people I knew died, so many, so young and full of idealism and hope for a better life. When I had my first child and I was in exile, I understood my life didn’t belong to me completely anymore. I did have the opportunity to go back to Chile and fight in the underground.. But I didn’t go, because it was the time to do other things in my life. You see, in the life of a woman, political idealism, romantic love and motherhood don’t always go together.
- You touch upon the time you’ve lived in Sweden and in the United States. How has that changed your perspective on your past? How has it shaped your present?
My view of the world was smaller in Chile. I studied in Brazil before I went into exile and I was in other countries in Latin America before, but never in Europe. It was a hard lesson to lose my culture, language, family, friends, geography all at once. There are only two choices: to let your spirit die or initiate a new path, a revolt against circumstances to help the brain in creating new ways for rebirth. Even if it seems impossible that you will ever survive all of this, you try every day. You loose your faith and I’m not talking about religion here, I'm talking about your faith in the kindness of the human spirit and then you get your faith back again with good acts from other people. The Swedish government understood this very well and until the assassination of their Primer Minister Olof Palme in 1986, the Swedes never questioned the importance of a humanitarian immigration policy. That policy gave me the possibility of a new dignified start. I was only 23 years old, with a baby, with no word of Swedish, but I did find a job, daycare and the Swedes paid me for each hour of Swedish I studied at school. My days were long and exhausting but I was an active member of society. Then my child was a person without a State. I needed to become a Swedish citizen in order to give her citizenship. I really didn't want to because my Chilean citizenship was the only thing I had left and, even if it was only an emotional attachment, it meant so much to me that I wrote a letter to the Swedish government so that they would allow me to keep my old citizenship and have the Swedish one as well. They gave me permission to do so at a time when it was not allowed to have double citizenship with Chile. Now things have changed and every child born to a Chilean, outside Chile can have Chilean citizenship. Some people would say and who cares? I do, and all those forced into exile everywhere in the world do too. I never dreamt about living here. Maybe once or twice I thought about it but it was always the result of a desperate situation. I’m glad I’m here even if I lost a lot of good friends for not staying in Chile. I’m doing important things, full of meaning.
- Spanish is your mother tongue. Was it difficult to convey your experiences and emotions in English? Spanish is my first love but as all first loves, it is a sweet thing, nostalgic, powerful; it comes and goes. After a while language is just a tool, one more tool to explain the more sophisticated human language. I’m mostly interested in reaching deeper dimensions than the syntax of my tool. I would like to convey my ideas, to understand other people’s ideas, to erase the enormous differences of guttural sounds and sing to the voices I recognize and that recognize me. Suddenly every thing is much simpler and easier than I thought.
- You not only write and read poetry, but you have been a mobilizing force in promoting creative writing and giving other writers a voice in the Detroit area. What are you long-term plans to achieve that conquest?
The plan is to bring this Urban Voice more into the open. Everybody seems to believe that Detroit is only crime and race conflicts or economical devastation. We have a bit of that too but why doesn't anyone mention the fact that Bowles just won the National Book Award and Jeffrey Eugenides just won the Pulitzer Prize, that Joyce Carol Oates wrote her most important book in this area? That this is the place of Henry Ford, Edison, Wright brothers, Madonna, Kid Rock, Eminem, Francis Ford Coppola, Charles A. Lindbergh, Diana Ross, Bob Seger, Steven Seagal, John T. Parsons, Philip Levine, John C. Sheehan, Theodore Roethke and Gloria Whelan and many more. Sometimes people don’t realize how good they are until a stranger comes and tells them.
- 2007 International Award by Wayne County Council of Arts, History and Humanities.
- 2006 Poetry, Carol and Frank Hennessy award, Grosse Pointe Art enter Poet-in-Residence.
- 2004 Poetry, Reencounter, ONG - Anthology of winners of the ONG Literary Prize for Poetry 1st Prize (Santiago, CHILE)
- 2003 Poetry, Pablo Neruda 100 Years Anniversary, Chilean Cultural Association of Canberra, 1st Prize (Sydney, AUSTRALIA)
- 2003 Poetry, Detroit Urban Writer-in-Residence Program at Wayne State University - (Detroit, MI)
- 2001, 2002, Journalism, Journalism Institute Award, Wayne State University. (Detroit, MI)
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