Mariela Griffor was born in the city of Concepcion in southern Chile. She is the author of House and The Psychiatrist and founder of Marick Press. Her work has appeared in Passages North, Cerise Press, Washington Square Review and others Journals. Mariela holds a B.A in Journalism from Wayne State University and M.F.A. in Creative Writing from New England College. Her forthcoming publications include the translations: Canto General by Pablo Neruda (Tupelo Press) and, Bye, have a good time! by Kristina Lugn (Eyewear Publishing). For info see:www.marielagriffor.com
Geosi Gyasi: You were born in the city of Concepcion in southern Chile. Could you tell me anything about your birthplace?
Mariela Griffor: Concepcion is the second largest city in Chile, second in number of inhabitants and in importance after Santiago, the capitol of Chile. It is a southern city, located close to the Pacific Ocean and volcanoes and a significant amount of small lakes and rivers like the Bio-Bio river surrounding the forests and mountains around. My entire family comes from the South. So we are not “cold people” but I would say more quiet than our countrymen in the North and we also are terribly nostalgic about the South if we ever leave its landscape.
The combination of mountains, forests and ocean make the experience of coming from the South unforgettable. I lived in Brazil once and the hot weather, humidity and the warm water of the Atlantic was shockingly unfamiliar and not very comfortable. Later on I was ‘lucky” to live in Uppsala and Michigan which are very similar to the geography of the South of Chile. Except for the eucalyptus forests and the poplar lining the highways in Chile I would say Concepcion in ‘the South’, Uppsala and Michigan have pines, birches, oaks, water and a lot of similar flowers.
Chile is a crazy geography. A crazy geography that can spoil you. To the East you have the Andes Mountains and to the West you have the Pacific Ocean.
Geosi Gyasi: Briefly describe the geographical area of Chile?
Mariela Griffor: Chile is a South American country occupying a long, narrow strip of land between the Andes to the east and the Pacific Ocean to the west. Peru is to the north, Bolivia to the northeast, Argentina to the east, and the Drake Passage in the far south. Chilean territory includes the Pacific islands of Juan Fernández, Salas y Gómez, Desventuradas, and Easter Island in Oceania. Chile also reach about 1,250,000 square kilometres (480,000 sq mi) of Antarctica.
Geosi Gyasi: Could you tell me about the language(s) you speak?
Mariela Griffor: I speak Spanish. I would say I use a bunch of very old words because my grandparents and great grandparents were from the South of Chile and they were settled in the area many generations ago.
One small book of poetry is called Resolana (Sunspots) which is not in use anymore, not by young people.
Geosi Gyasi: In 1985, you left Chile for an involuntary exile in Sweden. Why?
Mariela Griffor: Like many countries in Latin America, Chile had a military dictatorship in the 80’s. And as in many countries in Latin America an insurrection grew to the point of creating political movements throughout the country. Many joined paramilitary forces to fight the government of General Augusto Pinochet, a government that was bloody, corrupt and dictatorial. Chile enjoyed a long democratic tradition of over 100 years. Never before had so many needed to seek protection in other countries, the flow of Chileans who fled reached over a million. They sought exile in counties like Australia, France and Sweden. I was one of the over a million Chileans who sought refuge in another country. I was part of that anti-Pinochet movement and my involvement put my life in jeopardy. I needed to leave the country because I was hours away from being detained. I escaped by a ‘miracle’ called ‘luck’. Sweden was a happy casualty. I was confronted with the funny election of France or Sweden. My lawyer, who was a champion of human rights in Chile, said to me: “you can go to France or Sweden right now. In France I don’t know anybody; in Sweden I know some people”. Despite having four years of French in high school and no knowledge of Swedish I went to Sweden!
Geosi Gyasi: As a co-founder, can you tell us anything about “The Institute for Creative Writers at Wayne State University”?
Mariela Griffor: The Institute for Creative Writers at Wayne was a great experience. It came out of a program in the Interdisciplinary Studies Program and aimed to give a broader perspective of writing to students of other colleges. As the program grew we concentrated on the craft of writing and we worked with students who already had manuscripts ready for submission. We put them in contact with Literary Agents in New York. Many of them got their manuscripts published.
Geosi Gyasi: Tell me about “Marick Press” and the work you do there?
Mariela Griffor: I am the publisher of Marick Press. Marick tries to open a door to new writers and also rescue titles from becoming one of many forgotten titles, and we put them into reprint editions. We publish a wide range of genres. Marick Press is also a personal homage to two very important people I meet in Chile who gave their lives to improve the lives of other people. Those two people were also poets. The responsibilities they had were consuming but they never stopped writing poetry. Our press is somewhat unconventional regarding seasonal releases. We print and publish books during one season of the year, in the Fall/Winter from September to February, and we are open to submissions the rest of the year. We are going to be open again to submissions online through SUBMITTABLE in the coming year, we are pretty busy right now editing and preparing to publish our Marick Press Online Journal. This is some of the work we do at Marick.
Geosi Gyasi: You hold a B.A in Journalism and M.F.A in Creative Writing. My question is, is there any major difference between journalism and creative writing?
Mariela Griffor: There are enormous differences in both writings. In journalism the most important attributes are in opposition to what literary writing can offer. In journalism in general, there is a phrase that says, “if it bleeds, it leads” so bad news are always more newsworthy than good news. Then all the rules that can be applied to journalism such as composition, timelines, relevance, continuity, interest, prominence, sensationalism, etc. need to fit in a certain amount of inches and a strict number of words. It is an excellent discipline exercise but for the creative mind that likes to write free verse, it can be a challenge. For most writers I know, that have a background in journalism, this doesn’t represent any kind of problem. Journalism writing is a kind of writing that has its own rules, as do many other kinds of writing.
Geosi Gyasi: What inspired you to write, “Exiliana”?
Mariela Griffor: I study Latin in College and I was excited about going back to the roots of the Spanish language. Exiliana comes from the Latin word (exilare/exsilare), exilium, excilium and means “banishment, exile, place of exile and comes from exul which means exul or “banished person”. Then the word ‘exiliana’, conjugated, is the ‘things’ or ‘stuff’ of exile. I didn’t come up with the title until I was together with my editor and publisher and so many names came to the discussion and, since my poems were about loss, persecution and exile, the title Exiliana seems very appropriate.
Geosi Gyasi: How did you come to write, “House”?
Mariela Griffor: That title is very connected to the first one. The last stanza of each poem in ‘House’ ends in Spanish and the idea came after a reading I gave in Toronto where somebody from the audience came to me afterward and told me she was very upset about not being able to understand the end of the poem. So it was for me a good way to put the reader into my state of mind of ‘permanent exile’. I wanted to give them part of the experience that I carried with me all those years. It is true that readers don’t like tricks nor do they like to be manipulated into conclusions but I didn’t find another more explicit way to convey what I wanted to convey. It is true that the words, images and the poem itself can be interpreted in many ways depending on who is reading it, but I got very enthusiastic reviews from the bilingual readers who thought I was playing with the language. I was playing with the words but the experience was profound and I need an external structure to try to go deeper. I don’t know if I succeeded or not, but I like the architecture of my books. Even if I don’t have so many books out, I have an intensive time writing them all.
Geosi Gyasi: Coming from Chile, is there anything you could say about the Nobel Laureate Pablo Neruda?
Mariela Griffor: Neruda had been misread or misinterpreted for many years in the English-speaking world. It is true that his tremendous number of love poems gives him the reputation of the poets that speak the language of love and people all over the world can easily identify with those poems. His opus magnum was an essential book that few have interpreted well.
Neruda was a man of an exquisite complexity and fierce temperament who wrote poetry that is visionary and relevant today. His love for the American Continent is unknown, he is represented as a political poet who values the dogmas of his party over many other things. This takes away from the stature of Neruda, at least the Neruda I read. His value resides in the description of the details that cries for change. But also he is a master of language. He chants for change and condemns the usurpation that the American Continent had experienced. His love for the continent is not a pamphlet dedicated to the good old days but instead a chronicle of societies on the continent before and after Columbus. Different races and cultures can be found represented in his work. His voice is the voice of a giant who sees the world with your eyes and shows us a way to reengage with the humanity within all of us.
Geosi Gyasi: Give us a gist about what your book, “The Psychiatrist” is all about?
Mariela Griffor: Ah! The Psychiatrist. Somebody already said it in a review of the book: It is a tough read. But, I decided a long time ago that if I’m going to write books of poetry, then I will not compromise. You know, I felt I needed to compromise many times in my life. To keep myself alive I needed to be silent. It is true I’m limited in many regards but I can write and make people think, wonder, remember, identify with some of the landscapes, images, I write for myself and I try to find answers to the many questions I have; I can be whoever I want to be in the pages and The Psychiatrist is not only my story draped with words that I like to use and to play with, but these words are like ‘moon beams’ or shadows, they are words that are telling “you” who I am today, what “I” see, what the world has made of me and the ones I loved.
Geosi Gyasi: How do you find time to write?
Mariela Griffor: My time to write is always there; if I don’t write I feel physically sick. My best days are those with some long hours of writing. Those are my happiest days even if my poems are not funny and are seldom very happy. Some days I don’t write at all and I revise and polish old pages. I also have other obligations but I try to get things done quickly to sit at my desk.
Geosi Gyasi: Do you regard writing as a “real” profession?
Mariela Griffor: If you are broadly published and well-paid (or not very well paid) for your writing, then yes I think you are a professional. Now the commercial aspect of this profession is very different from other professions in the arts. Poets are paid badly in general so they seek jobs in other places like Universities, Colleges, Presses, etc. and they continue to write and pay their bills with the income from other jobs rather than from the income of their own writing. This choice gives them other sorts of headaches like, how faithful to their institutions is their writing. This is a way to survive, it is life. There are poetry zealots who say that poets should only write poetry and do nothing else. I have never heard anything more unrealistic than that but, if you look more carefully, those same people who say this are paid by foundations that give them a salary or they are themselves in an editorial position of some kind. Imagine if Wallace Stevens never wrote a poem because they had a job as an insurance agent! Or Pablo Neruda were not accepted as a poet because he was a diplomat for a long time! I say these people who want to ban everybody from writing poetry are suspicious characters because we don’t know their intentions. I would say if you want to write poetry, just write and publish. Don’t think about who is out there trying to pigeonhole you; if you want to write, write no matter what. There is one thing I’m very sure about: not everybody has the need to write. Some people spend their entire lives without reading or writing books, so if you have the ‘writing need’, you have to write.
Geosi Gyasi: What sort of preparation went into the writing of “Heartland”?
Mariela Griffor: It is a selection of poems from Exiliana published in Sweden. I lived fourteen years in Uppsala, Sweden, and many of the poems were dedicated to some places and people I met there.
Geosi Gyasi: Do you have a defined way of choosing titles for your books?
Mariela Griffor: Yes, I like one word titles, I like words that can capture a world view. But the titles are selected by editors in some small presses.
Geosi Gyasi: What is your greatest achievement as a writer?
Mariela Griffor: Thanks God this is not a job interview Geosi! How can I pick only one thing of 20 years of experience but let’s see if we can do this. I have been able to express my experience, from childhood in Chile to a youth and in exile in Sweden, no matter where I was in the world, in my writing and in my way of life. I have been working with three different languages for 30 years but most importantly I learn how to use, play, honor, conquer, immerse into the words.
Geosi Gyasi: Who are your literary forebears?
Mariela Griffor: Roberto Bolano, Jose Maria Arguedas, J.M. Coetzee in fiction of course, but in poetry I can say Neruda, Mistral, Enrique Lihn, Jorge Teiller, Pablo de Rocka, Bishop, Moore, T.S. Elliot, Marti, Cesar Vallejo, in poetry and fiction there is Ceslaw Milosz and many more.
Geosi Gyasi: What is/are your main interest areas as a writer?
Mariela Griffor: I like to write poetry most of the time. But I write fiction and also a lot if interviews, reviews, articles and I keep a journal, lately. I’m working on a new poetry manuscript and a big translation from Spanish into English right now.
Geosi Gyasi: Do you care to ask me any question to end the interview?
Mariela Griffor: For sure I have many questions!
Geosi Gyasi: Go ahead and ask me.
Mariela Griffor: Who are the most important writers in Ghana and South Africa today?
Geosi Gyasi: It would be difficult to single out just one or a select group of writers from both Ghana and South Africa, as there are many great talents on the continent. However, any list I give will be incomplete without the following — from Ghana: Benjamin Kwakye, Ama Ata Aidoo, Ayikwei Ama, and from South Africa: J.M Coetzee, Zakes Mda, Damon Galgut, Henrietta Rose-Innes.
Mariela Griffor: Could you find any of these writers in English and published in the States or UK?
Geosi Gyasi: Almost all of them I’ve mentioned write in English and have been published abroad. However, it is important to note that a number of indigenous publishing houses on the continent are doing extremely well. A few names come to mind: Kwela, Umuzi, Cassava Republic, Kachifo, and so forth.
Maariela Griffor: What are the big themes of the writers from Ghana?
Geosi Gyasi: Themes by writers from Ghana vary from writer to writer, largely due to our rich cultural heritage. For instance, I’ve read a number of Ghanaian literatures covering themes like homelessness, Heroism, Love, Birth and Death, Betrayal, Fortune, Power, God and spirituality, Survival and so forth. So you see, they’re varied and diverse.