MEXICO CITY — When Homero Aridjis, renowned Mexican poet and novelist, was elected president of PEN International last August, the question for many remained: Why is Aridjis only the second Latin American writer to head the organization in its 76-year history?
Clearly, the quantity and quality of writers from Latin America could not be an excuse. Ever since the region's "boom" generation was introduced to the literary establishment during the 1966 PEN-sponsored reunion in New York, both the talent and number of Latin writers following in the footsteps of Colombia's Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Mexico's Carlos Fuentes, Peru's Mario Vargas Llosa and Argentina's Julio Cortazar continue to grow.
The snub didn't mean, either, that writers from that corner of Earth didn't need the protection of the venerable writer's association founded in London in 1921 by such influential European men of letters as John Galsworthy, Joseph Conrad and Anatole France. In fact, the opposite is true: Life has often been dangerous and difficult for writers in Latin America.
Some believe prejudice has kept all non-American or non-European writers out of leadership positions within PEN. But a simple reason may be that few writers of any emerging literatures hang out in the elite international writing circles.
That was not the case with Aridjis. Known worldwide, he has published 26 books: fiction, poetry, drama and essays. His work has been translated into 12 languages. Aridjis has also served as Mexico's ambassador to the Netherlands and Switzerland and twice received a Guggenheim fellowship. This year, in addition to winning the PEN job, he has been awarded the Prix Roger Caillois in France and, in years past, several literary prizes in Mexico and Italy.
He is also the founder and president of the Group of 100, a respected environmentalist association of writers, artists and scientists from several countries. His battles to protect the marine turtle, the gray whale and the Monarch butterfly have won him international recognition as a dedicated environmentalist.
Aridjis is so well-known that once he was elected president, questions arose about how he will affect the activities of PEN. Will it become aligned with its new president's environmental activism? Will it be more proactive in demanding protection for journalists and novelists threatened with violence because of what they write. Aridjis himself recently received death threats.
A short time ago, Aridjis sat down for a conversation in his book- and art-filled Mexico City home. He lives there with his wife of 32 years, Betty Ferber, who does the English-language translations of his work, while their two grown daughters, Cloe and Eva Sofia, live in the United States.
Question: What can a Latin American writer like you offer an organization like PEN International?
Answer: Traditionally, PEN's vision has been too Eurocentrist. That, however, is changing, and my election shows that. At the same time, my election proves that there is a recognition of the quality of the emerging literatures that are modifying the world's literary map.
Latin American writers bring to literature a new vitality. We understand the European tradition, but we are also engaged in the conservancy of the environment in its purest forms. We come from a region where ancient ecosystems are being destroyed and ought to be protected.
Q: What does it mean to be a Mexican and the president of PEN International?
A: In the first place, it means the presidency of PEN International is out of Europe. In 1976, when Mario Vargas Llosa was the president of the organization, he lived in London. I live in Mexico and that makes a difference.
On the other hand, apart from us two, no Latin American, Asian or African writer has ever been in that position. It has always been an American or a European. I should also point out that I can serve from Mexico because we live now in a world of global communications that makes it possible to connect with headquarters in London.
Q: Are you implying that the Latin American, Asian and African literary talent has not been properly recognized?
A: In 1989, a Nigerian writer, Chinua Achebe, presented his candidacy to head PEN and the Francophone countries opposed him and asked if there wasn't a more "presentable" writer to preside over PEN. They did not want a black person representing PEN.
Q: You are an environmentalist and a human rights activist. You are also a poet and a novelist. You've been a diplomat. What are you bringing to PEN?
A: I have an updated vision of the world, and I will work very hard to establish a new PEN committee, the Culture and Environment Committee. Now, PEN has only four: the Writer's in Prison Committee, Freedom of Expression, Women Writers and Translation and Linguistics.
Q: How do you bring the environment into literature?