Writer, former ambassador, and environmental activist Homero Aridjis was born on April 6, 1940, in Contepec, Mexico, a small town in Michoacán state. He is the youngest of five sons. During the Mexican Revolution, Aridjis’s mother, Josefina Fuentes, narrowly eluded abduction by bandits when she was eight. His father, Nicias Aridjis, was a former captain in the Greek army. Nicias escaped from Smyrna shortly before Turkish soldiers ransacked the city, massacred local Greeks and Armenians, and set fire to the area. Aridjis later wrote about his father’s experiences in his 2021 novel, Smyrna in Flames (Mandel Vilar Press). In January 1951, Aridjis survived a gunshot wound to the stomach that he accidentally inflicted on himself after finding and playing with an older brother’s shotgun. Aridjis has characterized this incident as “a contradictory gift from Providence.” As a result, he stopped playing soccer and learned to play chess. At age thirteen, Aridjis tied with Michoacán’s chess champion and was encouraged to pursue a career in the game. Aridjis also developed a passion for literature, particularly the words of Homer, Charles Dickens, Nikolai Gogol, and Fyodor Dostoyevsky, and began to write poetry. During his early youth, he penned a novel about Napoleon’s daughter, as well as a play and works of short fiction. At age nineteen, Aridjis won a scholarship from the Centro Mexicano de Escritores in Mexico City. In the late 1960s, Aridjis and his spouse, Betty Ferber, who later translated three of Aridjis’s novels and some of his poetry, went to Europe for two years. While there, he befriended poet Henri Michaux and met both Ezra Pound and Giuseppe Ungaretti.
Often regarded as Mexico’s most important poet, a distinction he received after the death of his friend, Octavio Paz, Aridjis has written nineteen poetry collections and seventeen novels. Additionally, he has penned more than a dozen plays, short story and essay collections, and children’s books. His works of poetry include the bilingual collection Self-Portrait in the Zone of Silence (New Directions, 2022); the bilingual anthology Eyes to See Otherwise: Selected Poems (Carcanet Press, 2001; New Directions, 2002), translated by Ferber, as well as by numerous other poets, including Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Philip Lamantia, W. S. Merwin, and Kenneth Rexroth; Persephone (Joaquin Mortiz, 1967), a retelling of the story of the Greek goddess of the underworld; the prose poem Mirandola dormir (Joaquin Mortiz, 1964), winner of the Xavier Villaurrutia Award. His prose works include The Child Poet (Fondo de Cultura Económica, 1971), an autobiographical novel later translated into English by his eldest daughter, Chloe, who is a novelist.
Aridjis has won numerous literary accolades over the decades of his career. He was the youngest ever recipient of the Xavier Villaurrutia Award. Paz, a member of the jury, selected Aridjis over future novelist Carlos Fuentes. Twice, in 1966 and 1979, he was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship. Additionally, for Memorias del nuevo mundo (Editorial Diana, 1988) he has received the Dian-Novedades Literary Prize for an outstanding novel in Spanish; and the Premio Grinzane Cavour for best foreign fiction, in 1992, for the Italian translation of 1492, Vida y tiempos de Juan Cabezón de Castilla (Siglo Veintiuno Editores, 1988), which was also a New York Times Notable Book of the Year in 1991. In 1997, Aridjis received the Prix Roger Caillois in France for his work as a poet and novelist. In 2000, The Orion Society gave him its John Hay Award for significant achievement in writing that addresses the relationship between people and nature. In 2001, he received the Smederevo Golden Key Prize for his poetry.
After returning to the U.S. from Europe, Aridjis taught at Indiana University for a semester before joining the faculty at New York University, where he spent two years teaching. He has also taught at Columbia University. In the 1970s, Aridjis served as Mexico’s ambassador to the Netherlands and Switzerland. In the 1980s, he organized three poetry festivals in Mexico, in addition to founding the Michoacán Institute of Culture. Guests to the poetry festivals included Jorge Luis Borges, Günter Grass, Seamus Heaney, and Tomas Tranströmer. In 1985, Aridjis founded the Group of 100, a cohort of artists and intellectuals who fight for environmental protections and the rights of Indigenous peoples in Mexico. The Group of 100 also helped to ensure protections for the monarch butterfly. Arijdis has frequently used the image of the endangered insect in his poetry, prose, and children’s literature. From 1997–2003, he was president of PEN International—a position to which he was reelected in May 2000. Aridjis is currently president emeritus of PEN International. He also served as president of The Swedenborg Society from 2015–19 and published a volume of poems with the organization, An Angel Speaks: Selected Poems (2015), edited by
J. M. G. Clezio.