Culture  17th Hong Kong International Literary Festival: an interview with writer Aura Xilonen
03/11/201700:00 TV5MONDE
The annual Hong Kong International Literary Festival starts today and runs until the 12th of November, 2017. One of Asia's premier literary festivals, the 17th edition continues to offer an enriched program showcasing novelists, authors and poets over the course of 10 days. The non-profit, charitable event invites writers from Asia and around the world. Workshops, panel discussions, reading lists and more are offered to festival attendees. With assistance from the Consulate General of Mexico in Hong Kong and Macao SAR and the organizing team of the Hong Kong International Literary Festival, we spoke to Aura Xilonen, one of the invited authors. At only 19 years of age, Aura debuted with Campeón gabacho and took home Mexico's prestigious Mauricio Achar Prize for Fiction. A chronicle of an undocumented teen from Mexico who struggles to build a new life in an American border city, its tale of crossing borders may be all too familiar in this world where the subjects of migration and human movement are, for lack of a better term, often the talk of the town in the global political climate.
Aura Xilonen, young Mexican author and winner of Mauricio Achar Prize for Fiction. © Luis Mauleon

Aura's book has been translated into French, Italian, Polish, Dutch and German, and will be released in simplified Chinese later this year. Campeón gabacho (christened The Gringo Champion in English and Gabacho in French) is touted for its unique 21st-Century prose, its magnificient take on the subject of migration in an increasingly globalized world and Aura's creativity in the organic use of languages. In our brief interview, Aura shared with us her thoughts on achieving success in so early a stage in her writing career, her aspirations, her impressions of her translated works and her first visit to France.
In your work, you have used a lot of the vernacular but also expressions popular in the 16th and 17th century . The word “gabacho” itself is a derogatory term used to describe the French invaders of Mexico in the 19th century. For all these language uses, would you consider yourself a language buff?
We all are language buffs, I believe. Languages are alive and nobody owns them.  

What inspired you to make use of so many literary references?
I do include literary references in my novel. However, as in everyday life, these are a small part of our extraordinary culture. My book includes both popular expressions and others more formal, since my main character, Liborio, works in a bookshop. I had to reflect his actions and points of view. 
You’ve been to a number of literary festivals around the world and certainly France. Your book has also been translated in the French language. Can you tell us more about your experience there? What was your first impression and how was your experience?
The first time I was in France was like buying a fantastic cake and not being able to taste it. I didn’t have much time to visit Paris and I mainly saw it from behind car windows. It was the coldest I've ever felt. It was so cold even my thoughts felt frozen when I went outside and tried to look up to see a monument.

My publishing house, Liana Levi, is full of beautiful and diligent women. They all looked after me while I was there. They were very attentive and committed to promoting Gabacho, which is the French title for my book. Julia Chardovoine was with me in France and she was also my interpreter at interviews and presentations. She is an outstanding translator and her work on my book won the Grand Prix de Traduction de la Ville d’Arles 2017. She is also a finalist for the Grand Prix of SGAE in the category of the best translation to the French language. I hope she gets that award as well.  

Any memorable moments interacting with a French-speaking audience?
In the last presentation of my book at the Festival Des Mont in Toulouse, I was sitting in the audience during a reading. I heard a lot of laughter all throughout and I felt extremely pleased. The humor had worked and that is the best catalyst for all our emotions.
Non-English fiction has not always been translated and made accessible to the rest of the world. As a young author, your work has been translated into multiple languages and at a rather rapid speed. How do you perceive all of this?
I am amazed by the tremendous success of my book. I would have never imagined it. I know how extremely difficult it is for books to make the leap into translation. That and more has happened in this case because of its constant boxing against language, the reinvention of words, and the revitalization of something that we use every day.

Andrea Rosenberg has done a brilliant translation of your work in English. To maintain the essence of your work’s original voice, she’s often kept some of the names and words in Spanish. Was this an idea of yours?
She has also been nominated for awards for her translation. Her work was extremely impressive, so much so that it has directly led to the book's positive review with critics in the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada and Australia. To maintain the essence of my work, it was necessary to use words in Spanish and English. This has also been the case when translated into French, Italian, Dutch, German, Polish and soon Chinese.

Have you read other language versions of your work? What did you think of them?
I don’t speak the languages, but I do scan the translations and try to compare the lexicon where I can. I have seen how they utilize the invented word “Gloremibundo”. Their work is fantastic.

Let's talk a bit about the story. Could you tell us about the identity of the gringo? There were so many “gringoes” in the story - the young protagonist, the older Mexican workers, the actual white “gringo" - who would you define as the gringo?
I don’t know how to precisely define it, and will leave that to sociologists. However, I do think that all of them, in their plurality, are part of what can be called a ‘gringo’. As your question suggests, a ‘gringo’ can be of Mexican origin, African-American, an Italian gringo, a Chinese gringo, etc. The United States has been a land of diversity, a country formed by immigrants with different cultural backgrounds.

You have mentioned in various interviews that your source of inspiration comes from those around you, notably your grandfather. Was this the intention to write - to capture his stories? Or was it more that his stories inspired you to write?
Part of my inspiration comes from my family, and part from my imagination. The main character, Liborio, shares the name of my grandfather, but my grandfather is in fact very similar to the character Abraham, the grandfather of Aireen, who is an artist living within his own home. Ms. Dobleú is very much like my mother, a bit crazy and very talkative, and Ms. Merche is just like my grandmother.

You are now in Hong Kong, one of the world’s most multi-cultural city and often home to “gringoes” - what kind of message would you like to bring to Hong Kong’s audience, local and expatriates alike?
I always do my best to transmit a message of hope. Despite our cultural differences, we have more in common than we know and that brings us together. In the beginning of my book I say that if each of us looked at our origins, we would realize that we have all at some point been migrants. This is a shared experience that connects all inhabitants of the planet.
What are some of your future plans? If you were not a writer, what would you have liked to become?
I have always wanted to be a filmmaker. That has been my plan from the beginning. However, while making movies is very expensive, imagination is free. Writing is an affordable way of making movies. Filmmaking is my true passion.  

With thanks to the Consulate General of Mexico and the Hong Kong Literary Festival for facilitating this interview with Aura. She will be appearing to speak at the Fringe Club in Hong Kong on the 11th of November. For more information on the event and the festival, please visit their website.

Aura Xilonen won the prestigious Mauricio Achar Prize in 2015 at only 19 years of age. Her first novel, Campeón Gabacho, was published in French as "Gabacho" and in English in as “The Gringo Champion”. It has also been translated into Italian, Polish, Dutch and German, and will be released in simplified Chinese later this year. She has participated in international literary festivals in Mexico, France, Italy, the Netherlands, Poland and the United States. She studies cinematography and was a guest writer at the Amsterdam Writer’s Residency of the Dutch Foundation for Literature. Her work deals with the difficult issue of migration through an endearing character.
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