A Language in Constant Rebellion: Talking with Aura Xilonen


Aura Xilonen, a native Mexican and current film student, wrote the novel Gringo Champion (Europa Editions) at only nineteen years old. It soon won Mexico’s Mauricio Achar/Random House Award, given to new voices in literature, and is currently being translated into six languages—the US version was published earlier this year. The book follows Liborio, a an undocumented seventeen-year-old Mexican immigrant. We join Liborio when he starts working at a bookstore as an assistant to an abrasive older man and get snippets of his harrowing childhood and journey across the border in flashbacks throughout the novel. Liborio has lived hardship, and he has very little patience for others; he’s quick to pull out his fists. “After all, I was born dead already and nothing fucking scares me.” However, his sensitivity peeks through in his relationships with friend Naomi and love interest Aireen.

What sets Xilonen apart as an audacious writer is her intricate and incomparable use of language. She is sensitive to the tonal quality of her words and her sentences are lyrical yet grounded in the vernacular—Liborio curses everything and everyone. A weave of English, Spanish, and literary references from various geographies and eras, her lush prose combines many registers and resists translation. (Even translating her interview was no easy task.) In writing The Gringo Champion, Xilonen essentially created a new language (‘ingeñol’ as some reviewers have named it) that represents the imbricated border culture, and when faced with the task of translating, requested that her translators do the same.

Our present-day political challenges make reading imaginative narratives by young writers like Xilonen an imperative. She has curious ways of depicting hardship, from the “poisonous hours, their cadaverous seconds” that fill up our days, to larger social and economic struggles. Her writing not only probes the realities of immigration, it makes a case for writing by Mexicans about Mexicans. She writes that ‘the gringo intellectual’ believes that:

…the best asshole artists are those who make a fucking work of art out of tragedy, poverty, neglect, like those pinches photographers who swan into misfortune so they can take a good photograph that’ll win them a goddamn Pulitzer Prize; but here, in everyday life, here, in this fucking country, poor people are hunched, envious, vandalous, and only very occasionally solitary.

With its wily and aggressive protagonist, Xilonen’s novel complicates the standard immigration narrative. Her novel, however, does not merely attest to a current social reality under Trump. It is also one of the few Mexican novels that has made its way through translation and onto US bookshelves. In the following interview, we spoke about translation, language, immigration, and the stories that inspired her writing.


The Rumpus: How did you start writing the book? In an interview with Letra Libres, you mentioned that the text came, at least partially, from family stories.

Aura Xilonen: That’s true. Not only from my family’s stories, but also from my own experience as an undocumented person in Germany where I lived for about two years and experienced, in my own skin, the fear that we would at some point be discovered. I also collected stories from the experiences of some of my grandmother’s workers who went back to the United States as undocumented workers. When they were deported back to Mexico, they spoke of the danger as if it were a plague. They spoke of the border as a type of hell, and that in the desert, instead of sweating water, they sweat fire. Other important contributions were my grandfather’s stories. When he was diagnosed with a diabetic foot disease, he had two toes amputated, leaving him bedridden for almost a year. I sat beside him and listened to his stories and anecdotes, stories of how he had attempted to be a bullfighter, boxer, baseball player, pastor, journalist, playwright, musician, poet. He suffered a lot in that bed. He couldn’t wait to get out of bed and recite his political monologues against the government of the ‘Rotten Dictator’ (Felipe Calderón). A few months after his foot healed, he suffered a cerebral infarction. He never recovered from it and died four years later in 2013. Part of my incentive to write my novel was to preserve his memory and my memory of his stories, and to represent my ancestors in some way. In the novel, I included my grandfather and my grandmother, who is named Naomi. In the story, Naomi becomes Liborio’s closest friend.

Rumpus: Can you talk about how you came to this character specifically? Obviously you two are very different. Which experiences influenced your writing of Liborio?

Xilonen: All the characters in my novel reflect a lot of my own qualities, but also contain a lot of other people. For example, Liborio’s eyes hurt when he starts reading books in the bookstore. It’s always made me sleepy and my eyes burned when I read or wrote. I also identify with Aireen, especially when her grandfather is sick. When one is in pain and not able to see the other side, strange things provoke emotion. Suddenly, the rain makes her cry.

The Chief, on the other hand, looks like a guy who always let me read books, and who made me read the entire dictionary. He told me that, “we are language,” and that the complexity of our ideas can only be explained through an equally rich vocabulary. He said that, “our ideas grow or shrink according to our use of language.”

The name Liborio belongs to my grandfather, but the one who resembles my grandfather the most is Aireen’s grandfather: the painter, the bohemian, the artist who philosophizes. Even the coffin scene contains the same colors as my grandfather’s when he died. Also Mr. Abacuc Shine has traits of him, especially his kindness and generosity to help people. On the other hand, my grandmother resembles Mrs. Merche. My mom is Mrs. Double U, all crazy and jumpy.

Rumpus: Why did you decide that it would be a story about a migrant who is in the United States specifically? Why not another country?

Xilonen: Because it was the story that interested me. The immigration narrative. I had been undocumented in Germany and knew what I was talking about, and although I enjoyed my time in Germany, I was constantly wary and afraid. My aunt would scold us if we made a noise in her apartment because she was afraid the landlord would find us. When I started attending my new school in Germany, I did not know German and my companions, between Turks, Arabs, and Chinese, did not know Spanish, so we had to interact purely through signs, our only common language. And then, when I finally began understanding German, after two years, we returned to Mexico. So I was again uprooted. These fears of being uprooted have haunted me for some time, because my childhood was marked by constant change. I rotated through schools constantly and I could never keep my friends for a long time. Peace came, momentarily, when I entered high school. Though it was also a very chaotic time because my parents went through a messy divorce, and my father died soon after. My mother was resentful and her resentment abated little by little, though she still has strong feelings. I also chose the United States because it is what I saw everywhere, in the stories of my grandfather, in those of my grandmother’s workers, the movies, my uncles.

Rumpus: As we know, languages and discourse are integral to the text. Can you talk about the translation process and how you and your translator (Andrea Rosenberg, who helped you with the English version) arrived at this version of the text. What do you think of the changes that came with this version. Do you think it creates the same effect as the Spanish version?

Xilonen: The task of translating was very challenging and took a great deal of time because of the language I use in my novel. Because of this I have great affection for, in addition to Andrea Rosenberg who did a spectacular job, my other translators, like Julia Chardavoine who translated the French edition. They’ve received extraordinary praise in their respective countries, and I could almost bet that my others translators will receive similarly positive responses [the other versions will soon be published]. My position from the very beginning was that the translators should have all the freedom to invent the words, to more or less adapt the book to their culture, to their language. That is to say, my fundamental concern was to adapt the book to each one of the regional idioms and to give the book its own identity. It’s an opinion, which I held well before the translation, when I realized that all the people that used social media networks were beginning to write the same, without nuance, without local terminology to give the audience better understandings. In other words, globalization had cut us out of different fabrics with the same scissors. We have become monotonous, without color, without the beautiful games of language. And I imagined that the same thing could happen to people from other countries as well. We use much fewer words to write everything, and so rich and varied is this language. Therefore, when I worked with the translators, I would explain more or less the meaning of the word in Spanish, and they would try to convey a similar meaning in their language, because language must be in constant rebellion, constant tension, to remain alive. I didn’t want the novel to be translated literally. I wanted it to be a reinvention of language, and thus the translators also did their own sort of reinvention.

Rumpus: Liborio has a tense relationship with literature. He rejects it for being too difficult, old, and for excluding certain readers. But through his relationship with Naomi we realize how important reading is for him. Can you talk about that?

Xilonen: Liborio rejects bad literature. He rejects the literature that is empty and that uses beautiful words merely to assert knowledge of them, the intellectual exercises that have no life, the kind that distances itself from the world, away from suffering but also away from love. That is, Liborio sees the same logic in these square writers, because they write about nothing, about their poor gray lives and their existential qualms. For him it is banal, empty, it’s folly to worry about nonsense and not be concerned with the depth of the human condition. But for him reading is extremely important; he even builds a library in the children’s shelter. At first Liborio does not understand the words, he does not understand the novels, much less the poetry, so he reads the dictionary to try to learn vocabulary and try to understand them. He realizes the individual words are not enough but begins to piece narrative together. There he discovers that there is another, better life elsewhere. He goes from illiterate to developing his own opinions, and for him, language is a vehicle for these opinions. He is an autodidact who teaches himself everything he knows and ends up reading next to squirrels everyday, under the trees of the Wells park.

Rumpus: I love the way you write the female characters; they are always very confident and strong. Liborio is also strong, but perhaps more sensitive than Aireen. Did you write them this way intentionally?

Xilonen: That’s true. Aireen is extraordinarily strong. She has suffered in a different way than Liborio. She suffered from her mother’s illness and subsequent death. Then she’s had to deal with her grandfather’s immobility and apathy. He’s locked in his apartment and never wants to leave. Aireen has to work all day just to survive. Additionally, she’s a beautiful woman that everyone harasses, which, I think, makes her hard and so she builds up a wall. On the other hand Naomi is tenderness and innocence incarnated. But she also has a commitment to her ideals. She wants to be a lawyer to defend migrants when she is old and she fights for her ideals and what she believes. She’s a little nosy but she has a heart of gold. Mrs. Merche is like the mother of the chicks. When the hen mother is angry, she scolds everyone. The Ñora Double U is all crazy and bouncy. She has divorced her husband and taken everything. She was very beautiful as a young woman and only cared about her image and the superficial until she became ill and realized that she had to do something to help others before leaving this earth. And yes, she is a crazy woman who speaks way too much, almost like my mother, who does not stop talking even if she is quiet. Also Mrs. Marshall, who is an old millionaire who helps the shelter. Very sure of herself. Liborio, on the other hand, is like a battered dog who is ashamed even of his own name. But yes, he is very sensitive, especially when he begins to have empathy for other people.

Rumpus: What kind of story did you want to write before you started? Which writers have inspired you?

Xilonen: At first I had no idea. I only wrote small sentences. Little stories, some separate story. Fragments of conversations. I made lists of words with funky, funny double meanings. I put on paper the first things that went through my head. As the months and years passed, the story took on life and grew to be many pages. Even in the version that I sent to the contest that won the Mauricio Achar Award, I removed the first twenty pages because they were so bad.

In terms of my reading, I first began to read, as Liborio does, the cartoons and illustrated books of Asterix and Mafalda. Then I moved to children’s plays. Harry Potter was a watershed moment in my life. I read all the books in one stretch, immense works that I devoured in days. During that period of time, I did not leave my room. Then I read contemporary trilogies because my friends were also reading them: from Twilight to Hunger Games, or later, Fifty Shades of Gray. At the same time I also read Tolstoy and Tolkien, but the author who has been perhaps most important to my reading practice has been Juan Rulfo. Pedro Páramo was incomprehensible when I first read it, though I knew it was worth going back to. The second time, I understood the narrative and finally the third time I was able to finally appreciate the writing. I marveled at the use of words, as they bounced through the songs of the book, scattering to the edge of the pages. His words were like these effervescent things lit up by how they were arranged in poetry.

Rumpus: You’re a filmmaker and writer? Do you want to continue writing literature, or are you more interested in cinema?

Xilonen: I am very interested in cinema. Literature is great because you can do and undo what you’ve put down on a whim. But cinema feeds my soul. I can not imagine a life that does not include directing some great film. Of course, the foundation for making film is the word. Ultimately cinema is my main passion and then, as a hobby, literature, because cinema is the love of my life while literature is my discipline. Even before receiving the Mauricio Prize for my novel, I received the first place in the category of best original screenplay and second place in the category of best short film for a film contest at the Benemérita Autonomous University of Puebla. At the age of fourteen or fifteen I was already making my quirky films and even enrolled in a municipal film contest to film the beauty of my city of Puebla. I did not win, but it gave me great hope to write and direct my own inventions. I could, without going any further, stop writing, but I could never stop making movies.

Rumpus: How has the audience reacted? In Mexico, when you won the Mauricio Achar prize, how did the literary community receive you?

Xilonen: In a spectacular way. On my Twitter account, I received many messages from people who have read my work in Spanish, English, or French and they have loved it. I’ve only received positive feedback. Some even exaggerate to say that my novel is a fresh wind for world literature, and I have been told that I am the new prodigy of Mexican literature. I appreciate all these comments, as unfounded as they are. But I think the book has been wonderfully received, especially for being published during this turbulent time in the era of Donald Trump.

Rumpus: What do you think of the current US policy?

Xilonen: That what is happening with Trump in the United States government and the tightening of public policies towards migrants, Muslims, refugees, and minorities is terrible. Maybe we are talking about a hostile and terribly harmful time for all, draconian, where tolerance will again be merely a dream to be achieved when progress has been made. But there is always hope, just as Liborio doesn’t fall into an abyss, into a wave of despair. I believe that most Americans are wonderful people, tolerant, open to humanism, generous and committed to freedom, to their dreams. They care about helping those that need it, the ones who need their rights fought for most in this world. And I also believe that the majority who voted for Trump felt they had no other no other alternative. That they were humble people who were not interested in hurting people, but rather saw no way out of their discontent. Many of them, I believe, are not actually racist. But we definitely have to worry about the few who wave their banners promoting racism and using hatred as a weapon to harm people. Many Trump supporters have yet to understand that the world is so diverse, so plural, that it is the diversity that gives the world its beauty and love. And if my book can do anything, I believe it is to add another grain of sand in the attempts to build better harmony between our cultures. Hopefully, at some point in the near future we will understand that we are all human beings and that we can live in peace with dignity and respect.


Author photograph © Luis Mauleon.

Andrea Penman-Lomeli is a Detroit-based writer. Her work has appeared in Full-Stop, The New Inquiry and Jacobin. More from this author →