While most people in their late teens worry about their grades or what course to take at university, Aura Xilonen had a few extra things on her mind. But you can’t expect any less from a girl who published an award-winning novel when she was 19.
Born and raised in Mexico, Xilonen is the author of The Gringo Champion (Campéon gabacho), which won Mexico’s Mauricio Achar/Random House Award, given to new voices in literature, in 2015.
She was here last month to take part in the Hong Kong International Literary Festival.
In The Gringo Champion, the narrator is a young man named Liborio, who moves from Mexico to the United States for a better future, and ultimately grows up through his experiences, and his involvement in sport.
It has been translated into eight languages, including English, Chinese, and Italian.
Critics have championed it as a sign of what’s to come in Mexican literature, a book which sets Mexico apart from the umbrella term “Latin American literature”, and provides a refreshingly different voice and perspective from the mainstream.
Despite its deep roots in the Mexican and immigrant experience, and the occasional use of coarse language, Xilonen hopes the book will have a universal appeal.
“It’s a coming of age story, one which I think speaks to all the people of the world,” said Xilonen.
The book is particularly relevant now because Mexican-American relations have become more tense since the inauguration of US President Donald Trump, who has threatened to build a wall along the US-Mexica border and make Mexico’s government pay for it.
Winning a literary award at the age of 19 sounds like a pipe dream for most of us, but Xilonen has proven that any dream is possible if you work hard to make it happen.
Xilonen started writing the book when she was just 16.
“I work part-time in my grandmother’s sauna, and that usually involves sitting around for several hours, so I started writing in that time.”
The discipline and drive to write this novel was something she gained early in life; back when she was a child, Xilonen spent two years in Germany, where she was made to write a daily letter to her relatives back in Mexico.
“It instilled a sense of discipline, and I got used to writing every day. So working on the book every day felt very natural.”
All in all, it took Xilonen three years to complete the novel, and she says she was motivated to do so because the deadline for applying for the Mauricio Achar award was coming up, and she wanted to submit her story.
When she’s not writing, this disciplined work ethic translates into one of her other passions: filmmaking.
Xilonen is a cinematic studies student at the Benemérita Universidad Autónoma de Puebla in Mexico. The programme, although still relatively new, has allowed her to make short films and work on bigger productions.
“The experience is very different from writing a novel; you work in a team, and the creative process is a team effort. Everyone works together to produce the final product.”
With novels, on the other hand, it’s a completely different experience. You can take full control and ownership of the creative process and end product.
There are similarities between the two, however. “In fact, I started writing the novel because I didn’t have enough resources to make a film; I envisioned the book in terms of a movie.”
She says she saw it like a film in her head, with all the scenes playing out visually, like they would have done in a motion picture.
As for her future plans, Xilonen remains open.
“I won’t rule out writing another novel, because I have been given this amazing opportunity. But I would like to try other things as well.”
Xilonen is only 21, so it seems we can expect many more great things from her.