Alejandro del Castillo

Alejandro del Castillo

Alejandro del Castillo is an award-winning Mexican author and editor living in Naarm (Melbourne). His editorial house, Revarena Ediciones, is now making strides in Australia, where it has published a bilingual anthology of short stories and poetry by emerging Latinx writers in Australia and emerging writers in Latin America.

In 2019, you won the Premio Internacional de Novela Breve Rosario Castellanos with your novel Irineo. This award is one of the most well-known and prestigious awards in Latin America. What inspired Irineo?

Alejandro del Castillo Irineo
Irineo, Ediciones Cuadrivio

I started writing Irineo in 2015. Much of the plot and some characters come from my father’s story. He used to work in a mine in Hidalgo, Mexico, where he had an accident from which he didn’t recover. I ended up living close to that mine for about seven weeks to take care of my father and his business; and that’s when I got dragged into that universe. During that time, and the following months, parts of my dad’s life and the world he was part of were revealed. So, I started writing that story—more as therapy than as a literary project. After a couple of months, maybe even years, I realised there were some solid characters and strong atmospheres; I realised a plot could be developed. That’s when I came up with the idea of transforming it into a novel.

There were multiple versions before the last one. In fact, the Rosario Castellanos Award was the third competition I submitted the novel to. Every time the novel failed to be successful, I would work on identifying potential weaknesses or missing elements that would articulate it better. I was also lucky to have proofreading and feedback from my close friend and colleague Aldo Rosales Velázquez, a great writer of my generation, who pointed at some missing elements.

The Rosario Castellanos Award is a competitive one; it is open to the whole Spanish-speaking world. Winning it, as I’ve said in previous interviews, was partly a huge effort and partly luck. I’ve been a member of judging panels for literary competitions and, in my experience, every shortlisted work is already outstanding. In the end, it depends on what resonates with the judges. In this sense, the outcome can be very subjective.

Receiving this award was a real fortune because Irineo was also a personal project. It was a way to tell my dad, ‘Look, something good came out of your tragedy’. Though he never recovered from the accident, he was able to come with me to the award ceremony in 2019 in Chiapas, Mexico. For that I am thankful, because that was the last time I saw him. He passed away the following year before I could come back to Mexico. I still haven’t been able to go to back because of the pandemic.

And due to the pandemic, Irineo wasn’t published until 2021 (Ediciones Cuadrivio). The novel is going well in Mexico, luckily. Let’s see how long it walks into the future.

You are also an editor and have your own publishing house, Revarena. How does being a writer and an editor work for you? Is it easier? Does it make writing harder? 

I have always written, and being an editor has made me careful of what I put out there. The ongoing exercise of proofreading, correcting, realising what works and what doesn’t in other’s manuscripts and how these can be improved has helped me shape and strengthen my own voice. It has made me stricter with myself, I guess, which makes writing harder, but it is beneficial. Never go easy.

Tell us about Revarena Ediciones.

Revarena has existed as a publishing house since 2015, but it was born in 2013, when I was a university student, as a poetry magazine. I conceived it while thinking about the work of Mexican writer and photographer Juan Rulfo, who brilliantly merged images and words to create a single universe. I wanted to see how emotions could be depicted differently through poetry and photography, and that was the origin of Revarena.

The project grew rapidly during the next few years, at least more than expected—first within the university, then within the city of Queretaro. My team and I were lucky to then get financial support through grants, and that’s when we started publishing books and distributing beyond our local region, having presence in Mexico City and other parts of the country.

When I came to Melbourne to pursue a Master’s Degree in Arts Management, I was looking to push the geographical and linguistic boundaries of Revarena. I wanted to continue to publish books outside of Mexico, which eventually happened. The most recent book we published is m/ /otherland, by Asiel Adán Sánchez, an amazing collection of poetry that was highly commended for the Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards.

Revarena in partnership with A Voz Limpia published Foliaje, an English-Spanish short story and poetry anthology. How did that project come to be?

That was the first book that I worked on in Australia. It was a collaboration between Revarena and A Voz Limpia, this last being, as far as I know, one of the most relevant and oldest platforms that has given voice to Latin American authors in Melbourne.

I became friends with the editors, Eyal Chipkiewicz and Pilar Aguilera, and immediately we were imagining projects and working together. That was the beginning of Foliaje, a bilingual anthology of emerging poets and writers from Mexico and Australia. This project enriched my experience as an editor; it was the first time that I was partnering with a publishing house outside of Mexico, coordinating translators, editing in two languages and so on. It was a real privilege to work with Eyal and Pilar, from whom I learned immensely.

The Australian publishing world is very different from that in Mexico, so Eyal and Pilar took the lead and opened the door for me. They helped me understand how things work here.

You recently won a grant from the City of Melbourne to work on your poetry collection. Can you tell us about it?

It is titled Residencia Permanente, and I see it as the conversation I’ve been having with Australia since I came here. It’s my first book of poetry, which is exciting and scary. In the process of writing it, I pushed myself out of my comfort zone in every sense (content, form and style); this through a genre that, as a writer, was new to me.

I went through a four-year process of self-exploration, in relation with this new land, and tried to portray it as transparently as possible, renouncing the shelter of fiction in which it is easier to hide among characters and plots. For me, fiction has always represented a safe playground, where the stage can be arranged as you want. Poetry, however, demands full transparency. Writing those poems was to stand in front of a mirror, in the middle of an unknown space.

What I tried to do with Residencia Permanente, and hopefully I achieved, was to dig into myself as a Latin American migrant in Australia and put it into emotions and images, more than into words. The book is a collection of vivid experiences that aren’t necessarily the cheeriest, the saddest or the most life-changing—or maybe they are and I don’t know it yet. These experiences are elements that now live in my memory and have become part of who I am. Just like I’m taking these experiences with me, I’d like to think this book represents the part of me that Australia wants to keep. The part of me that will stay here.

I was very lucky to receive the 2021 Quick Response Arts Grant. I write in Spanish, so it’s exciting to think that alongside the publication of Residencia Permanente, a smaller publication with some of the poems translated into English will also come to light under the title of Permanent Residency. Since I arrived here, I’ve been able to share my work only with the Spanish-speaking community, but I have many close friends who only speak English, and with whom I’d love to share my writing. So, that deeper connection beyond languages is what this grant is enabling.

My editor and translator is Eyal Chipkiewicz, and I feel so lucky to have such a talented person taking care of my work.

What does it mean to you to be Latinx in Australia?

That’s a complex question. I think there’s always an interesting clash in terms of language and culture between the English and the Spanish universes. As any other culture, they are both strong and different, but due to historical and geographical circumstances they are and will continue to be close and interconnected. One clear example is the relationship between the US and Mexico. But in the UK the Spanish-speaking community is also massive, and in Australia it is growing increasingly.

Being from Latin America in Australia is not as different as for any other migrant coming from somewhere else; we are in a liminal space, in between ideological and cultural borders. We can see and read things that others don’t, and we have blind spots too. But beneath physical appearances and accents, we share similar drives and are constantly shaping a shared reality. The key is acknowledging and respecting the role each one plays in it, especially in multicultural cities such as Melbourne. I like observing, learning and, when appropriate, embracing what resonates with me.

At the same time, I must say that after these years as a migrant in Australia, I’ve come to observe and recognise myself as someone that undeniably comes from a certain place and context. As much as I dislike the Mexican saying ‘no puedes negar la cruz de tu parroquia’ due to its religious tone, there is some truth in it. A big part of us reflects the place we come from. Each one of these uniquenesses, all interacting, enrich the place we live in. I believe Spanish and English are two complementary universes. Just look at those amazing writers and poets in the US-Mexico border portraying and accelerating the evolution of language and consciousness.

The other day a Chilean friend, Grace de las Nieves, who is a great poet, texted me from the US to tell me about the amount of Mexicans she found there. I replied: ‘Well, yeah, we need to Latin Americanise them for their own good.’ It was a joke of course. But what’s underneath and what’s undeniable is the fact that for decades many Latin Americans have looked up to the North American English-speaking countries sometimes trying to become like them. Finally, younger Latinx generations are realising that the American dream is only that: a dream. They are finally recognising and embracing their own roots, taking from both worlds and forging a powerful new identity. This prevents culture to become stagnant and stimulates the arts.

The US appropriated half of Mexico’s territory so maybe it’s just a way of claiming it back …

In a way it is, but the biggest difference is that borders are abstract concepts enforced by governments into people’s minds, while cultures are real, and they spread and merge organically. I feel attracted to other cultures, it’s in my nature. In Melbourne it is easy to see all these different worlds colliding, vividly. There are people open and curious about Latin American culture beyond the clichés—and it’s always rewarding to share and get back small pieces of other places. So, I guess, going back to the question, it’s been a process of sharing and learning not only about other worlds but also about mine. Being a migrant, like being a traveller, means to experience constant detachment. It is a process of knowing oneself apart from the picture you belong to, wherever that is.

What advice would you give to emerging editors who are also writers or writers who also want to be editors?

Writing is a consequence of my life experience. I didn’t try to become a writer, I just wrote whenever I felt like I had something to say—and I’ve always tried to stay true to my voice. My advice would be to let writing happen naturally and genuinely, and don’t worry about getting published, or being called a writer or not. No one even knows what that means exactly. Don’t worry about any of that because then you’ll be missing out the chance to experience life, which is absolutely necessary to be able to write.

On being an editor, well, I think I have it clear why I like editing and publishing books. It’s like when I see a movie that resonates deeply and then I spend the next few days telling my friends to go watch it because I want them to experience it too. It is the same with texts: when I read something that hits me, I’ll do what I can to make it better and bring it to the eyes of others. So, my advice would be to be true when it comes to telling and sharing stories. Books have to be honest.

And which books are you reading now?

That’s an interesting question because I can link it with the previous one. I’m reading with three brains: the brain of the editor, the brain of the writer, and the brain of the reader. As an editor, I’m reading two manuscripts at the moment, one is a novel and the other a collection of poetry, in which I will most probably be working on in 2022. As a writer, I read novelists who I like to think of as my guides; I am reading Nadie me verá llorar (Tusquets, 1999; No One Will See Me Cry, Curbstone Press, 2003) by Mexican novelist Cristina Riviera Garza and The heart is a lonely hunter by Carson McCullers. The brain of the reader is more joyful, open to learn about different topics and cultures; I just finished Poūkahangatus by Māori poet Tayi Tibble and How Decent Folks Behave by Maxine Beneba Clarke, in which. by the way, I found some of the most powerful poetry pieces of Australian literature I’ve read so far.