Writer Karla Cornejo Villavicencio at her home in New Haven, Connecticut.
CNN  — 

Karla Cornejo Villavicencio says she’s suffering from survivor’s guilt.

In 2010, she penned a widely read anonymous essay for The Daily Beast about life as an undocumented student at Harvard.

In October, less than a decade later, she became a finalist for a National Book Award.

It’s the first time an undocumented immigrant has been named a finalist for the prestigious prize, whose winners are slated to be announced Wednesday.

“I felt extremely guilty because my people are dying,” she says, noting how the coronavirus pandemic continues to take a devastating toll on the undocumented community. “But I feel very honored, and I hope that I am the first, but not the last.”

Cornejo Villavicencio is no longer undocumented; she recently received her green card and became a legal permanent resident. The stories she tells in “The Undocumented Americans” aim to reveal the complex lives of people who are often oversimplified or overlooked – who, as she puts it in her book’s introduction, “don’t inspire hashtags or T-shirts.”

“This book is for everybody who wants to step away from the buzzwords in immigration, the talking heads, the kids in graduation caps and gowns, and read about the people underground,” she writes. “Not heroes. Randoms. People. Characters.”

She says the results of the 2016 election pushed her to tell stories she’d witnessed all her life but had never seen in print.

“I had read a lot of books that I felt did not do a good job of representing migrants in an interesting way. It was mostly bad writing. It relied a lot on caricatures and cliches,” she says. “And I always thought I could do better, but I just never felt like I had a fire in my belly until the night of the election.”

the undocumented americans book cover

In “The Undocumented Americans,” she stands on street corners with day laborers on Staten Island and goes to therapy with workers who were on the front lines cleaning up wreckage after 9/11. She speaks with families in Flint, Michigan, who are still scared to drink the water and meets with women in Miami who turn to herbal remedies when the healthcare system shuts them out.

Through it all, she weaves in her own family’s story in a work of creative nonfiction that critics have lauded as “captivating and evocative” and “deeply revealing.”

Cornejo Villavicencio spoke with CNN recently about the book, her journey, and the stories she feels need to be told. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

“The Undocumented Americans” is dedicated to Claudia Gomez Gonzalez, who was killed by a Border Patrol agent in 2018. Why did you decide to dedicate it to her?

She wanted to come here and study and be a nurse. And I feel that she was killed in cold blood. And yet at the time that I heard about her death, I felt very guilty and I felt personally responsible. She came here because she wanted a better life, which is classically what Americans have been told this country is for, but they no longer accept it. They want people to be fleeing, like, an asteroid.

And I felt like I represented, you know, that life, which was education, ability, a different world. And it’s hard to explain, but I felt like I had betrayed her in some way because people like me had not been entirely open about the fact that we were being hunted here.

You make a point of not sugarcoating things, describing the good things about your characters, but also not shying away from talking about their flaws. Why was it important for you to write the full picture of the people you met?

These are people I know and love and these are people that share life experiences with me. I had not gotten the full picture from anybody before, so I had to. Also I’m a good writer, so I couldn’t imagine a world in which I would write a two-dimensional character if I tried. … I would have [had] to do what a lot of people do, which is just believe in the template that Hollywood and publishing give you that is “what Latino literature is supposed to sound like,” and write in that template.

I’m sure that perfectly nice, smart, intelligent, provocative, good writers do write these dumb books because they’re writing for White readers. And I could have written one of those books if I chose to write for a White audience, but I didn’t.

I chose to write for children of immigrants. I chose to write for immigrants. I chose to write for people of color. And, you know, that’s why it’s a book that has base notes in it. It’s not a simple fragrance.

When you were talking about this notion that people practically have to be fleeing an asteroid to be deemed worthy, it made me think of this trope of “the good immigrant” – the idea that only certain kinds of people are deserving of having their stories told or being protected under the law or that kind of thing. Was that something on your mind as you were choosing what stories to tell and how to tell them?

I chose to not talk about reasons why people chose to come here, because that enables the readers to judge for themselves whether the reasons are worthy or not. And it’s none of their f**king business. If people cross deserts or oceans and risk their lives and then have a hell of a time here, who are you to say that this is a worthy enough decision to come here? We just don’t owe that to each other.

Politicians and academics and sociologists and activists decided that in order to move the needle towards empathy, we needed to know the reasons [why people immigrate], and what we’ve seen is that actually hasn’t been successful. People see us as animals. And now they see us as scapegoats, and they don’t care what the reasons are. That’s why in my book, I don’t try to change anyone’s mind. God bless you to the people who do try, but that’s not my job.

Karla Cornejo Villavicencio

What has it been like for you having these stories that you know and reported so intimately out in the world?

I hope people love them. I hope immigrants and children of immigrants are inspired by them to create their own art.

In your book, you talk about the undocumented victims of 9/11, particularly the so-called “delivery boys” who perished, and you make the allusion to the “disappeared” in Latin America. It made me think about the stories that we’ve been hearing about the pandemic and all the people who have been impacted. Do you see any connection there?

In the spring in New York, the number of deaths of Latinos – many of them immigrants who were dying in ways that were completely undignified, like their bodies stuffed into frozen trucks on the street – and, you know, there were no obituaries, the majority of the country was not caring and choosing to ignore Covid because they knew the people who were dying were Black and brown. I saw the list that The New York Times printed of the people who died. And it reminded me of 9/11 and the incomplete list of the people who died on 9/11.

How have the people who you featured in your book been doing in the pandemic?

Not well. They are the delivery workers and the janitors and the people who work in restaurants. I saw, like, literally everybody in my community be out of a job and have zero safety net.

One of the day laborers in the book, his friend who was pregnant was turned away from the hospital even though her fever was extraordinarily high. And then when she came back to the hospital, she slipped into a coma and they cut the baby out of her and she was still in a coma.

And he just told it to me matter-of-factly, because it surprised nobody – because of language access, because there are documented cases of discrimination against Black people and brown people in the medical field. This is bad, but it’s not surprising.

When immigrant stories are told in the media, is there anything that gets left out that you feel should be included?

Immigrant stories told by immigrants. I think that there is a great crop of writers who understand nuances and we understand complexities and we understand secrets and we have access that other people don’t have.

You’ve said you were inspired to write this book after the 2016 election. And as we’re talking now, the results of another election are being counted. Is this moment inspiring you to write anything?

I want to steer away from writing about immigration for a little bit because it’s taken an extreme toll on my mental health. And I think that the book I put out into the world did what I wanted it to do. I’ve heard from a lot of readers that it has allowed them to articulate things that they didn’t think they could articulate to themselves – a lot of children of immigrants, a lot of immigrants themselves. I feel like I did what I set out to, and I stopped thinking that it’s a requirement of good writing to end the day shaken and to be immobilized by trauma the day after. So I’m going to try to step away from writing about immigration for a little while. I have another book coming up, but it’s a novel, and that’s sort of a different thing.

Can you talk a little bit more about why you feel it took a big toll on your mental health to tell these stories?

I was unprepared to think about things like intergenerational trauma and about migration itself as this living monster that you can never get away from, even when you become a citizen. That’s why on the cover of my book, there are bloody fingerprints alongside the papers. I think that it’s like being haunted. I couldn’t think about any of those things while I was writing the book in a healing way, because in order to heal, I would have had to distance myself. I needed to write a book that was a snapshot in time, but that was also a fair appraisal of what my life had been like and what it feels like for a child of immigrants. So I couldn’t go on my healing journey while I was writing this book.

Also, I have borderline personality disorder and I feel things in extreme ways. When I’m discussing some things that are extremely painful, I feel them in bodily ways. I feel chills. I get a low-grade fever, I have stomach aches. I get migraines.

You recently got your green card in the mail. What’s it like to no longer be undocumented?

I’ve had a work permit since I was on DACA, so I continue to be able to legally work. And just like when I was fully undocumented or on DACA, I continue to be able to be deported. So it gives me some amount of safety. But like people who understand the system know, it’s complicated. And it’s not like everything is OK now. My parents, my family, people I love are still undocumented and I could literally be deported for any small thing. I’m happy that I continue to have a work permit and I’m able to continue writing for a living.