(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."
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.
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