The Discourse of Undocumentedness: Talking with Karla Cornejo Villavicencio
Karla Cornejo Villaviecencio is the first undocumented person to be nominated for a National Book Award, which is a historic achievement. Her debut book, The Undocumented Americans, is shortlisted for the Award for Nonfiction.
Karla Cornejo Villaviecencio is an Ecuadorian American writer. She has written about immigration, mental illness, and culture for the New York Times, The Atlantic, The New Republic, and more. She wrote The Undocumented Americans while on DACA after the 2016 election. The book is part memoir of Karla’s life, and her family’s, and it is part intimate reporting and storytelling from undocumented people across the country.
Cornejo Villaviecencio insisted she would not write a story of DREAMers. Rather, this book is full of stories of everyday people—their lives, their work, their hopes, their sadness, and their warmth. Many thanks to Karla for sharing her stories for this piece. We discussed her literary education and influences, what this book means to her, the way she portrays “undocumentedness,” and more.
The Rumpus: Can you take us back to the very beginning of The Undocumented Americans? I know you wrote an essay about being an undocumented Harvard student—almost a decade ago—and you started getting offers to write your memoir right after that. How did it all begin for you?
Karla Cornejo Villavicencio: I wrote that essay anonymously when I was still in college. It was back when “coming out” as undocumented was still a noteworthy thing, I guess. I really didn’t have as much narrative control over that essay as I would have liked, plus, I was still a kid, and I didn’t have fully formed ideas about how I wanted to present a migration narrative. Nonetheless, that piece got me some attention, probably because I was an undocumented Harvard student.
Actually, I know it was because I was undocumented at Harvard, because that’s been used to market my work ever since, even though I don’t write about Harvard. But I’ve been in touch with a literary agent ever since the essay appeared and I got that first offer. I explained that I didn’t want to write a memoir then, that I was too young, and had nothing to say at the time.
But I have actually been writing professionally since I was fifteen, mostly about music. I was still figuring out what I wanted to write about when the piece came out, and where I wanted my career to go. But I kept developing my voice, reading, and working on relationships with editors. By the time I wrote this book, I was ready to write this book.
Rumpus: Wow, you were writing professionally at fifteen! I would love to talk about your early history with writing and developing your voice.
Cornejo Villavicencio: Well, my first language is Spanish, but I really took to English like an oil spill when I was young. I immediately began to write in English in a “writerly” way. And English was the language that I chose to express my feelings and my thoughts. People talk about “the language you think in,” but I can think in either Spanish, or English, or even Portuguese. The thing is, though, I have nightmares in English.
There are these stereotypical representations of Latinx immigrants on television, and when they’re angry, they always speak in Spanish. It’s this idea that your subconscious is tied to your homeland, and that you’re “playing a character” when you put on your English-speaking self. But I’ve been extremely angry in English, or triggered in English.
Sometimes I do speak English in an accent, even though I don’t have one, or I make up words in English. This truly reflects my immigrant background because I grew up in a community where people spoke with an accent.
Rumpus: Can you tell us a bit about your literary education and your early influences?
Cornejo Villavicencio: I fervently loved the canon. When I was little, my favorite books were the Chronicles of Narnia series, and I think that was very formative in teaching me to develop an intimacy with the reader. I really loved Salinger—not Catcher in the Rye, but I love the Glass family books. I loved East of Eden. I loved Sylvia Path, and Virginia Woolf, and I read James Joyce at a young age.
My teachers—these were mostly white teachers at the time—thought I was eccentric and they encouraged my literary interests. I think they thought it was precocious and really “cute” that this very young brown girl from the hood was quoting poems about death by Emily Dickinson.
In fact, I wrote an essay once, which my high school English teacher loved, but my principal—both instructors were white—took the teacher aside and asked if I was going to jump off a building. For a long time, I was really angry about that comment. I wondered, would he have said that about a young Lena Dunham? But then, in more recent years, I realized that though I gravitated toward dark writing, and writers who are canonized for writing about suicide, no one had ever reached out to me to ask how I was doing. Or asked what my home life was like. There was this idea that an “at-risk youth” who came from my background and looked like me and had my skin color, was “at risk” of joining a gang or dropping out of school. Not that they would self-harm or be depressed. I wasn’t the profile for a depressed teenager.
Rather, a lot of white teachers saw my behavior as an interesting spectacle, and they really pushed me in this direction. I even had someone call me “Franny,” but that shouldn’t be cute; that should be concerning. You should not aspire to be Franny Glass. If you’re acting like Franny Glass, and an adult recognizes that behavior, it means you’re having a nervous breakdown, and the adult should intervene. But I had my Salinger phase, and I don’t think the adults saw it that way because of who I am.
Rumpus: Did you know you wanted to be a writer then? It sounds like literature and writing have always played a big role for you.
Cornejo Villavicencio: I knew I had to get out of the ghetto. The way that’s typically done in Hollywood movies is dancing your way out… but I knew academics would be my way out because teachers told me I was gifted.
I never had the chance to learn a musical instrument, but I always wanted to be in a band. I knew I could bring about a sense of release when I write, instead, like I may be reading all the time, but I’m listening to rock n’ roll and hip-hop while I do it. Like a good kid who just tagged a building.
Also, I saw pretty immediately that I wrote like an adult. I could imitate writers I liked. When I read Little Women, I did little writing exercises where I tried to write in Louisa May Alcott’s voice. I wrote parodies in Hemingway’s voice. And I realized I had an ear for voice. Because, even if I didn’t have the opportunity to be a rock n’ roll star, I had an ear for something else—for voice and sentence structure.
Ultimately, the point of all the writing was to get out. I wish I had been good at numbers. Had I been a citizen, and been good at numbers, hell yeah, I would have gone and been a hedge fund manager! The goal was to make money for my family so they could retire. But, I was a writer.
Rumpus: What about the process of writing? Did you enjoy all these exercises you would do to practice your craft?
Cornejo Villavicencio: No, I don’t like the process of writing. I like reading back what I’ve written, if what I’ve written is good. And I like pitching. I get an adrenaline high from accepted pitches. Because I started writing professionally at fifteen, it was a way of developing a sense of self-worth. When my pitches were accepted, I felt happy. When they were published, I felt empty. And it was a cycle like that.
But I’ve never written in a journal. I’ve only ever written for an audience, for a class, or to be published. I don’t write for myself. Like, I love drag, and I consider myself a performance artist. And there are some drag queens who love to put on a performance, and there are other queens who just like putting on a wig and lashes to hang out around their house, and it’s just for them. I’m not one of those queens; I don’t write for myself.
Rumpus: You mentioned a lot of your teachers through your school-age years were white, but do you wish you had other influences putting books into your hands at a young age? What about later on? Did that change?
Cornejo Villavicencio: Well, many of my teachers were white, but they were not all white. Eventually, I studied writing under Jamaica Kincaid in college, and that made a huge impact on me. Professor Kincaid was a force of nature. She was someone who knew who she was, and took up space.
I recently wrote an email to her, ten years later, and I titled it “you taught me when I was nineteen and you didn’t hate me.” And I knew that would be identifying material for her. I was writing about my father then, which I still do now. She told me my writing had a “writerly quality about it,” and I understood that was an insult coming from her, that my writing sounded like it was trying too hard. I understood that because I had read her work.
She gave me a copy of her collection, Talk Stories. She started writing for the New Yorker when she was very young, and when she gave the collection to me I was nineteen. It meant a lot to me. The picture on the cover is of her taking notes, surrounded by white men. When she gave them to me, she said I reminded her of her, but she didn’t say how. That left it open-ended for me in a way that was really good. I could imagine anything.
Rumpus: So why write this book, The Undocumented Americans, when you did?
Cornejo Villavicencio: I felt that the Trump administration was going to be particularly devastating—although I couldn’t have anticipated how much. But I had also seen this “branding” of undocumentedness come about, that I did not like. I did not relate to the popular discourse around undocumentedness, which was being led by very accomplished individuals who seemed to be in conversation with, or performing for—even if that performance was completely truthful—a white American citizenry, and not for other immigrants.
I knew that I wanted to be a writer who wrote for other immigrants. Maybe that wouldn’t necessarily lead me to a wide readership, or to my dream of becoming rich. But it was still a vacuum that I saw, and felt the need to fill.
During the first few days of the Trump administration, I carried around James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time with me everywhere, as a sort of talisman. Because, in it, Baldwin talked about having to come back from Paris because his people needed him, and they needed his writing. His writing, specifically. There were other writers, thinkers, activists, leaders, in the civil rights movement, but they needed him.
And I felt that way. I felt there was something about me, and my writing. I wanted to prove that the entire way undocumented immigrants had been written about—not just Latinx immigrants, but Black and Asian undocumented immigrants, too— had been wrong. And that’s because we were written about for an audience that was not us. So, I wanted to be a writer who broke rules. Who defied genre. Who did things my way.
Rumpus: Can you tell us more about that? What were some of those issues you were feeling with the narrative of “undocumentedness?”
Cornejo Villavicencio: Certain things, like us “living in the shadows,” or living underground. That’s not how it feels. And it’s disrespectful to portray us like that.
Or, for example, when people in the media make claims for our representation, they say things like, “after all, these people are the essential workers who ensure there’s food on our tables.” And that’s not why we should be represented with humanity, or represented in art. But both liberal Latinos and liberal allies make statements like this all the time. That’s how they argue for our humanity. And those are corporate, conservative arguments.
I feel like immigrants have been done dirty. And part of it is, in order to get to the point where you have the financial and psychic freedom to create art, as an undocumented immigrant, you have to become a literal statistical miracle. You want to write a book? Honey, how are you going to get paid? How are you going to support your family?
I know I am a miracle. And I don’t mean that in a cutesy way. I mean that for me, it was Russian fucking roulette, and it feels like it every day. If I fuck this up, I’m going back to Queens. My family will be evicted—because I’m supporting all of them—and we’ll be back at the Dollar Tree buying toilet paper with pennies. And that’s all on me.
Rumpus: It’s about a lot more than just writing to you, isn’t it?
Cornejo Villavicencio: It’s everything. It’s not just my family and not just me, it’s also the undocumented youth who look up to me. The kids who message me everyday, saying I give them hope, or I give them permission to be themselves. They tell me they feel like they can make boundaries with their parents because of me, or find a therapist for the first time because of me.
If I fail, not only did I fail them, but I failed them because I was being myself. And rebelling. Because I refused to write American Dirt, or go to Oprah’s town hall meeting to debate our humanity.
I can’t let them down, and that’s why it’s insane the pressure that’s on me every day. Yes, this is fucking historic, and yet, it’s hard because I’m a person. I’m a human being. And I live with borderline personality disorder. I have to work really, really hard to take care of myself. My partner has to work really hard to take care of me. I am sometimes jealous of some white girl essayists who write books of essays about topics they’re just curious about. Because they’re good at writing, and nothing else.
I write because I have to support my family. I write because I want to change the discourse around undocumented immigrants. I write because I want to do something dramatic to change the canon of American immigrant literature. And I write because I want to be a beacon of light to children of immigrants who feel like they have to deny their humanity in order to make progress for the community.
It’s also very real because I’m someone who has been suicidal since I was five years old. I’ve been hospitalized. If something were to happen to me… one of my heroes is Marsha Linehan, who created dialectical behavior therapy (DBT), a therapy for borderline personality disorder and other behavioral issues. She said that she believes suicide is a moral right for human beings, but she doesn’t have that right. Because if she did that to herself, her patients would lose hope. Not to compare myself to Dr. Linehan who has saved millions of lives, but I feel like I am that person for undocumented people. A lot of people depend on me, and are looking to me to survive, and prove I can experience joy.
For some writers, your life is also your body of work. For me, my body is my body of work, because it proves something. It’s a lot. But I’m honored that I’m in a position where I have skills, and a support system, and fucking health insurance. Because it’s a miracle.
Rumpus: And your stories go beyond your memoir—the book also includes reporting, and the stories of other people. Why did you choose to go beyond your single story? Can you tell us about the research process that followed after making that choice?
Cornejo Villavicencio: I wanted to meet people, and talk to them, and hear what their lives were like. I mostly spoke to older people. My parents are aging, and I saw what that looked like for them. It was rough on their mental health. And I wanted to know something, but I didn’t want to ask about it directly. Because I don’t think it’s ethical to bring up trauma that you’re not going to stick around and help someone resolve—other people may do that in their work, but it’s a line I draw for me, because I’m a Cancer. But basically, I wanted to know if their migration was worth it. If all their years in this country were worth it.
Most of these people had stories of coming here really young, and just working really hard. Going to work and coming home, and hoping there would one day be a path to citizenship like was promised to them by many politicians along the way. And then they experience the tidal waves of xenophobia and racism. And those moments would really hurt them.
So, I wanted to know from people who were in their fifties and older, how they felt about it all, because it was a question I had about my parents. I know my parents’ answers, and they are painful for me to hear. Because the story we’re told is “immigrants do it for their children.”
But even if the best possible scenario of what “doing it for their children” looks like comes true, those immigrants are still people themselves, with hopes and dreams, personal traumas and emotional needs. It’s not as simple as: these poor people escaped famine, they gave their children a chance at an education, the child got a diploma, and they all lived the American dream. That’s the story people want you to believe—even some immigrants want you to believe that—and it’s not that simple.
Instead, it’s a story of the innocence and the naiveness of love. That complete overpowering strength, that superhuman ability of love, to make bodies do things that bodies are not meant to do. To make brains do things that brains cannot do. To make luck do things that luck cannot do.
It’s the story of that love, versus the evil machine of the white supremacist, imperial state who destroys our home countries, plunders our resources, corrupts our governments, and then is shocked when we want to come to America for a better life. And hunts us down.
It’s a classic story of good and evil. The good part is a story of love, and I unpack its complexities. The only part that’s one-dimensional is the evil. And that’s Stephen Miller.
Photograph of Karla Cornejo Villavicencio by Talya Zemach-Bersin.