First undocumented National Book Awards finalist says 2016 election ‘ignited a fire in my belly’

The National Book Awards’ first undocumented finalist has said that the 2016 election put a “fire in [her] belly” and spurred her to write about her experience as an immigrant in America.

Karla Cornejo Villavicencio, one of the first undocumented students to be accepted into Harvard University, was shortlisted in October in the non-fiction category for her book The Undocumented Americans, which was published in March.

In the book, Ms Cornejo Villavicencio details her own family’s story and profiles the lives of different undocumented immigrants across the United States.

She writes that the work 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.”

“Not heroes. Randoms. People. Characters.”

Speaking to CNN about why she decided to write the book, the 31-year-old said the 2016 election ignited “a fire in [her] belly.”

“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 said.

“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.”

Those profiled for the book range from labourers on Staten Island to people who were on the front lines cleaning up wreckage after 9/11, families facing the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, and women who are forced to turn to herbalists and healers in Miami.

Ms Cornejo Villavicencio explained to the broadcaster that it was important for her to give a “full picture” of those she talked to for the book because she did not choose “to write for a White audience.”

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

She added: “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****** 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.”

She said she was “offended” that literary agents suddenly began showing intertest after she published an anonymous essay for The Daily Beast about life as an undocumented harvard student.

“It wasn’t about my writing. I knew that’s not why they were reaching out,” she said.

The book finalist told CNN that she would be taking a break from writing about immigration following the book’s publication as it took an “extreme toll on [her] mental health” and said that her next work will be a novel.

“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 immobilised by trauma the day after,” she said.

Ms Cornejo Villavicencio is no longer undocumented as she recently received her green card and became a legal permanent resident, according to CNN, but she told the outlet that this doesn’t simply fix everything.

“It gives me some amount of safety,” she told the broadcaster.

“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.”

Speaking of releasing her experiences and such intimate stories into the world Ms Cornejo Villavicencio said: “I hope people love them. I hope immigrants and children of immigrants are inspired by them to create their own art.”

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