It’s no surprise that Karla Cornejo Villavicencio’s visceral, sobering, all-out-honest debut nonfiction book, The Undocumented Americans, has been shortlisted for the National Book Award. Cornejo Villavicencio, who was born in Ecuador in 1990, came to the United States as a child—she lived in Queens, where, as a teenager, she began writing in earnest, and became one of the first undocumented students to graduate from Harvard University (she is also the very first undocumented writer to be shortlisted for The National Book Award). While Cornejo Villavicencio mines her own experiences and mental health in her book, she also digs into the dreams and disasters of so many other immigrants who arrived in this country “illegally” and have worked their hands and hearts sore—largely in silence, always with the risk of being deported. It is a vital and difficult book for a vital and difficult subject, and it couldn’t be any more timely.
INTERVIEW: Where are you and how long have you been isolating?
KARLA CORNEJO VILLAVICENCIO: I’m in an attic apartment in New Haven, Connecticut, but only because that’s where I’ve lived for the past decade. I’m a New Yorker, my family is in Queens, their hospital is Elmhurst Hospital, and I want it on a billboard in Jackson Heights that I didn’t fucking flee New York City to come here, like an economic refugee pero a lo Tribeca. Since March, I have only left my apartment to pick up my medications, but in the past month, I’ve gone on some walks and hikes, and now I have blisters on my feet because I have been barefoot for the past six months and sneakers hurt my feet and my feelings.
INTERVIEW: What has this pandemic confirmed or altered about your view of society?
CORNEJO VILLAVICENCIO: I believe human beings as a species should willingly allow ourselves to head toward extinction.
INTERVIEW: What is the worst-case scenario for the future?
CORNEJO VILLAVICENCIO: That I outlive my partner.
INTERVIEW: What good can come out of this lockdown? Are there any reasons to hope?
CORNEJO VILLAVICENCIO: Perhaps a kinder view of gluten. A decrease in psychosomatic gluten sensitivities. I thought the baking pictures were slightly cannibalistic, honestly. All of the little loaves my friends baked looked like little chonky limbs. The only way human beings can honor their choice to keep living is to choose to have hope, which is a daily practice. Because every human being obviously has to choose whether to stay alive, whether you believe that choice is a moral right is up to you, whether I do is up to me, and you can find the answer at the bottom of your coffee cup. Even my 4-year old Boston Terrier has hope. But I’ve noticed his hope is actually just that he’s dumb and he’s stubborn, so I’ve done a lot of work on myself during the lockdown, namely that I have been suicidal since I was 5 years old and, at some point, I was just too fucking tired to want to die anymore, so I chose to believe in maxims and platitudes and affirmations, and I have begun meditating and investing in my mental and physical health. I also refuse to be killed or disappeared, which is in vogue right now, for l’emigrantes.
INTERVIEW: What has been your daily routine during this time?
CORNEJO VILLAVICENCIO: In the mornings, my partner brings me a cup of coffee with milk and sugar and a cinnamon raisin bagel with cream cheese. She’s great, really an unsung hero as a historian and thought partner and Timothée Chalamet lookalike. I never miss a day of morning and evening pills because it is in the interest of American arts and letters, and the bed capacity at Silver Hill Hospital, that I do not. I apply serums and creams to my face every day and a light face of makeup, a red or ’90s-brown lip. Everything else depends on how my body and brain are interacting with each other at any given moment. My body is a violent little orc with mood swings, and I never know whether I will be throwing up one moment, feel extreme fatigue the next, be swaddled in a blanket with teeth-chattering chills and a low-grade fever because I had a PTSD trigger and need to take the day off to listen to the Rent soundtrack and put my ice hat on because my heart feels like the amount of atmospheric pressure between Fiona Apple’s fingers and the keys on her piano before she pounds them. I have writing deadlines, I have virtual events, I have to make money to support my family and my skincare habits, so I find a way to squeeze in the loquacity.
INTERVIEW: Describe the current state of your hair?
CORNEJO VILLAVICENCIO: Rita Cansino as Rita Hayworth.
INTERVIEW: On a scale of 1 to 10, what is your level of panic about the current state of the world?
CORNEJO VILLAVICENCIO: 10, but here’s the thing: I have borderline personality disorder and I am Latina.
INTERVIEW: Do you think there is hope for true racial equality in the United States? What do you think is the first step in that goal?
CORNEJO VILLAVICENCIO: No, but it has to be the goal, and the first step is taxing the very rich.
INTERVIEW: Do you think protests are effective tools for changing the system? How does it make a difference in the long term?
CORNEJO VILLAVICENCIO: Obviously. It brings radical ideas into the mainstream.
INTERVIEW: How do you personally channel your anger? Do you find anger to be a useful emotion?
CORNEJO VILLAVICENCIO: Anger is not useful for men. Anger is not useful for white men. Anger is extremely important for young people of color who have been socialized to be obedient, to listen to authority, to keep our heads down and work hard and say “yes sir, yes ma’am” to get ahead. We suppress everything. Our anger needs to go into organizing and nurturing our communities. I think of anger as the wick that I light on the candle that is called Fuck White Supremacy, Save Our People, and it does keep me motivated. In general, regarding anger, I don’t want to fuck with it. I have an extremely overactive parasympathetic system, and I just need to stay calm. I work very, very hard to respond and not react, which is why I don’t have Twitter.
INTERVIEW: Which young leaders of the moment inspire you?
CORNEJO VILLAVICENCIO: The young people talking to their family members about anti-Blacknesss and xenophobia, and arguing with the elders and pastors in their churches, Bible in hand, about the humanity and beauty of trans people, the young people making boundaries with their parents who want to comment on their gender presentation. Those are hard conversations, they are not going to be the subject of sexy revolutionary photographs, but they are single-handedly reversing generations of trauma and violence in their families.
INTERVIEW: What’s the next step after protests in the streets? Where does the righteous rage go?
CORNEJO VILLAVICENCIO: White people of means who have enjoyed the adrenaline and the oxytocin infused into their veins from the Black and Brown bodies risking it all, literally risking it all, at the protests in the streets can begin by moving the fuck out of gentrifying neighborhoods.
INTERVIEW: What thinker have you taken comfort in of late and why?
CORNEJO VILLAVICENCIO: Taylor Swift.
INTERVIEW: If 2020 were a song, which song would it be?
CORNEJO VILLAVICENCIO: Getting a voicemail from your dad, opening it, and it being a conversation between him and his baby mama, not your mother, to whom he is married, but you can’t make out the words…
INTERVIEW: Where did we go wrong? Like, what was the exact moment?
CORNEJO VILLAVICENCIO: God should have stopped creating the world on day four. He should have honestly stopped with the birds. Personally, it was when I lost my virginity listening to Bruce Springsteen. That was a true commitment to the American Dream, and now look at me.
INTERVIEW: Which (admittedly totally unqualified) celebrity would you trust with the planet’s future?
CORNEJO VILLAVICENCIO: Mariah Carey.
INTERVIEW: If you could stop time at one particular moment in your life, which moment would it be?
CORNEJO VILLAVICENCIO: Meeting my dog for the first time.
INTERVIEW: What’s one skill we should all learn while in quarantine?
CORNEJO VILLAVICENCIO: How to make someone feel loved when you’re very far away from them.
INTERVIEW: What does our future as a nation look like?
CORNEJO VILLAVICENCIO: I hope the south secedes.
INTERVIEW: What prevents you from giving up hope in the human race?
CORNEJO VILLAVICENCIO: People continue to be having babies, so: necessity.
INTERVIEW: Who should be the next president of the United States?
CORNEJO VILLAVICENCIO: Biden.
INTERVIEW: What will happen if Biden gets elected?
CORNEJO VILLAVICENCIO: I cry out of relief.
INTERVIEW: What will happen if Trump gets re-elected?
CORNEJO VILLAVICENCIO: I cry out of fear.
INTERVIEW: What is the most pressing issue facing the nation and the world that needs to be addressed in the next four years?
CORNEJO VILLAVICENCIO: Climate change and heterosexuality.
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