Karla Cornejo Villavicencio has written about immigration, music, beauty, and mental illness for The New York Times, The Atlantic, The New Republic, Glamour, Elle, Vogue, n+1, and The New Inquiry, among others. She lives in New Haven with her partner and their dog.
Sierra Dickey: When did you begin writing for publication?
Karla Cornejo Villavicencio: I was about 15. I began writing about jazz for a downtown NYC jazz publication. I didn’t like jazz but liked going to clubs for free and I loved the byline. I think I also got paid. I learned a million different ways to describe a single sax note when I didn’t have musical training—I loved the challenge of that. Readers didn’t know how old I was, but I think some musicians were annoyed when they found out. I learned that writing bad reviews was really easy, and the most fun, but we were reviewing albums by working artists, and flippant cruelty (to show off how witty you were) could really hurt someone’s livelihood, so my editor taught me to not be snarky just because I could be. I’ve never forgotten that.
SD: The Undocumented Americans is your coming of age story enmeshed with brief insights into the lives of other undocumented people. Salma, a mother in Flint who worries about her outfits for court dates, Theodoro who loves his two pitbulls, Leonel who’s living in sanctuary in a Methodist church, and many more. How did you find these subjects, and how did you choose who to include in your memoir?
KCV: I started by contacting community leaders. I pitched them my idea for the book, explained what my representational choices were going to be. I told them I was undocumented. I earned their trust first. Then I just started talking to the people I met along the way. I pitched them my project, too, explained what I found lacking in literature about migrants, explained why my writing would be different. They appreciated the respect—that I gave them the elevator pitch, too. I spoke to people who were drawn to me, who wanted to talk, who gave me their numbers. I killed some stories that would have been really crazy and underreported because there would have been no way for me to anonymize those subjects. They were too geographically specific. I wasn’t going to risk hurting my subjects.
SD: I found your writing style to be very precise and also casual, almost nonchalant: “The workers are very brown, brown from their moms, browned from the sun.” It reminded me of Didion, who you quote in the preface. Which authors or artists did you turn to for inspiration while writing?
KCV: I love Didion because of the ease with which she moves from filth to flowers, but every literary bitch in her 20s wants to write like Didion. I narrowly escape that self-own because I am 30. The cadence of my writing is really important to me and is absolutely influenced by Eileen Myles and Meg White’s drumming. I listened to a lot of Kendrick Lamar and Calle 13 as I wrote this. Jonathan Larson is important to me. I first saw RENT when I was 14, I think, and as an undocumented kid, I related to the urgency of leaving something behind when you don’t know how much time you have left. I also worked hard to represent what I call “trauma brain” in a lovely way, and I think nobody does that better than Fiona Apple.
SD: As someone with advanced degrees, you are in a notably different position from many of the people you profile, and you explain this: “Historically, legislators and immigration advocates have parted the sea of the undocumented with a splintered staff—working brown men and women on one side and academically achieving young brown people on the other, one a parasitic blight, the other heroic dreamers.” What was it like to approach sources, and build relationships with them across that divide?
KCV: It was easy, but it was painful. You come to love people, but you know you’re going to leave them and go back to fucking Connecticut. I don’t feel comfortable in academic or literary settings unless the people within them are also involved in mentorship or activism or I know them to be philanthropic. But even then I feel kind of weird. When I am around undocumented people, I feel like I am around my parents, but without any of the traumatic baggage I feel when I am actually with my parents. (Of course, if I was their actual child, I am sure I’d feel the baggage.) I feel at home. But of course I entered these interactions with a lot of privilege. I was honest with my sources about how I felt about DACA, how it made me feel guilty, how I planned to work and work until I retired my parents, and I think they appreciated that I was raw and honest and sincere. And they reciprocated.
SD: You interrogate many words commonly associated with immigrants like “workers,” and “dreamers,” writing that overuse of these words leads to harm over time. When white activists and advocates continually call immigrants workers, you write it’s as if “we were brown bodies made to labor, faces pixilated.” By focusing so closely on the day-to-day lives of a few undocumented people, you excavate faces out of this blur. I’m wondering if you conceived of yourself as more a witness or a conduit?
KCV: Neither, really. I’m not just a witness because I’m a subject, too. And as a conduit, I would have had to be stricter with the rules of journalism. A conduit is Saint Veronica, who, when Jesus was on his way to his death carrying the cross, wiped his face, and his exact image was imprinted onto the cloth. I’m in it, you know? I could be deported, my parents could be deported, my uncle could be deported, people I love in my neighborhood could be deported. I’m just this elderly devout woman painting portraits of undocumented people I know, and I think everyone is holy, and it’s thanks to my editor and my training that the portraits don’t end up looking like monkey Jesus.
SD: The book is full of powerful reporting, but you place yourself outside traditional journalism: “Journalists, to the best of my knowledge, do not try to change the outcome of their stories as crudely as I do. I send water. I fight with immigration lawyers. I raise money. I make arrangements with supernatural spirits to stop deportations.” How do you describe this peculiar kind of non-fiction work?
KCV: I describe myself as an essayist, but nobody ever wants to describe me that way. I consider my book a work of creative non-fiction, and I was heavily influenced by creative ethnographies and the Latin American genre of testimonio. I think the times we are living in call for radical experimentation of genre across media.
SD: To me, your book is both forceful and compulsively readable because of your honesty. You write in swears, you write in anger, you confess the limits of your abilities, and you don’t withhold ugly, complicated feelings. In a sense, I felt like you have set your own terms of debate when describing life as an immigrant. Did you get any pushback on this from early readers or editors?
KCV: Yes, but I want to write more books, so I have nothing to say, except to say, I fought tooth and nail for this book, I stuck to my guns, and Emi Ikkanda and Christopher Jackson are incredible champions for radical voices.
SD: Your narrative drops directly inside the darkness of your life and your subject’s lives: “We’re all fucking sick. It is a public health crisis and it’s hard to know how to talk about it without feeding into the right-wing propaganda machine that already paints immigrants as charges to the healthcare system and carriers of disease.” However, your writing voice explores depression, anxiety, exploitation, and shame with the same clarity, and occasionally playful language, that you use to talk about pride and love: “I just like this beach because there are always black and brown families fishing or building sand castles there, proudly being alive, and there is just something about the ocean air perfuming dark bodies refusing to die that makes me want to live another day too.” What was it like to write so much about yours and others pain?
KCV: Fucking traumatic. Maybe two-thirds into writing this book, my family life was falling apart, my loved ones were being attacked by ICE, and my mental and physical health were suffering. I e-mailed every entity that in some way has profited off of my writing about my pain and my people’s pain and asked them to send me flowers.
SD: According to what you reveal in the memoir, PTSD is a major presence in your life, and you write openly about how the stress of living without status has bored into your brain and bones. When you think about the national community of immigrant people living with trauma precipitated by the state, where systems of power have made “the conditions in this country as deadly and toxic and inhumane as possible so that we will self-deport,” what could justice one day look like? Do you have any sort of vision of it that you would like to share?
KCV: I have no policy recommendations. There are smarter people than I who can answer this question, from moderates to radicals. I hope our kids can live without guilt, I hope our elderly can retire in dignity, and I hope we can all have access to trauma-responsive therapists who speak our language. But that is also my wish for all brown and black and queer people. I also dream of pulling out Stephen Miller’s fingernails one by one—but that is only a dream, FBI.
SD: You are also an active scholar currently pursuing a PhD in American Studies at Yale. What lead you to that work?
KCV: I was a senior at Harvard, DACA didn’t exist yet, I had nowhere to go, and needed the health insurance. Other programs—Stanford, UPenn—pulled their offers once they realized I was undocumented.
SD: Many passages reveal your internal position to undocumented life as damaged but undefeated, even a little punk: “I wander across the country, mixing pills and alcohol and paying my mama’s bills and trying to keep my suicidal ideation at bay and then these kids fucking find me, and what do I do, but invite them into my heart and tell them, little babies, go to school, climb the ranks, kill the salutatorian, and in your valedictory speech remind your school that cops are pigs, and ICE are Nazis, and you are John at the foot of the cross, Jesus’s most loved apostle, maybe his lover, and you’re in the holy word, escape to my home for some chamomile tea and RuPaul, there will always be room for you, I love you and forever will.” Where do you find, make, or imagine escape for yourself and the undocumented kids you care about?
KCV: I used to think the only place I could find peace was in death, but I’m on a journey to not think that way, so let me tell you where I find some respite. I have this CBT chart that I text people who struggle with anxiety because it has really helped me. I like putting CBD oil on my face and using a jade roller. I love birds—crows and ravens and bluejays. I feed them, and the crows sometimes leave me gifts and that makes me feel loved. I am friends with a lot of dogs. Aside from my own dog, Frankie, I try to see a couple of dog friends a week. In my book, I thank all the dogs who kept me alive as I wrote this book because they truly fucking did. I watch videos by my two favorite drag queens, Trixie Mattel and Katya, when I’m feeling dark. And I make myself as available as possible to immigrant kids, queer kids; I leave my DMs open. I want them to know I’m here.
SD: You ask your interviewees what they want readers to know about them. What do you want readers of this interview or of your book to know about you?
KCV: That among the many injustices of growing up undocumented was seeing Julia Roberts on Letterman for all those years, knowing I was America’s sweetheart, a national treasure, but would never have the platform and would instead have to live in fear of getting picked up by a plainclothes ICE officer. You haven’t won yet, Julia.
Photo credit: Talya Zemach-Bersin.