(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 im