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‘I Came From Nothing’: An Undocumented Writer Defies the Odds

I came from nothing. I created all of this world myself, just like my parents as immigrants created a world themselves. These kids — honestly, it would’ve been weird if they hadn’t gotten into Harvard. There are some kids whose last names were on the buildings.

But me? I was a statistical anomaly. I felt like I was a rare [expletive] beetle. And this didn’t stop me from being depressed, or from years of self-harm or any of that, but in a classroom or in an environment where it has to do with my writing, I have never lacked self-confidence.

There are several instances in the book in which you turn to magical realism. Why did you turn to that form?

I’ve never had an intuitive connection with nature or with the land, but it’s just always made sense to me that if something so unbelievably sad happened, that all of the natural things around us would react and never be the same. So when I learned about the Holocaust as a kid, I was like, “How did the rivers not become rivers of blood? How did the ocean not stop being salty? How did entire species not get wiped out and end up — like bird species — in people’s yards?”

In my mind it was like a belief system in the form of a literary technique that was used to bring justice to the page when there was impunity in real life and in our environment, where there are disappearances, where people’s bodies are being mutilated, where we’re being thrown into unmarked vans, where we’re living under what seems like a banana republic dictatorship. I thought it was the perfect moment to use magical realism.

How do you hope this book will be received in the world?

I hope that immigrants of all backgrounds are able to find themselves in it. I hope that people who are not immigrants, who have been considered aliens or undesirables or freaks, will be able to find something of themselves in it.

I don’t want all of the images of our people during this period to be of us on our knees or in cages, or begging for soap. I want this book to also exist as a snapshot of this period in time, where there are people who are different, who are imperfect, who are weird, who are hardworking, who are just people.

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