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Fall 2024: Home

Bea's Book Club celebrates diversity! 
The club is named in fond memory of longtime SWIC librarian, Bea Fries. Bea held the position of librarian at SWIC for forty-five years from July 1967 until May 2012. Her generous bequest to the SWIC Library established the Bea Fries Memorial Library Fund. Through this fund, a great deal of library materials are acquired each year for all to enjoy! Bea's Book club is DEI intentional. Book selections and supplemental materials celebrate, recognize and inform readers about the culture, traditions, histories and contributions of historically marginalized communities. Everyone is invited to this enlightening forum of books and activities that inspire, educate and increase empathy as well as cultural awareness.


LGBTQ+ History

Detransition, Baby: A Novel  by Torrey Peters

Detransition, Baby invites readers to question the limits of binary thought, examining the politically-charged and deeply transphobic language surrounding the existence of trans folks; while also taking on the often misunderstood and polarizing topic of detransitioning. Torrey Peters brilliantly and fearlessly navigates the most dangerous taboos around gender, sex, and relationships, gifting us a thrillingly original, witty, and deeply moving novel.   Read more...    

Published in 2021.  A National Bestseller.  PEN/Hemingway Award Winner • Finalist for the Lambda Literary Award, the National Book Critics Circle Award, and the Gotham Book Prize • Longlisted for The Women’s Prize • Roxane Gay’s Audacious Book Club Pick • New York Times Editors’ Choice.  Named one of the Best Books of the Year by more than twenty publications, including The New York Times Book Review, Entertainment Weekly, NPR, Time, Vogue, Esquire, Vulture, and Autostraddle

SWIC Students, Faculty and Staff can borrow a FREE copy of the book from the library.

Here's how to borrow a copy from the library. Having trouble? Contact us. We're happy to assist you!


1 – Detransition, Baby explores motherhood through several lenses. How do Reese, Katrina and Ames’s feelings on motherhood differ and how do they converge?


2 – What does the novel reveal to you about taboos around sex and gender? What roles do class and race play in the book?


3 – How does Katrina’s grief over her divorce and miscarriage inform her thoughts about pregnancy? Do you see any parallels between divorce narratives and transition narratives? If so, describe them.


4 – Discuss Reese’s relationship with the cowboy. What does their relationship fulfill for one another?


5 – Discuss Ames’s decision to detransition. What factors played into this choice?


6 – Discuss the concept of dissociation as described in the novel. How do the kinds of “bad feelings” that trans women cope with by dissociating from their bodies and emotions relate to the kinds of “bad feelings” that other women experience about their bodies or in uncomfortable sexual situations?


7 – How does Ames’s relationship with Katrina differ from her relationship with Reese? How are the dynamics of both relationships different, and how are they similar?


8 – What was your perspective on the ending? What future do you envision for Reese, Katrina and Ames?


Short Bio

Torrey holds an MFA from the University of Iowa and a Masters in Comparative Literature from Dartmouth. In addition to her bestselling novel Detransition, Baby, she is also the author of the novellas Infect Your Friends and Loved Ones and The Masker. She splits her time between Brooklyn and an off-grid cabin in Vermont. 

Visit the author's website.. 


Author Torrey Peters On Seeing Through A Trans Lens


Women’s prize nominated trans novelist Torrey Peters: ‘Detransitioning needs to stop being weaponised’

As she becomes the first trans woman nominated for the Women’s Prize for Fiction, Torrey Peters tells Susannah Butter her story


Torrey Peters calls it the Sex and the City problem: when a woman reaches her thirties and decides she wants to make something meaningful out of her life, she finds herself limited to only four options, find a partner (like Charlotte in the show), have a career (Samantha), have a baby (Miranda) or express herself through art and writing (Carrie). Peters noticed this when she was in her mid-thirties too but her situation was different, she had just finished transitioning.

“The hard part of my transition had ended — the taking hormones,” says the American novelist, 39, who came out as trans aged 26 and started taking hormones to transition at 30. “I was looking around and thinking ‘how do I live?’ I was friends with a lot of cis women who were getting married, having babies, their careers were taking off, and then I was looking at the trans women around me, including me, and we were not doing these things. I thought ‘what’s going on?’.”  Read more..

with Torrey Peters

A conversation with Torrey during her visit to the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor in the fall of 2022.

You spoke last night about “ranting through your characters”—about shaping or cutting their rants to serve the novel. Can you speak  more on that? And can you speak on your relationship with character at large—that complicated process of lending characters your own thoughts and feelings while also creating their own inner lives, their own insecurities and desires and flaws?

Sure. So, the thing I often come to literature for is a sense of urgency. I like books where I’m like, This author really needs to tell me something; they’re desperate to communicate something with me. My favorite books are the kind that have a kind of ferocity to them. And so, you know, occasionally [a writer] is super riled up, and is able to sit down and have that ferocity kind of on tap, because it’s naturally there. But most of the time, I sort of have to work myself up over a process of maybe an hour while I’m writing. Oftentimes, the way to do it is to find some aspect that I’m emotional about, and then kind of key into that, and just let it go. And that’s usually where I find that urgency. After that, it’s a question of shaping it. You know, nobody really likes to be ranted at, so the writing has to be funny, it has to be crafted. But I find it really hard to find urgency through craft. I’m always trying to read books on stylists and like, style my way into urgency. But that doesn’t work for me. It has to go the other way. I have to find the urgency and then style it. 

And on the question of character. Most of the characters have some aspects of myself. You know, I always want to write characters who are totally different from me, but I don’t really discover them. So it’s more like I find some facet of myself, and then I put that character in a situation that’s totally different than anything I’ve ever experienced. And slowly, the accumulation of that character being in situations different than me gives that character a different history. And then—I don’t know—usually a third of the way through a project, I’ll find that character making a different decision than I would make. And sometimes you force a character to make a decision because of the plot. But occasionally, with the sort of accretion of little details and histories that I’ve given that character, even though the spark of them is probably me, I find them doing things differently than me, because they’ve lived differently than me in a certain way. It’s sort of very mystical-sounding, but you know, it’s sort of just the practice.

The characters in Detransition, Baby are f*cked up in the best ways. Could you speak on why it’s important for you to lean into the folly of your characters, and also how folly works to create humor, and the role you feel humor has in your writing?

There’s like three or four reasons why it’s important to me. It probably started out with more of a political reason—which is that writing trans characters, there’s a real pressure to make them heroic; to make them have, like, redemptive stories; to make them, you know, resilient, and something where people can be like, Wow, they’re so great. And that’s so limiting to a character—that a character is always resilient and overcoming. And I really didn’t want characters like that. I mean, I don’t relate to characters who overcome. And so especially at the time I started writing, it felt very freeing to basically be like: I’m not going to write trans stories where people can point to these characters in some sort of like queer round-up of, you know, queer joy and resilience. That’s actually uninteresting to me. I mean, it’s fine for other people who do it, but it’s uninteresting to me. 

And you know, what people say is messy—to me, I accept that word, but I don’t really think it’s accurate. A lot of us contain a lot of contradictions, and those contradictions are human. And in the presentation of ideas, a lot of times those contradictions get ironed out. But for me, those contradictions are what makes those characters feel human, it’s what makes them struggle. Doing anything is hard. And I mean, me as a person, when I make a decision, I’m rarely all for it. I usually have some sort of internal contradiction, where I’m sitting there going, like, On the one hand, This; on the other hand, That—and I have to struggle my way towards any decision that I make. And that’s what’s interesting to me. I’m very passionate about ambivalence, you know? I think that the contradictions and ambivalence in a character reflect what feels to me why it’s so hard to do anything in life.

And so you have these messy characters, and then you break down messiness. For instance: Reese. Reese is an interesting character because people are always like, “You know, Reese is so messy,” when actually, Reese is a very loyal character. She has a great capacity for care. And she’s actually quite constant in her care. What she doesn’t have is sort of a context in which she can activate that care reliably. And so there’s a way in which the problem for Reese is an unreliable context. And that gets attributed to her character. She’s… and you know, she’s difficult…she has all these different things, but like, when people say, “Messy,” I’m sort of, like, In what ways? Like, in what ways is she messy? In what ways is the world messy? In what ways is she forced to make intolerable decisions? I’m very interested in splitting apart all of those things. So when people react to these characters, and Reese’s decisions or Ames’ decisions, the complexity of it is called “messy.” And I’m sort of just like, No, this is what it takes. We don’t get to smooth ourselves out without any contradictions.

You asked about humor, and that wasn’t a very funny answer, but I think the fact that we are absolutely riven with contradictions is hilarious. Like, we’re all hypocrites. I mean, I don’t know, maybe you’re not a hypocrite, but I’ll say I’m a huge hypocrite.   CONTINUE to the rest of the interview from the Michigan Quarterly Review




These books offer a diverse range of perspectives and narratives that delve deep into the complexities of sexual orientation, gender identity, and the intersectionality of identities, making them great choices for identity exploration.

Giovanni’s Room
A classic novel exploring themes of identity, love, and desire set in 1950s Paris, focusing on the protagonist's struggle with his sexual orientation. Check out a FREE copy from SWIC Library.

A novel that spans centuries, exploring themes of gender identity and transformation as the protagonist lives through different genders and historical periods. Check out a FREE copy from SWIC Library.

Stone Butch Blues  
A powerful novel about a transgender lesbian navigating identity, community, and activism amidst the backdrop of the 1960s and 70s. Check out a FREE copy from SWIC Library.

A novel that follows the life of Cal, who is intersex, exploring themes of gender identity, family dynamics, and the search for self-acceptance. Check out a FREE copy from SWIC Library.

Red, White & Royal Blue  
A contemporary romance novel that explores the love story between the son of the U.S. President and a British prince, delving into themes of sexual identity and public perception. Check out a FREE copy from SWIC Library.

Real Life  
A novel that follows a young black gay man navigating life in a predominantly white Midwestern university, grappling with identity, desire, and belonging. Check out a FREE copy from SWIC Library.

A novel that follows a transgender woman grappling with her identity and navigating relationships while on a road trip, exploring themes of gender identity and self-discovery. Check out a FREE copy from SWIC Library.

The Miseducation of Cameron Post  
A coming-of-age novel about a teenage girl discovering her sexual orientation while grappling with societal expectations and her religious upbringing. Check out a FREE copy from SWIC Library.



Native American Heritage

There There: a Novel  by Tommy Orange

There There is a powerful and multi-generational story that follows the lives of twelve Native American characters. Through interconnected narratives, Tommy Orange explores themes of identity, belonging, trauma, and the complexities of contemporary Native American life. His writing is lyrical, insightful, and deeply impactful, offering readers a profound understanding of Indigenous experiences in urban America.  There There is a significant contribution to Native American literature and a poignant read for Native American Heritage Month. Read more…    

Published in 2018. Pulitzer Prize Finalist; PEN/HEMINGWAY award winner; New York Times Best Book of the Year; Center for Fiction First Novel Prize Winner; National Book Critics Circle Award Winner; Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction Nominee. One of the Best Books of the Year: The Washington Post, NPR, Time, O, The Oprah Magazine, The Dallas Morning News, GQ, Entertainment Weekly, BuzzFeed, San Francisco Chronicle, The Boston Globe.

SWIC Students, Faculty and Staff can borrow a FREE copy of the book from the library.

Here's how to borrow a copy from the library. Having trouble? Contact us. We're happy to assist you!

1 – The prologue of There There provides a historical overview of how Native populations were systematically stripped of their identity, their rights, their land, and, in some cases, their very existence by colonialist forces in America. How did reading this section make you feel? How does the prologue set the tone for the reader? Discuss the use of the Indian head as iconography. How does this relate to the erasure of Native identity in American culture?


2 – Discuss the development of the “Urban Indian” identity and ownership of that label. How does it relate to the push for assimilation by the United States government? How do the characters in There There navigate this modern form of identity alongside their ancestral roots?


3 – Consider the following statement from page 9: “We stayed because the city sounds like a war, and you can’t leave a war once you’ve been, you can only keep it at bay.” In what ways does the historical precedent for violent removal of Native populations filter into the modern era? How does violence—both internal and external—appear throughout the narrative?


4 – On page 7, Orange states: “We’ve been defined by everyone else and continue to be slandered despite easy-to-look-up-on-the-internet facts about the realities of our histories and current state as a people.” Discuss this statement in relation to how Native populations have been defined in popular culture. How do the characters in There There resist the simplification and flattening of their cultural identity? Relate the idea of preserving cultural identity to Dene Oxendene’s storytelling mission.


5 – Tony Loneman’s perspective both opens and closes There There. Why do you think Orange made this choice for the narrative? What does Loneman’s perspective reveal about the “Urban Indian” identity? About the landscape of Oakland?


6 – When readers are first introduced to Dene Oxendene, we learn of his impulse to tag various spots around the city. How did you interpret this act? How does graffiti culture work to recontextualize public spaces?


7 – Discuss the interaction between Opal Viola Victoria Bear Shield and Two Shoes that occurs on pages 50–52. How does Opal view Two Shoes’s “Indianness”? What is the import of the Teddy Roosevelt anecdote that he shares with her? How does this relate to the overall theme of narrative and authenticity that occurs throughout There There?


8 – Describe the resettlement efforts at Alcatraz. What are the goals for inhabiting this land? What vision does Opal and Jacquie’s mother have for her family in moving to Alcatraz?


9 – On page 58, Opal’s mother tells her that she needs to honor her people “by living right, by telling our stories. [That] the world was made of stories, nothing else, and stories about stories.” How does this emphasis on storytelling function throughout There There? Consider the relationship between storytelling and power. How does storytelling allow for diverse narratives to emerge? What is the relationship between storytelling and historical memory?


10 – On page 77, Edwin Black asserts, “The problem with Indigenous art in general is that it’s stuck in the past.” How does the tension between modernity and tradition emerge throughout the narrative? Which characters seek to find a balance between honoring the past and looking toward the future? When is the attempt to do so successful?


11 – Discuss the generational attitudes toward spirituality in the Native community in There There. Which characters embrace their elders’ spiritual practices? Who doubts the efficacy of those efforts? How did you interpret the incident of Orvil and the spider legs?


12 – How is the city of Oakland characterized in the novel? How does the city’s gentrification affect the novel’s characters? Their attitudes toward home and stability?


13 – How is femininity depicted in There There? What roles do the female characters assume in their community? Within their families?


14 – Discuss Orvil’s choice to participate in the powwow. What attracts him to the event? Why does Opal initially reject his interest in “Indianness”? How do his brothers react to it?


15 – Discuss the Interlude that occurs on pages 134–41. What is the import of this section? How does it provide key contextual information for the Big Oakland PowWow that occurs at the end of the novel? What is the significance of this event and others like it for the Native community?


16 – Examine the structure of There There. Why do you think Orange chose to present his narrative using different voices and different perspectives? How do the interlude and the prologue help to bolster the themes of the narrative? What was the most surprising element of the novel to you? What was its moment of greatest impact?



Tommy Orange

Short Bio

Tommy Orange is an enrolled member of the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes of Oklahoma. He was born and raised in Oakland, California. He attended the Institute of American Indian Arts and earned the Masters in Fine Arts. Along with a national bestseller, Orange has written for Esquire, McSweeney’s, Zoetrope: All-Story, Zyzzyva, and many other literary journals. Orange received the John Leonard Prize in 2018, awarded for an author's first book in any genre. In 2019, Orange also received the PEN/Hemingway Award, which is dedicated to first-time authors of full-length fiction books, and the American Book Award, denoting "outstanding literary achievement." There, There also received nominations for various other recognitions, including the Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction, the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, the Audie Award for Multi-voiced Performance, and two from Goodreads Choice Awards: Best Fiction and Best Debut Goodreads Author. 

Orange's mother is white, and his father is Cheyenne. As a kid, Orange wasn't much of a reader. But after graduating from college with a degree in sound engineering, he couldn't find work, so he got a job at bookstore where he developed a passion for reading. "I was in my 20s and also searching for meaning," he says. "And I wasn't a reader, so fiction was a super novel thing for me. And I just fell in love with it."

LISTEN: Native American Author Tommy Orange Feels A 'Burden To Set The Record Straight'

WATCH: Tommy Orange on "There, There" at the 2018 Miami Book Fair


with Tommy Orange

This interview took place in Santa Fe, New Mexico during the graduation residency for the Institute of American Indian Arts (IAIA), where Tommy is an alumnus and now faculty in the Creative Writing graduate department and I, Marlena Gates, about to graduate with my MFA. We met in a high-end restaurant in the center of what is called The Plaza of downtown Santa Fean art district showcasing endless amounts of Native American art, authentic and not. It was happy hour in the restaurant and we were the only two non-white people in the place, the only Indians. We were put in a dark corner and ignored by our waitress and most of the staff, had to hunt down our waitress to finally get our check, and several attempts to flag down waiters ignored. A rush of stories ran through my head I had heard from IAIA peers and faculty about Indians being treated inhumanely in Santa Fe by the starkly white bourgeoisie, even as our art sells to these people for thousands upon thousands of dollars throughout their downtown boutiques. The irony of colonialist art appropriation practices never lost on us.

During the interview, though, Tommy and I pretended not to see the obviousthat we were the hidden Indians in the room, ignored against an all-white spaceso used to being treated as the ghosts we have been. Instead we focused on our work to be done, as always. We conducted our interview with much joy, conversation punctuated by laughter and our bright wide smiles, even as we sat in and spoke on the darkest parts of our historical past and present.

Marlena Gates: What is it to write about the violence and trauma of the Native in the modern sense, and how do you feel about the argument against the writing of Native life as harsh and cruela critique coming from inside our own Native literary community?

Tommy Orange: I’m writing to a Native audience and anybody from it knows that these are realities. I’m not making this stuff up based on nothing. It’s a grim, dark world and reality that we struggle through. I tried to have my characters transcend a lot of that stuff. They’re not bogged down by it or it doesn’t define them. I want to humanize all my characters and, sure, they experience things that are a part of our communities; but I wanted to flesh them out and have them experience joy and sadness like all humans do. One thing about Native people is that we’re turned into one dimensional people, a one-dimensional thing; we’re a statistic or we’re a historical image. To make fully fleshed human characters represented in a big way, as something that gets distributed everywhere, does a lot of work to update people on what it means to be [Native], to just treat us like humans, know that we exist now, to just treat us like everybody else. We don’t get regular treatment. We are the minority of the minority. I don’t have any problems talking about the realities that we face.

MG: So making your Native representation all sunshiny bright and rainbows was not a priority?

TO: Violence is such an ingrained part of our history but we’re never able to reconcile with it because people aren’t willing to admit that it was such an important piece of the conquering and the killing that has happened. We aren’t even willing to admit it, as a nation under Americans, and so there is this insidious violence. And there are other practices that aren’t direct violence that affect our lives based on policies. The thinking around us, and the erasure that’s happened, is a different kind of violence. So to represent that, as well as the real violence that happens, I liked.

MG: Then it actually humanizes the Native more to show clearly the dark side of their lived experience?

TO: I think so. That’s one of the functions of the novelto build empathy for the reader. How do you do that? You have somebody go through an experience by having them walk in the shoes of the characters and fall in love with the characters and feel for them and you hope that that transfers somehow to real life. You hope.

MG: Tell me how you constructed your characters so real and true to life?

TO: I worked a lot with the Oakland Native population, at the Oakland Native American Health Center, but the characters were not pulled from any reality. I was not seeing people and thinking I could make a character based on them. The characters are from an imaginary Oakland. A lot of it was trying out a whole bunch of different characters, like an auditioning phase I called it, where I was just writing every day trying to write a new character, and whatever voice that felt like it would last and stick I would keep and develop those further. I created a lot of characters that I didn’t use and then after a distillation process I figured out which characters were most distinct and most essential to the narrative I wanted to write. There’s a spirit of the people of the Oakland Native community that I was channeling for every character.

MG: This book is getting so much visibility already, nationally and even internationally, with literary powerhouses such as Margaret Atwood calling it an “outstanding literary debut.” It will be read by large swaths of people and is already set to make a huge impact on the literary world as a new American genre. How is the average American reader going to benefit from understanding the plight of the urban Native in particular?

TO: My readership is for Native audiences, but you hope when you’re a writer you’re writing something that can connect to anybody. Not writing in a general way, but there’s this weird thing that the more specific you get the more universal you can be, for some reason, it doesn’t make sense but somehow it does. I think the idea of acclimating to a city environment is something that everyone has gone through. Also the way I frame environment through a Native lens has to do with understanding a way of lifeto respect the all your relations thing. All my relations is a thing you hear in the Native community. Its a way to have a relationship to your environment that gets to the cities too. It sort of counteracts this “connection to the land” Native trope, it’s a way to have connection to the land. Native people can have a connection to the city in the same way that you would any place. Like the way the sound of the freeway sounds like a river and how you can have that connection to ita respect and love for the environment no matter where youre at.

MG: All the urban Native characters of There There are a part of the American poor working class (PWC). In this way, through the details you map in your novel, could it then be an anchor for the PWC American to relate to the urban Native, finally, rather than continuing to see all Natives as mythic creatures in headdresses out on reservations somewhere?

TO: When you look at a lot of literature, if you do the numbers, the data, not only is it crazily white, but so much of the narratives have been upper middle class. As a reader I feel like I never read about people that I know, the people that struggle financially. A lot of the problems have been rich white people problems, and so getting the PWC onto the page was a big deal to me because I just didn’t see it. There was a gap. People do it more now, because there is a transformation happening in literature where representation is getting better. But for a long time you don’t get that many stories about people struggling. You got a lot of white privilege dramas about divorce in New York, or a college campus story.

MG: Can the urban Native genre as a whole help to transcend racial divides on the level of the poor, by creating a picture of the modern Native struggle in a real way, where Natives are right there alongside the PWC?

TO: I would hope so for sure. That’s an empathy connection building possibility. When you read about another culture, or another group of people who have another experience than you, but you can see yourself reflected in them anyway, it does a lot of work on your soul, on your brain. I’m a believer in the power of what books can do and what they’ve done for me.

MG: I can think of so many, but to you, what aspects of the book specifically break into that structural empathy building?

TO: Opal’s mother’s experience of domestic violence, the eviction notices they would pretend they didn’t see, riding the bus, everyone takes the bus. When you read a lot of novels people are driving everywhere, people are taking planes. When you go to an airport there’s a certain class of people at airports; poor people don’t fly. So I think a lot of the little details throughout the book connects people because I chose to have my characters living in this particular class.

MG: In many ways the Native American in general, living in America, surviving under so long a history of policies bent on destroying our bodies and cultures, is a walking contradiction just for existing. On the contradictions of the lived experience of the Native in America, outlined well in many moments across the stories in your book, in some ways are these cultural contradictions felt in the body of the urban Indian more than that of the reservation Indian?

TO: Yes. Reservation people will ask you where you’re from and if you say Oakland they will say “No, where are your people from?” even when some people go generations back in Oakland.

This goes back to the environment thingwhat is your environment and what is your home and where do you belong? When you can make Oakland your home. Reservations aren’t home. That’s where we got moved to, shitty land. We got moved there because they thought it was shitty land, and then they found oil and they did more shitty things. So this idea of how to exist somewhere and feel like you belong and feel like it’s home is a contradiction because we feel misplaced.

A lot of Native families came on [the Indian Relocation Act], which had insidious reasons. But not everyone came because they got fooled. Some people were like, “I don’t want to live on the reservation, I want to live a new kind of life.” So I have a line in the book that says, “the city made us new and we made it ours.” It’s a contradiction to be from a people who are thought of to be historical and who live such a contemporary life, but 70 percent of Natives live in the city now.

So many people spend their time looking through glass, and around wires and cement, and that feels like a contradiction. You’re supposed to be Native yet you live in the city, and that’s most of us now. So it’s a contradiction we have to reckon with, and that’s part of the reason why I wanted to represent the urban Indian consciousness. Everyone has to reckon with this.

A lot of reservation Indians now live in cities, and their children probably will too. There’s not going to be some massive move back to reservations, so we have to forge a new identity that’s related to the city in a way that we bring cultural values and ways with us. We must leave behind some of this narrow-minded thinking on what it means to be Indian, because all this reservation identity-based stuff didn’t exist before reservations, and what did it mean then? Reservation consciousness is an adaptation after removal, after being pushed there. Being Indian meant something totally different before reservations. So we can’t just refer back to reservations like we’ve been on reservations forever. We have to think of the new thing that we’re going to be. How are we going to remain Indian and not have to fall back on trope and tired stereotype? We have to make new ways.  ~from ElectricLit, 2018





How did American Indians

and Alaskan Natives

come to live in urban settings?












Hispanic Heritage

The Undocumented Americans  by Karla Cornejo Villavicencio

Although not a novel in the traditional sense, this critically acclaimed work blends personal narrative, investigative journalism, and storytelling to provide an insightful and deeply human portrayal of undocumented immigrants in the United States. The Undocumented Americans has recieved widespread recognition for its powerful and intimate exploration of the immigrant experience from the perspective of a Latina author.   Read more ... 

Published in 2020. National Book Award Finalist. Finalist for the NBCC John Leonard Award. Named Best Book of the Year by the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times Book Review, NPR, The New York Public Library, Book Riot, Library Journal, and Time.

SWIC Students, Faculty and Staff can borrow a FREE copy of the book from the library.

Here's how to borrow a copy from the library. Having trouble? Contact us. We're happy to assist you!


1 – What did author Karla Cornejo Villavicencio hate about other books and stories about migrants and how did she intend for her’s to be different?


2 – Why did the author make the decision not to write about DREAMers or DACA?


3 – Why is the prevalent use of the term “undocumented workers” hugely problematic? What troublesome ideas about human value does it reinforce or emphasize?


4 – How did 9/11 “change the immigration landscape forever” and why does Cornejo Villavicencio say that it was the day that her father started dying?


5 – How does the healthcare system fail and endanger undocumented Americans, and what role do alternative medicine and ceremony play in their lives? How else do they seek healing?


6 – What literary device does the author use to highlight the violence enacted on people of color, including those in the undocumented community, by their own government? What effect do you think the author intended for this to have on readers?


7 – Where does the author say that stories about deportation often end and why is this problematic?


8 – What are sanctuary spaces, and what “higher moral law” do these spaces help to enforce? What is life like for those who are forced to live in these spaces and their families?


9 – What moment does Cornejo Villavicencio say she has “been preparing for [her] entire life”? What is life like for aging undocumented immigrants in America? What strain does this place on their children?


10 – When Cornejo Villavicencio asks those she interviews about regrets, how do they respond? What is it that she says they remember of their time in the United States?


11 – Why do you think that the author chose to weave memoir with reportage, creative ethnography, and elements of fiction such as magical realism?


12 – Explore the motifs of trauma and mental illness. What does the author reveal about the relationship between illness—and especially mental illness—and the experience of migration?

Karla Cornejo Villavicencio


“Whatever your thing is, do as much of it as you can — and delight in it.” 


Ecuadorian-American writer Karla Cornejo Villavicencio shared this advice with students during a recent visit to Northfield Mount Hermon, part of the school’s speaker series focused on citizenship and service.

Cornejo Villavicencio’s first book, The Undocumented Americans, was shortlisted for the National Book Award for Nonfiction in 2020. The work of creative nonfiction is in part a memoir about her experience growing up as an undocumented immigrant in the U.S. in 1990s and 2000s and in part a collection of essays about the experiences of undocumented day laborers.  

Cornejo Villavicencio was born in Ecuador. When she was 18 months old, her parents left her behind when they immigrated to the United States. A few years later, her parents brought her to the U.S.and raised her in Queens, New York. Cornejo Villavicencio began writing professionally as a teenager, including music reviews for a New York monthly magazine, and has gone on to write for The Atlantic, Elle, Glamour, The New Republic, The New York Times, and Vogue. “My coping mechanism is art,” she told students during her visit to NMH. “I was willingly engaging with beautiful things. I just started writing and didn’t stop.”

Cornejo Villavicencio attended Harvard University prior to the establishment of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) Program, which allowed certain people brought to the country as children to apply for protection from deportation and obtain legal working status. Her senior year, she wrote an essay, “I’m an Illegal Immigrant at Harvard,” which was published anonymously in the Daily Beast. The piece attracted the attention of numerous literary agents, who reached out to Cornejo Villavicencio asking if she’d be interested in writing a memoir. She declined the requests at the time because she was only 21 and thought she was too young to write a memoir. She graduated from Harvard in 2011 and believes she is one of the first undocumented immigrants to do so.

She began writing The Undocumented Americans in 2016, the morning after the election of President Donald Trump. “The moment called for a radical experiment in genre,” she told Guernica Magazine. “I hope that immigrants of all backgrounds are able to find themselves in [the book],” she told the New York Times. “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.”

At NMH, Cornejo Villavicencio spoke about the freedom that came with being a young writer. “I wrote how I wanted and what I wanted,” she said. “I didn’t have anything to lose. There’s power in that. There’s confidence and a little bit of bravado. There’s even some naivety when you’re young that allows you to stand up for yourself and for your art.” Students should believe that they have something to say and share it confidently with the world — and know that making mistakes is part of the process of improving your craft, she added. “Make as many mistakes as you need to while you are young. Take risks. Expose yourself to as many things as possible.” She also discussed her writing process — which often involves performing a lengthy skin care routine, practicing her eyeliner techniques, or putting on something glamorous like a silk robe before climbing into her bed to write — as well as big ideas such as identity and belonging. ~from 4/6/23 NMH 

The Undocumented Americans




with Karla Cornejo Villavicencio

After the U.S. presidential election of 2016, Karla Cornejo Villavicencio, an undocumented American from Ecuador and Yale doctoral student, decided it was time to write her story. Beyond that, she wanted to write the story of other undocumented immigrants who play such an important part in American society but whose lives are often little understood. The result is “The Undocumented Americans,” published in March 2020, which captures the day-to-day lives and resilience of undocumented laborers she met across the country. In an interview with Yale News, she discusses the challenge of being undocumented in the United States, the people she met while reporting the book, and the pressure that comes with writing their stories.

Part of the excitement around your book is that so few stories about undocumented Americans have been told. Why is that?

I think undocumented immigrants are willing to share these stories, but people aren’t looking at the right places. I’m not a journalist, so I’m not bound by conventions. I was able to get involved in people’s lives and gather these stories in unconventional ways. For instance, I didn’t use a tape recorder, which allowed me to build a trust with people.

Publishing houses and Hollywood, they don’t really have an appetite for the kinds of stories I’m telling which don’t have an exciting plot to them. I don’t write about the border. I don’t talk about people crossing to America. There isn’t an industry appetite for the slow, day-in-the-life stories that I’m telling. But the stories are always there, and immigrants are happy to talk to people who are willing to lend a compassionate ear.

One of these families you met was in New Haven. Can you talk about them?

I became a mentor to two teenage girls whose father had taken sanctuary in the local church. They were fully supported by the local community. My relationship with the girls came naturally. I have a brother who is 10 years younger than I am. We grew up poor in Queens and I took him to the MET [the Metropolitan Museum of Art], to the East Village, to MoMA [Museum of Modern Art] on Fridays, when it was free. In my mind, I showed him the world. I wanted him to have the experiences that an upper middle-class child would have

I became close to the parents of these teenage girls and they trusted me. They had dinner every week with me and my partner and they trusted that I would be a good influence. And so I did what I did with my brother — I taught them what I knew. And the girls called them my “life lessons.” I taught them about consent. I taught them the difference between American humor and British humor. It was a relationship that came very organically.

To what degree does being undocumented inform your identity? Can you talk about what that means as a day-to-day experience?

When I was growing up, it was before DACA [the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals] policy, so the possibility that I could get a job was not something that was real to me. That affected my mental health profoundly. I felt like I was driving a car with no brakes. I saw how hard my father worked in the restaurant industry, and how much love and dignity he put into his work, and he didn’t get much back. I thought I was going to end up in the same place, even when I was at Harvard.

As a child, I saw my parents as completely vulnerable. It’s like seeing a hermit crab without a shell. I just knew that there was nothing and nobody to protect them. They couldn’t call the cops. They had no insurance. They were completely at the mercy of whatever or whoever wanted to hurt them. And it was my job to protect them through my lifelong quest to get good grades and eventually achieve enough success that my name would protect them because I couldn’t grant them citizenship.

As an adult, once DACA passed [in 2012], the legal status became an administrative issue. But what doesn’t leave you is the constant fear. So even now, as an adult who is doing well in my career and has a stable life here in New Haven, my parasympathetic nervous system is just shot. I think my parents are in danger at all times. The slightest sound could just send me into a panic. I’ve noticed that that’s similar for a lot of children of immigrants. We’re very high functioning, very hard working, but we have a fight-or-flight instinct that’s very, very fragile.

What were some of the common attributes that you found among the undocumented immigrants you encountered while writing your book?

The people that I have the most in common with are children of undocumented immigrants. Whether they are Latinx or from any other nationality or ethnicity, we probably have pretty similar emotional landscapes. It’s an emotional rollercoaster. We get a text from our parents, we think: Is this about ICE? Did they get COVID and they can’t be treated at the hospital? Will they be the last ones to get the vaccine? Did their electricity get cut and they have to make an emergency payment? Children of immigrants across American history have probably felt this way. Jewish immigrants, Chinese immigrants, Irish immigrants, Italian immigrants. The relationship of children of immigrants to their parents has been very specific in the American story.

Is there a lot of pressure in being a voice for undocumented immigrants?

Necessarily I am the first in a lot of things or among the first. You have to resist the culture’s necessity to tokenize you. You have to just focus on your work and do the best work that you can. Everything else is noise. ~ from 12/22/20 Yale News



What is it like to grow up as an undocumented youth in America?

In the video below, three undocumented youth who arrived as young children — Jong-Min, Pedro and Silvia — share their stories of how they are fighting hard to achieve their piece of the American dream. Their experiences are emblematic of the struggles of millions of undocumented children and youth in America who deal daily with isolation from peers, the struggle to pursue an education, fears of detention and deportation, and the trauma of separation from family and loved ones. This video calls for valuing the contributions of and caring for all members of our society, even those without documentation. 

Answers to Your Questions about Undocumented Youth in America

1. How many undocumented children and youth live in America?

There are one million children under 18 and 4.4 million under 30 living in America out of the estimated total of 11.1 million undocumented immigrants living in America. These young people are not the only ones affected by undocumented status. Nearly half of undocumented adults are parents of minors, many of whom are citizens. There are an estimated 5.5 million children with at least one undocumented parent, 4.5 million of whom were born here making them U.S. citizens. These kinds of “mixed-status” family situations are very common with an estimated nine million people living in families that contain at least one undocumented adult and one citizen child.

2. How does being undocumented negatively affect well-being?

In the video, Jong-Min, Pedro and Silvia all describe the negative impacts that their undocumented status has had on their lives. Jong-Min shared how being undocumented feels like being in an “invisible prison”. Pedro had the traumatic experience of being held in an actual prison for 24 hours for simply being found on a Greyhound bus on his way back to college. Silvia had to go through the ordeal of her mother trying to flee prosecution for being undocumented and having a seizure while doing so. Being undocumented has created significant obstacles for these three bright, ambitious individuals to fulfilling their hopes and dreams. And they are not alone. Many undocumented immigrant children and youth are frequently subject to experiences like :
  • racial profiling
  • ongoing discrimination
  • exposure to gangs
  • immigration raids in their communities
  • arbitrary stopping of family members to check their documentation status
  • being forcibly taken or separated from their families
  • returning home to find their families have been taken away
  • placement in detention camps or the child welfare system
  • deportation
These stressful experiences can lead to a number of negative emotional and behavioral outcomes including anxiety, fear, depression, anger, social isolation and lack of a sense of belonging. And, of course, separation from their families can be particularly traumatizing for children and youth. For young children whose undocumented parents have been detained or even deported, the impact can be severe. Researchers have found that they often experience in the short term, frequent crying, withdrawal, disrupted eating and sleeping patterns, anger, anxiety and depression. Over time, these can lead to more severe issues like post-traumatic stress disorder, poor identity formation, difficulty forming relationships, feelings of persecution, distrust of institutions and authority figures, acting out behaviors and difficulties at school.

3. What does the video tell us about what it means to be an American?

America is a nation of immigrants. Over our history, generations of immigrants seeking a better life for themselves and their families have come to this country and made it what it is today. Pedro, Jong-Min and Silvia demonstrate traits we highly value in American society; they are all ambitious and motivated, intelligent and conscientious young people. They want to do great things and are committed to serving their communities. Jong-Min wants to become a Supreme Court justice, Pedro is a teacher and Silvia does volunteer community art work with children separated from their undocumented parents. This level of engagement and activism represents the American experience that most of us imagine. Having immigrated to the U.S. at such young ages, like so many undocumented youth, they acculturated to the same American language, culture and values that their U.S.-born peers did. However, undocumented youth in America experience a different reality — a different America.  Research vii shows that continued discrimination toward immigrants by greater society can make acculturation difficult and has negative mental health consequences (e.g., depression, anxiety and social isolation). 

4. Why should we as a society care about undocumented youth?

We should care because their opportunities and potential for success are frequently limited, but more importantly, the discrimination, isolation and fear that they go through should not be experienced by any child or adolescent in our society. We should care because the discrimination, isolation,and fear that undocumented youth go through should not be experienced by any child or adolescent in our society. These children have limited opportunities and potential for success. Many of these youth drop out of school and become disaffected, continuing the cycle of poverty. Those who do graduate high school find access to college limited, with few choices or funding opportunities. It is difficult to pursue options for legalization, and they can’t drive, vote or fully participate in the society in which they grew up. In extreme cases, some undocumented youth become so hopeless that they turn to suicide. The detention and deportation of their parents/caregivers can be devastating. Losing their support system severely undermines their potential for future success. Our society should value their rights, mental health needs and wellbeing because it benefits all of us in the long-term. All of our society’s children should be given the opportunity to thrive and succeed regardless of their documentation status. As Silvia said “caring about this matters”. Given the challenges undocumented youth and children with undocumented parents face, showing support through mentoring or volunteer work could make all the difference.

5. Who is to blame for putting undocumented youth in this situation?

People come to this country for a number of reasons (i.e., search for work, family reunification and humanitarian refuge). Most often, it is to provide a better opportunity for their children and families. While some undocumented immigrants do cross the border illegally, about 40 percent are individuals who entered legally on a visa which has since expired. Navigating the U.S. immigration system to gain legal status is extremely difficult. For undocumented parents, returning to their country of origin and leaving their children behind is an option that would be traumatic for all parties concerned. Reuniting with their children may take years, especially when complicated by financial hurdles and immigration regulations. The longer the separation, the more complicated the family reunification and the greater the likelihood that their children will suffer psychologically. The children caught in the middle do not deserve the negative outcomes of family separation regardless of the reasons their parents are out of status. Assigning blame is not productive. What matters most is that undocumented youth and children of undocumented parents deserve the same opportunities for health and wellbeing as any child growing up in America. 
~ from APA, Undocumented Americans






What we know about unauthorized immigrants living in the U.S. – Pew Research

Unauthorized immigrant population for states (and margins of error), 1990-2021 (Detailed table: Excel)

Unauthorized immigrants and characteristics for states, 2021 (Detailed table: Excel)

Unauthorized immigrants in the labor force for states, 2021 (Detailed table: Excel)

~ more Unauthorized Immigration from Pew Research

Catalina: A Novel
available July 23,2024
by Karla Cornejo Villavicencio - Her Debut Novel

“Diabolically charming and magnetic. I enjoyed the hell out of this little exploding geyser of a book.”—Ira Glass


A year in the life of the unforgettable Catalina Ituralde, a wickedly wry and heartbreakingly vulnerable student at an elite college, forced to navigate an opaque past, an uncertain future, tragedies on two continents, and the tantalizing possibilities of love and freedom.  When Catalina is admitted to Harvard, it feels like the fulfillment of destiny: a miracle child escapes death in Latin America, moves to Queens to be raised by her undocumented grandparents, and becomes one of the chosen. But nothing is simple for Catalina, least of all her own complicated, contradictory, ruthlessly probing mind. Read more..  



Dear Readers:

It is with great and terrible excitement that I introduce you to Catalina, my first novel.

  • I wanted to accomplish many things in this book—
  • I wanted to write a book that could both impress and destroy Philip Roth.
  • I wanted to disturb the ghost of Salinger and challenge him to a duel.
  • I wanted to write about a low-income immigrant kid in elite spaces where imposter
  • syndrome doesn’t come up at all.
  • I wanted to write a coming-of-age story about a girl in which there is no rape.
  • I wanted to write a book that made me feel like I was getting away with something.
  • In my first book, The Undocumented Americans, I wrote about the day-to-day lives of
  • regular undocumented people, not the blessed few. Still, the elephant in the room
  • was always there. I was, to put it politely, Miss American Dream. I couldn’t stop
  • people from wanting to talk about Harvard. So one day I thought, why not just give
  • America what it wants?

Catalina is my humble submission to the category of the campus novel. It is also an example of be careful what you wish for.                        

Karla Cornejo Villavicencio

PRAISE for Catalina

“The Undocumented Americans author Karla Cornejo Villavicencio’s first novel follows the titular character, a charming and cunning undocumented Ivy League student, as she prepares for post-grad life. . . . With Catalina, Villavicencio draws from her own experience as an undocumented person and Harvard grad to give voice to a fierce, but vulnerable character.”—Time
“Diabolically charming and magnetic . . . About once every page of Catalina I found myself pausing to marvel at some incredibly breathtaking sentence.  I honestly don’t know how you write like this. I don’t know how you make something that feels so urgent and driven and alive. I enjoyed the hell out of this little exploding geyser of a book.”—Ira Glass
“Karla Cornejo Villavicencio, one of the most kinetic and ingenious writers of this sorry epoch, has given us a hero among heroes—a young woman as extraordinary and regular as us all, or as we hope to be. Catalina forever. Everybody else is on notice.”—Julianne Escobedo Shepherd

“Smart, charming, funny, ambitious . . . By so enthrallingly and perceptively giving unprecedented individual voice to a defining issue of our time, Catalina seems destined to be a contemporary American classic.”—Francisco Goldman, author of the Pulitzer Prize finalist Monkey Boy
“Wonderful . . . Karla Cornejo Villavicencio has given us two gifts in one, a character so sparkling in her independence, so fierce in her refusal to be confined to stereotype. In prose that bristles with intelligence and wit, we see Catalina facing the uncertainties of undocumented immigrant life and, at the same time, we get the full range of her life—her erudite mind, her questing soul, her desire for love and freedom. Catalina is a funny, tender, and urgent novel.”—Glenda R. Carpio, author of Laughing Fit to Kill
“An unforgettable character . . . Page after page I wrestled with Catalina but she refused to be pinned down, earning my fury and affection. She’s an American original, a fragile and funny powerhouse.”—Quiara Alegría Hudes, author of My Broken Language
“In her first novel, [Karla] Cornejo Villavicencio introduces brazen, smart Catalina . . . irreverent and often laugh-out-loud funny . . . Catalina demands her due from friends, lovers, professors, and familia in Cornejo Villavicencio’s bravura bildungsroman.”—Booklist, starred review



Who can participate?
Bea's Book! is self-guided. You can participate individually, pair up with a friend, or form a group. It is open to Southwestern Illinois College students, faculty and staff as well as the community. Everyone is invited! 

How many books do I read?
You can read as many as you like. One to three award-winning books are selected each semester. Descriptions of each book are found on this page. 

How do I participate?
Review the book descriptions and determine which book(s) you'd like to read! You can request a free copy through the library's loan system (see the 'How to Get Book' TAB on this page). Book Club TABS contain discussion questions, author information and much more to enhance your experience! Participate individually, with a friend, or better yet - gather a group and discuss your thoughts together!

I want more information ..
Talk to a friendly librarian. We're excited to meet you!  Stop by anytime the library is open. Can't make it to the library?  Contact us via email with your questions - we'll be in touch soon!