Sabrina Vourvoulias has taken on the immigration issue with an intriguing twist.
Her newly released novel, Ink, explores the topic under the science fiction genre. Vourvoulias knows the issue firsthand. She grew up in Guatemala and moved to the United States as a teenager. Vourvoulias has worked mostly in newspapers and serves as managing editor of Al Día News Media, the Spanish-language newspaper in Philadelphia. She writes speculative fiction and poetry and also runs the blog, Following the Lede.
Q. Tell me about your book, Ink.
A. Ink is a novel that combines dystopia, literary fiction and magic realism. As the novel opens, a biometric tattoo has been instituted for temporary workers, immigrants with permanent resident status, and citizens with too-recent immigration history. (Because it is a tattoo those who are marked by it come to be called “inks.”) Restrictions, including “English-only” ones, are imposed and escalate until life becomes a series of “bad” and “worse” choices for the protagonists.
The story is narrated by four alternating voices: a journalist whose “beat” is reporting on inks; a citizen ink who works in the city’s population control office; an artist who is drawn (pun intended) into the inks’ struggles through friendship and temperament; and a teenager whose mother runs an “inkatorium” (a sanitarium-internment center opened in response to public health concerns).
All of the characters grapple with issues of exclusion, identity, and a shifting sense of community. But there is another layer of the world the characters are touched by — a layer peopled by mythic beings, and coursed by spirit and magic. A layer of the world where justice and reconciliation is measured in memories, and by the heart.
Q. Why did you choose the science fiction genre for a novel about immigration?
A. Speculative fiction that incorporates elements of science fiction and fantasy is born with a “what if?” and grows from there. In my case, I was already hearing and reporting about undocumented immigrants in my journalistic work, and tracking how the discourse was becoming less and less about authorization, and more about a generalized fear and loathing. I created characters I cared about — with a diversity of life experiences and expectations — and subjected them to a daily existence that is an exaggerated version of what I have already observed or heard about. I wove through this what I love best about Sci Fi/Fantasy/Magic Realism: the poetic imaginings, and the “what ifs” that aren’t restricted to our material, physical world.
Q. How has your Guatemalan/Latino heritage inspired your work? Who are your favorite Latino writers, and why?
A. I grew up in a Guatemala torn by an undeclared, internal war. Those years were spent living our everyday lives under the rule of a repressive government that didn’t hesitate to get rid of those it deemed undesirable. Those experiences undergird the very U.S. dystopia I created for Ink, and much of what I subject the fictional city of Hastings to (martial law, curfews, roadblocks and civil patrols, states of emergency) is lived experience.
At the same time, I am formed by the folklore and legends of Guatemala, which all live barely under the skin of those of us connected by blood and heart to that country. It is hard to imagine a nation more rich with pre and post colonial mythology and folklore. That living cultural legacy, and the particularly strong ties of family, faith and community I’ve experienced in the U.S., are all part of what inspires not only this work, but all my work.
As for favorites, I’m very fond of both Latin American Boom classics and the works of U.S. Latino authors, and probably for the same reasons: they tend to be character-driven and very socially aware, while imbued with a kind of casual or innate magic. Or, if not actual magic, a sense of the mythic. So, Miguel Angel Asturias, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Juan Rulfo and Jorge Luis Borges on the Latin American side, and Sandra Cisneros, Denise Chavez, Ana Castillo, Julia Alvarez, Cristina Garcia, Francisco Goldman and emerging writers like Gina Ruiz and Melinda Palacio on the U.S. side. I also read a lot of poetry including the works of Francisco Alarcon, Lorna Dee Cervantes, Alma Luz Villanueva, Elena Diaz Bjorkquist and Martin Espada.
Leer es poder, they say, and it’s true. There is power in words, and the need for Latino voices — read, wrtitten and spoken — has never been clearer.