An Interview with Sabrina Vourvoulias

Sabrina Vourvoulias was kind enough to drop by today to talk about the re-release of her debut novel, Ink, which is out now with a shiny new cover and introduction from Rosarium Publishing. To start things off, I’ll make introductions by shamelessly stealing from Sabrina’s author bio…

Sabrina Vourvoulias is the author of Ink, a novel that draws on her memories of Guatemala’s armed internal conflict, and of the Latinx experience in the United States. Her short stories have appeared at Uncanny Magazine, Tor.com, Strange Horizons, GUD Magazine, Crossed Genres, and in a number of anthologies, including Kaiju Rising II (Outland Publications), Sharp and Sugar Tooth (Upper Rubber Boot) and Sunspot Jungle (Rosarium Publishing), all upcoming in 2018-2019. She is freelance bilingual journalist and editor; her pieces have appeared at Public Radio International, Philly.com, Philadelphia Magazine, City and State Pennsylvania, NBC Philadelphia, Telemundo 62, and The Guardian US, among others. Follow her at www.sabrinavourvoulias.com, on Twitter @followthelede and on Facebook @officialsabrinavourvoulias.

Ink CoverWelcome, and congratulations on the re-release of Ink! For those who may have missed the novel the first time around, could you give a little taste of what it’s about?

All across the United States, people scramble to survive new, draconian policies that mark and track immigrants and their children (citizens or not) as their freedoms rapidly erode around them. For the “inked” — those whose immigration status has been permanently tattooed on their wrists — the famous words on the Statue of Liberty are starting to ring hollow. The tattoos have marked them for horrors they could not have imagined within US borders. As the nightmare unfolds before them, unforeseen alliances between the inked of — Mari, Meche and Toño — and non-immigrants — Finn, Del and Abbie — are formed, all in the desperate hope to confront it. Ink is the story of their ingenuity. Of their resilience. Of their magic. A story of how the power of love and community out-survives even the grimmest times.

With its themes of “passing”/”not passing”, and individuals’ status, safety, and access to resources being linked to where they were born, Ink feels especially timely right now. Did the, let’s say flustercluck, of the current political climate play into the decision to re-release the novel now? Overall, could you talk a bit about those themes, how the novel came about, and why this was a story you wanted to tell?

Definitely the world has started to catch up to my worst fears, and so made a rerelease of the novel something to think about and consider. I’m grateful to Rosarium Publishing for having the guts to take it on — not many publishers are interested in reprints to begin with, much less of a provocative novel about immigration dystopia.

The novel came about because I’ve been writing, as a journalist, about immigration issues in the U.S. for more than twenty years, and advocating, as an individual and a person of faith, for the protection of immigrant human rights for the past 15 years. Because I am bilingual and bicultural, I was hearing and reading the horror stories of what was happening to undocumented immigrants (via deliberate legislative criminalization, anti-immigrant policing and enactment of increasingly punitive policies) well before the mainstream media and the public became aware of them.

Also, since I grew up in Guatemala during its brutal 36-year undeclared civil war, I saw really distressing parallels. There was a cautionary tale in the way that, as the Guatemalan government grew increasingly oppressive, the circle of those it targeted became inconceivably large and its methods became unrepentantly inhumane. I also looked to U.S. history to see that moment when our own government decided to turn citizens into non-citizens on the basis of ethnicity and perceived “foreignness,” during the shameful internment of Japanese residents and Japanese-Americans during World War II.

So in my novel, I took existing U.S. immigration policies and/or sentiments, and pushed them to what I believed were extremes to create a dystopia. But what was inconceivable as actual immigration policy in 2012 is, to my horror, not so inconceivable in 2018, and so some of the aspects of the book are now more current event than near-future imagining. GPS trackers implanted in immigrants? Former NJ Governor Chris Christie proposed exactly that during his GOP primary run in 2016. Efforts to strip naturalized citizens of their citizenship, and depriving non-citizens of constitutionally guaranteed rights? Happening. The internment centers disguised as sanitariums in my novel find a parallel in the detention centers for children the government currently insists are just like summer camps. And if the forcible drugging of detained children and adults that has been reported recently isn’t yet the forcible medical procedure that is depicted in my novel, it isn’t far enough from it to ease my concerns.

In addition to Ink, you’re also a short story writer. Last time we spoke, you were thinking about assembling a collection. Is that still in the works? If so, are there any overarching themes you’re working with, or any particular feel you would want readers to take away from the collection as a whole?

I have three wonderful beta readers checking over the collection of short stories — tentatively titled The Unruly Dead — as we speak, and I hope at some point in the not-too-distant future to shop it around. These aren’t all linked stories, nor stories that all take place in one neighborhood (or even one country), but there are themes that reappear time and again in my work: the power of community, the responsibility we have for one another, the need to stand — in ways big and small — against injustice and oppression.

It sounds like a fabulous collection! Speaking of your short fiction, one of my favorite among your stories is “La Gorda and the City of Silver” (conveniently reprinted last year at Mithila Review). If you were going to have your own secret crime-fighting alter ego (luchadora or otherwise), what would that persona be like?

Heh! I wouldn’t be a luchadora — I’m neither flamboyant nor fit enough for the job — but I would want to be someone who could fight and heal at the same time. The video game, Overwatch, appeals to me because it has a number of playable characters that can do both: Zenyatta, Moira, Mercy, and my favorite, Ana — who is 60 years old, has scars and regrets, and is the mother of a fierce and amazing daughter (as I am). Listen, if I could put people who are actively doing damage to sleep for a while (just long enough so they’re no longer a factor), heal up people who have been grievously hurt, or just worn down to hopelessness, and then nanoboost the effects of work the good people I know and respect are doing in the world … I’d be unbelievably happy. It wouldn’t suck to look like Ana, either. ;)

Along with your fiction, you’re also a freelance journalist. How, if at all, does your journalistic writing influence your fiction, and even vice versa?

They are different ways of writing, but both are forms of truth-telling.

My fiction is frequently built on journalism’s bones: Skin in the Game was prompted by spending time at a long-time drug encampment in Philadelphia, in advance of an investigative piece I edited. El Cantar of Rising Sun was inspired by the shooting death of a young Latino attending a peace concert — a story I covered and wrote editorials about. Even my novel, Ink, had as its starting point a news story I read about an undocumented worker who was dumped across a state border by strangers.

At the same time, fiction lends my journalistic work its attention to craft, its ability to evoke, its love of direct quotes that illuminate character.

You’ve mentioned Philly – we both live in the area, and we’re just two among a fairly good concentration of speculative fiction writers here. Do you think there’s anything about the Philadelphia area that makes it particularly fantastical? What are some of your favorite spots in the city, places where you draw inspiration, or that you would recommend to first-time visitors?

Philadelphia is a city that loves its poets (slam champions and laureates alike) and where there is poetry, magic lives. Gritty bodega and Pho under-the-El magic. Indelible broken-tile-and-mirror-wall and little-bronze-zoo-creatures-embedded-in-concrete magic. The magic woven by Coltrane’s notes and Poe’s nightmares and Betsy’s teeny-tiny stitches on a flag.

I have a whole suite of “magical Philadelphia” stories, some which you can read online right now (Skin in the Game and El Cantar of Rising Sun) and others in upcoming publications.

Favorite food place: the Mexican stretch of 9th Street in South Philly (especially the tortilla maker and the fish monger), and the Reading Terminal Market.

Favorite churches: St. Thomas Aquinas and Annunciation in South Philly (the Dec. 12 celebration of the Feast Day of Our Lady of Guadalupe is memorable).

Favorite art venues: Taller Puertorriqueño on North 5th in el Barrio, Brandywine Workshop on South Broad, and the Fleisher Art Memorial on Catherine St.

Favorite coffeeshops: Buzz Café in Norris Square and Amalgam Comics on Frankford Ave.

Favorite place to protest: In front of the ICE building on Callowhill… ;)

To wrap things up, now that Ink is back out in the world, what’s next for you?

I’m doing a lot of playing these days. My first Kaiju story, “The Devil in the Details,” will out soon in the anthology Kaiju Rising II (Outland Publications). That was a fun piece to write — taking the Jersey Devil and tweaking it so it wreaks havoc in Center City Philadelphia, in Camden, in Downingtown…

Another Outland Publications anthology, Knaves, will be out in December with my story “The Life and Times of Johnny the Fox,” which I read at Readercon this year. Its protagonist is a character first introduced in my story “Skin in the Game,” and it is part trickster tale, part tall tale, part paean to the resilience of Puerto Ricans in Philadelphia and Puerto Rico after Hurricane María.

I dipped my toe in horror and steampunk-ish narrative in stories slated to come out in 2018 and 2019 (“A Fish Tale” in Sharp and Sugar Tooth by Upper Rubber Boot, and “St. Simon of 9th and Oblivion” in The Latinx Archive), and even tried my hand at a short piece for a new RPG…

All of that sounds amazing, and I can’t wait to read it. Thanks so much for stopping by!

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