Ink is a complex novel with many layers among other things, it deals with many issues relevant to us today. We interviewed the author, Sabrina Vourvoulias for more backstory.
Where were you when you received word that Ink was going to be published? And what was your first reaction?
I was at home, and I think I might have been speechless for a few minutes (which for me is a very long time). But I didn’t actually submit my manuscript for publication consideration ….
My great good fortune was that my first short story sale was to Kay Holt and Bart Leib at Crossed Genres. I got to know Kay via Twitter and she was always very enthusiastic about my stories. At the time I didn’t have a regular writing group, but I had joined the huge online writer’s workshop and so took the uncharacteristic step of posting what was then the first chapter of the novel I had been working on and which nobody had even alpha read. Hubris? Need? Temporary derangement? Within seconds of posting it I was regretting it.
Then Elizabeth Bear selected my chapter as one of her editorial critiques, and though she said some lovely things about it, all I could focus on were the negatives.
I told Kay (via tweet, our primary method of conversation those days) how disheartened I was, and she kindly asked to read it. Then she asked for the rest of the novel, which was only 3/4 done. Then she asked for the last 1/4 which, really, ended up being my prompt to write it. I’m not at all sure I would have finished it otherwise.
After I sent that along, she told me very casually that she had given it to Bart to read. That made me very nervous — I knew Kay liked my work from the get-go, but Bart? I wasn’t so sure — he was the acerbic dude with the great Twitter avatar who rarely interacted with me on Twitter — no way was he going to like what I had written. It wasn’t smart enough, not funny enough, not hip enough. Well, you know, all the stuff my brain could throw up to castigate me for my audacity in letting anyone read this novel that had taken me f-o-r-e-v-e-r to write.
At some point, after Bart had finished reading it, they told me they wanted to publish it. I’ve since been told that Bart was the one who pushed for INK’s publication, but I’ll always believe in my heart of hearts that it was at Kay’s insistence. But, who cares how it got there as long as it ended up there. Crossed Genres has been a happy home for my firstborn.
They say that every story starts with a seed, would you tell us what was the seed that brought about Ink?
I’ve been advocating for immigrant rights and engaged in pro-immigration actions for a long time now. I’ve watched the public conversation morph into its current virulent anti-immigrant, anti-Latino, incarnation. I had written a few short stories with undocumented and documented Latin@s as protagonists (my Crossed Genres story “Flying with the Dead,” for example), but when I started writing a novel it wasn’t about immigration at all. It was more of an urban fantasy with a monster as its main protagonist — closer in spirit to the collection of stories I’m writing now than to INK.
But then a catalyst.
I read a tiny article in the back pages of a Spanish-language U.S. newspaper, about an undocumented immigrant working for a landscaper in the New York suburbs. One day, walking home from work, he was offered a ride, which he accepted. The driver (and a friend) drove the immigrant over the Connecticut border and dumped him there without cell phone, money, or any sense of where he was, and warned him not to come back to their state. The article went on to say that this wasn’t the first “border dump” undocumented immigrants in the area had experienced. After reading the article, I kept waiting for the mainstream news to pick it up, or to report on similar incidents, or something. But there was just silence.
So I started working on a fictional border dump story.
But it wasn’t a novel and still not INK.
It turned into INK after two incidents in Philadelphia which shifted my thinking about anti-immigrant sentiment — from individual acts of prejudice and persecution to the institutionalization of it. I wrote about both incidents, at length, on my blog, Following the Lede, but in short: one was about an undocumented immigrant who was deported because he was waiting for a subway when an ICE agent whisked him away to run an immigration check on him — on the basis of his Latino look and Spanish accent alone. He disappeared into the detention system and his family didn’t know where he was for a week, until he was able to make a call after he had already been deported to Mexico.
The other incident was during a police crackdown on a supposed “prostitution ring” in South Philadelphia, which happens to be where many Mexican immigrants live. An acquaintance of mine, who is undocumented, had her door busted down in middle of the night and she and her young kids awoke to eight officials already inside the apartment. They questioned her about her husband and his brother who lived with them (both already on their way to work at a restaurant) and rifled through their things. They took both men’s passports with them when they left, and refused to tell her what it meant — would her husband be detained? Deported? Did she have to present herself somewhere? What about her kids? No answers. In the end it was impossible to not see this incident for what it was: a way of instilling fear in a vulnerable community.
Anyway, both these incidents were strongly reminiscent of the routine violations of civil rights and intimidation tactics that took place in Guatemala during the years of martial law and internal armed conflict when I lived there. It was really only two or three steps removed…. Thus a dystopia was born.
Mari, Meche and Abbie are very strong and memorable characters and they go through a lot. What were the most difficult scenes for you to write for these characters?
The hardest scene for me to write for Mari was when she was left alone in the woods just this side of the Canadian border. The border dump scene is replete with nasty moments, but through it all, Mari is still fighting in what way she can for Nely and the children and herself — so there’s the sense that there’s still this fire of resistance and hope burning brightly inside her. When she’s left in the woods, she’s safer than she was before but she’s failed the other members of her community of circumstance and she’s filled with a survivor’s mix of relief and guilt (her relative safety is predicated on a privilege) and an acute loneliness which effectively paralyzes her. The fire that burns inside comes mighty close to winking out then and that’s always a bleak thing to write.
The most difficult scenes to write with Meche were the ones at the inkatorium. The thing about Meche is that she is such a self-possessed character, and one with such agency that the process of eroding her sense of identity, and forcing her into a situation in which she couldn’t take action, couldn’t employ her intellect or her will to get herself free, was a painful one to write. You take something whole and subject it to what you know is the only thing that’ll break it … ugh.
Abbie — ¡ay, Dios mio! — I put her through such harsh things for a young character. The worst for me was how it ends with Toño. I was so deeply in her head at that point that I was just as devastated as she was. I tried to rewrite it, honestly, I did. But nothing else rang true. This does. My daughter says she’s never forgiving me, though.
You’re also a journalist, as a well as a blogger, an activist and a writer. Of the stories you’ve covered is there one that stands out for you and what is it about this particular story that makes it memorable?
Two come to mind. The story I referenced before — the one about the undocumented immigrant “disappeared” from one of the busiest public transit hubs in Philadelphia — was why I started blogging in the first place. I wanted desperately to write that story for the newspaper I was working for then, but by the time I found out about it six months had passed since the incident and I couldn’t dig up enough verification from official sources to run it. That’s why history is so filled with holes: because the real stories are lost by time, official sources always get their say and the credibility of witnesses — particularly those deemed part of an underclass — is either impugned or “not enough.”
The other story came early in my career, at my first newspaper. It involved an African-American migrant farmworker in the 1960s, who had gone missing after the Central New York part of the picking circuit that started and ended back in Florida. His mother and sister contacted the newspaper, 20+ years after his last letter home, hoping we could find out if he had died there, since he had literally disappeared. (Clearly disappearance is one of the recurring motifs in my work as a journalist and fiction writer.)
This was long before the internet became what it is today, and I painstakingly went through local newspaper records at the local university and mined the memories of longtime residents of the town.
It was fascinating. I realized that back in the ‘60s, in small towns like Hamilton, townspeople interacted a lot more with the migrant workers who came through to pick their crops. There were church socials held on the town green to which the migrant workers were invited, for example. And the migrants would play baseball a few times against the town team while they were there. In contrast, when I was writing the story in the ‘80s, the owners of the largest local commercial farm wouldn’t even admit they hired migrant workers — despite the undeniable influx of people of color to coincide with cabbage picking season.
But I also heard a lot of stories of unabashed racism since most of the migrant workers on that particular circuit in the 1960s were African American. In INK, when Chato tells Del that the bartenders in Smithville don’t refuse service to the inks but throw the glasses on the floor when they’re done so no one else has to drink from the same one, the story is straight from the recollections of one of the persons I interviewed for the article.
I never could say with certainty what had happened to the migrant worker I was researching, but I did uncover two unidentified migrant deaths in the area that worked with the time frame of his disappearance. One migrant drowned in a pond where the workers were allowed to swim and cool off after work; this death was recorded in a newspaper. The other unidentified migrant worker — according to the recollections of a resident — had decided to overwinter in the migrant quarters instead of returning home after the last picking season. He had frozen to death inside the ramshackle, unheated building.
It was heartbreaking to hear of a person used to winters in the far South being caught unawares by the long, harsh winter of Central New York, but the details are what really make my heart clench: there wasn’t much in left in that building since it wasn’t meant to be inhabited during those months, but the migrant had cobbled together a shelter within the shelter, using a table and whatever other meager furnishings were left there. There were houses and farms not even a half-mile away from migrant quarters, but he was an African American, and an “outsider” who was supposed to only be in the area a short while. Had he asked for shelter at any of nearby homes and been rebuffed? Had he been too scared or proud to ask? Or had some violent act of racism been passed off as tragedy?
The passing mention in the local newspaper only mentioned that the body was found in the spring, without so much as a blanket wrapped around it, as the shelter was being aired out for the upcoming picking season.
I won an award from New York Press Association for the series of articles I wrote about this, but it was also my greatest failure as a journalist. It is an unfinished story, and every human life deserves a real ending.
What’s the biggest challenge you’ve faced as a journalist?
Hmmm. External or internal? The recurring external challenge is that when people — particularly public figures — see their words staring back at them in print (or onscreen or in video) they often want to recontextualize, to explain them away and rephrase in retrospect. Since they can’t accuse of inaccuracy, they accuse of agenda and pushing a point of view. My internal challenge is not unrelated: I believe the ideal of “objective” reportage is a fallacy and the only code journalists can really adhere to is one of accuracy and fairness — which I have tried damned hard not to violate. But I do have a point of view. We all do. We come to a story packing baggage — our experiences, our identities, our moral codes — and though we try to present the facts in as uninflected a fashion as possible just our decision to pursue that particular story, at that particular time and in that particular way, already makes it subjective.
Latin@ journalists have an additional challenge, shared by other journalists of color. If we work at mainstream newspapers — most of the newspapers I’ve worked at — stories from our communities rank pretty low on the priority list. When we work in the ethnic media — as I do now — no matter how extraordinary the work we do, we’re always considered second-rank.
Worse, our stories get mined by mainstream media without an iota of hesitation or credit. Recently one of Al Día’s videotaped interviews — with PA Governor Tom Corbett saying he couldn’t find Latinos to hire for his staff — was pulled off our web site by Think Progress. They didn’t credit us at all (we were just nameless Latin@s at a Spanish-language newspaper) until we pushed them to. But by then all the major online news outlets — from Huff Po to Salon — were running articles with our video appended that perpetuated the omission. This would never have happened if we were a mainstream news media company. But a small Latino media company? Boy howdy. One of the mainstream media people I spoke to about getting the provenance of the video noted somewhere in the copy, had the temerity to tell me that we should be grateful that our video had gotten any attention at all from big media players. My response was that it had gotten the attention it got because, as a Latino media organization, we had asked the governor a question mainstream media never, ever thinks to ask.
I follow a lot of African American women bloggers and writers on Twitter who note this uncredited “borrowing” by mainstream sites, or white bloggers with big followings, happens to them all the time. It’s really shameless and needs to be called out every time it happens.
Who are your major influences? .
As a fiction writer I have been influenced by a slew of writers. I don’t accept the wall between genre and non-genre so you’re going to get them all mixed together: Gabriel García Márquez, Miguel Ángel Asturias, Jorge Luis Borges, Elena Poniatowska, Uwem Akpan, Margaret Atwood, Barbara Kingsolver, Amy Tan, Charles de Lint, Sandra Cisneros, Ursula le Guin, Ana Castillo, Julia Alvarez, Denise Chávez, Demetria Martínez, and innumerable poets from Yehuda Amichai to Joy Harjo.
Ooof, I could go on and on. My work is influenced by visual arts too, and movies, and music — but I think I’ll spare you that list.
Are there books you’ve read that you’d like to recommend?
Again, genre and non-genre: Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor. Salsa Nocturna by Daniel José Older. Caramelo by Sandra Cisneros. The Long Night of the White Chickens by Francisco Goldman. Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri. And I don’t think he has a book yet, but I’ll also read any and all short stories by Ken Liu — who I think may be the voice of this generation of U.S. SFF writers.
And where on the internet can we find you?
INK’s web site is www.inknovel.com, though it doesn’t get updated terribly frequently—but you can read a number of the reviews it’s gotten. My blog is www.followingthelede.blogspot.com My newspaper editorials and columns are at www.pontealdia.com. I’m on Goodreads, I have pages on Facebook and Google+, and you can follow me on Twitter @followthelede.