Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Interview with INK Author Sabrina Vourvoulias & Book Giveaway

INK by Sabrina Vourvoulias
Today I'd like to share an interview with Sabrina Vourvoulias, the author of INK. I had the opportunity to read an advance readers copy of her debut early this fall and to chat with her at #Latism12, a couple weeks ago.

About INK:

Imagine living in a society where the government requires that immigrants from certain countries be branded with color-coded tattoos to denote their immigrant "status," or desirability. A place where speaking any language other than English would be punishable by law and where a minor traffic violation could lead to imprisonment at an inkatorium.

I don't want to give too much away, but these are just a few of the hair-raising situations that the four characters in this novel struggle with as they attempt to find justice and make sense of the world around them.

Eerily familiar, INK reminded me of the U.S. government's 1930s mass deportation of Mexicans, many of whom were citizens, the forced relocation of Native Americans, and the sterilization of Native American women.


Sabrina will be giving away a signed copy of INK on Friday, November 16th. The giveaway is only open to U.S. residents, and the winner will be chosen via random drawing. To enter, all you need to do is leave a comment. :-)

Sabrina Vourvoulias


INK depicts a grim American society and brings to mind some of our country's dark history. As you worked on this novel, did you worry how readers might react to it? What kind of response have you received?

Interesting question. Actually, no, mostly I didn’t think about the reader’s reaction as I was writing. I got caught up in the circumstances along with my characters, and so the escalation of events and restrictions felt organic and inevitable as I was writing. Also, because I was basing all of the different restrictions on what already exists and then taking them up a notch — or basing them on historical precedent — I think I simply assumed that any future reader would understand what I was doing. And in large part they have.

I did get a comment on Librarything or Goodreads — I forget which — that said the reader found the book so plausible she had to set it aside because it bothered her so much.

Look, I think there are disturbing and difficult passages in INK, but I think that is as it should be given the kind of dystopia I set up. Still, it is a book full of hope, and love, and one that acknowledges the power and strength of community.

INK deals a lot with Central-South American folklore. What influenced you to incorporate the supernatural into your novel? What were some of the resources you'd recommend to someone interested in learning more? Is there any region's folklore that is more interesting to you, than another? Are you believer?

I grew up in Guatemala, a country with an incredibly rich tradition of pre- and post-colonial myth and folklore. I’ve always loved legends and the tales that live not only on the page but off it as well, in the telling from person to person. I fit myself into a very long Guatemalan and Mexican literary tradition when I incorporate the unseen in my fiction, and it feels as integral to me as breathing.

In terms of Guatemalan myth and legend, you can’t go wrong reading pre-colonial books like the Popol Vuh and El Varón de Rabinal. Miguel Ángel Asturias, Guatemala’s Nobel laureate for literature, wrote a collection of short stories titled Leyendas de Guatemala, and most of his novels are infused with the country’s myth and lore. A lot of the best stuff isn’t written down, of course, so if you have a chance to listen to storytellers live that can be the best resource of all.

I love mythology, fairytales, tall tales, legends, folklore and folk art from a wide variety of cultures. I’m very familiar with Greek myth because it was one of the only ways I connected with my father’s ancestral heritage, but what I really love is more anecdotal folk tale than structured myth. Los Cadejos, el Cucuy, la Siguanaba, la Llorona, el Tzipitio, los nahuales — they’re the stuff that keeps finding its way into my work.

Sabrina Vourvoulias signs books
at #Latism 12
I do believe in the unseen. I believe in science and art and spirit, and the ways they intersect in us. So, I light velas and create ofrendas so that ancestors and saints will intercede for me at the same time as I delight in reading about morphic fields, the dance of invisible particles and sound that, no matter how inaudible, never stops resonating. I love paradoxes, particularly the ones in our natures. ;)

Do you remember how the idea for INK came about?

I’ve been listening to the personal stories of undocumented immigrants for the past twelve years as part of my work in newspapers, and in writing for my blog, Follow the Lede. I've noted how much the discourse about documentation has deteriorated through those years, and how much of it has turned, at its core, anti-immigrant and anti-Latino.

For a long time I was content to write advocacy on my blog, and journalism in the newspapers where I was editor. Then, I ran across a small newspaper article tucked into the back pages of "El Diario/La Prensa of NY," about an undocumented immigrant who worked with a landscaping company in Westchester County, who had been “given a ride” by a couple of guys on the way home from work one day. Except they took him over the border into Connecticut and dumped him there without money, cell phone or any identification, but with the warning to stay out of their state. And, according to the article, he wasn’t the first undocumented immigrant to experience this sort of “border dumping.”

The story so horrified and fascinated me it turned into the impetus for me to write fiction -- and to push what I knew undocumented immigrants were already experiencing, the two or three steps necessary into all-out dystopia.

How long did it take you to write INK?

I can’t give you a real total. I’ve actively been writing INK for about five years, but some sections, characters and settings are much, much older. Ten, maybe even fifteen years older. It’s a bit like raising a kid, actually. Sometimes the changes you make are radical game-changers, sometimes they’re more subtle, but if you’re diligent one day you stand back and think, “Hello. You’re all grown up.”

How many books did you write before this one?

I had started other novels but never finished them. INK is my first book.

What was your publishing journey like?

My first short story sale ("Flying with the Dead") was to Crossed Genres magazine and the publishers, Kay (Holt) and Bart (Leib) were just lovely to work with. I grew to be friendly with Kay through social media, told her about a critique I had gotten on what was then the first chapter of my novel — which was in various stages of draft and revision, and unfinished. She very generously offered to read it. Then she asked me for more chapters. When she was done, she made me promise to finish the novel because she wanted to know how it ended. I want to think I would have finished the novel anyway, but who knows? I do know if not for Kay's enthusiasm it might have been an even longer process. So, I sent her the final chunk of INK when it was done, and she passed it on to Bart, and at some point they told me they wanted to publish it.

The rest has been wholly wonderful. Whatever advantage there is in working with a big, mainstream press with money, a wide distribution network and a big marketing budget is more than made up for by Crossed Genres’ collaborative bent, and Kay’s and Bart’s absolute belief in the work of their writers.

You are a journalist by profession, what are some of the issues or topics that you mainly write about?

I write about Latinos in America — the challenges and triumphs, the heartbreak and hardship and the resilience of our communities. I like to focus on individuals, but I’ve written a lot about the need for humane immigration reform, about SB 1070 and its copycat legislation proposed for Pennsylvania, about the use of the term “illegal” and how that has affected the way people view all Latinos regardless of documentation status. I’ve written about how voter ID and redistricting is being used to disenfranchise Latino voters; about the high attempted suicide rate in young Latinas between the ages of 12 and 17, and about Mexican-American history and literature being taken off the shelves of schools in Tucson.

We have complicated challenges ahead of us. I don’t believe we should blind ourselves to them. But I also think we should celebrate who we are and why we are — proudly, loudly — as frequently as we can. ;)

What do you read for pleasure?

Fiction, short-stories and novels. Non-fiction, journalism, poetry. In Spanish and English. I’m in love with reading.

Did you read in your genre while writing INK?

Yes. Not exclusively, but speculative fiction is my favorite reading. ;)

Do you consider yourself a genre writer?

Yes. But I’m not a genre purist. The norm of anything bores me. I like the crossroads, the intersections, the places where people eye the wall of limitations before them and fly right over them.

Who are some of the authors that have influenced your work?

In the speculative fiction genre, I’d say Octavia Butler, Emma Bull, Charles de Lint and Ursula Le Guin are the writers I most admire. Outside of genre, I love Francisco Goldman, Sandra Cisneros, Denise Chavez, Ana Castillo, Julia Alvarez, Cristina Garcia, Amy Tan and Barbara Kingsolver.

I've heard on more than one occasion that it's more difficult for Latino/a authors to get published? Do you believe that to be true?

I think our voices are distinct from what the publishing mainstream is used to, and so perhaps we don’t fit perfectly in the mold, or seem difficult to market. Add to that the fact that literary and genre magazines publish a shamefully small number of writers of color, and you’ve got a bunch of talent with a narrower “platform” than what traditional book publishers look for in a first time novelist.

It’s also been brought to my attention recently that there are only five Latina literary agents in the U.S., so that’s got to be a factor in how many Latino/a authors get a publishing contract. Small presses have a much better record of publishing works by writers of color but, by their nature they aren’t able to attract as much attention for the writers or works on their list.

And last, but not least, what advice would you give to a writer battling self-censorship?

We all battle it. The real trick is to sink yourself deep into the story or into the character’s head. So deep, in fact, that you can’t think about where you want or don’t want it to go but just let yourself be dragged along. It’s probably one of the reasons I don’t outline. It’s way too easy to start listening to that horrible little naysaying censor’s voice if there’s an outline staring me in the face.

But even without an outline sometimes the self-censor gets through. So, I put music on loud and start writing. If the censor becomes insistent, I get up and dance. Then, back to writing. Dance. Write. Dance. Write. The censor will get tired long before you do. Trust me on this.


"Sabrina Vourvoulias is a Latina newspaper editor, blogger and writer.
An American citizen from birth, she grew up in Guatemala and first moved to the United States when she was 15. She studied writing and filmmaking at Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, N.Y.
In addition to numerous articles and editorial columns in several newspapers in Pennsylvania and New York state, her work has been published in Dappled ThingsGraham House Review, La Bloga’s Floricanto, Poets Responding to SB 1070, Scheherezade’s Bequest at Cabinet des Fees, We’MoonCrossed Genres Magazine #24, the anthologies Fat Girl in a Strange Land and Crossed Genres Year Two, and is slated to appear in upcoming issues of Bull Spec and GUD magazines.
Her blog Following the Lede was nominated for a 2011 Latinos in Social Media (LATISM) award. She lives in Pennsylvania with her husband and daughter. Follow her antics on Twitter @followthelede."