September 7, 2013
Review of Ink by Sabrina Vourvoulias
Speculative fiction too real not to be frightening . . . and enlightening.
In college, I majored in English and minored in Women’s Studies. I’ve done my time writing book reviews and analyses for academia. I rarely do that anymore. Now, when I review someone’s work, whether formally or informally, I do so because something about that work delights me as a reader. My reviews are for readers. They’re my way of letting people know that a book was worth my time and probably will be worth theirs, too. That policy has kept me feeling positive about reading and writing despite my submersion in it as a novelist, a college instructor, a publisher, and a reader. In the case of Sabrina Vourvoulias’ Ink (2012, Crossed Genres Publications), I do believe lovers of well-crafted literature will find it both delightful and worth their time.
I’ve read Ink three times. And yes, it’s that good. But that isn’t the only reason I read it three times. After reading the book the first time, I knew I wanted to review it and encourage others to read it, too. The book touched me so deeply, however, that I felt I needed to give it my full and thorough attention. I lost count, but I believe I drafted this review no fewer than six times. Why? Because it is important to me to do right by this book, this story, this cultural perspective, which so often has been swept into shadow.
A specific cultural perspective doesn’t simply inform Ink; it embodies it fully—in setting, characterizations, plot, points of view, themes, and style. As with Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath, and Octavia Butler’s Kindred, Vourvoulias’ Ink also offers transformative potential. For the social, spiritual, and personal value of engaging a cultural perspective that can simultaneously call for and make possible meaningful and positive social change in the world, every American adult should read this book right now.
I’m not the first to review Ink. Among existing reviews, though, one by Athena Andreadis stands out for me. She gives a mindful review in her blog, Astrogator’s Logs (also appears on the now archived but inactive World SF Blog). Andreadis likens Ink to a nahual:
“a twinned being, a shapeshifter – something common in non-Anglo literature that has left its genre boundaries porous instead of having them patrolled by purity squads. Ink combines mythic, epic, dystopian, urban and paranormal fantasy – it’s a direct descendant of the better-known Hispanophone magic realists.”
Andreadis acknowledges the specific cultural perspective when she discusses the current and historical politics of immigration and genocide that Ink stares down. In an interview with Nora Comstock on Reading with Las Comadres, Ms. Vourvoulias’ identifies the real immigration and genocide experiences that spurred her to write this story, and I highly recommend readers listen to that interview. I also think Andreadis accurately describes the role of magical realism, and specifically the nahuales, in Ink. She concludes, “For Anglophones, Ink is an uncategorizable hybrid.”
Ink’s uncategorizable hybridity displays what poet, theorist, activist, and writer Gloria Anzaldúa identified as Mestiza consciousness, a state of awareness in which one lives always in the Borderlands, la frontera—the space between two or more cultures, in which the Mestiza is ever questioning and redefining. La frontera is the liminal space Ink occupies in every literary aspect.
While Ink is a work of speculative fiction, its setting is far from unbelievable. The story takes place in a near future U.S., one in which institutionalized racism exposes itself in regulation mandating biometric tattoos for a specific portion of the population: those who are not white U.S. citizens born in the U.S. to two white parents who are also native U.S. citizens. It’s clear that in this setting, racial purity, and by that I mean “ancestral whiteness coupled with native U.S. citizenship,” is an institutionalized ideal protected under the umbrella of nationhood, and any deviation from that ideal is not just suspect, but oppressed.
What makes the racially charged socio-political environment all too real for readers to be able to ignore its non-speculative, current relevance is that “ink” (the term used for the tattoos and those who bear them) has been instituted under the guise of immigration and economic reform. Sound familiar? Although the inked population consists primarily of Latinas/os in this story, other peoples of color also are inked. The degree to which non-whiteness motivates inking—rather than the public excuse of identifying and tracking immigrants—is perhaps nowhere more apparent than in the inking of those with mixed heritage, including those born in the U.S. The resulting social environment is at once hostile and indifferent toward peoples of color.
One of the most inventive aspects of Ink’s setting is the way in which Vourvoulias connects the environment to her characters. At first, that connection is seen in a rural setting, but it later appears in an urban setting, and finally,through a surprise twist I won’t ruin with a spoiler, in a transitional environment. The link between the environment and characters plays out through skillful use of magical realism, much as it does in Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s “A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings.” In Ink, environment/character links appear through manifestations of las fronteras, the “in-between” space in which refugees can survive without being seen by authorities. It also manifests in scenes in which the nahuales appear and act independent of their human twins and in ways that have an impact on the physical world and those in it. In some instances, this liminal space is physical; in some, it is virtual; in others, it is supernatural and/or spiritual; and in all cases, it infuses the story as a complex metaphor. The connection between la fronteras and characters has its own arc as a living entity, a consciousness that flows through the story. A Mestiza consciousness. As such, this aspect of the setting underscores its role in the novel, not just as the “world” in which the story takes place, but as a character itself, as la fronteras.
The characters in Ink are a vivid tapestry as multi-colored as the patchwork of skin tones on the novel’s cover. Diversity is pronounced among major and minor characters, none of whom are oversimplified. Not a single character in Ink escapes the effects of the book’s dystopian setting.
The main character, Mari, is the daughter of a Guatemalan mother and an American father, which gives her the benefit of the least restrictive tattoo because she is considered a “citizen.” In accordance with her ink designation, she can speak Spanish in public, travel freely, live where she wants and with whomever she chooses, and exist as a citizen with all the rights and privileges of U.S. citizenship. At least in theory, that is. In reality, she is subjected to increasingly severe fallout from the oppressive social environment and those who populate it, including border-control vigilantes and official government organizations alike. These obstacles to true freedom are not unlike those she escaped when her father brought her to the U.S. as an infant after she survives a Guatemalan massacre that claims the life of her brother.
Mari’s lover, a white journalist named Finn, is caught in the fallout. As a white male, he can and does have the privilege of choosing, for a time at least, not to stand up to the oppression; unlike inks, he has the privilege of withdrawal from conflict. Yet, Vourvoulias doesn’t oversimplify Finn and make him a stereotype of white, male privilege, and she doesn’t leave him out of the fray. In so doing, she creates a character readers can identify with, have empathy for, and, to a degree, admire as an imperfect man in an even more imperfect society.
Vourvoulias treats another of her main characters similarly, and it is such a treatment that highlights similarities across races, despite cultural and socio-political differences. Toño, a Latino gang leader is, like Finn, imperfect and the product of his choices, as much as the product of the society in which he lives. Through Toño, readers also find themselves rooting for a character who wouldn’t be necessarily admired or respected in mainstream culture in the U.S.
Reader identification with characters is Vourvoulias’s goal, it seems to me, and she accomplishes it with complex and mindful depictions of people one can readily imagine standing next to in a line at the market. The people in the story are the people readers see yet don’t always truly see in the real world, and that is both the point and the beauty of Vourvoulias’s intricate and colorful characterizations.
Points of View
This story could not be told from the perspective of just one character, and the use of multiple narrators also is part of what makes Ink so important as a contemporary novel and cautionary tale. On the surface, Ink has four narrators—Mari, Finn, Del, and Abbie—who fall along a spectrum of privilege, from Latina to white male to mixed heritage male to mixed heritage female. All but Mari are either white or can pass for white. Their narratives are distinct and revealing of human nature.
Yet, the nahuales are themselves narrators at times, speaking through their human “twins” as interjectors in human narratives. From the outside, those voices are seen in a number of ways, depending on who is watching and listening, which is consistent with the way Vourvoulias handles other elements of her novel, such as characterization, plot, theme, and style. Ultimately, nahuales are a link with the past, culturally situated protectors in an environment in which both they and their human twins are at risk of extinction. Does that make the nahuales’ narratives the voices of magical realism? The answer depends on the reader’s perspective. Is it magical for part of oneself to emerge and engage the world? The nahuales’ existence is natural in Ink and in the culture to which they belong in the real world, and so are their narrative perspectives in the novel. Though part of their human twins, they can and do assert independence, sharing their unique perspectives through interruptions in a human character’s narrative. In so doing, the narratives of a human and a nahual merge into a shared narrative.
The sharing of narrative space in Ink is a brilliant, subtle technique that allows readers to grasp, among other things, the notion of shared responsibility for the social climate in the story and, by extension, the social climate present in the non-fictional world, particularly the contemporary U.S.
The degree of hostility and indifference in the setting’s social climate is amplified in a plot that is frighteningly non-speculative. Atrocities build throughout the story—real atrocities like border-dumping, institutionalization, and forced sterilization and deportation. Genocide and massacres that have taken place in the world outside the novel float in and out of the story, ever threatening until they settle into the tale in a way that readers can’t ignore. After all, genocide doesn’t happen instantaneously. It creeps up, happens, and then leaves its scars behind for the world to see if and when someone points them out. And that is exactly what Ink’s plot does. It shows readers how and why genocide happens; and it shows readers what’s left behind when the dust of genocide settles.
Many of the themes in Ink reflect the process of alienation that leads to dispossession and, ultimately, extermination of entire cultures.
As in Nella Larsen’s Passing, Ink doesn’t shy away from the theme of skin color and the privilege of whiteness in a society that values whiteness above all else, nor does it ignore the consequences for those who aren’t white. From assimilation to rejection and rebellion, Vourvoulias presents a multitude of responses that display what Chela Sandoval calls “differential consciousness,” or the ability to shift from one strategic method of political opposition to another.
Like skin color, language is a key theme in the process of alienation—in particular, the control of language. In Ink, speaking Spanish is a crime for which one risks permanent incarceration. What makes it especially unnerving as a theme relevant to contemporary U.S. culture is that speaking Spanish also is a means of being identified as unwanted other and, subsequently, targeted for atrocious acts that deny basic human rights, maim, scar, and kill.
Like skin color and language, other key themes in Ink—such as naming, spiritual connections with the past, home and family, and many more—are explored with fluid complexity. There are no black and white issues, no lines in the sand to define what is or isn’t, no oversimplification of anyone or anything important to the story of the characters’ lives. Even the past outside of the story, a theme in and of itself, falls into a grey area that Vourvoulias is careful to never clearly define, and appropriately so because it is a collective of pasts embedded in cultures that are themselves fluid.
I haven’t done justice to Ink in this review, nor to Vourvoulias’ courage in handing readers deep truths that are at once personal and social, truths I can only imagine left her feeling raw and tender. As a reader, I felt raw and tender for her and for the plight of her characters.
I don’t presume to speak for Ms. Vourvoulias. Follow her on Twitter for a day (@followthelede), listen to her interview with Nora Comstock on Reading with Las Comadres, and read her blog (Following the lede). You’ll discover she speaks for herself just fine. What she also does is speak out WITH others and, at every opportunity, facilitates the voices of many—in her activism, in her journalism, in her editing, in her poetry, in her short stories, and in her novel.
I can imagine Gloria Anzaldúa might have said of Vourvoulias, “Her voice is one of many, and she has many voices.” With Ink, Vourvoulias crafts a story that expertly lets those many voices speak out to: 1) caution readers about where the current state of disenfranchisement is leading, 2) enlighten readers about the cultures of those who are marginalized, and 3) call for readers to take responsibility for the path the world will follow moving forward. In so doing, Vourvoulias hands us a beautifully crafted novel of social importance as significant as that of Butler’s Kindred, Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, or Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath.
IMHO: HIGHLY RECOMMENDED. Appropriate for older teens+. Could be used in high school and college courses (English, Cultural Studies, Sociology).