Saturday, October 13, 2012

Vourvoulias, Ink (2012)

Sabrina Vourvoulias, Ink. Crossed Genres Publications, 2012. Pp. 234. ISBN 978-0615657813. $13.95 print/$5.99 e-book.

Reviewed by Djibril al-Ayad

Ink, the first novel by American and Latina journalist and writer Sabrina Vourvoulias, published by the successful and progressive small press Crossed Genres Publications, is an ambitious book. Telling the story of a wide group of protagonists in an only slightly futuristic, and only slightly exaggeratedly dystopian United States in which residents and citizens with recent immigration history are literally branded on their skin to mark their suspect status, it ranges over time, space and magic in a story by turns horrifying, heart-breaking, beautiful, hopeful, frustrating and terribly believable. Vourvoulias’s writing is effortless and effective, uncannily capturing the voices of her disparate protagonists and narrators; not uniformly sympathetic, certainly not always nice, but lucid, convincing and consistent. In some ways the ambition of this novel outreaches the execution, but I’d much prefer that to an insufficiently ambitious work, and Ink is wonderful, worthwhile and certainly worth reading.

Two technical aspects of this book were disconcerting on first opening the pages. The printing is not quite black, and slightly grainy, as if the text were saved in grey or blue before printing in grayscale; this is probably because I have an advance review copy, and hopefully this is fixed in the version for sale. More seriously, multi-paragraph quoted speech has quotation marks at the beginning and end of each paragraph, which would normally mean the speaker has changed; this is irritating to read and makes it very difficult to follow some extended conversations, giving the impression that a different person is speaker than is presumably meant. Again, one would expect an editor to fix this issue in the published version. Other than this idiosyncrasy, the writing is good, the text is well-proofread and laid out legibly and professionally. (And the cover is gorgeous.)

In the near future (or perhaps alternative present) USA of this novel, recent immigrants or children of immigrants, mostly Hispanics but also Asians, Caribbeans, and presumably other non-Europeans, are given compulsory tattoos on their wrists to identify and control their movements, in an echo of discriminatory laws being passed in some southern states today. This is of course only the beginning of a pattern of persecution and abuse of “Inks”, from the banning of speaking the Spanish language in public places, the setting up of sanatoriums to segregate “diseased” immigrants, the summary revocation of citizens’ rights, the turning of a blind eye to mob violence by racist police and public officials, censorship of the media. At first this litany of terrors feels overblown, unbelievable, but it becomes clear that every detail in this appalling dystopia is either precedented in our own history, or prefigured by minor injustices in the contemporary US. There is nothing in the political backdrop to this novel that could not be true; no character suffers such horrors or lifelong suffering that is not suffered by some minority, refugee, or subculture on this planet today.

The story, told in three broad arcs with chapters in each narrated by the four main protagonists, spans several years of this history, and at first races from one misfortune to the next a little too fast, I felt, for the reader’s sympathy and engagement with individual characters to keep up. The pace soon evens out, though, and once all the characters are introduced and it becomes clear how their stories overlap and intersect, the novel is stronger and never loses its coherence or engagement (although it becomes a little rushed again at the end). The different perspectives of each character are never used to tell the same story or episode from a different viewpoint, at least not directly; rather they recount interwoven stories that combine to tell different aspects of this brutal episode in world history. Interestingly—and on the surface surprisingly, given the author’s background and the subject matter—three of the four narrator/protagonists are white and Anglo, not Hispanic. Although all of the characters are intimately involved with Ink characters, share the suffering of and are fighting for the rights of Inks, and there is no shortage of direct accounts of prejudice and the experience of living as second class citizens, there is still a surprising focus on the dominant white experience in this novel.

Finn is an Irish-American journalist with an interest in Ink rights; at his first appearance he is a somewhat obnoxious, predatory womanizer with a penchant for out-drinking the local catholic priest and chasing stories and sources with more concern for the story than for the people involved. In later episodes Finn transforms into a more well-rounded and likable character, after his tragic love for an Ink woman draws him more deeply and emotionally into the story. Mari is a US citizen who came to the country from Central America with her American father when she was a baby. She works at the local population control office until a savage abduction and attack by white nationalists changes her life and she has to disappear under the radar and live her life protected by Anglo friends and her alter ego, a spirit wildcat inherited from her murdered mother’s people. Del is Finn’s brother-in-law, an artisan and painter with a soul-deep connection to his land, heartbroken when his pregnant wife emotionally blackmails him into moving back to the city. His story is perhaps the most infused with hopeless white-guilt and the need to help his Ink friends, although for the longest time he stands back from the action, focused on his art and his land. Abbie is a high-school girl with First Nations blood whose mother runs an “inkatorium”, a detention center for allegedly infectious sick Inks, and who is seemingly unable to stay out of trouble. Although kept back at school, she is a computer genius and hacker, and has a loyal, albeit impatient, helper in her rich, white boyfriend.

There is very little by way of overt politics in this novel. Obviously the central issue of the treatment of immigrants and the children of immigrants is a deeply political one, and the story is also suffused with feminist awareness, disability and other social issues (although only one visible queer relationship, very quiet and in the background). But there isn’t much of left/right politics here, almost no politicians or talk-show hosts or other activists appear to be either slavishly following or cynically playing upon the racist fears of the populace—at least not center stage. Nor do we hear very much from the mouths of the racist majority; this is very much the story of the underclass (albeit 75% told by sympathetic whites rather than the Inks themselves).

This novel is also infused with magic. Mari has her spirit wildcat, and many other Ink characters seem to have supernatural powers of some kind. Del has his earth magic, which becomes stronger as he is physically disempowered later in the story. Even Abbie’s computer hacking is a kind of magic, written as a way for her to find information and interfere with public records at will, rather than a particularly realistic technical skill. But this magic is realistic in a political sense: it does not allow the heroes to supernaturally save the world. In a world full of magical powers and spirits, wicked and hateful people have powers as well as the generous and loving ones, and magic is no more able to reverse the dreadful government policies than are computer hacking or newspaper reporting. Rather the magic represents hope, and it is hope and love and friendship, and resistance with an eye to the big picture and the long term, that give this story any chance of a happy ending.

Ink is not an easy novel to read, emotionally speaking; wonderful characters are introduced and then thrown off narrative cliffs as the world crumbles around them (or killed, or raped, or institutionalized, or crippled, or lose everything they love). All four of the viewpoint characters suffer intolerably, and at times I had to put the book down because I was in danger of crying if I read on. One cannot help but care deeply for these characters, even the non-Inks who relatively speaking have less to fear. But, although there are a few technical problems with the pacing, especially at the beginning, and again, toward the end when climactic events over several years unfold in a small number of pages, this is a very well-balanced novel, neither too gentle nor too unpleasant to be taken seriously, and I cannot recommend it highly enough.

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1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Wonderful review. You've certainly made me want to read 'Ink'.