Interview: Sabrina Vourvoulias

Sabrina Vourvoulias has made a name for herself with smart, searing commentary on race, immigration, and issues facing the Latinx community in the Philadelphia region. As former executive editor of AL DÍA News, the publication became a “must–read for many of the city’s decision makers.” She continues to turn an unflinching eye toward these issues on her website www.sabrinavourvoulias.com and as a writer for Philadelphia Magazine. An exciting voice in speculative fiction, her work has been published in such publications as Tor.com, Strange Horizons and Crossed Genres. This year she will be included in Year’s Best YA Speculative Fiction by Twelfth Planet Press. In 2012 her novel Ink was named to Latinidad’s Best Books of 2012. Sabrina Vourvoulias’ writing is a combination of gripping prose, evocative language, and beautiful honesty. Her work isn’t always comfortable and it doesn’t always fit into a neat box, but it will echo in your soul long after the last word is read.

Uncanny Magazine:El Cantar of Rising Sun” is a beautiful, brutal examination of love, violence, and hope. The structure of this piece weaves its own sort of magic around the reader, much like Alonso’s tattoos weave a spell around his family. What was it about this tale that made you select this storytelling structure?

Sabrina Vourvoulias: I think it really started with the simple idea that each of us lives a (mostly) unchronicled and unsung epic narrative, and that led me to consider the question of what it might be like if a Golden Age heroic poem or romance were written about a wholly 21st century life. Also, I have to say that I’m pretty nerdy and sometimes sit around recasting personal stories and reimagining surroundings as if they were part of a Gothic horror story or hard–boiled noir, just for the entertainment in doing so. The episodic nature of Alonso’s and Amor’s story—the struggle to leave the Badlands, the new life on Rising Sun in Olney, the culminating tragedy in their lives—really pushed me to try something like an epic. At the same time, I was completely uninterested in writing a replica of, or homage to, any ancient literary epic. I thought the story needed to code–switch between styles, cadences, languages, and ways of telling, to reflect the characters’, Rising Sun’s, and my own manifold reality.

Uncanny Magazine: Location is almost as important a character as people in “El Cantar of Rising Sun.” This is a story that could be set in any large city yet you’ve infused the story with a very authentic feel of the city of Philadelphia. How important is a sense of place to your work?

Sabrina Vourvoulias: In this piece, of course, the specificity of location is an echo of Alonso’s tattooed map. But in all my fiction location is important because community is important, and very often the two are inextricably tied.

In Philadelphia, old–timers still identify themselves as being from a certain parish (even when they aren’t Catholic and even when the church has been closed), because the church and its attendant school were once vital community hubs that gave birth to beloved neighborhood traditions and events. Younger Philadelphians identify as being from the Gayborhood, or Norris Square, or South Philly—and what they are saying is they’re part of a community more even than a neighborhood.

As it happens, I know that Philadelphia folks will read this story differently than non–Philadelphia folks because I play a bit. For example, non–Philadelphia readers may read “The Badlands” and think of the recent TV show which combined Wild West and wuxia. Or maybe they’ll think of the Badlands National Park in South Dakota. Or they’ll imagine it was given that name to signal how hard it will be for our heroes to escape it. But a Philadelphian will know that “The Badlands” is the pejorative nickname for Latino North Philly, coined by a cop in the Narcotics Task Force because of the poverty, the proliferation of open–air drug markets, and drug–related violence in the area. Related to that, Loco the King who is Alonso’s and Amor’s father… if you’ve ever been to “The Badlands,” you might remember there is a wall with a tremendous graffiti memorial to a Latin King gang member named Loco who died in 1997. I don’t know anything about him (research has yielded zero information) but his wall inspired me to imagine the life and complications of his namesake in my story.

And the open–air musical venue Alonso and Louis go to? Philadelphians will know without Googling that it’s the Mann Music Center and that orchestra pit tickets there routinely cost more than $200. None of this is essential or even necessary to the story, but it is a nod, a wink, an Easter egg, that only Philly folks will get.

Uncanny Magazine: You play with stereotypes, turning them on their head while at the same time acknowledging the institutional and casual racism that dictates how these character’s stories will be recounted in the press and viewed from outside the community. Entwined with the mystical element of this piece is a sense of immediacy. What was the catalyst for this work?

Sabrina Vourvoulias: The immediate catalyst for this piece was a news story I covered when I was the managing editor of a Spanish–language newspaper and bilingual website in Philly.

*** spoiler alert ***

It involved the fatal shooting of a young Latino man in the parking lot of a memorial concert. The mainstream media had simply reported the young man’s shooting and quickly thereafter dropped the story. I interviewed his sister, his girlfriend, and the friend who was with him when he was killed—and got not only the story of that night, but also a good sense of the flawed but caring person behind the single photo the rest of the media used to represent him. But really, nobody outside of the Latinx community wanted to hear his story. I bumped up against a police department that never released the video they had of the assailant, a homicide investigator who presumed to tell me to translate and convey any information he gave me to the family so he wouldn’t have to talk to them, and a public which paid more attention to the story in Ecuador (where the victim’s parents were originally from) than in Philadelphia. It was really harsh. And infuriating. And sad. But fiction is kinder than journalism in that it allows some sense of closure, if not resolution. So I used the specifics of the case as a frame on which to hang a story about young people of color, and their epic struggle to stay alive and loving in a society that doesn’t love them back.

Uncanny Magazine: Epic poems have a deep and rich literary history. While the stories told in “El Cantar of Rising Sun” are ground out of today’s headlines, there are echoes of older tales and tragedies as well. Is it a comfort or frustration to realize that human nature has changes so very little over the centuries?

Sabrina Vourvoulias: Hmmm. Neither? Both? I believe in the human capacity for great good, love and extraordinary creativity. And I believe that we’re all fundamentally decent… but even so I can’t envision a future in which our human nature would be so polished and perfected that there wouldn’t be conflict and tragedy to fuel stories.

Uncanny Magazine: Last year you stepped down as the managing editor of AL DÍA News. During your time at that publication it became an important voice in discussing issues of race in Philadelphia. You continue to examine these topics as both a writer for Philadelphia Magazine and on your personal blog. How do you make the transition from advocacy in journalism to writing speculative fiction? Has your nonfiction work had an impact on your fiction?

Sabrina Vourvoulias: I’m lucky enough to have the platform to amplify the voices of people of color with my columns, but it is clear to me that there are simply not enough POC voices represented in mainstream media, particularly as op–ed contributors. I also think there aren’t enough protagonists of color in the fiction that gets published, and not enough writers of color being published.

It’s all one thing, frankly, and I’m not having any of it.

People have accused me of being all about identity politics. I say I’m all about equitable representation. Hell, I’d settle for adequate representation. And, yes, I advocate for that in both journalism and speculative fiction. I don’t think writing journalism and writing fiction are inimical, by the way. Both require the writer to be an honest observer, to research, to genuinely engage with people, to be attentive to the intent behind words, and ultimately, to tell a story. If fiction offers more freedom from fact than journalism, it still lives or dies by the truth of the telling.

Uncanny Magazine: This is an election year where the rhetoric surrounding issues of immigration, gun control, and violence are escalating to ever more hysterical levels. The science fiction and fantasy community has also come under attack from conservatives who decry “message fiction.” As a creator, do you think there is a sense of responsibility to use art to examine these issues?

Sabrina Vourvoulias: I do. Look, I grew up under a series of authoritarian military regimes in Guatemala that controlled the press, hid atrocities and genocide, and killed or tortured with impunity. Artists there, like other people with some sort of platform or amplification—journalists, unionists, community organizers, professors, priests—risked life and limb to tell the truth of what was happening to people around them. Brilliant art came from it. Art that held a mirror up to despotic governments and murderous civilian paramilitaries and said, “We see you.” Art that reaffirmed we could imagine better worlds, and then showed them to us. Art filled with voices like we’d never heard before. I think that is art’s job.

All fiction is political. All nonfiction too. Our worldview and experiences precede us to the page (even the choice to write a story is a political one), and what flows onto it is all filtered through us. What we witness, what we believe, what we think about, our ancestral teachings, our cultural references, the languages we speak, and who we speak them with.

Is there a message in that? Sure. We exist, we see and imagine, we write. We ask for neither forgiveness nor permission.

Uncanny Magazine: Thank you very much for sharing your perspectives with us!

Deborah Stanish

Deborah Stanish is the co–editor of the Hugo Award–nominated Chicks Unravel Time: Women Journey Through Every Season of Doctor Who and Whedonistas: A Celebration of the Worlds of Joss Whedon by the Women Who Love Them. She’s had essays published in Chicks Dig Time Lords; Time, Unincorporated Volumes II and III; Outside In: 160 New Perspectives on 160 Classic Doctor Who Stories by 160 Writers; Famous Monsters of Filmland; Apex Magazine, and The Liverpool University Journal of Science Fiction, Film, and Television. Deborah is also the moderator of the Hugo Award–nominated podcast Verity! where six women from around the globe debate and discuss Doctor Who.

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