by Sabrina Vourvoulias
Reviewed by Galen Strickland
Following the original publication from Apex Books in 2012, the author said she was met with a lot of skepticism, that some considered her scenario too far-fetched. Here at the end of 2018, after finishing the new edition of Ink from Rosarium Publishing, I'd say it's like reading tomorrow's headlines. At the same time, it can also be viewed from the historical perspective of different countries in different eras; Germany in the 1930s, various periods of US history, or any number of other countries during civil wars and political unrest, including the author's ancestral home of Turkey. The title refers to the tattoos imposed on immigrants, as well as being a nickname for the people themselves. There are variations of tattoo colors, signifying different levels of immigration status, from newly arrived undocumented workers (black), to those granted permanent residency (green), to citizens of mixed heritage (blue), whether or not they were born in the US. There are some undocumented who wear unauthorized or fake tattoos in order to find work.
The story is told in alternating first-person accounts by four people: Finn, an American journalist in the fictional big city of Hastings; Mari, a blue-tatted citizen, born in Guatemala, brought to the US as a child by her American father; Del, a sometimes carpet-layer, sometimes artist, married to Finn's sister; Abbie, a teenage computer whiz in the small town of Smithville. There are other prominent characters, at least one of which I wish had been another narrator. Meche is an affluent, green-tatted, Cuban-born immigrant. She lives in a restored, four-story brownstone in Hastings, which doubles as the Peņa Caridad, a bar and music venue, popular gathering place for a wide range of inks. She is a go-between for many groups, including gangs and cartels. She is also a chemist who has created "instaskin," designed to cover tattoos from the scanners which can penetrate even the thickest layers of makeup. Others include Finn's editor and fellow journalists; his sister Cassie and their mother Francine, a scholar of Central American mythology; Father Tom, whose parish is primarily populated by inks, and who introduces Finn to Mari; several friends of Mari's; Abbie's friends (and rivals), and her mother, a doctor who works at the newly opened "inkatorium" in Smithville. Mari had been the last ink working for HPCO, the Hastings Population Control Office, but she is forced out of that position in the changing climate. Since Hastings and Smithville are fictional, it isn't specified which state they're in, but other descriptions made me think it's New York.
It's all too easy to visualize the extreme measures depicted here. Our current immigration crisis has brought internment camps, not just at the southern border, but several other inland states, along with illness and deaths in said camps. We've already been marking asylum seekers with numbers on their wrists, how long until those become tattoos? Deportations and rumors of even more mass deportations, the latest proposals targeting law-abiding, decades-long residents, even the denaturalization of citizens. Prominent TV pundits spread rumors of immigrants bringing diseases into the country, of how they are making our country poorer and dirtier. Once you label a population undesirable, vilify them in the media and on Twitter, bar them admittance, segregate them into camps if they do make it across the border, and separate parents from their children, the more extreme events depicted in this book are completely believable. I won't go into details about the inkatoriums and other measures, but beware of violent and emotional content. We get an overview of the policies and how those affect groups of immigrants, but this is also a very personal story, full of fear and dread, but also love, hope, and cooperation. The narrative goes back and forth between the principal characters, covering at least ten years. Amidst all the chaos, life still goes on. People fall in love, get married, have children. There is a backlash against the extreme measures toward the end, but it's still unclear whether some of those children might have to face a future as inks.
In some ways it is too realistic, but speculative in more than just possible future events. It is also drenched in magical realism. Several of the characters, and not just the immigrants, have extraordinary powers. Both Mari and Meche embody spirits, animal-twin nahuals, which protect them while inside their body, but those spirits can also separate from them and act on their own. Sometimes they can be seen by others. Del and Abbie have Native American heritage. He has a spiritual connection with the earth, which he initially thinks is confined to his 200 acre plot near Smithville. He can manipulate rock and dirt, reshape it, bend it to his will. He can even warp space to hide certain areas from prying eyes. On two different occasions he lives in Hastings, and learns he can do the same in an urban environment, which comes in handy when immigrants need a place to hide. It's hard to say Abbie has any magical ability, but if so it is in the way she can create and manipulate computer code. From a certain perspective they can be considered heroes, but in another they're just everyday people caught up in a crisis not of their own making. They do what they have to do to survive, to protect their families and friends. They're not perfect, they make mistakes, some of which lead to harm or death. I'm not sure any of them would make different choices given another chance.
While it might have been nice to end the year with a more positive book, I still enjoyed it, and it's highly recommended. Powerful, meaningful, thought provoking. I can't think of another book that seemed as relevant to the time I read it. Inspiring even through the tragedy. There will always be those who try to control through fear. There will always be those who are more caring and compassionate towards the marginalized. May the latter voices prevail in the real world.
The author's website - sabrinavourvoulias.com
Sabrina writes about her father.
Her brother writes about their father and other ancestors.
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