Woman writer of many trades, Sabrina Vourvoulias is an author, essayist, poet, journalist, editor, and more. Born in Thailand, raised in Guatemala, and living in Pennsylvania, she regularly engages diverse cultures in life and fiction.
Today Sabrina Vourvoulias now lives with her husband, daughter, and dog in Chester County, Pennsylvania. She is a journalist who has worked for several Philadelphia publications, including The Catholic Standard & Times, the bilingual newspaper Al Día, and the local social impact news source Generocity. For her editorials, Vourvoulias has won numerous awards, such as the José Martí, Keystone, and New York Press Association awards.
But she is not just a journalist. In addition to news writing, she also writes speculative fiction. For this writer, journalism and fiction are inseparable. Fluidly weaving together fact and fiction, Vourvoulias notes that both genres are “forms of truth-telling” and that her “fiction is frequently built on journalism’s bones” (ACWISE).
“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)
The dichotomy between fact and fiction is fascinating given her preferred genre. Vourvoulias has written one novel and over fifteen short stories, of which many are published in sci-fi/fantasy magazines like Tor or anthologies like Latin@ Rising: An Anthology of Latin@ Science Fiction and Fantasy. All are speculative fiction. And all draw inspiration from indigenous mythology and pay homage to her Latina heritage.
“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.(Languzzi)
Below is a visual bibliography of her works thus far:
Though her inspiration is past influences, her stories are often set in the near future of today’s world. Vourvoulias plants her stories so that they are “rooted in our genuine past” but sprout “amid the trappings of here and now … or a few days, a few years from now” (FollowingTheLede). This genre of speculative fiction provides flexibility so that she may subject characters to a “daily existence that is an exaggeration of what I have already observed or heard about” (HispanicReader).
Many of her stories thus incorporate historical events and folklore magic in a society very similar to what her readers currently experience. Her first and only full-length novel Ink envisions an America in which immigrants are tattooed and targeted for discrimination on account of their tattooes in an increasingly draconian society. Vourvoulias was struck by the idea for this novel when she read about the border dumping of an undocumented immigrant in the news.
One main character is journalist Finn, who bears witness to the inked. Ink proves yet again that journalism and fiction for Vourvoulias are inextricably woven together. And not only do the protagonists of Ink fight the social and legal ramifications of an inked society, but they also fight a supernatural battle with the help of guardian spirits from Guatemalan folklore called los nahuales. The intersection of magic and reality is omnipresent as a facet of her speculative fiction.
The short story “Skin in the Game” is no exception. Published in 2014, this short story takes place in Philadelphia — more specifically, Zombie City or La Boca del Diablo — in which zombies, ghosts, witches, monsters, and the living walk the land. But this story is not just magical. As the author wrote in her own blog Following the Lede, Zombie City is a real place.
“Skin in the Game” tackles the topics of police brutality and negligence, systematic discrimination against Latinos, and the heroin epidemic — all of which are prevalent in Philadelphia. In her short story, Vourvoulias does not shy away from challenging issues, but rather offers a fresh and crucial perspective through a magical lens.
Three kinds of people live in Zombie City-La Boca Del Diablo: the zombies, los vivos, and the ghosts. Officer Jimena Villagrán, not truly at home with any of these groups, patrols the barrio for stalking monsters. Magic con men and discarded needles make this beat hazardous enough, but the latest rash of murders threatens to up the ante by outing the horrors of Jimena’s personal history.(“Skin in the Game”, Tor)
Someone who has ‘skin in the game’ is someone who has a vested interest in the outcome of an event, mainly because she has incurred risk as a result of being involved in that event. Protagonist Jimena Villagrán’s skin in the game is determining whether or not she is more monster than human. Vourvoulias addresses this age-old question of nature versus nurture through the magical motif of hunger. Hunger is monstrous, but the true test of humanity is whether one satiates an appetite through seeking community or through further fueling the flames of desire.
Zombie City is defined by hunger. As Jimena begins her beat, she makes her way “once more through the packed mud lip, the stone teeth, and down its gullet to the tripas, the innards, of forgotten Philly.”
Jimena has a voracious appetite that she considers monstrous. While the other inhabitants also have hunger, Jimena’s is inexorable and overwhelming. Hers is “always nested inside” and never relenting. Moreover, it is a monstrous hunger. While others satiate their hunger through drugs, Jimena’s hunger feels like a “huge hole that wants to be filled with blood … or the taste of human fear.” When she finds a corpse and closes its eyelids, she then shoves her thumbs in her mouth in one of the most disturbing moments of the short story. The taste of “fear-driven flop sweat” and “death” manages to take “the edge of the hunger,” observes the protagonist.
The only deterrent holding her back is her duty and desire to be human. Jimena isolates herself and uses “tricks of restraint” to evade temptation.
But I ask, what deserves my loyalty?
Not the hunger. Never the hunger.“Skin in the Game“, Tor
She loathes her hunger but fears that she will eventually succumb to a baser and monstrous nature. As more and more corpses surface in Zombie City, “spasms twist my gut, urgently and increasingly undeniable.”
The climax of the short story offers the ultimate test of humanity versus monstrosity. There is no dramatic throw-down between individuals, no battle of wits or final last words. Jimena is alone because she is in the midst of monsters, but then salvation through community arrives in full force.
The actual battle comes from within. With the scent of blood and “so much tender flesh” surrounding her, Jimena is consumed with bloodlust. She “strikes without intending to . . . the need inside me rises so huge it threatens to swallow me whole.” Can Jimena overcome her hunger? Is her skin in the game enough to save her soul?
Fortunately, the answer is yes. Her desire for community outweighs her hunger and thirst. In the moment of no return, she says that she does not know what stopped her from striking again — “magic, love, my own will.” But it is all of the above. She is more human than monster because she has community. “I crave community even more than I crave blood,” realizes Jimena. Moreover, her community is the only source of fulfillment and satiation of that hunger. It is no coincidence that her family and friends all conjure magic with food.
Jimena’s best friend Yolanda spends her days bringing cooked meals for the ghosts. The reader first meets the friend at Kensington Bridge with “hands spread protectively over the bags of food”, and learns that Yolanda has the “gene that equates food with caring.” Yolanda demonstrates her love and strengthens the community through her provision of food.
Additionally, Jimena’s mother and Las Girlfriends make hundreds of magical tamales, or tamágicos, and hand out free samples to the surrounding neighborhoods so as to shield the community with special protections. All together, it’s “collective magic they’re cooking up.” The most important people to Jimena offer sociality and fulfillment of a need more desperate than her hunger for flesh.
In the beginning, Jimena says, “We are not in thrall to anything.” Though she is unceasingly voracious, she is determined to not be ruled by her hunger. By the end of the short story, she seems “to be in thrall anyway.” This time, she is in thrall to her community. Jimena may have been more monster than human at first, but she has proclaimed her humanity by overcoming her bloodlust and seeking joy through sociality.
“Skin in the Game” is a story of many layers, seamlessly braiding magic and reality together. Yet magic cannot solve the problems of “Skin in the Game”. The zombies still shoot up, the transient ghosts still flit about and vanish, and monsters still exist. But humans can still love one each other. And so they triumph.
Sabrina Vourvoulias says it best in a response to her novel Ink:
Nothing in the book offers any sort of panacea. Magic might help you get through things but doesn’t change the situation. The only thing that never fails is the ability of human beings to love one and other.(Mamiverse)
In journalism, there exists the term lede, commonly mistaken for lead. A lede is the opening lines of a news story, intended to give the general gist and entice the reader to continue reader. If a writer stuffs her opening lines with extraneous information, she is burying the lede. Sabrina Vourvoulias, in both her journalism and fiction, does not bury the lede. Rather, she is dedicated to pursuing the most essential truth of a story, whether fact or fiction, and placing that at the heart of her writing. And as seen in “Skin in the Game”, Vourvoulias’ most essential truth offers hope for humanity.
Featured image courtesy of Rosarium Publishing.
Corey, Michael. “Skin in the Game.” Deliberately Considered, 2 June 2011. Accessed 15 Nov. 2019.
Deeney, Jeff. “Philadelphia’s Kensington Avenue: Heroin, Prostitution, and No Police.” The Daily Beast, 13 Aug. 2011. Accessed 10 October 2019.
Lang, Angela. “Sabrina Vourvoulias: Author, Blogger & Immigration Advocate.” Mamiverse, 1 March 2013. Accessed 9 October 2019.
Lubrano, Alfred. “Camp Heroin: Fairhill’s ‘El Campamento,’ where the drugs make the rules”. The Philadelphia Inquirer, 12 Nov. 2016. Accessed 10 October 2019.
Lubrano, Alfred. “How Puerto Rico uses a network called Air Bridge to export its addicts to Philly.” The Philadelphia Inquirer, 13 Nov. 2016. Accessed 10 October 2019.
Vourvoulias, Sabrina. Ink. Rosarium Publishing, 2018.
—. Interview by Jessica DeLeón. The Hispanic Reader, 16 Oct. 2012. Accessed 11 Oct. 2019.
—. Interview by Ezzy G. Languzzi. 7 Nov. 2012. Accessed 11 October 2019.
—. Interview by Bryan Thomas Schmidt. SF Signal, 15 Jan. 2015. Accessed 10 Oct. 2019.
—. Interview by Deborah Stanish. Uncanny Magazine, 2016. Accessed 9 Oct. 2019.
—. Interview by A.C. Wise. A.C. Wise, 26 Sept. 2018. Accessed 8 Oct. 2019.
—. Interview by Mónica Marie Zorrilla. BillyPenn, 19 Sept. 2018. Accessed 10 Oct. 2019.
—. “Putting the I in Speculative: Looking at U.S. Latino/a Writers and Stories.” Tor, 2 Feb. 2015. Accessed 7 Oct. 2019.
—. “Skin in the Game,” edited by Carl Engle-Laird, Tor, 2014.
—. “Zombie City: A story about writing, publishing and real life (#SFWApro).” Following the lede, 6 Dec. 2014. Accessed 14 October 2019.
Zeglen, Julie. “Power Moves: Meet Generocity’s new editor, Sabrina Vourvoulias.” Generocity. Accessed 13 Oct. 2019.