Although her mother hasn’t read her new book, Anya Ulinich already fears the worst. When Ulinich was in the early stages of writing the novel two years ago, her mother begged her to stop. “She hates the idea of this book,” Ulinich said.
Ulinich’s novel, “Lena Finkle’s Magic Barrel” isn’t a salacious memoir. It’s a tragicomic, sometimes whimsical, tale of immigration, identity and love. Although the novel is clearly fictitious, a semi-autobiographical thread runs throughout the story.
Like Ulinich, Lena Finkle was born in the Soviet Union. Like Ulinich, she immigrates with her parents to the U.S., and blunders through two unhappy marriages. Ulinich and Finkle both have two young daughters. They also recently had their hearts broken — which might ultimately have been a good thing for both of them.
Ulinich emigrated from Russia to Phoenix, Arizona, in 1991 with her mother, father and younger brother, when Ulinich was 18 years old. A hasidic landlord allowed them to live rent-free in a dilapidated one-bedroom apartment and paid Ulinich’s family below minimum wage to clean a small office building.
Like most young immigrants, Ulinich and her brother adapted to the hardscrabble lifestyle. But the fall in social status shook her well-educated, middle-class parents, in the same way it rattled many immigrants of that period from the former Soviet Union.
Ulnich said that nearly the only thing her parents’ generation had left after immigration was its dignity. That’s why they are so sensitive, she suggested, about satirical, warts-and-all portrayals of Russian-Jewish life by writers like Gary Shteyngart. What seems to Russian-speaking authors like harmless black comedy appears to the older generation as a degrading and unnecessary airing of dirty laundry. “My mom already yelled at me about Shteyngart’s memoir,” Ulinich said. “She told me, ‘You will stomp us into the dirt.’”
I met Ulinich at her two-bedroom apartment in Brooklyn, where she lives with her daughters Sofia, 16, and Rebecca, 12. The apartment walls are covered with paintings and photographs made by Ulinich, her friends and her children. The living room is dominated by a large, surreal painting of bright, disembodied playground equipment, which Ulinich painted for her MFA thesis show in California.
On our way to a nearby cafe, Ulinich, who is 40, told me that her mother did not react well to her first novel, “Petropolis,” a coming-of-age satire that explored politics, race, immigration and identity.
“Petropolis” followed the adventures of Sasha Goldberg, a 17-year-old, biracial, single mother who escapes a bleak future in her Siberian hometown of Asbestos 2, by becoming a mail-order bride and moving to Phoenix. Ulinich’s mother found it hard to read semi-autobiographical details she noticed from her daughter’s life. And she was horrified by the inclusion of a mother character. She told Ulinich that “Petropolis” was a very good book. But, she added, it was also “like having a piece of glass taken to my intestines.”