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.”
If Ulinich’s mother found it difficult to deal with “Petropolis,” she may struggle even more with “Lena Finkle’s Magic Barrel.” Much of the action is driven in this book by Finkle’s search for love or sex — or preferably both — in what is probably too much detail for a sensitive, immigrant Jewish mother.
“Lena Finkle’s Magic Barrel” is also a graphic novel — in the hand-drawn sense rather than the lurid sense. Although Ulinich states clearly that her book is only semi-autobiographical, the fact that Ulinich based her drawings of Lena Finkle on photographs of herself makes it that much harder for the reader to disentangle the fictional Lena from her creator.
Ulinich can be unsparing with her characters. Finkle’s husbands, boyfriends and one-night stands could most generously be described as emotionally or intellectually challenged. But the real victim of Ulinich’s pen is Finkle, who fumbles through a series of doomed sexual encounters and romantic relationships, constantly haunted by her Soviet upbringing. Insecurity, fear and naiveté drive her from one bad life decision to the next.
Ulinich was born in Moscow in 1973. She was raised in a concrete high-rise so similar to the buildings around it that visitors had to count the towers from the street corner to make sure they had the right apartment block. Her mother was a museum administrator and her father a bureaucrat in the mining industry, which made the family more middle class than most of the other families at the local school Ulinich attended.
With her dark eyes and dark, curly hair, Ulinich looked different too. Her classmates called her an Armenian or a Georgian until they were old enough to mark her out as a Jew.
Ulinich described school as “brutal.” Her only respite was art classes, which she took three times a week in the center of Moscow. It was a 3-hour round trip by bus and Metro, but Ulinich didn’t care.
She was schooled in the simple, precise techniques of socialist realism. So much so that she said she has struggled to escape from it ever since. “It’s very hard to tell if you are an artist or a trained monkey,” Ulinich said. “I stopped making art for 10 years for that reason, until this comic book.”
When she was 18, Ulinich was accepted into the Stroganov Moscow State University of Arts and Industry. But her family emigrated five days into the school year. They arrived in Phoenix on a tourist visa, meaning art and study had to take a backseat for a year while Ulinich adapted to life in the U.S. and helped her struggling parents make a living.
During Perestroika, Ulinich had embraced her Jewishness. “It was kind of punk to be religious,” she said. But in Arizona, she found the hasidic couple’s attempts to awaken an interest in Torah “super boring.”
She married the first man she dated, left home, and enrolled in Arizona State University. But American art college was not what she expected.
Ulinich looked down on her fellow art majors, many of whom knew about art criticism but could not draw. A professor encouraged her to transfer to a better art school. So, in her third year, she transferred to the Art Institute of Chicago.
Marriage was not what Ulinich expected either. Her marriage to her first husband ended after a year. By the time she moved to Chicago, she was married for a second time.
Ulinich remembers Chicago as a cold, dark place. She was intimidated by her fellow students, many of whom came from wealthy families. “They were urban and sophisticated and beautiful and I was totally fresh off the boat,” Ulinich said. During a job interview at a vintage store, Ulinich was asked who her favorite designers were. “I said, Levi’s and Payless,” Ulinich said.
After she graduated from the Art Institute of Chicago in 1996, Ulinich landed a job writing code at a dot-com. She found the job unfulfilling and clocked off each day at 5 p.m. to go home and paint gloomy paintings. “I had such a profound existential crisis,” she said. “My art was not providing spiritual fulfillment. I was bored in my marriage.”
So Ulinich decided to apply to graduate school — and have a baby. She was 23. “Life is so black and you are looking for a profound change,” Ulinich said of that decision. “A child is a revolutionary thing.”
She was accepted into the University of California, Davis, on a full scholarship. Although she struggled to fit in there too, she remembers it as a generally happier time. Two years later, she and her husband moved with their daughter, Sofia, to New York. Her husband found a full-time job while Ulinich stayed home with her young daughter.
Over the course of the next four or five years, including the birth of her second daughter, Ulinich wrote “Petropolis.” She had an urge to create, so after her husband returned home from work each evening, she would head out to a cafe. Because she had no space to draw or paint, she decided to write.
Ulinich wrote a second novel, which she completed in 2011, but neither she nor her editor was happy with the result. Around the same time, she divorced her second husband.
Then, like Finkle, Ulinich embarked on an ultimately unsuccessful dating spree. She was miserable and suffering from writer’s block. So she reverted to the one thing that had always allowed her to escape. She began to draw.
“I did have a vision of a book,” Ulinich said. “But I never believed what this would become.”
The novel took less than a year to draw and write, including frantic, 16-hour days toward the end. “My children hated me,” Ulinich said. “They were unfed, there was no laundry, the living room was covered in papers.”
As with any good Russian novel, in order to create something, Ulinich had to suffer. Without wishing to give anything away, it’s fair to say that Finkle benefits from her suffering too.
Ulinich’s mother may have to suffer too as well — any day now.
Ulinich learned long ago not to send a manuscript to her mother ahead of publication. Her mother finds it easier to digest Ulinich’s work if it has the imprimatur of a corporate bookstore. So, Ulinich will wait for her mother to buy it from a local Barnes & Noble. Then, she’ll await that dreaded phone call.
She understands her mother’s objections. But she thinks that her mother’s fears are misplaced.
“I am not really airing my dirty laundry,” Ulinich said. “I am writing a story about love and relationships — the kind of story that has meaning beyond the material that’s used to create it.”
Besides, Ulinich added, she only put into the book what the book demanded. “That’s how you make art,” she said. “It’s non-negotiable.”