Brooklyn-based, Russian born Anya Ulinich takes a sharp, blackly comic look at post-Cold War Siberia and twenty-first century America in her first novel, Petropolis, exploring migration, motherhood and identity along the way. Jo Case spoke to her for Readings.
Sasha is, in some ways, an unlikely heroine: chubby, awkward, not especially good at anything. What was the inspiration for her character?
Sasha is maybe an unlikely heroine, but she is a typical human being – aren’t most of us not particularly beautiful and of average abilities? I wasn’t particularly interested in creating a larger-than-life character: an undiscovered genius lingering in Siberia; or an “ugly-duckling” story about misperceived beauty. That would be too easy – the story would reach its climax in a predictable way. Sasha fumbles through life the way most people do (maybe more so, because she is an illegal immigrant in the U.S., so she exists on the margins of society for much of the book). She is, basically, surviving. The world owes nothing to Sasha Goldberg, and throughout her journey, she finds happiness, fulfilment, and love in unexpected places.
The fortunes of your characters – Sasha, Katia, Victor, Nadia – are remarkably fluid. They plunge from good to ill fortune and back with great frequency. Do you think we all live on fortune’s knife-edge, or is it particular to these characters and their circumstances?
Some people live more on fortune’s cutting edge than others. For example, a person born upper-middle class in the U.S. could live a life with no upheavals, unless they are self-inflicted. But the poor, and people who live in rapidly changing societies, like the characters you mention above, have much less stable lives.
Sasha, is focused on becoming an artist (though she’s not particularly talented). You have also studied and practiced art. Was it a conscious decision to work this into the novel, or was it simply the way the character of Sasha evolved?
Partly it was the way the character of Sasha evolved. But I also had to give Sasha something besides her stifling home life and the abuse she suffers at her general education school. No matter how outdated and outlandish an education her Asbestos 2 art teachers give her, the art studio becomes a refuge for Sasha, a safe environment where she can be herself. The art is less important than the community. This is partly autobiographical.
Petropolis deftly combines wry humour with darker social observation and bleak surroundings and characters. Was this a conscious balance of light and dark?
Yes, it was conscious, but I think it’s also natural for me to write this way. This kind of satirical writing is typical of Russian literature (I’m thinking of Gogol and Bulgakov in particular). Russians, in general, have a pretty dark sense of humor.
Sasha’s newly created (meticulously bland) American identity (with her new name, ‘Allie’) is demolished with the sound of Marina’s voice, her Russian words and accent. How important is language to identity?
Hugely important, for me. Maybe not for everyone. When I visit Europe, I’m amazed at how easily multilingual many people are. For someone who grows up in a monolingual environment there is a huge difference between the native language, that is deeply rooted in the subconscious, and the language one learns as an adult. When I don’t speak Russian for long stretches, I miss it, almost the way one might miss an essential nutrient in a diet, or the way a child misses her mother – it’s a kind of a physical feeling.
That’s what happens to Sasha. For Sasha, the language switch is a sort of mental suicide, as is her entire life with Neal. She is trying to forget, almost obliterate her former self. Of course, meeting Marina reminds her that this can’t be done.
For me, the switch was voluntary. I embraced the English language and the American culture voluntarily, in the spirit of discovery. I was very interested in the English language. I really sort of fell in love with it and wanted to write in it. But what also helps me write in English is a kind of emotional remove I feel from it, and a sense of control that comes from having this kind of a distance.
How heavily did your experiences in migrating from Russia to America influence Petropolis?
Well, Petropolis is obviously informed by my experience. It’s also fuelled by a certain sense of political outrage one feels when one lives the life of a poor immigrant in the U.S. Like Sasha Goldberg, when I came to America, I was, essentially, a Soviet person (this was before Russia changed into what it is now). So the U.S. was the first place where I experienced extreme class disparity, for example. I grew up in an Anti-Soviet family in Moscow – we worshipped freedom and the market economy. Coming to the U.S. nearly made me into an angry little Marxist. So the scene where Sasha reconsiders Nabokov from a domestic servant’s point of view is informed by my own feelings when I was in a similar position.
Many ordinary aspects of American life seem exotic and often ridiculous through Sasha’s eyes (for example, Heidi’s parenting style, living in air-conditioned comfort in the desert, the American proclivity for hugging and kissing strangers). Did you have a similar response when you first arrived in America?
Yes. I wrote this book with an American audience in mind. Not to engage in stereotypes, but still, Americans are very self-referential. They don’t like to contemplate history, and they don’t pay much attention to the rest of the world, or even to other parts of America. Even (or especially) the people who live in the surreal and ecologically unsustainable Arizona suburbs, think that their way of life is the way of life. So I had a lot of fun showing how strange the things that Americans take for granted look through the eyes of an outsider.
The mother-child relationships in this book are often bittersweet, and reflect a range of experiences of motherhood – from Mrs Goldberg’s fiercely autocratic devotion to Heidi’s very American, quite indulgent, parenting. How important is this aspect of the novel for you?
Very important. Motherhood is one of the central themes of this novel. I began to write it when my older daughter was first born, and I was amazed at how much in love I was with this tiny baby. I wondered: what would it be like if she were taken away from me? Could I go on? So this is how the story of Sasha, and Nadia, began.
I’m raising my children in, essentially, Heidi’s world. And I found what among the American middle and upper-middle class, motherhood is very political – friendships can break up when two friends disagree with each others’ parenting methods. The minutiae of childbirth arrangements and feeding choices (drugs/no drugs; organic vs. non; breast vs. bottle) become class markers and judgement points. It was interesting to see this obsessive mothering through Sasha’s eyes.