Kevin Kinsella interviews Anya Ulinich

Here Kevin Kinsella interviews the fascinating Anya Ulinich, whose first novel, Petropolis, he’s been recommending to me for months. I defy you to read the interview and not come away with the sense that you should pick up a copy immediately. (The image below, Marx, Bird, Monster, is one of Ulinich’s own paintings.)

Imagine my surprise upon learning that someone had written a book entitled Petropolis. Okay… now imagine it after learning that I recently spent two years of my life translating from Russian a book of poems originally published in 1922 that I was beginning to think that no one in the twenty-first century United States could possibly care about but from which Anya Ulinich ultimately takes the title of her remarkable debut novel.

For me, what started as an over-earnest graduate thesis (“Transparent Spring: Problems Translating Osip Mandelshtam’s Tristia into English”) quickly graduated from a pet project to an obsession. And like most people with a personal obsession, I couldnâ’t understand why no one else seemed to care about — or at least understand — the urgency of my project: to bring a general reader’s edition of what was, arguably, the best poems of one of the greatest of the Russian Silver Age poets to an English-speaking audience. Now imagine my dismay — and then my delight — upon actually reading it, when I learned that Ulinich’s novel, which references Mandelshtam’s poetry in such a smart, funny, and contemporary light, isn’t really about the poet at all, but rather is a coming-of-age story that starts in a tiny Siberian town and ultimately ends in Brooklyn, not far from where I currently live. Okay, just trust me that translating poetry from Russia’s Silver Age is a monkish business, but also understand that reading smart, highly entertaining novels written by young Russian-American authors is anything but.

Anya Ulinich was born in 1973 in Moscow. She began studying art as a child. When she was seventeen, her family left Moscow and immigrated to the United States. Anya attended the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and received an MFA from the University of California at Davis. In 2000, she moved to Brooklyn, “abandoned” painting and began to write. Petropolis is her first novel.

Sasha Goldberg, the protagonist of Petropolis, is a biracial, Jewish, socially maladjusted “child of the intelligentsia” from the Siberian town Asbestos 2. Sasha’s father takes off for the U.S., leaving her to navigate adolescence under the shadow of her overbearing mother. At fourteen, Sasha falls in love with an art school dropout who lives in a concrete half pipe in the town’s dump. When following her heart gets her into trouble at home, Sasha leaves Russia as a mail-order bride and, with the help of the Kupid’s Korner Agency, lands in suburban Arizona. Soon, she escapes her Red Lobster-loving fiancé and embarks on a misadventure-filled journey across America in search of her father.

I interviewed the author by email.

You’ve said that you chose Petropolis as the title of your novel because it was the only one from Osip Mandelshtam’s collection Tristia that you thought you could translate well enough (excellent job, by the way). But I think this is just too easy an answer. Not only is it the title of your novel, but the whole story is sandwiched between the poem. Also, “Petropolis” the poem, is in many ways Mandelshtam’s key lament on the end of Western civilization, as he sees at the beginning of the 20th century. What does “Petropolis” mean to Sasha Goldberg? Could another poem from that collection have sufficed if you felt that you could have done a better job translating it? I don’t think so.

Before I talk about the particular poem, I’m going to say a couple things about the Soviet “intelligentsia” class.

Russian culture was interrupted in the 1920s. After that time, for sixty-odd years, all forms of expression remained tightly regulated. While American culture is a vast collection of subcultures that enjoy different art, music, writing, movies, fashions etc., the Soviet Union had no organic pop culture (with some exceptions such anecdoti jokes and prison folklore). In this cultural vacuum, certain landmarks of Western civilization (the so-called “high” art, basically, cultural artifacts of a freer world) — classical music, ballet, some types of painting, poetry — attained an exaggerated, cult-like status, becoming a signifier of the “intelligentsia” class.

Poetry becomes especially powerful in times of oppression — it’s compact; it can be memorized, its paper evidence can be discarded, you don’t need an orchestra to perform it. Had Russian culture developed organically, Mandelstam would have been as obscure there as he is in the U.S. But in the Soviet Union, he and the other Silver Age poets became kind of folk heroes of samizdat-reading “intelligentsia” underground.

Okay, so the point is — this “intelligentsia” designation is very important to Sasha’s mother, Lubov Goldberg. In her mind, it distinguishes her from her drunk, fish-off-newspaper-eating neighbors, although her daily life is exactly the same as theirs. She relates to “Petropolis,” because her complaint is parallel to Mandelstam’s — she is wistful for the pre-revolutionary world of her exile grandmother, and considers Asbestos 2 a “post-apocalyptic place.”

Victor Goldberg, Sasha’s father, takes belonging to the intelligentsia for granted. He grew up surrounded by books, and “Tristia” was just one of them. (Sure, it was Victor’s father’s prized possession; his father was an interesting person — a hip person, we’d say now — who didn’t care one whit for his son.) When Victor and Lubov recite “Petropolis” to each other, the poem simply reminds Victor of the time in his life when he had a home and his own bed — on the Maslow hierarchy of needs, after orphanage, after army, after the suicide attempt, Victor is quite a few levels below the redemptive reach of poetry.

Sasha Goldberg is a post-Soviet kid. She finds no meaning in being “the child of the intelligentsia.” Lubov tells her what children of the intelligentsia don’t do. But things they are supposed to do — play the piano or study realist painting — Sasha can hardly find relevant. Sasha worries about her racial identity, her missing father, her classmates’ abuse but, unlike Lubov, she doesn’t retreat into extreme denial. To Sasha, Asbestos 2 is unambiguously home, a part of her private culture. Although Sasha never reads Mandelstam (she has a prosaic mind, Sasha, and prefers Dostoevsky), so to her personally, the poem doesn’t mean much. But it is entirely relevant to her character, because it’s Sasha’s city that is dying. Unlike Mandelstam’s Petrograd, no one doubts that the town of Asbestos 2 deserves to die, that it should have never been built in the first place. Still, with its gloomy apartment blocks, jail-like schools, dump-dwelling Soviet volunteers, and throwback art teachers, Asbestos 2 is Sasha Goldberg’s civilization. A primitive, mistake civilization, to be abandoned. It is no wonder Sasha Goldberg is surly, and a little Borat-like.

So yeah, I used that poem for a reason. But it does translate so well, too. And I hope intelligenti don’t get too mad at me for what I just said.

Well, now that you’ve angered the intelligentisia, let’s see if you’ll anger the artists. You, like Sasha Goldberg, went to art school, but according to your bio, you “abandoned painting and began to write [Petropolis].” What inspired this break with painting and, ultimately, this first novel?

I don’t want to anger anybody. I really have no right to judge my parents’ generation of Soviet people from my position of relative privilege. Intelligentsia rocks!

It’s not like I had an epiphany, saying to myself, “I must forswear painting in order to write.” Now that I spend my time typing words into a computer, I miss painting — the handiwork of it, the materials, my own fluency. The fact that I could paint while listening to NPR, and not think too much. Writing makes my head hurt.

At the same time, when I finish writing something, I have a pleasant conviction that I’ve said what I had to say, that it’s all there. I never had this conviction in regard to my paintings.

By the time I grew up enough to have something to add to the world, I had a head full of stories. These stories kept bothering me. I felt an obsessive need to tell them with literal precision, in great detail. Painting was just a wrong medium for this, but for a while, painting was the only tool at my disposal.

Unlike Sasha Goldberg, who enters art school at the age of fourteen, I began my art training when I was four years old. My teachers’ methods would make any American educator cringe. I had one guy used to approach his students from behind with a butter knife and, without a word, scrape parts of their paintings that he didn’t like. However, I loved even the meanest and the craziest of my art teachers. They were the only people, besides my parents, who cared to teach me. I grew up on the outskirts of Moscow, and my general education at a neighborhood school consisted of ten years of boredom layered with trauma. I did learn math and chemistry, but our humanities were abysmal. After a daily dose of this misery, I absolutely leapt at the opportunity to learn something, anything.

The art school I went to now has a website. It’s still run by the same people who taught me, and it hasn’t changed much. If you click on “painting” or “drawing” and look at student work, you’ll see that the kids know their stuff. You’ll also notice a certain academic formula, an amalgam of late 19th century styles that, to me, defines late Socialist realism. There are countless online galleries that sell cheap paintings by graduates of Russian art schools. I look at paintings on those sites and feel a painful sense of recognition — these artists and I have the same disease. We produce paintings that are superficially different from one another, but have an ugly common root, this formula. I found it very hard to unlearn. No matter how much I had attempted to stray from it, I will always remain, deep inside, a painter of “church with birch” or “fish with drape.”

Not all trained monkeys are created equal, of course. There were talented kids in my art classes — clearly gifted with a “good eye,” a good spatial sense. I wasn’t like that. For me, drawing from life was always an effort, and drawing from imagination was always an exercise in avoiding (and failing to avoid) visual cliché. But I just kept going — the fact that I would be an “artist” was decided before I was old enough to really know. When I moved to the U.S. painting and drawing for a while became the only things that I did well. I was practically mute, and they were my only useful language. So I began to cram all the immigrant stories crowding in my head into paintings. This was about as effective as trying to open a can of beans with a Metrocard.

By the time I was living in Chicago, I was making huge, dark canvases, bloated with text and allusive imagery. They were more like rebuses than paintings. A better artist would have made a comic book. But as a monkey trained in the “church with birch” school of art, I just couldn’t come up with anything better than having all this allegory float in a kind of brown, ill-defined surrealist murk. These were bad paintings, and they never succeeded in telling the stories. I was too terrified of language to attempt writing — instead I employed ever more blunt allegory. I painted people with strap-on airplane wings. I painted, I’m sorry to say, a folksy-looking bleeding bear. I ended up painting like a magical realist when magical realism actually bores me to death.

In graduate school in California, I stopped painting for a time and did sculpture and installations. I still had this literal-minded, blunt approach. I was becoming really interested in the mail-order bride phenomenon and the inherent exploitation. So I attempted an installation in which tiny toy space men in wedding dresses were plunging into a gold-plated toilet. It had all the conceptual depth of a newspaper cartoon. In my second year, I returned to painting. I fell back on my “church with birch” skills, but I also looked at contemporary paintings, and I began to actually think in terms of light and color, and their expressive powers. I did some of my best paintings then. They had a narrative aspect, but it wasn’t killing them. I began to write a little bit while I was making those. I had to stick my complex narratives somewhere.

And then I moved to New York. My husband actually dragged me here after I got my MFA, because this was where artists went. Except, unlike those hypothetical artists, I had a toddler. I ended up staying at home with her, while my husband, who possessed actual marketable skills, disappeared into a corporate job in order to pay for our shockingly expensive little apartment in Carroll Gardens.

I couldn’t really paint in that apartment, with the kid around — I use oil paints, and make a huge toxic mess. There was no way I could afford studio space or childcare, forget studio space and childcare, to support what was becoming, essentially, a hobby. I never advanced past a purely bureaucratic relationship with the New York art world. I’d send my slides and my artist’s statement to a gallery or a residency program, they’d send me a rejection letter. My California paintings were too big to even come up the staircase in my apartment. We had to get a storage space to keep them. When my daughter was napping, I’d try to summon the energy to work on some tiny drawing at my kitchen table. Within months of coming to New York, the rent for the storage unit began to feel like an alimony I was paying to my former life.

Some people are patient, mindful parents who can derive fulfillment from full-time parenthood. I’m not capable of this. I was beginning to feel as if the excessive doses of Clifford and Dora the Explorer literature were threatening to permanently rewire my brain, causing premature dementia. My dreams were populated by Dr. Seuss creatures. I was worried that soon I’d be found walking down the street, muttering: ” My hat is old. My teeth are gold. I have a bird. I like to hold …” I was dissipating. I didn’t just have to get away from the kid for so called “mommy time,” I had to make stuff. So when my husband came home in the evenings, I began to take his old laptop to a coffee shop and write. So okay, here is the final reason I began to write — because it was a more compact activity. Because I couldn’t really paint in a coffee shop, could I?

And just like you, Sasha Goldberg winds up in Arizona after leaving Russia. Obviously, you’re from Moscow, not from a Siberian village like Asbestos 2, and you, unlike Sasha, are not a biological product of the Sixth International Youth Festival. How did your own experiences coming from Russia to America influenced the novel?

Obviously, I learned about immigrants and immigration from being an immigrant. There are stories from my personal experience in the novel. I’d love to be able to pretend that I would have written this book even if I’d spent my entire life in Vermont milking trees for syrup. But I won’t pretend. For me, coming to from Russia to America coincided with growing up. I was seventeen when my family and I moved to Phoenix. Before, I’d lived in the same apartment in Moscow for my entire life. So when I came to the U.S., I was very wide-eyed, very naïve, and I was absolutely bowled over by the new world I’d entered, its attitudes, and my awkward place in it.

My family’s circumstances were admittedly unusual — we landed in Phoenix with no immigration status or money, not knowing if we would be staying for good. Still, had I been a wise, mature adult, I’d probably just say, life is different now; life is harder. I might have gotten stressed-out and depressed, the way my parents had. But instead, I felt like shouting from rooftops: will you ook at this! For example, as an illegal domestic employee and charity case, I had my first experience with extreme class disparity. (I left Moscow before things really started to change there, before it had more billionaires per capita than any other city in the world.) Extreme class disparity is nothing new to anyone in the U.S., it’s like an elephant in every American room, but it made me into an angry little immigrant, and very motivated to talk about it.

Then there was the splinter of nostalgia. I tried to make paintings about the strangeness of being a culturally Soviet person, to be nostalgic for things that are, objectively speaking, not worth missing. I was really stuck, until I finally made up Sasha Goldberg and her hometown Asbestos 2.

And what exactly was the Sixth International Youth Festival?

The Sixth International Youth Festival that took place in Moscow in 1957 was a huge thing for young Russian people who had grown up during the Stalinist dark ages. After the Festival, blue jeans, abstract painting, badminton, new movements in literature and cinema, dissidents, and the whole notion of youth culture appeared in Russia. Basically, it was the first time when ordinary people in Moscow were allowed to have unregulated contact with foreigners. For a person from an extremely isolated, oppressive society, foreigners are irresistible — exotic, special, fascinating. I don’t know if Americans are able to understand this enchantment, because they’d always been able to travel, and because they’ve got foreigners babysitting their kids and mowing their lawns. None of this is documented with any numbers, but some remember kind of a mini sexual revolution occurring during the Festival. Anyway, there were enough mixed-raced babies born afterwards that they got a special name, “Festival Children.” I wouldn’t call it a baby boom, because I have no idea how many kids there were. I know for sure that these children didn’t have an easy life. Racist attitudes were then, and are still now, a norm in Russia. Even if there the government doesn’t officially condone racism, it’s a deeply xenophobic culture. Many “Festival Children” were abandoned to orphanages.

After the Festival, Soviet colleges began to admit foreign students, and mixed-raced Russians continued being born. When I was a newborn, a woman in my mom’s recovery room was giving up her black baby — not to be adopted by a “nice middle class couple,” to be sure, but to a Soviet orphanage.

In a popular sense, Russian writing to Americans essentially means Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, and Nabokov, with maybe a dash of Solzhenitsyn and Anna Akhmatova thrown in. But now… You were recently named by Ken Kalfus for the National Book Foundation as one of “5 under 35” writers whose work are “particularly promising and exciting.” Similarly, I just read that another Russian woman writing in English, Olga Grushin, was recently chosen by Granta as one of the “21 Best American Fiction Writers Under 35,” for her first novel, The Dream Life of Sukhanov. And still another Russian writing in English, Ellen Litman, just released a remarkable debut “novel in stories,” The Last Chicken in America. I could also mention Lara Vapynar and Gary Steyngart here. Why do you think, if at all, that Americans are attracted to this new generation of Russian-American writing? Do you feel part like part of a movement or trend? Or are Russians just the new black?

Gosh, I hope Americans are attracted to us as a group. It would be so nice to be a part of a trend. To have mad throngs storming bookstores, dying to get their hands on the latest Russian American novel! As I see it, this is a country of immigrants, and there is a multitude of books written by immigrants in America — so some of these immigrant writers happen to be Russian. The reason all of us Russians appeared at more or less the same time has more to do with Russian politics than with literary trends. During the Soviet times, before Gorbachev came to power in Russia in 1986, it was fairly difficult to emigrate, and fewer people came to the U.S. Starting in the late 1980s, it became easier to leave, and people began to arrive in droves. I suppose, statistically, more people mean more potential writers. All of the writers you mentioned above, with the exception of Gary, came to the U.S. in the early 1990s. It took us a while to grow up and learn English, and so here we are now.

That said, as a Russian-American writing in English, which writers, Russian and/or American, most influence your work?

Thing is, I don’t just get influenced. Rather, I get run over and temporarily obliterated. I read something I like, and end up inadvertently and thoroughly aping it in my own writing. For example, when I was writing Petropolis, I reread Nabokov’s Speak, Memory. Then I had to go and get rid of all this boring faux-Nabokovian writing in my draft. I’m currently being run over by George Saunders.

I’m sure there are also subtle influences. So I’ll just talk about the writers I love to read, starting with the ones I read in Russian. I love Tolstoy. I can’t understand how War and Peace ever got its reputation as a difficult read. I love Chekhov’s short stories. Dostoyevsky and Bulgakov were my rock star heroes when I was growing up. Poets: Brodsky, Mandelstam and Tsvetaeva — these people I can’t even ape. Poetry I think has more in common with music than with novels, and I’m tone-deaf. Tolstoy is more my speed. I must also mention Tolstoy’s Soviet ghost, Vasiliy Grossman (Life and Fate), and Sergei Dovlatov.

Okay, now in English, in no particular order: Gary Shteyngart, George Saunders, Vladimir Nabokov, Alice Munro, Grace Paley, Henry Roth (Call It Sleep), Alison Bechdel (Fun Home), Jonathan Lethem.


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