by Tah­neer Oksman

Tah­neer Oks­man sat down recent­ly with Anya Ulinich to dis­cuss her first graph­ic nov­el, Lena Finkle’s Mag­ic Bar­rel, pub­lished today by Pen­guin Books. Ulinich was a Final­ist for the 2009 Sami Rohr Prize for Jew­ish Lit­er­a­ture for her debut nov­el Petrop­o­lis.

Tah­neer Oks­man: Is there a rela­tion­ship between this book, Lena Fin­kle’s Mag­ic Bar­rel, and your first, Petrop­o­lis?

Anya Ulinich: Only inas­much as the cen­tral char­ac­ters are immi­grants. Also, my char­ac­ters are idiots — they’re not very insight­ful, so the stuff that hap­pens to them ambush­es them. They don’t arrive at an under­stand­ing of things nat­u­ral­ly; it has to slap them in the face.

TO: Both of your books tie love sto­ries, and par­tic­u­lar­ly bro­ken ones, to the immi­grant expe­ri­ence. What do you think is the connection?

AU: As an immi­grant, you have this sense of duty. It takes a long time for young peo­ple in gen­er­al, but I think for immi­grant peo­ple in par­tic­u­lar, to fig­ure out what it is that they real­ly want and what it is that oth­ers have told them that they should want or that would make them hap­py. You have this path laid out for you. There are so many expec­ta­tions. You don’t have the lux­u­ry to sit around and dis­cov­er yourself.

Divorce is a lit­tle like immi­gra­tion. It’s a huge change. There’s a phys­i­cal move, but it’s also a ques­tion of how you define your­self now. It’s about iden­ti­ty as well.

TO: Is your graph­ic nov­el autobiographical?

AU: I would call Lena Fin­kle’s Mag­ic Bar­rel a semi-auto­bi­og­ra­phy, but it is fic­tion. I used my expe­ri­ences to inform it, but it’s not the sto­ry exact­ly as it hap­pened. What­ev­er I would tell in a mem­oir about heart­break is here but it’s bet­ter because I was­n’t so hung up on spe­cif­ic peo­ple or events. My life is more bor­ing than this. It would also be too painful for every­one to read my autobiography.

I argue against the whole dis­tinc­tion between fic­tion and non-fic­tion. I would rather those labels just go away and that we just call it a story.

TO: Your first book was all prose. What drove you to cre­ate a graph­ic nov­el this time around?

AU: I had a per­son­al cri­sis — a major heart­break — and I could­n’t write at all. So I start­ed with doo­dles and draw­ings, and I found it was an eas­i­er way to tell sto­ries. When I write, the writ­ing sprawls and it nev­er stops. If you draw a scene, and there are two peo­ple talk­ing, you have to get every­thing into these bub­bles and into the space of the page, or else you have to redraw the scene. Some­times, I’m just too lazy. Draw­ing comics forces you, like poet­ry or a Face­book sta­tus or Twit­ter — to be focused on what you’re say­ing. This lim­i­ta­tion real­ly helped me tell the story.

TO: What was your process for draw­ing the book?

AU: When I start­ed, every­thing was more car­toon­ish. And then I went back to draw­ing in a more real­is­tic way. Once I was on a roll, it was real­ly fun, almost like a break. Writ­ing involves con­stant think­ing, and draw­ing is fair­ly auto­mat­ic for me. I love draw­ing faces and hands and land­scapes, but not so much inte­ri­ors. I can’t be both­ered with details.

Some­times a page would start as text and some­times it would start as an image. Peo­ple always ask me, did you illus­trate the book your­self?” Peo­ple assume that you do the writ­ing and you hire some­one else to illus­trate it. But illus­trate” isn’t the right word for it because illus­tra­tion fol­lows text; here the rela­tion­ship is more com­plex. Some­times there would be an image that would call for cer­tain text.

TO: How did you decide on the style for your book?

AU: I used a more real­is­tic style for the present and the past was drawn more in car­i­ca­tures. I think mem­o­ry is car­toon­ish. When we remem­ber things, it’s usu­al­ly major events or some detail real­ly stands out, and we for­get every­thing else. Mem­o­ries are exag­ger­at­ed, like car­toons. I thought that would dis­tin­guish the flash­back from what hap­pens in the present, just for nar­ra­tive purposes.

TO: Who are your major influences?

AU: I don’t have influ­ences — I have inspi­ra­tions. Read­ing Philip Roth always inspires and moti­vates me and makes me think, I can do that.” He’s a motor mouth, like me. And I love Ali­son Bechdel’s Fun Home—she’s a car­toon­ist, with a per­fect way of draw­ing. Every image is exquisite.

TO: Now that you’ve writ­ten a nov­el and a graph­ic nov­el, do you find that you pre­fer one medi­um over another?

AU: I’m a sto­ry­teller. I could just sit here and tell sto­ries all day. The form is a vehi­cle more than any­thing. Some­times one form just works bet­ter than anoth­er. As long as the sto­ry gets told, I’m happy.

Tah­neer Oks­man is Assis­tant Pro­fes­sor and Direc­tor of Aca­d­e­m­ic Writ­ing at Mary­mount Man­hat­tan Col­lege. Her book on Jew­ish iden­ti­ty in con­tem­po­rary wom­en’s graph­ic mem­oirs is forth­com­ing from Colum­bia Uni­ver­si­ty Press.

Relat­ed Content:

Tah­neer Oks­man is a writer, teacher, and schol­ar. She is the author of How Come Boys Get to Keep Their Noses?”: Women and Jew­ish Amer­i­can Iden­ti­ty in Con­tem­po­rary Graph­ic Mem­oirs (Colum­bia Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 2016), and the co-edi­tor of The Comics of Julie Doucet and Gabrielle Bell: A Place Inside Your­self (Uni­ver­si­ty Press of Mis­sis­sip­pi, 2019), which won the 2020 Comics Stud­ies Soci­ety (CSS) Prize for Best Edit­ed Col­lec­tion. She is also co-edi­tor of a mul­ti-dis­ci­pli­nary Spe­cial Issue of Sho­far: an Inter­dis­ci­pli­nary Jour­nal of Jew­ish Stud­ies, titled What’s Jew­ish About Death?” (March 2021). For more of her writ­ing, you can vis­it tah­neeroks​man​.com