Irina Reyn's third novel, Mother Country (Thomas Dunne/St. Martin's Press), is ostensibly about a mother trying to create a better life for her daughter.
But as Reyn started writing the book five years ago, the situation in Ukraine — her mother's homeland, which she'd visited as a young girl for summer vacations — began to deteriorate, leading to the ouster of President Victor Yanukovych. Reyn, who teaches writing at the University of Pittsburgh and splits her time between Regent Square and Brooklyn, realized the story was more complex than she first realized. “I really wanted to know what was at stake,” says Reyn. “And a lot is at stake now.”
The book release party for Mother Country, featuring a conversation with Clare Beams, is Feb. 26 at White Whale Bookstore in Bloomfield.
Readers meet the novel's protagonist, Nadia, working as a nanny for a young girl and as a caretaker for seniors in Brooklyn. Her daughter, Larriska, a diabetic and schoolteacher, remains in Ukraine as Nadia desperately petitions the Department of Homeland Security to bring her to the United States.
Nadia's desperation is a byproduct of guilt. She and Larriska had petitioned to come to the U.S. together. When only Nadia was approved, she decided to leave her daughter behind. “I was wondering what that was like, a mother separated from her daughter,” she says, “and trying to understand a little bit where Ukraine falls in the geopolitical sphere. I think we see now that it's a place that's quite contested, torn between two powers.”
What Reyn did not and could not know was how her novel would foreshadow current events concerning immigration and families around the world being torn apart.
“I think a lot of people are making that choice,” she says. “There are many people willing to risk separation from their children in order to hopefully provide them a better life. I couldn't have predicted this. All of that was not in the news when I was writing the book. … It's about parents making the ultimate sacrifice for longer-term gain, but potentially sacrificing relationships with their children.”
Reyn admits that some parts of the novel were “enhanced” during editing to reflect current events and issues. But the story itself — an exploration of the often-daunting immigrant experience — stayed the same.
“What I'm addressing is that sense of forced separation,” Reyn says, “whether it's families or countries where politics, entities [or] governments impact families and their relationships. So it's interesting to see these parallels play out. It's depressing in a new way, but it's exactly what the book was anticipating. I think in some ways it understood this was somehow going to happen, on some level. … It was written during the Obama administration, and this was a scenario that was happening then, and the book ends when the election was looming, and things were about to change.”
7 p.m. Tue., Feb. 26. White Whale Bookstore, 4754 Liberty Ave., Bloomfield. 412-224-2847 or whitewhalebookstore.com
Between the Lines
Poet Joshua Bennett, author of the collection The Sobbing School, will appear Feb. 21 as a guest of Pittsburgh Contemporary Writers Series. Bennett has received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Ford Foundation and teaches at Harvard University. Free and open to the public.
7:30 p.m. Thu., Feb. 21. Frick Fine Arts Auditorium, 650 Schenley Drive, Oakland. pghwriterseries.pitt.edu