Brenda Flanagan, Armfield Professor of English, spent part of her summer in Prague, teaching a creative writing intensive to nine students from Kazakhstan, Russia, America and Kyrgyzstan. While oversees, she presented a paper at a conference at Palacky University in Olomouc (in Moravia, in the east of the Czech Republic) and at The Imperial College of London.
Here, we share with you some excerpts from her travel journal.
It’s lovely to be in Prague again, a city I have come to view as home. Here, all the elements of home exist—good friends, fine food, walkable streets, great public transportation, tremendous views of waterways and parks, music, plays, and the comfort of feeling unthreatened because of the color of my skin.
Getting around Prague is easy and inexpensive for the non-tourist like me, even though my Czech friends still grumble at the price increases since the days of occupation. To get from my metro/tram stop, just behind the home of the American Ambassador, to the university, which takes around 10 minutes, can cost less than the equivalent of one American dollar. Tickets are sold by time—30 minutes; 90 minutes, etc.—and can be purchased from machines in the stations or small shops in nearby streets. Unlike London or New York, no barriers block one’s entrance to the escalators that go deep into the earth to the train platforms, so every once in a while a team of police officers will block the exits to check for tickets. Not having one can be costly.
Several American visitors are supposed to come to my first class but for some reason that no one can tell me, they do not appear. They are supposed to evaluate the teaching being done to determine whether they should send American students to study abroad at Anglo American University. I’m a bit relieved, as strangers in a class on its first day might not work well for the students.
The visitors come the next day, and something surreal happens. During the class session, to encourage the writers to resist forcing their own desires upon those of their characters, I told them a story of what had happened as I was creating my first novel, You Alone Are Dancing. The story had to do with Beatrice, the protagonist, being raped by a Chinese doctor, then having a child, the child dying, and my need for Beatrice to punish the doctor in a particular way. When, after three weeks, I couldn’t get either the doctor or Beatrice in a position to have him die, I finally gave up and listened to what Beatrice wanted to do.
As I talked, I was a bit distracted by the nudging and whispering of two of the female visitors in the back of the room. An hour later, I found them waiting for me under the eaves on the top floor of this old castle in which the classrooms are located. Excitedly, one of the women told me that the story I had related was her grandmother’s story. That her name was the same as my protagonist, Beatrice. In almost exact detail, her grandmother’s story matched my protagonist’s. “The baby didn’t die, though,” she said. “He’s my father.” The she added, her voice heavy with sadness, “But my grandmother was sent away.”
The woman was from San Diego. I had never met her, nor had I known anything of her ancestors. I had never read of their situation, yet here we were, thousands of miles from home, two women of African descent, sharing the same story, one fictional; the other real.
Three of the students want to be journalists, a career that is still hot in this part of the world; one wants to be an artist but says she intends, instead, to work in her family’s business. She scribbles dresses with wide, flouncy skirts and red polka dots constantly, and I’m trying to encourage her to follow her design passion. Only one of the students has had any experience with creative writing, a fact that is not unusual, as in former Soviet-bloc countries, creative writing was not only discouraged, but, in many cases, prohibited. Their speaking English is quite good, and the first writing exercise they complete shows that most of them write pretty clearly in English as well.
“I wish I were as good in Czech as you are in English,” I tell them, with honest envy.
The 10-day workshop comes to an end with all the students having completed a major short story. We celebrate their achievement with wine—no one is driving after the party—biscuits, and chocolates. Each writer reads her work with pride and I marvel at how very much they have accomplished in so short a time.
It’s time, two days later, to head to Olomouc to present my paper at the 21st International Colloquium of American Studies at Palacky University. The theme this year is Place and Placement, and because I will be teaching a course in fall at Davidson on Poetics of Relation: August Wilson and Pittsburgh’s Hill District, the conference’s conveners have invited me to present on Hayti as a site in the Hill District for a recuperation of memories about enslavement, Jim Crow, and entrenched racial prejudice in Wilson’s plays.
Olomouc is in Moravia. This lovely little city in which I had spent one of my most miserable nights ever way back in 2002, is endearing. (The misery was associated with my stay in a post-stamp size room below the seats in the city’s stadium, built by the Communists.) I love to walk its cobbled streets, still relatively free of international tourists, although this weekend there is to be a rock concert and bicycle race so folks are filtering in. Small Catholic churches are dotted about the town, and new cafes are opening up along the main streets. Palacky University’s reputation is getting stronger, and will soon rival the famous Charles University in Prague. My colleagues, one from the American Embassy, and the other with whom I am writing a book, love to shop the slightly used clothing stores, but I enjoy the peace of the place, just sitting in an open-air café with an expresso while they try on dresses.