Stephan Clark

When they came for me, I didn’t hear a knock on my door. This was Ukraine, where Stalin spared no family a story of the gulag or firing squad, but the time was now, not then. It started with a ring on my Nokia mobile phone.

It was K.’s voice I heard on the other end, the voice of my faculty liaison at Kharkov National University. She was a tall, thin woman, born only three months prior to Stalin’s death, who favored long sleeveless ankle-length dresses that she’d fill with warm sweaters. Her hair was short and red and often pushed this way or that by her neurotic hands, and when she spoke it was with a voice that swung between two tonal modulations:
apology and accusation. Currently she was nearing the first.

“It’s not that I don’t like the stories,” she said. “I do, they’re quite impressive and artfully done, and I can see you’ve chosen them for a reason.”

She was speaking about my course reader, which I had assembled—without reason or logic, I’d feared—for a class in English literature and creative writing. Teaching wasn’t the reason I’d been awarded a Fulbright fellowship; I’d come to Eastern Ukraine to research and write about the mail-order bride industry, which had been responsible for (and this figure staggered me the first time I read it in a Kyiv newspaper) half of all Ukrainian tourism since the late 1990s. But back when my grant application seemed destined to failure due to my lack of fluency in Russian or Ukrainian, I’d offered, in the hold of a desperate parentheses, to also teach. It would make me a more attractive candidate, I knew. They asked that you “give something back to the local community.” And besides, it wasn’t like my time in the classroom wouldn’t also be of some benefit to me. I’d get to know people, be drawn into the local community, and emerge from it all with the right to tell my future employers that I’d led the first writing workshop at the biggest university in Kharkov—if not all of Ukraine. It was, as we say in the States, a win-win situation.

“It’s just,” K. said, “when I saw all these stories were about sex”—and here she paused long enough for me to wonder if in a feverish state I’d accidentally filled my reader with selections from The Best of Penthouse Letters—“I thought: Wow. This is very shocking.”

I stood at the window of my one-room flat, looking down at the trolley bus passing by on Poltavsky Way below. I’d been sick during the weeks running up to my departure, and so instead of meditating over my course reading list, I’d selected a few favorite stories the night before my flight, reached for a couple I’d taught before, and then included a few. more that I thought would be of special interest to my Russian-speaking students: “The Beauty Treatment,” for its depiction of American materialism and its fluency in the teenage vernacular; “Natasha,” because it was written by a Latvian émigré who’d grown up in the Soviet Union (and didn’t have a misplaced word in it); and “Love Lessons, Mondays, 9 a.m.,” because its author left Russia in 1994 without knowing much English, only to wind up in the pages of The New Yorker less than four years after writing her first story. “Inspiring,” I’d thought I’d tell my class. “Jealous,” I’d thought I’d think.

“And then this Stalin story,” K. said.

Her voice had reached accusation now. I moved the phone from one ear to another. I’d been promised complete control. K. had assured me of this. Even after I arrived and said I’d be willing to talk about the stories I’d selected, she refused, asking only that I get the pages in their proper order before handing them over so they could be made available to my classes. After all, she, too, had participated in the Fulbright program, taking a grant to a Midwestern university to work on a dissertation about the linguistics of lying. She knew. She understood the purpose of an intercultural exchange. It was meant to shake things up, to make the students and even the faculty uncomfortable, to introduce new ideas. And so after being reminded of this, I didn’t dare mention that I’d been having second thoughts about Nathan Englander’s “The Twenty-seventh Man.” Yes, it was a story about twentyseven Jewish writers unjustly sent before Stalin’s firing squad. But to ask her permission to assign this—to ask her permission to have my students contemplate the full force and magnitude of Uncle Joe’s mustache—it’d be no different than asking a professor at Ole Miss if it was okay to bring up slavery and Jim Crow. And so I held my tongue, glad we had reached this agreement. But now?

“Well,” she said, “maybe we shouldn’t be talking about this here.”


You can read A Literary Purge in its entirety in issue 3 of Swink.

Stephan Clark is currently living in Ukraine on a Fulbright fellowship. His fiction can be found in recent or forthcoming issues of The Cincinnati Review, The Portland Review, Fourteen Hills, Night Train, Barrelhouse, and Drunken Boat. He is at work on a novel and a short story collection, the latter of which is set against the backdrop of Russian history and spans from the time of Peter the Great to the “mail-order brides” of the post-Soviet breakup.


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