The second I set eyes on Hana Ullmanova, my teacher for “American Literature from the Czech Perspective,” I knew I would like her. She had a grim face, salt-and-pepper hair, and varied her wardrobe between three outfits. Her favorite colors were black and white and when she smiled, it was usually by accident, such as here in a photo of us together:
I had an intellectual-style crush on Hana (see Edna O’Brien’s “Sister Imelda” or Muriel Spark’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie).
On the first day, she gave us the publishing history of American literature in the Czech Republic. With Kafka's photo plastered all around Prague, I pictured the Czech people reading only dark, brooding subjects and did not expect these title to pop up in the mix:
During communist rule, socialist realism was approved for wide distribution. Libraries stocked Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath , but only library records would tell if people read them or if copies just sat on the shelves....
Much of American literature was viewed as suspect during the height of Communist rule in Prague. In 1985, when Hana first started studying American Literature, people like her were regarded with suspicion and as a possible threat to the government. She took a risk studying this taboo topic. Her father had to drive her to a school far from her village when she started studying American lit as local teachers didn’t offer such courses.
I liked picturing Hana the rebel off to study Henry James and Eudora Welty as a subversive activity.
Continuing her rebellious streak, Hana had children late, waiting until she was 39.
"I'm like an elephant," she said, referring to the views of people from her native town in Moravia. Most women in her town would be grandmothers, possibly even great-grandmothers at 39.
Hana the elephant. She said this without cracking a smile.