Parting advice from a writer and friend
By Steven Boyd Saum
Almost three decades ago, before I left California to begin serving as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Ukraine, my friend Clark Blaise passed along the phone number for a fellow writer he knew in Kyiv. Yaroslav Stelmakh was the first Ukrainian to receive a fellowship to attend the International Writing Program at Iowa — a program that Clark directed and, since 1967, has connected well-established writers from around the globe.
Slava Stelmakh (that’s him on the left) was primarily a playwright — and staking out what was newly possible to say and do on the page, stage, and screen following the end of the Soviet regime. That included humor and delight and exploring the boundaries of genre; he wrote the first Ukrainian rock opera, about a comical Napoleon-like figure. He also was heir to a writerly name; his father, Mykhailo Stelmakh, was a well-known writer of novels, poetry, and drama.
The first time I spoke to Slava, I had only been in Ukraine a couple weeks; I was staying with a family on the western outskirts of Kyiv. My host mother, Halia, was positively giddy when Slava called and arranged to pick me up the next morning. For breakfast Slava cooked potatoes and onions and eggs — call it a temporary bachelor’s frittata — and, because a director friend from Kharkiv had just arrived by overnight train, Slava opened a bottle of homemade horilka. It was the beginning of a friendship that has carried on across the years. But it’s one that has had to be nurtured solely by the spirit of Slava for a long time; Slava was killed in a car crash in 2001. Yet he remains someone who exerts a gravitational pull for me and others — writers, singers, educators, and friends who animate the intellectual and cultural life of Ukraine, who sustain an awareness of the past and how it shapes what is possible now and in the future. Then, as now, the Holodomor looms large — that artificial famine in the 1930s, inflicted as an act of genocide.
Once more hunger is a weapon. And day after day, Russian missiles strike apartment buildings and hospitals and other civilian infrastructure. For the people of Ukraine it is literally a battle of darkness and light. For all of us, a reminder: Now is not the time to turn away. It’s a time to raise our voices and lift a hand, however we can.
“Now is not the time to turn away. It’s a time to raise our voices and lift a hand, however we can.”
In September, when Congressman John Garamendi spoke in the House of Representatives of the need to pass the Peace Corps Reauthorization Act, he drew attention to the thousands of Peace Corps Volunteers who had served in Ukraine. It was to drive home the fact that this very personal grassroots work, over decades together in communities, takes on a significance rarely apparent in the moment.
As it happens, the House vote came just days after the special 60th anniversary edition of WorldView picked up top honors at the FOLIO Magazine Awards. Garamendi’s staff worked with colleagues here at NPCA to make sure copies of that edition were placed where representatives wouldn’t miss them—a physical reminder of the legacy of this global Peace Corps endeavor launched by President Kennedy, and of a responsibility we owe to things larger than ourselves.
Also as it happens, I spent a couple days with Clark Blaise in New York around that awards gala. Clark was a gracious host, as always. (It was also a special time for Clark, now 83 years old: He was celebrating the soon-to-be publication of This Time, That Place, a new volume of his selected stories, with a foreword by Margaret Atwood.) We shared stories of Slava Stelmakh, of course — and of threads woven through lives and across continents and decades. When I headed out the door to catch my plane, Clark’s parting words of fatherly advice were: “Be good, be kind, and be lucky.”
One could do worse than take that to heart. Though the last one is tricky, isn’t it? Which puts an even greater imperative on the first two — traits too often in short supply.
As we’ve noted time and again, the past several years have been unprecedented in so many ways. For the Peace Corps community: global evacuation. Reimagining, reshaping, and retooling the Peace Corps. And Volunteers returning to service. Here at NPCA, we were fortunate to have Glenn Blumhorst leading during a critical time — harnessing community efforts with a sense of shared responsibility and possibility. For example, leading the steering committee on the “Peace Corps Connect to the Future” report was Joel Rubin — who had served in the Obama administration, and later came on board at NPCA to serve as vice president for global policy and public affairs. It’s been a privilege to shoulder this common load.
As I step down from leading work on WorldView, I’m grateful for the talent and imagination by all who have contributed to the print and digital magazine. Special thanks to art director extraordinaire Pamela Fogg, whose first edition grappled with the evacuation of Volunteers — and has brought intelligence and vibrance to the magazine. Readers are lucky Pam came on board. And staying.
Steven Boyd Saum served as editor of WorldView and director of strategic communications for NPCA. He was a Volunteer in Ukraine 1994–96.