Svetlana Alexievich, a Belarussian journalist known for deeply researched works about female Russian soldiers in World War II and the aftermath of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, has won the Nobel prize in literature “for her polyphonic writings, a monument to suffering and courage in our time,” the Swedish Academy announced.
Alexievich, 67, is the 14th woman to win the literature prize and one of the first whose work is mainly non-fiction. Sara Danius, permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy, said she had created “a history of emotions — a history of the soul, if you wish”.
Alexievich’s works often blend literature and journalism. She is best known for giving voice to women and men who lived through major events like the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan that lasted from 1979 to 1989 and the Chernobyl nuclear disaster of 1986, in which her own sister was killed and her mother was blinded.
Reacting to today’s news, Alexievich told the CBT channel, “To become a winner is a huge event. Such an unexpected, almost unsettling feeling. I am thinking now about great Russian writers such as Pasternak.” Alexievich is the sixth winner who writes in Russian.
“She’s devised a new kind of literary genre,” Danius said, adding, “It’s a true achievement not only in material but also in form.”
Perhaps her most acclaimed book is War’s Unwomanly Face, based on interviews with hundreds of women who took part in World War II. The book is the first in a series, “Voices of Utopia”, that depicted life in the Soviet Union from the point of view of ordinary citizens.
“By means of her extraordinary method — a carefully composed collage of human voices — Alexievich deepens our comprehension of an entire era,” the academy said.
When Alexievich got the call that she had won the Nobel Prize, she reportedly exclaimed, “Fantastic!” The award is worth about $1.35 million.
Alexievich, who is half-Ukrainian, has decried Russia’s intervention in Ukraine. Earlier this year, she told an interviewer, “Putin is not a politician. Putin is a KGB agent. And whatever he does is provocations, which KGB is usually involved in.”
Such comments have made her unpopular in the official Russian press. This morning, a reporter with the Kremlin presidential press pool tweeted: “Svetlana Alexievich won the Nobel Prize. Unfortunately, for hating Russia.”
At a news conference today, Alexievich was asked about statements that she hates the Russian people. She replied: “I think that nobody loves the truth. I write what I think. I don’t hate. I love the Russian people. I love the Belarusian people … I love Ukraine very much. And when I was on Maidan, on the square recently, and saw the photos of the Heavenly Hundred, I stood and cried. It’s also my land. So, no. It’s not hate. It’s — how can I say it? — it’s hard to be a truthful person, very hard. And one needn’t fall into this readiness to agree that totalitarian authority always counts on.”
Alexievich often put herself at risk by taking on contentious elements of Soviet history and challenging the official narrative of how events had an impact on ordinary citizens.
“She was seen as a traitor, as unpatriotic,” said Gerald Howard, the executive editor at Doubleday. He published Alexievich’s book Zinky Boys: Soviet Voices From a Forgotten War, about the occupation of Afghanistan, when he was a senior editor at W. W. Norton.
“She was vilified all over the place for this book,” he said, “and she didn’t back down for a second.”
In an interview posted on the Dalkey Archive Press website, Alexievich said her technique of blending journalism and literature was inspired by the Russian tradition of oral storytelling. “I decided to collect the voices from the street, the material lying about around me,” she said. “Each person offers a text of his or her own.”
The Nobel prize in literature, one of the most prestigious prizes in the literary world, is given in recognition of a writer’s entire body of work rather than a single title. It has been awarded over the years to international literary giants like Gabriel García Márquez, Albert Camus and Toni Morrison, as well as to more obscure authors.
Over the past decade, the academy has regularly given the prize to European writers who were not widely read in English, including the French novelist JMG Le Clézio (2008), the Romanian-German writer Herta Müller (2009) and the Swedish poet and translator Tomas Transtromer (2011). Many were surprised last year when the award went to Patrick Modiano, a French novelist who is well known in his native country but did not have much of a global following when the prize was announced.
The award to Alexievich continues that pattern, though, as a non-fiction writer, she stands out from the recent crop of laureates. While the Nobel committee has occasionally awarded the prize to nonfiction writers, including Bertrand Russell and Winston Churchill, it has been decades since a journalist or historian has won. Some prominent writers, among them the New Yorker writer Philip Gourevitch, have called for the Nobel judges to recognise nonfiction as a worthy art form.
Alexievich’s books, which are deeply rooted in fact, have been praised for their literary quality. “She’s a masterful writer,” said John O’Brien, the publisher of Dalkey Archive Press. “If this were purely for literature, rather than this mix of non-fiction and fiction that she works so well, she would deserve to get this prize because she’s so deeply rooted in a sense of humanity and suffering.”
Born to a Belarussian father and a Ukrainian mother in what is now Ivano-Frankivsk, Ukraine, she studied journalism, and after graduation, she began work at a newspaper in Brest, near the Polish border.
On her website, Alexievich described her desire to find a literary form that would allow her to capture the lives and voices of the individuals at the centre of historic events. “I’ve been searching for a genre that would be most adequate to my vision of the world to convey how my ear hears and my eyes see life,” she wrote. “I tried this and that and finally I chose a genre where human voices speak for themselves.”
She added, “But I don’t just record a dry history of events and facts, I’m writing a history of human feelings.”
The academy said the most significant influences on Alexievich’s work were the notes by the nurse and author Sofia Fedorchenko of soldiers’ experiences in World War I, and the reports by the Belarussian author Ales Adamovich from World War II.
In a 2013 interview with German television after winning a German publishing prize, she said she hoped the award would give her “a degree of protection” in Belarus, where press freedom is under constant threat.
“Writers are always vulnerable in every dictatorship,” she said.
Still, she said that she could write her books only at home, in Belarus, “where I can hear what people are talking about on the streets, in cafes, or at the neighbour’s place.”
“I’m always sticking up my antennas and listening,” she said. “If I didn’t hear these voices, the tone of my books wouldn’t be right. So going away permanently was never an option.”
In that same interview, Alexievich recalled how the Chernobyl nuclear disaster had affected her family.
“The only thing that pains me is: Why haven’t we learned from all the suffering?” she said. “Why can’t we say: I don’t want to be a slave anymore. Why do we suffer again and again? Why does this remain our burden and fate?”
“I don’t have an answer,” she added, “but I want my books to motivate readers to think about those questions for themselves.”
Alexievich noted that one of her books is called Second-Hand Time, her diagnosis of the post-Soviet era.
“Books like this are needed today because we live with the feeling of defeat,” she said. “We never wanted to be what we has become of us today.”
She added: “In my view, it’s the writer’s duty whether Russian, Belarussian or post-Soviet to write books like these. If we don’t understand what was wrong with us, we’ll never rid ourselves of our past.”
The New York Times, Washington Post