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Svetlana Alexievich wins Nobel Prize in Literature

2015.10.11 11:32:40

Sara Danius, permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy, announced on Thursday that the 2015 Nobel Prize for Literature was awarded to the Belarussian writer Svetlana Alexievich.

vetlana Alexievich, a Belarussian journalist and prose writer known for deeply researched works about female Russian soldiers in World War II and the aftermath of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, won the Nobel Prize in Literature on Thursday “for her polyphonic writings, a monument to suffering and courage in our time,” the Swedish Academy announced.

Ms. Alexievich, 67, is the 14th woman to win the literature prize, and one of just a few Nobel laureates to be recognized for nonfiction. While the Nobel committee has occasionally awarded the prize to philosophers and historians, including Bertrand Russell and Winston Churchill, it has been more than half a century since a dedicated nonfiction writer has won what many regard as literature’s most prestigious award.
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The selection of Ms. Alexievich was lauded as a long overdue corrective, and as a high point for journalism as a literary art. By placing her work alongside those of international literary giants like Gabriel García Márquez, Albert Camus, Alice Munro and Toni Morrison, the Nobel committee has anointed a genre that is often viewed as a vehicle for information rather than an aesthetic endeavor.


Ms. Alexievich’s works, which delve into collective and individual memories, straddle that divide.

“It’s a true achievement not only in material but also in form,” said Sara Danius, permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy, adding that Ms. Alexievich’s work amounts to “a history of emotions — a history of the soul, if you wish.”

The stories Ms. Alexievich tells are drawn from historical facts and oral histories, but have a lyrical quality and a distinct style and perspective. She is best known for giving voice to women and men who lived through major events like the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan from 1979 to 1989 and the Chernobyl nuclear disaster of 1986, in which her sister was killed and her mother was blinded.

“What she’s doing, there’s a lot of art in it,” said Philip Gourevitch, a writer for The New Yorker who has called on the Nobel judges to recognize nonfiction as literature. “She has a voice that runs through her work that’s much more than the sum of the voices she’s collected.”

Many of her books are woven together from detailed oral histories. Perhaps her most acclaimed work is “War’s Unwomanly Face” (1988), 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.

Ms. Alexievich has said that her practice of blending journalism and literary flourishes 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 in an interview posted on the website of Dalkey Archive Press, which published her book “Voices From Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster” in English. “Each person offers a text of his or her own.”

Ms. Alexievich’s work fits into a longstanding literary tradition of deeply reported narrative nonfiction written with the sweep and the style of a novel. Practitioners includes luminaries like Truman Capote, Norman Mailer and Joan Didion and, more recently, writers like Katherine Boo and Adrian Nicole LeBlanc. Fans of Ms. Alexievich’s books say their literary quality helps them to transcend the particular historical circumstances she is exploring, lending an element of universality to her stories.

“If this were purely for literature, rather than this mix of nonfiction 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,” said John O’Brien, the publisher of Dalkey Archive Press.

In a statement released by her agent, Ms. Alexievich said she was “very happy” but also overwhelmed by the pressure that comes with such a distinction.

“The greater part of my path has been traveled, but much work remains ahead of me,” she said. “Now I cannot let myself slide.”

The Nobel Prize in Literature is given in recognition of a writer’s entire body of work rather than a single title. While the prize has been awarded over the years to international literary giants, the past decade has seen the academy regularly give it to European writers not widely read in English, including the French novelist J. M. G. Le Clézio (2008), the Romanian-German writer Herta Müller (2009), the Swedish poet and translator Tomas Transtromer (2011) and the French novelist Patrick Modiano (2014). Honoring Ms. Alexievich continues that pattern, although as a journalist, she stands apart from recent laureates.

Born to a Belarussian father and a Ukrainian mother in what is now Ivano-Frankivsk, Ukraine, Ms. Alexievich studied journalism in college, and after graduation, worked at a newspaper in Brest, near the Polish border. Later, she began searching for a literary form that would allow her to capture the lives and voices of the individuals at the center of historic events. She gravitated toward oral history, which allowed her to adopt her subject’s voices like a chameleon and to reflect a diverse range of experience.

“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 on her website. “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.”

Ms. Alexievich often took risks by taking on contentious elements of Soviet history and challenging the official narrative.

“She was seen as a traitor, as unpatriotic,” said Gerald Howard, the executive editor at Doubleday. He published Ms. Alexievich’s book “Zinky Boys: Soviet Voices From a Forgotten War,” about the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan and the trauma experienced by the Russian soldiers and their families, when he was a senior editor at W. W. Norton. The title refers to the zinc coffins that dead Russian soldiers were sent home in. “She was vilified all over the place for this book,” he said, “and she didn’t back down for a second.”

Because of her criticism of the government in Belarus, a former Soviet republic, Ms. Alexievich has periodically lived abroad, in Italy, France, Germany and Sweden, among other places. For much of her adult life, though, she has lived in Minsk, the capital of Belarus. In a 2013 interview with German television, she said she hoped the international attention would give her “a degree of protection” in Belarus, where press freedom is under constant threat.


(The New York Times)

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