Svetlana Alexievich wins Nobel Prize for Literature

Belarussian journalist and prose writer’s work a blend of literature and journalism

Belarussian journalist and writer Svetlana Alexievich, the 2015 Nobel literature winner, following a news conference in Minsk, Belarus on Thursday.  Photograph: Sergei Grits/AP

Belarussian journalist and writer Svetlana Alexievich, the 2015 Nobel literature winner, following a news conference in Minsk, Belarus on Thursday. Photograph: Sergei Grits/AP


Svetlana Alexievich, a Belarussian journalist and prose writer, won the Nobel Prize for Literature on Thursday “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. 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 the secong World War, the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan that lasted from 1979 to 1989 and the Chernobyl nuclear disaster of 1986.

“She’s devised a new kind of literary genre,” said Danius, adding, “It’s a true achievement not only in material but also in form.” Perhaps her most acclaimed book is “War’s Unwomanly Face” (1988), based on interviews with hundreds of women who took part in the second World War. The book is the first in a grand cycle, “Voices of Utopia,” that depicted life in the Soviet Union from the point of view of ordinary citizens.

In the United States, Alexievich is best known for the oral history “Voices From Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster” which was translated by the writer Keith Gessen and published in 2005 by Dalkey Archive Press. The book, which won the National Book Critics Circle Award, is a compilation of interviews with survivors of the nuclear reactor accident. She spent 10 years visiting the Chernobyl zone, and conducted more than 500 interviews.

In an interview posted on the press’s 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.”

“By means of her extraordinary method, a carefully composed collage of human voices, Alexievich deepens our comprehension of an entire era,” said the academy. The Nobel 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 Garcia Marquez, Albert Camus and Toni Morrison, as well as to more obscure authors.

Global following

Over the past decade, the academy has regularly conferred the prize on 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 nonfiction writer, she stands out from the recent crop of laureates. Her other books in English include “Voices From Chernobyl: Chronicle of the Future” and “Zinky Boys: Soviet Voices From a Forgotten War”.

In a 2012 essay in The New York Review of Books, Ahmed Rashid praised the courage of journalists who chronicled the invasion of Afghanistan and the quagmire that followed.

“As one might expect, there are hardly any Soviet accounts available on how the Soviet Army behaved in Afghanistan,” he wrote. “Only two such books were translated into English. Both ‘Zinky Boys: Soviet Voices From a Forgotten War,’ by Svetlana Alexievich, and ‘The Hidden War: A Russian Journalist’s Account of the Soviet War in Afghanistan,’ by Artyom Borovik, were written by journalists who became dissidents, and both were highly critical of the Soviet officer class and the Soviet system.

“Both had much to say about the suffering of ordinary soldiers, many of whom were wounded. Both books asked why the Red Army was in Afghanistan, just as many Americans today are asking the same question about their army’s presence in Afghanistan.”

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. The academy said the most significant influences on Alexievich’s work were the notes by the nurse and author Sofia Fedorchenko (1888-1959) of soldiers’ experiences in the first World War, and the reports by the Belarussian author Ales Adamovich (1927-1994) from the second World War.

Because of her criticism of the regime in Belarus, a former Soviet republic, Alexievich has periodically lived abroad, in Italy, France, Germany and Sweden, among other places. The prize of eight million Swedish kronor (€850,000) was announced in Stockholm by Danius.

(New York Times service)