THE Belarusian writer, Svetlana Alexievich, whose oral histories have recorded thousands of individual voices to map the implosion of the Soviet Union, has won the Nobel Prize for Literature. In announcing her win, the Swedish Academy praised Alexievich’s “polyphonic writings”, describing them as a “monument to suffering and courage in our time”.
She becomes the 14th woman to win the prize since it was first awarded in 1901. The last woman to win, Canada’s Alice Munro, was in 2013.
In a telephone conversation, Alexievich said the award left her with a “complicated” feeling.
According to her, “It immediately evokes such great names as (Ivan) Bunin, (Boris) Pasternak,” she said, referring to Russian writers who have won the prize. “On the one hand, it’s such a fantastic feeling, but it’s also a bit disturbing.”
She said eight million Swedish krona (£775,000) prize would “buy her freedom”.
“It takes me a long time to write my books, from five to 10 years. I have two ideas for new books so I’m pleased that I will now have the freedom to work on them.”
Alexievich was born on May 31, 1948, in the Ukrainian town of Ivano-Frankovsk into a family of a serviceman. Her father is Belarusian and her mother is Ukrainian. After her father’s demobilisation from the army, the family returned to his native Belorussia and settled in a village where both parents worked as schoolteachers. She left school to work as a reporter on the local paper in the town of Narovl.
She has written short stories, essays and reportage but says she found her voice under the influence of the Belorusian writer Ales Adamovich, who developed a genre which he variously called the “collective novel”, “novel-oratorio”, “novel-evidence”, “people talking about themselves” and the “epic chorus”.
According to Sara Danius, the permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy, Alexeivich is an “extraordinary” writer.
“For the past 30 or 40 years, she’s been busy mapping the Soviet and post-Soviet individual,” Danius said, “but it’s not really about a history of events. It’s a history of emotions – what she’s offering us is really an emotional world, so these historical events she’s covering in her various books, for example the Chernobyl disaster, the Soviet war in Afghanistan, these are in a way just pretexts for exploring the Soviet individual and the post-Soviet individual.”
“She’s conducted thousands and thousands of interviews with children, with women and with men, and in this way she’s offering us a history of human beings about whom we didn’t know that much… and at the same time she’s offering us a history of emotions, a history of the soul.”
In Voices From Chernobyl, Alexievich interviews hundreds of those affected by the nuclear disaster, from a woman holding her dying husband despite being told by nurses that “that’s not a person anymore, that’s a nuclear reactor” to the soldiers sent in to help, angry at being “flung … there, like sand on the reactor”.
In Zinky Boys, she gathers voices from the Afghan war: soldiers, doctors, widows and mothers.
Jacques Testard, an editor at Fitzcarraldo, said of Alexievich’s works, “Her books are very unusual and difficult to categorise. They’re technically non-fiction, but English and American publishers are loath to take risks on a book just because it’s good, without something like a Nobel prize.”
Alexievich led the odds for the 2015 award, ahead of Japan’s Haruki Murakami, Kenya’s Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o and the Norwegian playwright Jon Fosse.