Belarussian Journalist Wins Nobel Prize in Literature

Belarussian journalist Svetlana Alexievich has won the 2015 Nobel Prize in Literature. She’s the 14th woman and one of the few nonfiction writers to have won the award.

Via The New York Times:

Ms. 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.

“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,” Alexievich writes on her Web site:

I tried this and that and finally I chose a genre where human voices speak for themselves. Real people speak in my books about the main events of the age such as the war, the Chernobyl disaster, and the downfall of a great empire. Together they record verbally the history of the country, their common history, while each person puts into words the story of his/her own life.

Her work delves into oral histories that are often harrowing.

Take this excerpt from Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster, about the 1986 nuclear disaster. In it, the wife of a fireman who responded the meltdown describes her husband’s death:

At the morgue they said, “Want to see what we’ll dress him in?” I did! They dressed him up in formal wear, with his service cap. They couldn’t get shoes on him because his feet had swelled up. They had to cut up the formal wear, too, because they couldn’t get it on him, there wasn’t a whole body to put it on. The last two days in the hospital—pieces of his lungs, of his liver, were coming out of his mouth. He was choking on his internal organs. I’d wrap my hand in a bandage and put it in his mouth, take out all that stuff. It’s impossible to talk about. It’s impossible to write about. And even to live through. They couldn’t get a single pair of shoes to fit him. They buried him barefoot.

The piece can be read in full at the Paris Review:

Writing in the New Yorker, Masha Gessen calls Alexievich’s work an act of “un-remembering” given, official narratives.

“Her work might also be described as oral history by excavation,” Gessen writes, and recalls interviewing Alexievich about her technique after her oral history of Chernobyl came out:

The first hours — and subsequent hours and hours — of an interview, Alexievich explained, are always taken up by the rehearsing of received memories: newspaper accounts, other people’s stories, and whatever else corresponds to a public narrative that has inevitably already taken hold. Only beneath all those layers is personal memory found.

“For the past 30 or 40 years, [Alexievich’s] been busy mapping the Soviet and post-Soviet individual,” said Sara Danius, Permanent Secretary of the Swedish Academy, in an interview after announcing the award. “But it’s not really a history of events. It’s a history of emotions. What she’s offering us is really an emotional world. So these historical events that she’s covering in her various books – for example the Chernobyl disaster or the Soviet war in Afghanistan – are, in a way, just pretexts for exploring the Soviet individual and the post-Soviet individual. She’s conducted thousands of interviews with children, women and men, and in this way she’s offering us a history of a human being about whom we didn’t know that much.

Image: Svetlana Alexievich.

Michael Cervieri
michael@thefjp.org

Michael Cervieri is the creator of the Future Journalism Project where he explores better ways to produce, consume and understand the news. He has taught Internet and Mobile communication technologies at both the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and the university’s School of International and Public Affairs. (Twitter | Contact)