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Why reporter Svetlana Alexievich won the Nobel Prize in literature: She’s a teller of secrets

Svetlana Alexievich

Svetlana Alexievich attends an Oct. 8 news conference in Minsk, Belarus, following the announcement that she had won the Nobel Prize in literature. 

(Maxim Malinovsky / AFP/Getty Images)

Svetlana Alexievich is a voice of the people. The Belarusian journalist who won the 2015 Nobel Prize in literature for a body of work that she has described as “a history of human feelings” has long written not only as a witness, but also as a collector of witnesses, a framer of testimonies, a teller of the secret stories as opposed to the official histories.

“We’ve always had this situation in Belarussia, and partly in Russia too, that the official version has little to do with how ordinary people see things. What is the main aim of the authorities? They always try hard to protect themselves,” she explained in an interview for the website of Dalkey Archive Press, the Illinois-based independent publisher that released her 2005 investigation, “Voices of Chernobyl.

The people, on the other hand, “saw the truth that was hidden from them.”

This truth, or set of truths — “[w]hat people thought, understood and remembered during the event. What they believed in or mistrusted, what illusions, hopes and fears they experienced. This is impossible to imagine or invent, at any rate in such multitude of real details” — occupies the center of Alexievich’s writing, going back to her earliest books.

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In “War’s Unwomanly Face,” published in 1988, she offered an oral history of World War II, through the eyes of women; “Voices of Chernobyl” took a similar approach to the aftermath of the Soviet nuclear meltdown there. “She’s an oral historian,” said novelist and editor Keith Gessen, who translated “Voices of Chernobyl” into English, comparing her to Studs Terkel, “but a bit less dry.”

Gessen’s comment suggests what is perhaps most compelling about her selection as Nobel laureate — not that she is a nonfiction writer, which has been rare enough in the history of the prize, but that she is a journalist.

Journalism, after all, tends to be maligned when it comes to literature, despite the work of writers such as Alexievich, Masha Gessen, Anna Politkovskaya and Michael Herr. The rough draft of history, it has been called, a “middle-class penchant,” in the pointed phrase of Norman Mailer, “for collecting tales, stories, legends, accounts of practical jokes, details of negotiation, bits of memoir — all those capsules of fiction that serve the middle class.”

Alexievich puts Mailer’s specious argument to shame. For her, rather, the standard bearer is Finley Peter Dunne: to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable, to speak truth to power.

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For her efforts, she spent a decade in exile after taking on the regime of Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko. She also has been an outspoken critic of Russian President Vladimir Putin, especially in regard to his incursion into the Ukraine. “It’s not just Putin,” she said in a 2014 interview, referring to Russia’s imperial tendencies. “It’s the Putin who is in every Russian.”

What such a statement suggests is the depth of her vision, her understanding, the idea that societies are built from the inside out. How to uncover them? By footwork, a weaving of voices, the hard work of gathering information from the source.

“We need to have a book,” Alexievich insisted in 2005 at New York’s PEN World Voices Festival, “where lots of people can make a contribution — one person may speak half a page, someone else may have a paragraph or five pages that they can contribute and that this is a way of conveying what’s going on today.”

The result is something of a hybrid genre, what Sara Danius, permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy, refers to as “a new kind of literary genre,” and Alexievich herself calls “the novel of voices.”

“You might say,” she explained at PEN World Voices, “that my work is just simply lying on the ground and I go and I gather it and I pick it up and I put it together. If Flaubert said ‘I am a man of the pen — or the plume,’ I could say of myself that I am a person of the ear.”

She is also — journalist that she is — starkly practical, seeing the Nobel, which carries a cash award of $1.1 million, primarily in terms of the work it might enable her to achieve.

“I have two ideas for new books, so I’m pleased that I will now have the freedom to work on them,” she told a Swedish news organization Thursday morning, after learning she had been named Nobel laureate.

“I do only one thing: I buy freedom for myself. It takes me a long time to write my books, from five to 10 years.” 

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