The Nobel Prize in Literature 2015 was awarded to Svetlana Alexievich "for her polyphonic writings, a monument to suffering and courage in our time". But one has to wonder how her own suffering translates into her books. I hope to read one day her biography written by someone as talented as she is!
Svetlana Alexiyevich, a Belarusian investigative journalist and non-fiction prose writer who writes in Russian. Awarded Nobel Prize in 2015. Alexievich has never made any public statements about her personal life.
She was born 31 May 1948 in the Ukrainian town of Ivano-Frankovsk into the family of a serviceman. Her father is Belarusian and her mother is Ukrainian. When the father had completed his military service, the family moved to Belarus, and settled in a village where both Father and Mother worked as schoolteachers. (The father's grandfather was also a rural schoolteacher.) In many interviews she talks about life there as life without man: one could hear just voices of women and their laments. She grew up hearing about death and war.
Already in her school days she wrote poetry and contributed articles to the school newspaper. After finishing school Alexiyevich worked as a reporter on the local paper in the town of Narovl, Gomel Region. At that time she needed two years work record (as was the rule in those days) in order to enroll in the Department of Journalism of Minsk University, entering it in 1967. She studied journalism at the University of Minsk between 1967 and 1972. During her university years she won several awards at the republican and all-Union competitions for scholarly and students' papers.
After her graduation she was referred to a local newspaper in Brest near the Polish border, because of her oppositional views. At the same time Alexiyevich taught at the local school. She was torn between various career options: to continue the family tradition of school teaching, scholarly work, or journalism. But after a year she returned to Minsk and began an employment at the newspaper Rural Newspaper. For many years, she collected materials for her first book War's Unwomanly Face, which is based on interviews with hundreds of women who participated in the Second World War. This work is the first in Alexievich's grand cycle of books, "Voices of Utopia", where life in the Soviet Union is depicted from the perspective of the individual. Several years later she took the job of a correspondent for the literary magazine Neman and was soon promoted to the head of the section for non-fiction.
She tried her voice in various genres, such as the short story, essay, and reportage. It was the famous Byelorussian writer Ales Adamovich who made a decisive influence on Svetlana's choice, particularly his books I'm from the Fiery Village and The Book of the Siege. He wrote them jointly with other authors but the idea and its development were entirely his, and it was a new genre for both Byelorussian and Russian literature. Adamovich was looking for the right definition of the genre, calling it "collective novel", "novel-oratorio", "novel-evidence", "people talking about themselves", "epic chorus", to name a few of his appellations. Alexiyevich has always named Adamovich as her main teacher. He helped her to find a path of her own.
In one of her interviews she said: "I've been searching for a literary method that would allow the closest possible approximation to real life. Reality has always attracted me like a magnet, it tortured and hypnotized me, I wanted to capture it on paper. So I immediately appropriated this genre of actual human voices and confessions, witness evidences and documents. This is how I hear and see the world - as a chorus of individual voices and a collage of everyday details. This is how my eye and ear function. In this way all my mental and emotional potential is realized to the full. In this way I can be simultaneously a writer, reporter, sociologist, psychologist and preacher."
In 1983 she completed her book The Unwomanly Face of the War. For two years it was sitting at a publishing house but was not published. Alexiyevich was accused of pacifism, naturalism, de-glorification of the heroic Soviet woman. Such accusations could have quite serious consequences in those days. All the more so since already after her first book I've Left My Village (monologues of people who abandoned their native parts) she has already had a reputation of a dissident journalist with anti-Soviet sentiments. On order of the Byelorussian Central Committee of the Communist Party Alexiyevich's already composed book was destroyed and she was accused of anti-Communist and anti-government views. She was threatened with losing her job. They told her: "How can you work on our magazine with such alien views? And why are you not yet a member of the Communist Party?"
Deemed unpatriotic by authorities, her early works remained unpublished until the political reformation in the mid-1980s initiated by Mikhail Gorbachev’s liberalizing policy of perestroika. In 1985 The Unwomanly Face of the War came out simultaneously in Minsk and in Moscow. In subsequent years it was repeatedly reprinted; all in all more than two million copies were sold out. This novel, which the author calls "the novel-chorus", is made up of monologues of women in the war speaking about the unknown aspects of the Second World War that had never been related before. The book was hailed by the war writers as well as the public.
In the same year her second book came out: The Last Witnesses: 100 Unchildlike Stories, which has also languished unpublished for the same reasons (pacifism, failure to meet ideological standards). This book also ran into many reprints and was acclaimed by numerous critics, who called both books "a discovery in the genre of war prose". The war seen through women's and children's eyes opened up a whole new area of feelings and ideas.
The 40th anniversary of the war was marked by the theatre production of The Unwomanly Face of the War at the renowned Taganka Theatre (staged by Anatoly Efros.) The Omsk Drama Theatre received the State Prize for their production of The Unwomanly Face of the War. The play based on this novel was running in many theatres around the country. A cycle of documentary films was produced on the basis of The Unwomanly Face of the War. The film cycle was awarded with the State Prize, and received the Silver Dove at the Leipzig Festival of Documentary Films. Alexiyevich also received many other prizes for this work.
Published in 1989, Zinky Boys: Soviet Voices from a Forgotten War exposed the hidden, undocumented futility of the Soviet intervention (1979–89) in the Afghan War (1978–92) and served to demystify the role of nationalism and Soviet autonomy. The title referred to the zinc coffins used by the military to return the dead. To collect material for the book Alexiyevich was traveling around the country for four years to meet war victims' mothers and veterans of the Afghan war. She also visited the war zone in Afghanistan. The book was a bombshell and many people could not forgive the author for de-mythologizing the war. In the first place the military and Communist papers attacked Alexiyevich. In 1992, court proceedings have been opened against the author and her book in Minsk. The democratically minded public rose in defense of the book. The case was closed. Later several documentary films and plays were based on this book.
In 1993, she published Enchanted with Death, a book about attempted suicides as a result of the downfall of their socialist mainland. They were people who felt inseparable from the socialist ideals, who were unable to accept the new order, the new country with its newly interpreted history. The book was adapted for the cinema (The Cross).
In 1997 she published Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster, which confronted the devastating consequences of the Chernobyl disaster as told by witnesses and victims of the catastrophic nuclear power station accident. The Chernobyl nuclear disaster of 1986, is a very personal matter for the author: her sister was killed and her mother was blinded by that catastrophe. After that she adopted her niece and lives with her.
Neverthless, Alexievich said that “Voices from Chernobyl” was her easiest book to write: nothing like those events had happened before, “so people had no culture to protect them.” She began researching the book almost immediately after the disaster, in 1986, so she was able to capture raw feeling on the page. “I realized you have to follow history,” she said. “This genre works for epic stories only.” Still, the events serve to get at the hidden heart of a person. “I work to create an image of time and the person who lived through it.”
Labeled a dissident journalist with anti-Soviet sentiments, she experienced intimidation as well as harassment: her writing was subjected to censorship or banned from publication, she was publicly denounced for “defamation” and “slander,” and her opposition to the political regime in Belarus forced her into an extended period of self-imposed exile. She 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 nine-story concrete apartment bloc in central Minsk. Its standard-size kitchen—which is to say, quite small—is outfitted with a couch, because it’s the room where, in keeping with the Soviet intelligentsia tradition, all the important conversations happen. When Alexievich is there, her kitchen is indeed the site of many important conversations. 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.
She returned to Minsk a couple of years ago, admitting that her plan to wait out the reign of the Belarusian dictator, Alexander Lukashenko, had failed. This project proved too long, even for her.
Nevertheless, she persisted on her chosen path. She enlarged the scope of her creative vision with the publication in 2013 of “Secondhand Time”, which examined the legacy of communism in the aftermath of the demise of the Soviet Union.
"If you look back at the whole of our history, both Soviet and post-Soviet, it is a huge common grave and a blood bath. An eternal dialogue of the executioners and the victims. The accursed Russian questions: what is to be done and who is to blame. The revolution, the gulags, the Second World War, the Soviet-Afghan war hidden from the people, the downfall of the great empire, the downfall of the giant socialist land, the land-utopia, and now a challenge of cosmic dimensions - Chernobyl. This is a challenge for all the living things on earth. Such is our history. And this is the theme of my books, this is my path, my circles of hell, from man to man."
Alexiyevich's book have been published in many countries: USA, Germany, UK, Japan, Sweden, France, China, Vietnam, Bulgaria, India -- 19 countries in all.
She has to her name 21 scripts for documentary films and three plays, which were staged in France, Germany, and Bulgaria.
Alexiyevich has been awarded with many international awards, including the Kurt Tucholsky Prize for the "Courage and Dignity in Writing" (the Swedish PEN), the Andrei Sinyavsky Prize "For the Nobility in Literature", the independent Russian prize "Triumph", the Leipzig Prize "For the European Mutual Understanding- 1998", the German prizes "For the Best Political Book" and the Herder Prize.
Alexiyevich has thus defined the main thrust of her life and her writings: "I always aim to understand how much humanity is contained in each human being, and how I can protect this humanity in a person."
These questions acquire a new implication in connection with the latest events in Beloruss where a military-socialist regime is being restored, a new post-Soviet dictatorship. And now Alexiyevich is again unwelcome to the authorities in her country because of her views and her independence. She belongs to the opposition which also includes the country's finest intellectuals.
Her books add up to a literary chronicle of the emotional history of the Soviet and post-Soviet person. She continues to develop her original genre. In each new book it is employed in a new way. One can't help recalling Lev Tolstoy's maxim to the effect that it is more interesting to follow real life than to invent it. "Many things in man still remain a riddle for art," says Alexiyevich.
For her 50th anniversary a two-volume collection of her works came out. In the introduction the critic Lev Anninsky says: "This is a unique work, which has probably been undertaken for the first time in Russian, or rather in Soviet and post-Soviet culture: the author has traced and recorded the lives of several generations of Soviet people, and the very reality of the 70 years of socialism: from the 1917 Revolution through the Civil War, the youth and hypnotism of the great utopia, Stalin's terror and the gulags, the Great Patriotic War, and the years of the downfall of the socialist mainland up to the present times. This is a living history told by the people themselves and recorded and selected by a talented and honest chronicler."
Alexiyevich is currently finishing her book The Wonderful Deer of the Eternal Hunt made up of love stories. Men and women of different generations tell their personal stories. "It occurred to me that I've been writing books about how people kill one another, how they die. But this is not the whole of human life. Now I'm writing about how people love one another. And again I ask myself the same question, this time through the prism of love: who are we and what country we are living in. Love is what brings us into this world. I want to love people. Although it's increasingly hard to love them. And getting harder."
Thank you for our last meeting! I have to say I've enjoyed the book soooo much! There are still may things to discover in this text and I believe that's what makes it a true masterpiece. I will post on our blog about it as soon as posible!
Meantime, I would suggest you to start reading our next book: Voices from Chernobyl by Swetlana Alexievich. It´s 252 pages, but as a non fiction it might be different for you, maybe you need more time (or less, who knows wink emoticon ).... If you have any problems with getting the copy, send me an email and I'll try to help you.
Our next meeting is on February, 8th. Same place, same time as always smile emoticon
We don't need the destruction of entire cities to know what it's like to survive a catastrophe. Whenever we lose someone we love deeply we experience the end of the world as we know it. The central idea of the story is not merely that the apocalypse is coming, but that it's coming for you. And there's nothing you can do about it.
Dale Bailey, "The End of the World As We Know It"
The reason I like apocalyptic fiction so much is that it is, in fact, fiction. A half-dozen pre-human mass extinctions notwithstanding, the real world has never actually ended. And so, for me, apocalyptic stories are always metaphors - for loneliness and isolation, for fear of the future, for the possibilities of new beginnings, for first-world guilt, for community and cooperation, for homesickness, for grief, for loss, for thanatos and the destructive impulse. All things which I have experienced. All things which make apocalyptic stories - so bizarre and shocking and unfathomable on the surface - deeply resonant for me.
That all evaporates when it's no longer fiction. If I were to say I "related" to a book about a nuclear catastrophe which killed and continues to kill uncountable hundreds of humans, animals, plants, and ecosystems, which rendered a quarter of an entire country uninhabitable for the foreseeable future, which destroyed lives beyond repair, which crippled an empire... if I, well-fed and cozy here in my middle-class American apartment, were to say I could relate to that, I'd be an ass. Worse than an ass.
There is a poem I never wrote called "The Eruption of Mt. Baker", which was part of a poetry collection I also never wrote called Separation Anxiety. I am not a poet, or not a good one, which is why this was never actually written, but several years back I spent a lot of time writing drafts and then ripping them up. It was based on a recurring nightmare I used to have: We're driving away from home for the last time - I'm ten years old, and I'm sitting in the back of my parents' minivan, playing this handheld electronic baseball game. We're moving 2500 miles away, but I can't even be bothered to look out the window at our house, our neighborhood, our town, our state for the last time, even though I know we'll never come back. Never in the next few years, anyway, which for a 10-year-old might as well be forever. This part isn't a dream. It's the morning of June 22, 1994, and it's almost unbearably sunny.
In the dream, this is all the same, except the mountain, Mt. Baker, is erupting as we're driving away, the ash and molten lava covering everything up behind us as we go, and the flow is following us, chasing us, as we calmly drive away, never more than a few feet behind the car. Still, I never look up from the game. My dad is whistling in the driver's seat. Everything I ever knew is being destroyed, but none of us even notice. We never turn around.
Of course, we've been back since then. I live only about 100 miles away now, and it's not such a big deal to drive up there if I ever feel the need. But it's hard to go home these days, and it keeps getting harder - as the things I remember change or disappear, as the people get older and drift away, as it becomes less and less recognizable as home, only this place that meant everything to me once, and is now just a graveyard for painful memories.
My parents and little brother were in town over the holidays this year, and along with my sister, the five of us drove up there to see some old friends. But as soon as the scenery along the highway changed from generic to imbued, I started to get queasy again. Because it's not enough to go back to the place - home isn't just a place. It's a place and a time, and we're 17 years too late now. 17 and a half. It just keeps getting further and further away, and there's no way back, anymore.
Another poem in the nonexistent collection was going to be called "The Excavation of Everson", where I went home years later and began chipping away the layers of volcanic rock, to find the town perfectly preserved within, Pompeii-like, with tiny hollow molds in the shape of my ten-year-old friends. Hollow human molds of my family, my siblings, and me, still there. Still there. Somehow, despite everything that had happened in the intervening years, we had never really left at all.
I don't know why this fantasy appealed to me so much. Everything perfectly preserved, but dead. But I would just picture myself sitting in my old bedroom again, everything the way I remembered it. The sun in the perfect sky, coming in through the window, blazing like it did on June 22, 1994. And I'd find that little handheld game, wherever I used to keep it. And I'd smash it into tiny pieces.
We are all prisoners of time, and we all lose our homes, our pasts, the people we love, and eventually ourselves. Bit by bit, the things we remember go away. The world is always ending, it's just usually so slow and subtle we never notice until we're forced to: a move, a rite of passage, a birth, a death.
A war. An attack. A revolution. A nuclear catastrophe. An apocalypse.
This is why I read fiction about the end of the world.
What happened at Chernobyl is real, and so unlike the other apocalyptic books I've read, I can't appropriate it as a metaphor for my own life. What these people went through is ghastly and unimaginable, and it's the result of an inept and corrupt government. It could have been prevented. It could have been mitigated. This book should be read, because what happened to these people should not be swept under the rug, as the Russian government has tried to do for over 25 years. We have a responsibility to hear their stories, to know what really happened, to keep it from happening again.
And as for me, I know that imagining events in my own life as if they were the result of a natural disaster is trite. It's cheap. It's adolescent hyperbole. I can go home whenever I want - there is no lava, there is no radiation.
In Ukraine and Belarus, many people returned to their irradiated homes shortly after the disaster. Many never left. They moved back into their houses, they began to farm the earth. Living there is a death sentence, and they know it. They could leave, but they don't.
Why would they do this? I can't really know, and I can't really relate to their reasons. It was a different time, a different culture, a different set of values.
"Even if it's poisoned with radiation, it's still my home. There's no place else they need us. Even a bird loves its nest . . ."
"During the day we lived in the new place, and at night we lived at home - in our dreams."
"I washed the house, bleached the stove. You need to leave some bread on the table and some salt, a little plate and three spoons. As many spoons as there are souls in the house. All so we could come back."
Monologues by Those Who Returned
2 January 2012