“Show me a fantasy novel about Chernobyl – there is not one! Reality is more Because fantastic”.
– Svetlana Alexievich, Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster
The winner of the 2015 Nobel prize in literature, Svetlana Alexievich, may appear to be an unfamiliar name to many English-speaking readers. But her work has given voice to survivors of conflict and disaster all over the former Soviet Union, shedding light into the emotional lives of people she has met from Chernobyl to Kabul. She says in her blog that 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 “epic chorus”.
Alexievich shows how people survive tragedy, revealing a universal, metaphysical dimension to extremely localised suffering. Through her subjects’ stories, readers may come to know how suffering is also something that can bring people closer to one another if they are willing to take a risk and listen. Her accounts of women’s experiences in the second world war, the Soviet-Afghan war and, most famously, the Chernobyl disaster have fearlessly examined the human suffering that Soviet and post-Soviet regimes have sought to whitewash. This made her subject to political persecution. She spent a decade away from her native Belarus after being forced to emigrate under pressure from the Lukashenko regime in 2000
Alexievich has been given the award “for her polyphonic writings, a monument to suffering and courage in our time,” in the words of the judges. Permanent secretary Sara Danius paid tribute to the power of her work.
For the past 30 or 40 years she’s been busy mapping the Soviet and post-Soviet individual. It’s a history of emotions. She offers us an emotional world. 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.
A bit of history
Alexievich 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. 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 went on to a career in journalism, and has written short stories and reportage, in which she’s covered the Chernobyl catastrophe, the Soviet war in Afghanistan and many other events – all based on thousands of interviews with witnesses.
She has been persecuted by Alexander Lukashenko’s dictatorial regime, which made her leave Belarus in 2000. She went on to live in Paris, Gothenburg and Berlin, and could return to Minsk in 2011.