The winner of the Nobel Prize in literature went to j-school
Want to win a Nobel Prize in literature? Just go to journalism school. In Minsk.
Case in point: Svetlana Alexievich, winner of the 2015 Nobel Prize in literature. The Guardian's Marta Bausells described her as “the Belarusian writer whose oral histories have recorded thousands of individual voices to map the implosion of the Soviet Union.”
Her books, which she says take about 10 years to write, are based upon thousands of interviews with people – often they are women and children – who lived through disasters such as the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the nuclear meltdown at Chernobyl.
I learned of Alexievich and her work only this morning from a report on NPR. Her books – because they occupy a rare space between nonfiction reporting and storytelling -- are not widely available in English translations.
I found one on Amazon, "Voices of Chernobyl", and copied this one-paragraph excerpt. It is narrated by a woman whose husband tried to help put out the fire at the nuclear site and became a victim of the radiation that would render the entire town uninhabitable:
I couldn’t get into the hospital that evening. There was a sea of people. I stood under his window, he came over and yelled something to me. It was all so desperate! Someone in the crowd heard him – they were being taken to Moscow that night. All the wives got together in one group. We decided we’d go with them. Let us go with our husbands! You have no right! We punched and clawed. The soldiers – there were already soldiers – pushed us back. Then the doctor came out and said, Yes, they were flying to Moscow, but we needed to bring them their clothes. The clothes they’d worn at the station had been burned. The buses had stopped running already and we ran across the city. We came running back with their bags, but the plane was already gone. They tricked us. So that we wouldn’t be there yelling and crying.
The Guardian reports that Alexievich "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'."
As Alexievich’s work becomes more familiar to journalists and other non-fiction writers, it will be interesting to learn more about her research methods, her narrative strategies and her obvious manipulation of the raw material. As happens with many oral histories, such as those made famous in America by Studs Terkel, the author is not just quoting sources in a traditional sense. To turn the source into a storyteller, sentences are filtered of their distracting elements and distilled to their essence. They are combined and recombined into a coherent order. Some words, I assume, are added for clarity. When words are added or changed to enhance the drama or suspense of a passage, the work teeters toward fiction. Oral historians help readers and critics by making their methods transparent at the beginning of a work.
Sara Danius, representing the Swedish Academy, calls Alexievich an “extraordinary” writer:
For the past 30 or 40 years she’s been busy mapping the Soviet and post-Soviet individual, but it’s not really about a history of events. It’s a history of emotions…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 the soul.
The Guardian quotes the author from the introduction of an upcoming book, "Second-hand Time".
I don’t ask people about socialism, I ask about love, jealousy, childhood, old age, music, dances, hairstyles. The myriad sundry details of a vanished way of life. This is the only way to chase the catastrophe into the framework of the mundane and attempt to tell a story.
It never ceases to amaze me how interesting ordinary, everyday life is. There are an endless number of human truths….History is only interested in facts; emotions are excluded from its realm of interest. It’s considered improper to admit them into history. I look at the world as a writer, not strictly an historian. I am fascinated by people.
Few of us get to spend 10 years on a story or interview thousands of sources. We may not work with organizations that allow the narrative liberties of the oral historian. But we can certainly drill down in our reporting to find the people who have most at stake in an issue or event. We can spend time with them to gain a sense of their daily lives and struggles. We can help give them a voice so that they are not drowned out by those in authority.
Alexievich is not the first non-fiction writer to win the Nobel Prize in literature. (My old pal Winston Churchill – yes, that Winston Churchill -- copped the prize for his remarkable histories.) Today, let’s embrace and celebrate Alexievich as a sister journalist. After all, she graduated from journalism school – in Minsk.