- Alexievich’s books include “The Chernobyl Prayer,” “The War’s Unwomanly Face,” “Last Witness,” and “Zinky Boys”
- “I’m writing a history of human feelings. … This is impossible to imagine or invent, at any rate in such multitude of real details”
- Alexievich, 67, is the 14th woman to win the prize
(CNN)Belarusian author Svetlana Alexievich, known for chronicling the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, was awarded the 2015 Nobel Prize for literature Thursday “for her polyphonic writings, a monument to suffering and courage in our time.”
She is only the 14th woman to win the prize, which has been awarded 107 times.
On her website, Alexievich says she records conversations with 500 to 700 people for each book she writes.
“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,” she says. “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.”
‘A history of human feelings’
She does not, she says, document a dry history of facts and events.
“I’m writing a history of human feelings,” Alexievich says. “What 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.”
In a 2005 address to the PEN World Voices Festival in the United States, Alexievich explained how she found her writing style. Her comments were translated into English.
For people living in Slavic countries, the spoken word is extremely important, she said. “The point is not simply to exchange facts and information — the idea is that it’s important to speak of the essence of life and of its mystery.”
“As I was searching for the way to represent this, I began to understand that what I was hearing people say on the street and in the crowds was much more effectively capturing what was going on than what I was reading in print — and the way that people were trying to convey it using their pen,” Alexievich said.
In the modern world, she said, it was impossible to write “the book” that encompassed everything in the manner of 19th century novelists.
“We need to have a book 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.”
“And my genre, I refer to it as ‘the novel of voices’ and you might say that my work as 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.”
‘A path of her own’
Alexievich is not the first historian to win the prize, the most prestigious literature award in the world. Winston Churchill won in 1953, primarily for his sweeping, multivolume works documenting British history and the two world wars.
Alexievich’s books include “The Chernobyl Prayer,” “The War’s Unwomanly Face,” “Last Witness,” and “Zinky Boys.”
Her website says she was born in 1948 in Ivano-Frankovsk, in then-Soviet Ukraine, to a Belarusian father and a Ukrainian mother.
Her family later moved to Belarus, where both her parents worked as teachers.
She began her career as a reporter on a local newspaper before formally studying journalism at Minsk University. She then worked as both a teacher and journalist, eventually taking the position of correspondent for a literary magazine.
She tried various literary genres, but attributes her final choice to Belarusian writer Ales Adamovich, who her website says “helped her find a path of her own.”
Alexievich’s first book, “I’ve Left My Village,” gave her a reputation as a dissident. When she completed “The Unwomanly Face of the War,” in 1983, she was accused of the “de-glorification of the heroic Soviet woman.” The work was not published until 1985, when Mikhail Gorbachev came to power.
Alexievich’s views and independence have made her unpopular with authorities in Belarus, as well, where she belongs to the opposition, her website says.
“Her books add up to a literary chronicle of the emotional history of the Soviet and post-Soviet person,” the site says.
Secrecy for half a century
In contrast to other years, when the winner has been a surprise, Alexievich was one of the favorites this year. Other favorites had included Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami, Kenyan novelist Ngugi Wa Thiong’o, Norwegian novelist and playwright Jon Fosse and American writers Joyce Carol Oates and Philip Roth.
The list of nominations will be kept secret for 50 years.
Alexievich is 67. The average age of the winners in literature been 64.
The oldest winner was Doris Lessing, who was 88 when she won the prize in 2007. The youngest was Rudyard Kipling, best known for “The Jungle Book,” who won at age 42.