Belarussian Is Awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature ; Journalist Is Best Known for Giving Voice to the Survivors of Disaster

By Alter, Alexandra | International New York Times, October 9, 2015 | Go to article overview

Belarussian Is Awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature ; Journalist Is Best Known for Giving Voice to the Survivors of Disaster


Alter, Alexandra, International New York Times


Svetlana Alexievich, 67, is the 14th woman to win the literature prize and one of the first whose work is mainly nonfiction.

Svetlana Alexievich, a Belarussian journalist and prose writer known for deeply researched works about female Russian soldiers in World War II and the aftermath of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, won the Nobel Prize in Literature on Thursday "for her polyphonic writings, a monument to suffering and courage in our time," the Swedish Academy announced.

Ms. Alexievich, 67, is the 14th woman to win the literature prize and one of the first whose work is mainly nonfiction. Sara Danius, permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy, said she had created "a history of emotions -- a history of the soul, if you wish."

Ms. Alexievich's works often blend literature and journalism. She is best known for giving voice to women and men who lived through major events like the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan that lasted from 1979 to 1989 and the Chernobyl nuclear disaster of 1986, in which her own sister was killed and her mother was blinded.

"She's devised a new kind of literary genre," Ms. Danius said, adding, "It's a true achievement not only in material but also in form."

Perhaps her most acclaimed book is "War's Unwomanly Face" (1988), based on interviews with hundreds of women who took part in World War II. The book is the first in a series, "Voices of Utopia," that depicted life in the Soviet Union from the point of view of ordinary citizens.

"By means of her extraordinary method -- a carefully composed collage of human voices -- Alexievich deepens our comprehension of an entire era," the Swedish Academy said.

Ms. Alexievich often put herself at risk by taking on contentious elements of Soviet history and challenging the official narrative of how events had an impact on ordinary citizens.

"She was seen as a traitor, as unpatriotic," said Gerald Howard, the executive editor at Doubleday. He published Ms. Alexievich's book "Zinky Boys: Soviet Voices From a Forgotten War," about the occupation of Afghanistan, when he was a senior editor at W.W. Norton.

"She was vilified all over the place for this book," he said, "and she didn't back down for a second."

In the United States, Ms. Alexievich is best known for "Voices From Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster," which was translated by the writer Keith Gessen and published in 2005 by Dalkey Archive Press. …

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