Belarussian Awarded Prize in Literature

By Alter, Alexandra | International New York Times, October 10, 2015 | Go to article overview

Belarussian Awarded Prize in Literature


Alter, Alexandra, International New York Times


Svetlana Alexievich, a journalist and prose writer, is best known for giving voice to survivors of war and disaster.

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, was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature "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 receive the literature prize, and one of just a few Nobel laureates to be recognized for nonfiction. While the Nobel committee has occasionally awarded the prize to philosophers and historians, including Bertrand Russell and Winston Churchill, it has been more than half a century since a dedicated nonfiction writer has won what many regard as literature's most prestigious award.

The selection of Ms. Alexievich on Thursday was lauded as a long overdue corrective, and as a high point for journalism as a literary art. By placing her work alongside those of international literary giants like Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Albert Camus, Alice Munro and Toni Morrison, the Nobel committee has anointed a genre that is often viewed as a vehicle for information rather than an aesthetic endeavor.

Ms. Alexievich's works, which delve into collective and individual memories, straddle that divide.

"It's a true achievement not only in material but also in form," said Sara Danius, permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy, adding that Ms. Alexievich's work amounts to "a history of emotions -- a history of the soul, if you wish."

The stories Ms. Alexievich tells are drawn from historical facts and oral histories, but have a lyrical quality and a distinct style and perspective. She is best known for giving voice to women and men who lived through major events like the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan from 1979 to 1989 and the Chernobyl nuclear disaster of 1986, in which her sister was killed and her mother was blinded.

"What she's doing, there's a lot of art in it," said Philip Gourevitch, a writer for The New Yorker who has called on the Nobel judges to recognize nonfiction as literature. "She has a voice that runs through her work that's much more than the sum of the voices she's collected."

Many of her books are woven together from detailed oral histories. Perhaps her most acclaimed work is "War's Unwomanly Face" (1988), based on interviews with hundreds of women who took part in World War II. …

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