Svetlana Alexievich

By YUJIA YAO —————-

Of the thousands of stories she had heard since she was a little girl in Ukraine, a few affected Nobel literature prize laureate Svetlana Alexievich deeply.

One was that of a woman she talked to for her book “War’s Unwomanly Face” who said she wasn’t afraid of the brutal combat but was extremely annoyed by having to wear men’s underwear as part of her uniform. “We were prepared to die for the Motherland, but not in those underpants,” Alexievich recalled the woman telling her.

Another was that of a woman in “Voices from Chernobyl” whose husband died of radiation sickness after working to try and clean up after the nuclear disaster. Near the end of his life, when he was wracked with pain, the woman told Alexievich she would either pour vodka into his feeding tube, or try and make love to his wrecked body.

These testimonies are rich in emotions and left an indelible impact on readers and on the writer herself. “Sometimes I have pauses, and I don’t listen to anything,” Alexievich told the New York Times in an interview. “What people are telling now is really horrible.”

Alexievich, ageTKTK, died from TKTK on TKTKday.

The Belarusian investigative journalist and non-fiction prose writer won the Nobel prize in literature at the age of 67 “for her polyphonic writings, a monument to suffering and courage in our time,” according to an announcement by the Swedish Academy that awards the literature prizes. She was the first writer from Belarus to receive the award.

Alexievich “created a literary non-fiction genre that is entirely her own. She wrote ‘novels of voices,’” according to her Nobel Prize biography, developing this genre book after book, “constantly honing the esthetic of her documentary prose, which is based on hundreds of interviews. Her skill at this allows her to intertwine the original voices of her subjects into an artful condensation of a panorama of souls.”

“It’s a history of emotions,” Swedish Academy Permanent Secretary Sara Danius said in paying tribute to the power of Alexievich’s work. “What she’s offering us is really an emotional world.”

Alexievich was born in Ivano-Frankivsk, western Ukraine, May 31, 1948 into a military family. After her father’s demobilization from the army the family returned to his native Belarus and settled in a village where both her parents worked as schoolteachers. Her father never gave up his belief in Socialism but thought Stalin had ruined it. War stories told by her grandmother when she was little had great influence on her.

After graduating from the department of journalism at the University of Minsk, Alexievich worked as a reporter for the local newspaper in the town of Narovl. She spent her career in journalism, covering the Chernobyl catastrophe, the Soviet war in Afghanistan and many other events.

Alexievich’s first book, “War’s Unwomanly Face,” was published in 1985, two years after the book was completed. The story was about Russian women who had combat roles in World War II. Because of her literary work, Alexievich was accused of pacifism, naturalism and de-glorification of the heroic Soviet woman. Such political accusations and threats continued throughout her life.

Alexievich never stopped writing. “A totalitarian power is mainly busy in keeping itself alive,” she once said. Her book “Voices From Chernobyl” was published in Russian and banned in Belarus in 1997, translated to English in 2006, and finally imported to Belarus in 2016.

Alexievich defined the main thrust of her life and her writings thusly: “I always aim to understand how much humanity is contained in each human being, and how I can protect this humanity in a person.

“With thousands of voices I can create – you could hardly call it reality, since reality remains unfathomable – an image of my time, of my country,” Alexievich said. “It all forms a sort of small encyclopedia, the encyclopedia of my generation, of the people I came to meet. How did they live? What did they believe in? How did they die and how did they kill? And how hard did they pursue happiness, and did they fail to catch it?”

When asked if she would try fiction writing, her answer was always clear. “No,” she would say decisively. “Life is much more interesting.”

(Written by Yujia Yao; Nov. 10, 2016)

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