What to read by Svetlana Alexievich, the Nobel Prize winner in literature (the 14th woman to ever win!)
As the 14th woman to acquire this prestigious title – out of the 111 total Nobel Laureates – the journalist is known for her impressively unique writing style. She’s a dedicated researcher who flawlessly weaves together literature and journalism. Many believe that she’s created an entirely new genre.
“I’ve been searching for a genre that would be most adequate to my vision of the world to convey how my ear hears and my eyes see life,” the author writes. “I tried this and that and finally I chose a genre where human voices speak for themselves.”
Alexievich focuses mainly on the history that revolves around significant marks on the world’s timeline – this includes the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, and World War II through the eyes of female Russian soldiers. While these are distinctly different events, one theme remains consistent in the writer’s work: her dedication to the people, places, and time periods that she unravels.
” . . . I don’t just record a dry history of events and facts, I’m writing a history of human feelings,” the Belarussian Nobel Laureate explains. “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. We quickly forget what we were like 10 or 20 or 50 years ago. Sometimes we are ashamed of our past and refuse to believe in what happened to us in actual fact. Art may lie but document never does.”
While we could spend days writing about how talented, determined, and downright wonderful Ms. Alexievich is, her poignant words are simply something you must read for yourselves. Next time you’re perusing bookshelves laden with stories, here are three stunning, widely available works that you should add to your collection:
War’s Unwomanly Face (1988)
Did you know that more than a million Soviet women fought during World War II? No? Well, there’s a reason why.
“[These women] were aged from 15 to 30 years. They mastered the various military professions becoming pilots, tank drivers, machine-gunners, snipers, and many others. They were not only nurses and doctors as in the previous wars. However after the victory men forgot about those women. Men stole the victory from the women,” Alexievich reveals. “In my book the women soldiers talk about those aspects of the war, which men never mentioned. We did not know about such a war. Men described their exploits while women talked about something else . . . After the war, women had to fight another war. They concealed their military IDs and certificates of wounds because they wanted to get married.”
To further examine these untold – yet meaningful – circumstances, the author interviewed hundreds of women. Their individuals tales work together to highlight this forgotten part of our collective past.
Zinky Boys: Soviet Voices From a Forgotten War (1992)
“Even time was passing differently there, the calendar itself was different: it was almost 200 years back in time,” is a statement that the journalist heard, time and time again, when researching for this book about the Soviet-Afghan War.
During this brutal battle – which lasted 10 years – there were 50,000 casualties. Many compare it to the horrors that were seen during the Vietnam War, which is emphasized by testimonies from soldiers, nurses, mothers, and sons alike. This helps readers, from all across the globe, visualize exactly how horrific this struggle was.
As for the term “zinky boys,” it refers to the fact that Soviet soldiers were being shipped back home in zinc coffins – while the state denied that any conflict had occurred. This makes Alexievich’s writings even more significant, as she fearlessly sheds light on an issue that was hidden.
“She was vilified all over the place for this book,” Doubleday’s executive editor Gerald Howard states. “And she didn’t back down for a second.”
Voices From Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster (2005)
This comprehensive story is composed of more than 500 interviews, which took place over the course of 10 years. It details the apocalyptic Chernobyl nuclear disaster and uncovers survivor’s thought-provoking narratives. Most notably, this is one novel that comes from a place of personal understanding, since the catastrophe killed the author’s sister and blinded her mother.
” . . . Chernobyl is a mystery still. We are the first who have touched it. Something has happened to us, something that is unknown for all the rest of humankind, something that will be a problem for the next millenium. For that something we have no experience, no analogies, no words,” says the Nobel Laureate.
To a large extent, Ms. Alexievich’s publications are inspired by the tradition of Russian storytelling. “I decided to collect the voices from the street, the material lying about around me,” she said. “Each person offers a text of his or her own.” With this in mind, the 2015 Nobel Prize in Literature isn’t solely about one extraordinary woman. It’s about a countless number of people whose stories have blossomed in the literary light. When you think of it that way, Alexievich’s work can be compared to a garden, one where diverse flowers are united by their poetic perseverance.
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