67-year-old Belarusian journalist Svetlana Alexievich is the winner of this year’s Nobel Prize in Literature, and the 14th woman to win the award since its inauguration in 1901. While she’s been an important figure in European literature for some time, her works are less well-known in the U.K. and North America.
Born in Ukraine in 1948 to a Ukrainian mother and Belarusian father, Alexievich’s family later moved to Belarus, where she would go on to study journalism at the University of Minsk and then commence her impressive non-fiction writing career.
Here’s a brief introduction to know about the author, whose “polyphonic writings” were dubbed "a monument to courage and suffering in our time” by Sara Danius, the Nobel chair, when the prize was announced.
She writes non-fiction, which is unusual
Alexievich is the first non-fiction writer to win the Nobel in approximately half a century, and the first journalist to win the award ever (previous winners in this genre were Winston Churchill and Bertrand Russell). She primarily writes about historical events using a series of eye-witness accounts.
Her most well-known works in English are “Zinky Boys,” a series of first-person accounts from the Soviet Afghan war, and “Voices From Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster,” which contained hundreds of accounts of the 1986 nuclear meltdown. It can take her five to ten years to produce a single book. As she writes on her website, "I chose a genre where human voices speak for themselves."
Her books chronicle a history of suffering
Here’s how Alexievich described her books on her website, which cover tragedies like World War Two and the Chernobyl disasters:
"If you look back at the whole of our history, both Soviet and post-Soviet, it is a huge common grave and a blood bath. An eternal dialog of the executioners and the victims. The accursed Russian questions: what is to be done and who is to blame. The revolution, the gulags, the Second World War, the Soviet-Afghan war hidden from the people, the downfall of the great empire, the downfall of the giant socialist land, the land-utopia, and now a challenge of cosmic dimensions – Chernobyl. This is a challenge for all the living things on earth. Such is our history. And this is the theme of my books, this is my path, my circles of hell, from man to man."
She’s a controversial figure
Alexievich suffered persecution in Belarus during the Alexander Lukashenko years: Her books were censored, her phoned was bugged, and she was banned from doing public appearances. She left her home in Belarus in 2000 due to persecution, and lived in refuge in various European cities over the following decade.
“Zinky Boys” was controversial in Russia, with critics slamming it as anti-Russian propaganda. Indeed, Alexievich has been polarizing in the region since her earliest days; her first book, "War’s Unwomanly Face,” was banned in the Soviet Union during the Gorbachev years.
Over the years, Alexievich has been an outspoken critic of Russia and Putin, criticizing the Ukrainian invasion and dubbing Putin a "KGB agent" in an interview earlier this year.
She’s beloved in literary circles
After the award was given out, Danius praised Alexievich as an “extraordinary writer” who has actually devised a new kind of literary genre.
“For the past 30 or 40 years, [Alexievich] has been busy mapping the Soviet and post-Soviet individual,” the Nobel secretary continued. "But it’s not really about a history of events. It’s a history of emotions. What she’s offering us is really an emotional world.”
“The truth of life in the Soviet Union and post-Soviet Russia is not an easy thing to swallow,” said her English translator Bela Shayevich. “I’m thrilled that this win will mean that more readers will be exposed to the metaphysical dimensions of her subjects’ survival and despair through the tragedies of Soviet history. I hope that in reading her, more people see the ways that suffering – even suffering brought on by geopolitical circumstances foreign to many readers – is also something that can bring people closer to one another if they are willing to take a risk and listen.”
You should start with her first book
She published her first book — "War’s Unwomanly Face," the stories of hundreds of women involved in the second world war — in 1985. Danius recommends this as the best introduction to Alexievich’s work.
"It’s an exploration of the second world war from a perspective that was, before that book, almost completely unknown,” said Danius. “It tells the story of the hundreds and hundreds of women who were at the front in the second world war. Almost one million Soviet women participated in the war, and it’s a largely unknown history. It was a huge success in the Soviet Union union when published, and sold more than 2m copies. It’s a touching document and at the same time brings you very close to every individual, and in a few years they all will be gone.”
It's currently unavailable on Amazon, but we imagine that will change soon enough.