Svetlana Alexievich was born in western Ukraine in 1948 to a Belarusian father and Ukrainian mother, both of them rural schoolteachers. She grew up in Belarus and, after graduating from high school, worked at various newspapers before studying for a journalism degree at Belarusian State University. Alexievich graduated in 1972, but she eventually abandoned the journalistic strictures of chronology and contextualization in her first book, War’s Unwomanly Face, which was published in Russian in 1985, the first year of perestroika. For that book, Alexievich interviewed scores of women rarely given the chance to be heard, and then edited their stories about personal and collective tragedy into a collage of voices that openly challenge the heroic Soviet myths of the Great Patriotic War. More than 2 million copies were eventually sold.
When Alexievich was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature last year, it was an acknowledgment of what she had already proved in each of her five books, collectively known as the “Red man” cycle: Her writing is sui generis, blending the force of fact with the capaciousness of fiction to create a new, vital literary compound.
In her Nobel lecture, Alexievich offered this characterization of herself as a writer: “Flaubert called himself a human pen; I would say that I am a human ear.” What she detects are the moments when a voice cracks, breaking through reticence and occlusion, saying something contradictory, enigmatic, strange. When T.S. Eliot was writing the poem that became The Waste Land, he gave it the working title “He Do the Police in Different Voices,” a phrase plucked from Dickens’s Our Mutual Friend. “I ‘read’ voices,” Alexievich has written. She goes from person to person, voice to voice, hearing people talk about their lives in different voices, becoming individuals.
At a time when populism is in vogue, and populist politicians claim to speak for “the people,” Alexievich goes in the opposite direction: People should be allowed to speak freely for themselves. We need to read her, and listen to them, in all their variety.
The following interview was conducted in May in English and Russian and translated by Bela Shayevich.
When did you start gathering stories—not necessarily to write them down, but just to gather them?
I’ve been doing it since childhood. I used to live in a village, and I always loved listening to old people. Unfortunately, it was always women who were talking, because after the war very few men were around. I spent my entire life living in the village. The village is always talking about itself, people are talking to each other as the village makes sense of itself. If we want to talk about beginnings, there they are. My Ukrainian grandmother would tell amazing stories. She lost her father, and as children we would always listen to her stories.
When did you sense that you should start writing stories down?
After I graduated from the journalism department—because even though journalism is a good profession, for me it was very constraining. It focuses on the surface, banalities, events, and I wanted to spend a longer time talking to people in depth, and to ask them about truly important things, like love, death, and war.
Did you come to have this attitude before school, or during it?
Well, first of all, before my father went to the war he was studying in the journalism department, and after the war he returned there, so for me there was never a question about what I would do for a career. I was always meant to study the humanities; I was no good at math or sciences. When it came time for me to work it was Soviet times, and journalism wasn’t that free or interesting of a space. There was a lot of censorship; it was difficult.
At the end of your third book, Voices From Chernobyl, you write that the Zone—the officially designated exclusion zone around the site of the destroyed nuclear reactor—is “a world within the rest of the world.” You then write that it is “more powerful than anything literature has to say.” You make a similar remark in your Nobel lecture when you paraphrase your teacher, the Belarusian writer Ales Adamovich: “You must give truth as it is. A ‘super-literature’ is required. No artist can live up to reality.” What, then, of literature?
It’s not that I got frustrated with literature per se, it’s just that the relationship one has to literature as a young reader changes. And don’t forget that I did end up working as a journalist for seven years and listening to people’s stories. When I heard those stories, they were more powerful than anything that you would read in fiction.
It’s not just me; it’s other kinds of artists, musicians—everybody is searching for new forms. It’s because of the nature of our times: So many things are happening and changing at the same time. It’s not a time when literature is only about great heroes. The little man has taken center stage, and there needs to be new ways of talking about that. When I was traveling around to all the villages, talking to people when I was a journalist, I really fell in love with the everyman, the ordinary people. They became more important to me. It’s not that I don’t socialize with the intellectuals—I talk to them too. But the so-called ordinary people took center stage. They’re just regular people, but they are absolutely amazing.
This little man, these ordinary people—who are they? When did they appear on center stage, and what would new forms allow us to understand about them?
The little man or woman, they’re not heroes. They’re not great leaders. They are everyday men and women—ordinary people. I was thinking of little people, because I was thinking: Why do ordinary people disappear without a trace? Why doesn’t anyone ask them anything? Nobody asks them what they think about grand ideas. They’re just asked to die for them.
When I started asking them, I realized how stupid it was to call them “little people.” We’re all equal heroes of our own life. The stories of many of them shake you to the core. Their human experience is great experience. I can’t speak for art as a whole, but in my genre, they expand the human knowledge. And after working for so many years, I never say “little person.” I never think in those terms. And I think they took center stage during World War I, when masses of people took part in history.
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