Svetlana Alexievich, the Belarusian writer and investigative journalist, has won the 2015 Nobel literature prize for her “polyphonic writings” that explore the lives of ordinary citizens of the former Soviet Union.
Sara Danius, chair of the Swedish Academy, which awards the prize, said that in her writings — which are based on thousands of interviews — Ms Alexievich had devised a “new kind of literary genre”, providing a “history of emotions” in her portrayal of Soviet and post-Soviet individuals.
The Swedish Academy praised the 67-year-old for “polyphonic writings, a monument to suffering and courage in our time”. It is the first time the Nobel literature prize has been awarded for journalism.
Ms Alexievich’s work has landed her in court, prompted a near decade of harassment by the Belarusian authorities and caused her to seek refuge in Paris, provided by her western admirers. She returned to Belarus in 2011 but is unable to publish there.
“They pretend that I do not exist,” Ms Alexievich said at a press conference on Thursday.
Andrei Zorin, professor of Russian at the University of Oxford, said: “The award of the Nobel Prize to Svetlana Alexievich is a strong moral and literary statement. It is the expression of belief in the value of human life in the time of triumphant militarism, of support for personal dignity facing arrogant dictatorships.”
Born in 1948 to a Belarusian father and Ukrainian mother — both teachers — Ms Alexievich taught and worked as a reporter before moving to a literary magazine in the capital, Minsk. She tried writing short stories, essays and reportage before settling on what she called “the genre of actual human voices and confessions”.
Her first success, The War’s Unwomanly Face, describes the experience of Soviet women who fought at the front in the second world war. Publishers suspicious of her reputation for dissident views sat on it for two years before the onset of perestroika permitted its publication in 1985 — it went on to sell more than 2m copies.
In later books, she wrote about the experience of children in the second world war, of Russian soldiers in Afghanistan, and on the aftermath of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. The aim, according to her literary agent, is to complete a seven-book “factional” chronicle, The Autobiography of a Utopia, that will use “stories of the little people telling about themselves” to relate “the macro and micro history of a great time”.
The Nobel Prize winner’s writings remain controversial throughout the former Soviet Union, because they release the voices of citizens whose sufferings had been stifled.
In her 1990 Zinky Boys, these voices are of the young, often teenage, soldiers pitched into a brutal war, many of them coming home in regulation zinc coffins — too large, she writes, to fit in the “chicken shacks” of Soviet apartments.
In Voices from Chernobyl, published in Russia in 1997, there is no narrator at all. Instead Ms Alexievich allows people caught in the fallout from the 1986 explosion at the nuclear plant to speak — relating the horrors of hospitals dealing with casualties, and the struggle to survive of those forced to leave their homes in the contaminated zone.
“She is offering us a history of the human being about whom we didn’t really know that much, at least not in this systematic matter,” Ms Danius said.
Ms Alexievich is the 14th woman to win the SKr8m ($1m) literature prize, created in the will of the scientist Alfred Nobel and first awarded in 1901. She will be presented with the prize in Stockholm on December 10.