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  • Jennie Dear

Why the latest Nobel Prize in literature matters to journalists

Try looking closely at the work of Svetlana Alexievich, who was recently awarded the Nobel Prize for literature.

After reading just a few pages of Alexievich’s work, you’ll understand why the Nobel Prize committee broke its long-standing tradition of awarding its literary prize to fiction writers—with only a few lone exceptions—by naming Alexievich the winner. And you may also come to appreciate, as I have, her approach as especially innovative and effective journalism.

Alexievich, who is Belarusian, uses oral histories based on interviews to tell the stories of people affected by pivotal events in the news. On her website, she calls her work “a history of human feelings":

I chose a genre where human voices speak for themselves. Real people speak in my books about the main events of the age such as the war, the Chernobyl disaster, and the downfall of a great empire. Together they record verbally the history of the country, their common history, while each person puts into words the story of his/her own life.

Her book, Voices of Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster, begins with the story of a newlywed woman whose husband was one of the first responders to the 1986 disaster. Like the rest of the book, the story is told in the words of its source, Lyudmilla Ignatenko, as in this excerpt when Ignatenko tries to see her husband the day after the accident:

I couldn’t get into the hospital that evening. There was a sea of people. I stood under his window, he came over and yelled something to me. It was all so desperate! Someone in the crowd heard him—they were being taken to Moscow that night. All the wives got together in one group. We decided we’d go with them. …We punched and clawed. The soldiers—there were already soldiers—pushed us back. Then the doctor came out and said, Yes, they were flying to Moscow, but we needed to bring them their clothes. The clothes they’d worn at the station had been burned. The buses had stopped running already and we ran across the city. We came running back with their bags, but the plane was already gone. They tricked us. So that we wouldn’t be there yelling and crying.

Alexievich doesn’t write about abstractions. Instead, she records people’s stories about their concrete experiences. But through these individual stories, readers find themselves joining her subjects as they wrestle with meaning and their own suffering.

For instance, here’s Nikolai Kalugin, whose six-year-old daughter died from radiation, speaking about what it’s like to be a subject in the news:

You’re just like everyone else—you go to work, you return from work. You get an average salary. Once a year you go on vacation. You’re a normal person! And then one day you’re turned into a Chernobyl person, an animal that everyone’s interested in, and that no one knows anything about. You want to be like everyone else, and you can’t. People look at you differently. They ask you: Was it scary? How did the station burn? What did you see? And, you know, can you have children? Did your wife leave you? At first we were all turned into animals. The very word “Chernobyl” is like a signal. Everyone turns their head to look. He’s from there!

And here, a soldier who worked the disaster describes how his world felt turned inside-out:

The order of things was shaken. A woman would milk her cow, and next to her there’d be a soldier to make sure that when she was done milking, she poured the milk out on the ground. An old woman carries a basket of eggs, and next to her there’s a soldier to make sure she buries them.

The people Alexievich interviews are ordinary: peasant farmers, soldiers, mothers who have lost their soldier-sons, fathers who have lost daughters. The Chernobyl book, one of only two of her works readily available in English, includes excerpts from interviews with people who defied military orders and remained in their villages, refugees from other disaster areas who resettled the area, soldiers and workers who worked in the disaster area, and their widows and widowers.

While Alexievich says she interviews 500-700 people for each book, she can only practically include a fraction of their voices—and even for those few, she can only use parts of the interviews. This means a large part of her skill lies in the choices she makes in selecting, editing and organizing those excerpts. And the fact that her books are made up of other people's voices doesn't detract from her skill or the amount of work involved, as this New York Times story points out:

"What she’s doing, there’s a lot of art in it,” said Philip Gourevitch, a writer for The New Yorker who has called on the Nobel judges to recognize nonfiction as literature. “She has a voice that runs through her work that’s much more than the sum of the voices she’s collected.”

Alexievich says nonfiction has become an increasingly important art, but she’s careful to point out that her approach consists of more than statistics and facts because the interviews themselves include so much about people’s complicated beliefs and emotions:

Today when man and the world have become so multifaceted and diversified the document in art is becoming increasingly interesting while art as such often proves impotent. The document brings us closer to reality as it captures and preserves the originals…But I don’t just record a dry history of events and facts, I’m writing a history of human feelings. What people thought, understood and remembered during the event. What they believed in or mistrusted, what illusions, hopes and fears they experienced.

Here, a solder describes his experience as he visited a deserted village:

We’d be driving around, and a wild boar would jump out of a school building at us. Or else a rabbit. Everywhere, animals instead of people: in the houses, the schools, the clubs. There are still posters: “Our goal is the happiness of all mankind.” The world proletariat will triumph.” “The ideas of Lenin are immortal.” You go back to the past. The collective farm offices have red flags, brand-new wimples, neat piles of printed banners with profiles of the great leaders. On the walls—pictures of the leaders; on the desks—bust of the leaders.

But it’s not just the physical details that the soldier remembers. He recalls a change of heart, a political reawakening, and Alexievich includes this memory too:

We’d ask each other: is this what our life is like? It was the first time we saw it from the outside. The very first time. It made a real impression. Like a smack to the head…. Three years later I turned in my Party card. My little Red book. I became free in the Zone. Chernobyl blew my mind. It set me free.

What emerges, here and elsewhere, from Alexievich's interviews with thousands of survivors is a series of anecdotes and descriptions—stories that are almost unbearably painful, but also piercingly beautiful or even humorous. And the result is a kind of journalism that relies heavily on its sources—and also transforms that material into a new kind of art.

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