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.