237: The Self-Empowered Woman: Svetlana Alexievich

Dear Followers,

During the past couple of weeks there has been a lot of attention devoted to the fact that Bob Dylan just won the Nobel Prize for literature. After all, it’s unusual for an iconic recording artist to receive such a prestigious award. But today, I would like to introduce you to the woman who is considered to be the first journalist who has ever won the Nobel Prize in Literature—a Belarusian investigative journalist who is a celebrated non-fiction author on the other side of the Atlantic.

Almost as if she were a female Studs Terkel, Alexievich wrote oral histories about major events in Soviet history, including WWII, the Afghan War, the fall of the Soviet Union, and the Chernobyl disaster. Her works were so controversial that she was forced to leave Belarus and live in Paris, Gothenburg (Sweden), and Berlin for a decade. In 2011, she was able to return Minsk. Up until this year, few Americans were aware of her literary contributions, because her books were not translated into English, but the publication of Secondhand Time by Random House is expected to increase her American Q factor.

In 2013, when Alexievich was 65 years old, the German Publishers and Booksellers Association awarded her their 2013 Peace Prize. Her “trademark” writing style is the result of compiling a chorus of individual interviews and then producing a literary collage of both experience and opinion. In her words “I collect the everyday life of feeling, thoughts and words. I collect the life of my time. I’m interested in the history of the soul…The things that the big picture of history usually omits or disdains.”

Her 1992 book about Soviet soldiers in Afghanistan (Zinky Boys) was considered so defamatory that she was put on trial, but she was acquitted. Born in 1948, to parents who were both teachers, her young world was shaped by the scars of history. After all, one in four Belarusians died in WWII.

Alexievich is currently at work on two new collections—one on aging and another on love. When asked if she would ever consider writing a novel, she emphatically answered, “No. Life is much more interesting.”

About Marilyn Murray Willison

The author of six non-fiction books, Willison worked as Health and Fitness Editor at the Los Angeles Times Syndicate, and wrote book reviews, health, beauty, fashion, and travel articles on a regular basis for the Los Angeles Times. Her byline has appeared in a wide variety of American newspapers and magazines.