The Nobel Prize in Literature was awarded to Belarusian Svetlana Alexievich.
Alexievich’s central message is that post-communist countries like Belarus will not become free and democratic if the citizens of these societies cannot free themselves from the destructive Soviet legacy that affects even young people who have never lived under communism. She was recently hosted at Washington, DC’s National Endowment for Democracy at a standing room only lunchtime event; policymakers, academicians, pundits, and media all came to hear the prize-winning author in conversation with Leon Wieseltier, the former longtime literary editor at The New Republic and now a senior fellow at The Brookings Institution.
Alexievich began by explaining why she has developed a new way of documenting history. “Life is much faster than any event,” she told Wieseltier. “It involves a lot of people, a lot of witnesses and testimonies.” She said that from her earliest memories, she found her childhood home and village “much more interesting than fiction. Journalism is wonderful, but still limiting. It takes only the upper layer of life. I want to delve deeper, to see the truth of human beings.”
She slowly realized, “Why not compose a novel using live voices? Every person has a deeper truth. . . I never call what I do ‘interviews.’ We speak to each other as neighbors, in a new genre that is required by our time. It is a history of human feelings.”
Wieseltier asked Alexievich to expand on what this “history of human feelings” is, and she responded by talking about details that would be “lost in the scheme of grand history, a tremble of the heart that reveals our true humanity.” She then told the story of a woman she spoke with who had been a combatant in World War II. When Alexievich asked her what she had packed to bring to the front, the woman said she brought “a suitcase full of chocolate bonbons.” “These are normal women who had their own humanity,” said Alexievich. “I do not collect catastrophes. I collect moments of the human journey.”