Hurray! A Non-Fiction Author Wins the Nobel Prize for Literature.

The very human face of Svetlana Alexievich

Svetlana Alexievich, who has just beaten Haruki Murakami, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, and Jon Fosse to the Nobel prize for literature, is an unusual choice.  Not only is she a woman (there haven’t been very many), but she is not a poet or a novelist.  It cheered me up to learn that she was a non-fiction author.

Her speciality is what her French editor describes  as “oral history . . . about nostalgia for the Soviet Union. She went around Russia interviewing people after the fall of the Soviet Union, in an attempt to surmise what the collective post Soviet psyche is. As with all her books, it’s really harrowing – a story about loss of identity, about finding yourself in a country which you don’t recognise any more. It’s a micro-historical survey of Russia in the second half of the 20th century, and it goes up to the Putin years.”

Alexievich isn’t simply a recorder of social documentary.  She listens to people, takes down what they say and arranges their ‘polyphonic voices’ to tell a story.  It’s a technique she developed under the influence of the Belorusian writer Ales Adamovich, who developed a genre which he variously called the “collective novel”, “novel-oratorio”, or “people talking about themselves”.  Svetlana Alexievich has made this into an art form.

It has always made me angry that non-fiction has been excluded from many literary prizes and awards because it is regarded as ‘non-creative’.  Biography and autobiography are art forms just as novels and short stories and poems are. They take just as much skill to construct.  Somehow, as a writer, you are valued less if you write non-fiction. Hopefully this award may change some minds.

One of Alexievich’s most acclaimed books is called ‘Voices From Chernobyl’, in which Alexievich interviews hundreds of those affected by the nuclear disaster, from a woman holding her dying husband despite being told by nurses that “that’s not a person anymore, that’s a nuclear reactor” to the soldiers sent in to help, angry at being “flung ... there, like sand on the reactor”.   This is an extract which will give you an idea of her style.

'A policeman is walking alongside a woman who carries a basket of eggs. He walks with her to         make sure that she buries the eggs in the ground because they are radioactive. They buried milk, they buried meat, they buried bread; it was like an endless funeral procession for inanimate objects. Thousands of soldiers sliced off the top layer of the soil, which had been contaminated, and they buried it. They took ground and they buried it in the ground. And everyone who was involved turned into a philosopher because there was nothing in the human past that enabled us to deal with this situation.'

Part of what makes her prose so good is the type of question that Alexievich asks. “I don’t ask people about socialism, I ask about love, jealousy, childhood, old age, music, dances, hairstyles. The myriad sundry details of a vanished way of life. This is the only way to chase the catastrophe into the framework of the mundane and attempt to tell a story."

She approaches her work as a novelist does.

“It never ceases to amaze me how interesting ordinary, everyday life is. There are an endless number of human truths … History is only interested in facts; emotions are excluded from its realm of interest. It’s considered improper to admit them into history. I look at the world as a writer, not strictly an historian. I am fascinated by people.”

Sadly, Svetlana hasn’t been translated into English much.  One of her editors said that it was difficult to get publishers in the west to take a risk on this kind of book, however well written.  Now that she’s won the Nobel apparently that’s all going to change.  I permit myself a cynical moment and pour another glass of wine.

The Nobel will help Svetlana's political position too. Russia doesn’t look favourably on her work. Her first book on women in war ‘War’s Unwomanly Face’ was censored in Russia under Gorbachev and she is seen by some as a ‘Russia hater’.  She was born in Ukraine and lives in Belarus but sees herself part of Russian culture. Svetlana also sounds very ordinary - she was doing the ironing when she got the telephone call telling her she had won!

I’m looking forward to being able to read her work whole, rather than just extracts.

Previous female recipients of the Nobel Prize for Literature since 1909 - some of whom have now slipped from view.  If you’d like to know more about them click on this link. 

Alice Munro
Herta Muller
Nadine Gordimer
Wislawa Szymborska
Elfriede Jelinek
Toni Morrison
Doris Lessing
Pearl Buck
Nelly Sachs
Gabriela Mistral
Sigrid Undset
Grazia Deledda
Selma Lagerlof

With thanks to the Guardian, Washington Post, Slate and official Nobel site for information. 


  1. Thanks for this Kathleen. Very moving.

  2. I agree--a really worthy winner with an impressive and humbling body of work to her name.


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