Chasing truth through literature
A Nobel-winning author from Belarus uses interviews to scratch below the surface of history, she tells Yang Yang on a recent visit to China.
Belarusian writer Svetlana Alexievich, the 2015 Nobel laureate of literature, toured Shanghai, Beijing and Suzhou in August.
The last time she visited China was in 1989, as a member of a delegation from the Soviet Union. China has changed tremendously, she says.
“I am very much surprised to see your new houses and roads after going through the 30-year reform. We have also been reforming in the last 30 years, but it’s still old houses, old airplanes and cars,” she says.
“There is a saying in Europe: Don’t talk about future; the future has already disappeared. Nothing you talk about will be realized. But here I see future and hope. And I admire you for that.”
Earlier this year, her latest book, Secondhand Time: The Last of the Soviets was published in China.
During her visit, Alexievich, from a much cooler country, fell ill in the hot humid weather and had to cancel some plans, such as visiting ancient parks in Suzhou and the Forbidden City in Beijing.
Her trip was timed to coincide with the Shanghai Book Fair and Beijing International Book Fair last month.
Few among the guests and readers at the events in Beijing could speak Russian. The 68-year-old writer looked exhausted and lonely.
However, she tried to answer the questions people kept asking, such as: How do you do your interviews? How can your books based on interviews be called literature? How do you get closer to truth?
Instead of purely chronicling history, she says that for decades she has been recording the emotions of the time, the soul of history. That’s how she turns her interviews with people into literature.
She insists that she was not trying to collect horrors of wars or the 30-year history before the Soviet Union disintegrated to scare people. Instead, she wants to spread love through writing.
In 1985, Alexievich published her first book, The Unwomanly Face of War, followed by well-known titles such as Zinky Boys: Soviet Voices from the Afghanistan War and Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster.
Her latest book, Secondhand Time, is the last in her “factional” chronicle The History of the RedMan.
Secondhand Time comprises her interviews from 1991 to 2012, in which Alexievich has ordinary Russian citizens recount the past 30 years, showing what it has been like to live in the Soviet Union and in the new Russia.
“I’m interested in little people,” she said in her Nobel Prize-ceremony speech.
“The little, great people, is how I would put it, because suffering expands people. In my books these people tell their own little histories, and big history is told along the way.”
In Secondhand Time, she recorded people’s memories of oppression, famine, terror and massacres — memories that still live with them although history has turned a new page. Now people struggle to fit into a society obsessed with consumerism.
As Chinese literary critic Li Jingze put it: “The Russian people suffered from tremendous trauma that they have not recovered from yet. This trauma goes beyond social ideology, and it branded each person.”
Alexievich was born to a Belarusian father and a Ukrainian mother, and spent her girlhood in the countryside. She talked with village women who lost their fathers, husbands and sons in wars.
“What I remember most is that women talked about love, not death. They would tell stories about saying goodbye to the men they loved the day before they went to war. They would talk about waiting for them, and how they were still waiting,” she said in her Nobel Prize acceptance speech.
Disappointments, doubts, anxiety, misery, horror, evil and death prevail in Secondhand Time, but so do love, dreams and goodness.
As a student, Alexievich read a lot of books and asked a lot of questions that her teachers could not answer.
Alexievich became a journalist in 1976, which provided many chances to observe the true lives people were living, which were not reflected in official histories about World War II, the Afghanistan War and the Chernobyl disaster.
Her teacher Ales Adamovich’s idea about “super-literature” that can give the truth of the nightmares of the century inspired Alexievich to adopt polyphony in writing, allowing different voices to speak out their equally important stories.
She did hundreds of interviews for each book, spending many hours talking to each person.
Alexievich said in Suzhou that she enjoys a happy life because she loves her career.
She currently is thinking more about love and death, rather than human madness. Her new books are about love, aging and death.
Nobel laureate Svetlana Alexievich receives the Honored International Writer award at the Beijing International Book Fair.
Chinese readers line up to meet Alexievich at a book-signing event in Beijing.
Alexievich’s latest book was published in Chinese early this year.