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.

China Daily (USA) - - LIFE - Con­tact the writer at yangyangs@chi­

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.

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