The col­ors of nostal­gia

China Daily (USA) - - LIFE - By MEI JIA mei­jia@chi­

Be­laru­sian Svetlana Alex­ievich is the kind of writer who throws ques­tions to re­porters who are in­ter­view­ing her.

“What do you per­son­ally think of my books?” The 2015 No­bel laureate in lit­er­a­ture asks China Daily dur­ing her visit to Bei­jing. Her tone is soft and with­out any hint of ag­gres­sion.

“I would re­ally like to know more about Chi­nese read­ers’ re­sponse to my works. In the West, they just can’t un­der­stand. I sup­pose Chi­nese read­ers may have dif­fer­ent ob­ser­va­tions,” Alex­ievich says.

Jiang Xi, the Rus­sian-Chi­nese in­ter­preter who trav­eled with her on her China tour, says that Alex­ievich seems to have a pair of X-ray eyes. “She didn’t talk much, but she can look through you after a brief ex­change with you.”

You write about se­cond­hand time in the for­mer Soviet Union. Will peo­ple there keep feel­ing they’re liv­ing in “se­cond­hand time”?

No one would like to re­turn to the old era. They just want to live peace­fully and what they care about are hol­i­day tours to Europe and lux­u­ri­ous cars.

When you write nos­tal­gi­cally about the Stalin era, are you just rem­i­nisc­ing about the past or are you in­di­cat­ing your dis­sat­is­fac­tion with the present?

It’s dif­fi­cult to say be­cause dif­fer­ent peo­ple have dif­fer­ent views about that.

What I do is of­fer an­other per­spec­tive into the his­tory, a poly­phonic an­gle. I never talk di­rectly about the past eras. I just tell sto­ries of peo­ple who lived then and there. Sto­ries that are pow­er­ful enough to break the stereo­types and rigid views.

Among my in­ter­vie­wees, 90 per­cent say if they could choose they would like to live in a great coun­try than a medi­ocre one. El­derly peo­ple have their own mem­o­ries about the for­mer Soviet Union and younger peo­ple learn about that from the older gen­er­a­tion. And our text­books are still from the Soviet Union.

How do you man­age so much ma­te­rial you col­lect from hun­dreds of in­ter­views, and how do you use them in your writ­ing?

I’ve been in­ter­view­ing and writ­ing for 40 years. I know ev­ery house and who lives in it and I know about their life.

What I have been do­ing is re­ally a big project. If you have a chance to get into my of­fice, you’ll see how it is piled and stuffed with ma­te­rial.

For each one of those sto­ries you read in my books, I in­ter­viewed a per­son at least three times.

What I col­lect grad­u­ally be­came sys­tem­atic in my mind and I feel I can build tem­ples and churches out of them like ar­chi­tects do.

Dur­ing my in­ter­views, I no­tice women look at the past with sharply unique an­gles and they tell sto­ries with dif­fer­ent tones, with more de­tails in­cluded. So I be­gan to write about women’s re­ac­tions to wars and his­tory.

You left Minsk for West­ern Europe in 2000 and moved back in 2011. Why did you de­cide to re­turn?

I’m based in Minsk now. It was dis­as­ter-like days when I was liv­ing over­seas. I needed trans­la­tors to ac­com­pany me.

I never thought of liv­ing out­side for too long be­cause I can’t write a lot when abroad, be­cause I could only do in­ter­views online.

One sur­prise is that, when I re­turned, I didn’t find my city had changed too much.

How do you think about China after this visit?

I ac­tu­ally was here some 20 years ago. It has changed dra­mat­i­cally, es­pe­cially Shang­hai. Peo­ple here are liv­ing an­other kind of life. Their dress and food are finely made. I wish more West­ern peo­ple will come and see this.

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