The colors of nostalgia
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.