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Belarusian Journalist Wins Literature Nobel


The winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature was announced this morning. Now, usually this honor goes to a poet or a playwright or a novelist. But this year, a journalist gets the prize. She is the Belarusian writer Svetlana Alexievich, who writes about the former Soviet Union. Well, we say she's a journalist. But actually, in announcing the award, the Swedish Academy said Alexievich has devised a new genre. NPR's Lynn Neary joins us now to talk about that. Hi, Lynn.


INSKEEP: And she is a journalist, straight up. So tell us more about Alexievich.

NEARY: Well, I would recommend if you want to learn something about her, go to her website because she writes so eloquently about her own work on that website. She says that she searched for a genre which would fit her vision of the world, and finally she chose a genre where human voices speak for themselves. And here's the statement that really struck me. She says, quote, "I declare that art has failed to understand many things about people." And she goes on to say, "I'm not writing a dry history. I am writing a history of human feelings." She sits down and talks to between 500 and 700 people for each of her books. She records each of those conversations...


NEARY: And her books are based on those conversations.

INSKEEP: OK, so interviewing a lot of people, putting together history but not a straightforward history, going at events in this different kind of way, and what exactly has she been writing about?

NEARY: Well, I think the book she's probably best known for, in this country at least, is "The Chernobyl Prayer," which is also known as "Voices From Chernobyl." It's about the nuclear disaster at Chernobyl. It's an event, she says, we really don't even have the capacity to understand yet. And she talks about the new enemy, which she says is coming from the future, and that enemy is radiation. Her first book, called "The Unwomanly Face Of War," is about Soviet women who saw action in World War II. They were snipers. They were tank drivers. They were pilots. And it gives you a very different view of war from a feminine perspective. "Boys In Zinc," which is also known as "Zinky Boys," is about the 10-year Soviet-Afghan War. And for that book, she also - in addition to interviewing soldiers - also interviewed widows, mothers of victims...

INSKEEP: Oh, this is the Russian equivalent of Vietnam, this long, disastrous war in Afghanistan.

NEARY: Right. Exactly, exactly. She focuses - much of her work is focused on Soviet history and events in Soviet history.

INSKEEP: Wow. Wow, that is really, really amazing. And so now she's won the Nobel Prize here. And how unusual is it that a writer of nonfiction - and I trust that we're still talking about nonfiction, even though it said that she's very creative in the approach.

NEARY: It is nonfiction. It's really like documentary or oral history. I think you might - I haven't read these books. I'm very curious to read them now.


NEARY: But I've just been reading about her this morning. But it's unusual (laughter) for her...

INSKEEP: To have someone of this - a nonfiction writer to win the Nobel Prize.

NEARY: Yeah. Right. There was an article in The New Yorker that pointed out that the second person to win the Nobel Prize was historian and essayist Theodor Mommsen, and both Bertrand Russell and Winston Churchill won the award. Technically speaking, Ernest Hemingway was a journalist before he became...

INSKEEP: A novelist, sure.

NEARY: A famous novelist. But when he won the Nobel Prize, clearly he won it for fiction.

INSKEEP: And we should tell people that in addition to being a politician, Winston Churchill was a writer and historian.

NEARY: That's right, absolutely. So they all won it, but I would say this is very unusual. And I'd like to say I have some mixed feelings about this. So as a journalist, I'm really proud of her. I'm proud of our profession. As a lover of fiction, I'm really going to be thinking about that statement she made, which is that art has failed to understand a lot of things about people. And I'm thinking maybe some novelists and poets and playwrights may have to grapple with that. And as a radio producer, I'm in awe. Five-hundred to 700...

INSKEEP: Interviews.

NEARY: Interviews for each of those books - listening to them, witling them down, making them a book - amazing.

INSKEEP: I thought you were going to say your mixed feelings were, why not me? Why wasn't it me?

NEARY: No, it was why not you, Steve.

INSKEEP: Oh, OK, fine, thanks. NPR's Lynn Neary, thank you very much.

NEARY: Good to be here.

INSKEEP: With news on the Nobel Prize in Literature on MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Lynn Neary is an NPR arts correspondent covering books and publishing.
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