Belarusian writer Svetlana Alexievich won the Nobel Prize in literature on Thursday for works that the prize judges called “a monument to suffering and courage.”
Alexievich, 67, used the skills of a journalist to create literature chronicling the great tragedies of the Soviet Union and its 1991 collapse: World War II, the Soviet war in Afghanistan, the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster and the suicides that ensued from those mourning the death of Communism.
The Nobel academy’s permanent secretary, Sara Danius, praised Alexievich as a great and innovative writer who has “mapped the soul” of the Soviet and post-Soviet people.
“She is offering us new and interesting historical material and she has developed a particular writing style, as well a new literary genre,” Danius told The Associated Press. “She has said many times that ‘I’m not interested in events, the history of events, I’m interested in the history of emotions’ and that’s kept her busy for the past 40 years.”
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Like many intellectuals in Belarus, Alexievich supports the political opponents of authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko, who is up for re-election on Sunday. Because of her criticism of the government she has periodically lived abroad in a number of European cities but now lives in Minsk, the Belarusian capital.
Alexievich told The AP she has not yet received congratulations from the president, whom she has pithily criticized for years.
“It’d be interesting to see what he’s going to do in the situation,” she said, speaking on the landing outside her apartment in a Soviet-era apartment block.
Alexievich said she was at home “doing the ironing” when the academy called with the news and that she felt “joy and anxiety at the same time: how am I going to keep this up?”
Her first book, The Unwomanly Face of the War, published in 1985, was based on the previously untold stories of women who had fought against Nazi Germany. It sold more than 2 million copies.
Her books have been published in 19 countries, with at least five of them translated into English. She also has written three plays and the screenplays for 21 documentary films. The Swedish Academy cited Alexievich “for her polyphonic writings, a monument to suffering and courage in our time.”
Speaking to Swedish broadcaster SVT, Alexievich said winning the award left her with “complicated” emotions.
“It immediately evokes such great names as (Ivan) Bunin, (Boris) Pasternak,” she said, referring to Russian writers who have won the Nobel Prize for literature. “On the one hand, it’s such a fantastic feeling, but it’s also a bit disturbing.”
Asked what she was going to do with the 8 million Swedish kronor (about $960,000) in prize money, she said it would allow her to write more.
“I do only one thing: I buy freedom for myself. It takes me a long time to write my books, from five to 10 years,” she said. “I have two ideas for new books, so I’m pleased that I will now have the freedom to work on them.”
Born May 31, 1948, in the western Ukrainian town of Ivano-Frankvisk to two village schoolteachers, Alexievich studied journalism in Belarus, which at the time was part of the Soviet Union. She worked at newspapers near the Polish border and in Minsk while collecting material for her books.
In 1997, Alexievich published Voices from Chernobyl: Chronicle of the Future. The book, which was released in English two years later, is not so much about the Chernobyl nuclear disaster as it was about the world after it: how people adapt to a new reality, living as if they had survived a nuclear war.
This year’s Nobel announcements continue with the Nobel Peace Prize on Friday and the economics award on Monday.
Earlier this week, the 2015 Nobel medicine prize went to three scientists from Japan, the U.S. and China who discovered drugs to fight malaria and other tropical diseases.
Japanese and Canadian scientists won the Nobel physics prize for discovering that tiny particles called neutrinos have mass, and scientists from Sweden, the U.S. and Turkey won the chemistry prize for showing how cells repair damaged DNA – work that inspired new cancer treatments.
All awards will be handed out on Dec. 10, the anniversary of prize founder Alfred Nobel’s death in 1896.
Associated Press writers Yuras Karmanau in Minsk and Nataliya Vasilyeva in Moscow contributed to this report.