Carol Spindel writes and teaches narrative nonfiction at the University of Illinois and the Iowa Summer Writing Festival.
For the first time since 1953, the Nobel Prize in Literature has been given to a writer devoted to the art of nonfiction, Svetlana Alexievich. Do you hear those of us who write nonfiction and care deeply about it? We’re cheering!
Alexievich calls her work a “melange of reportage and oral history.” The Nobel committee called it “polyphonic.” In each of her books she has gathered (her verb) many voices, a chorale of ordinary Soviet people who recount what they saw, felt, and suffered—women who fought in World War II, soldiers in Afghanistan, and perhaps, most memorably, those who survived the devastating accident of the nuclear reactor in Chernobyl. In order to write Voices From Chernobyl, Alexievich spent ten years, returning again and again to sit with the survivors and listen.
Speaking on a PEN panel at the New York Public Library in 2005, Alexievich said that “Information has discredited itself as a way of knowing human beings.” She also drew a distinction between the documentary genre she has created and art. “There is much that art cannot convey about sorrow and about love,” she said. Of course, her work is powerful precisely because she brings her own literary voice, her practice of compassionate immersion, and her imagination to every scrap of oral history she gathers. Nonfiction is not an art of invention; it is an art of selection and omission, an art of arrangement and of juxtaposition. This Alexievich understands perfectly. She gathers sheaves of voices, and although she might deny it, she arranges them artfully.
Svetlana Alexievich is also a two-time winner of the Ryszard Kapuściński Award for Literary Reportage. The award honors Ryszard Kapuściński (1932-2007), the Polish foreign correspondent who wrote about Latin America, Iran, and especially Africa. He speaks after Alexievich on the same PEN panel linked above.
Alexievich’s work is often disturbing, and for a gentler read, I recommend Kapuściński’s last book, Travels with Herodotus. In it he meditates on his own life as a traveler and a writer. As a naïve young journalist in the totalitarian 1950s he dared tell his editor he wanted to go abroad. He imagined crossing the border from Poland into Czechoslavakia. Instead he was dispatched to India and China as Poland’s only foreign correspondent. As she sent him off, his editor handed him a copy of Herodotus. For the rest of his life, as he traveled the world writing dispatches and books, Herodotus went along as guide and companion. “We wandered together for years. And although one travels best alone, I do not think we disturbed each other—we were separated by twenty-five hundred years…” Kapuściński witnessed history being made and thought deeply about his role as chronicler. “…getting through to the past itself, the past as it really was, is impossible. What are available to us are only its various versions, more or less credible, one or another of them suiting us better at any given time. The past does not exist. There are only infinite renderings of it.”
If, like me, you contemplate how we write about other places and other cultures, about events we witness and past moments we cannot witness, then I recommend taking this meditative ramble through time and space with Kapuściński and his friend Herodotus.