Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Nobel Prize-Winning Nonfiction

Last week the Nobel Prize committee awarded Svetlana Alexievich, nonfiction writer and journalist from Belarus, the prize in literature for her “polyphonic writing.” I’m not familiar with her work, but for more than 30 years Alexievich has been recording the experiences of ordinary people who have suffered through the Chernobyl disaster, the Soviet War in Afghanistan, and many other atrocities. They don’t sound like fun reads, but I’ve interloaned the only book of hers in our library system: Voices from Chernobyl.                                                                                          

I was surprised to read that Alexievich is the first NF writer to win the medal since 1953 when Winston Churchill won for his history books. Why so few nonfiction books? The New Yorker journalist Philip Gourevitch wrote, “Of course, there is a lingering snobbery in the literary world that wants to exclude nonfiction from the classification of literature – to suggest that somehow it lacks artistry, or imagination, or invention, by comparison to fiction. The mentality is akin to the prejudice that long held photography at bay in the visual-art world.” (Hey, Phil. That still exists, too.) Apparently, Alexievich’s books capture the same immediacy, intimacy and emotion as a photo of a dead child on a beach.

Relying on her journalistic skills, she interviews ordinary people to build what one interviewer called, “a tapestry of voices.” A friend of hers said in an interview, “You can call her work nonfiction but it’s more fascinating to read than fiction. Before putting anything to paper she talks to people. Mostly she writes about human tragedy. She lets it go through her and writes with surgical precision about what’s going on within human nature…. Her images are deep and striking. When I read her book Voices from Chernobyl I was struck by her use of metaphor.”

Why are people still surprised by engaging, heart-wrenching, thought-provoking nonfiction? The general public still seems clueless to the power of well written true stories. Maybe it’s because writers (in Russia anyway) call this genre “collective novel”, “novel-evidence” and “epic chorus.” I’d be turned off too.

I like what the author says about how she came to write nonfiction: “I’ve been searching for a literary method that would allow the closest possible approximation to real life. Reality has always attracted me like a magnet, it tortured and hypnotized me. I wanted to capture it on paper. So I immediately appropriated this genre of actual human voices and confessions, witness evidences and documents. This is how I hear and see the world – as a chorus of individual voices and a collage of everyday details. This is how my eye and ear function. In this way all my mental and emotional potential is realized to the full.” 

Now that makes me want to read what this woman has to say, and hear the voices that she has gathered together. But this style is not unique. Many writers pull together multiple points of view as if they are puzzle pieces, which, when dovetailed and seamless paint a vivid picture of reality. Thankfully, many of them write for children.

Here are just a few titles that come to mind:

          Titanic: Voices from the Disaster by Deborah Hopkinson.

          We’ve Got a Job: The 1963 Birmingham Children’s March by Cynthia Levinson

          Hitler Youth by Susan Campbell Bartoletti (and her other nonfiction titles)

          We Were There, Too by Phillip Hoose

Feel free to add to the list. Let’s let our “epic chorus” be heard.

1 comment:

  1. Thought-provoking post. I searched, but didn't find other first person collected biographies. Thanks for these!