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Investigative Journalist From Belarus Awarded Nobel Prize In Literature


The Nobel Prize for literature usually goes to someone who writes literature. But this morning, the world's most prestigious award in letters went to a journalist from Belarus. NPR's Neda Ulaby tells us about Svetlana Alexievich.

NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: The 67-year-old daughter of schoolteachers dropped out of school herself to become a reporter. Svetlana Alexievich has interviewed thousands of people to tell what she's called the emotional history of the Soviet experience. She's written five books, from stories of surviving World War II to weathering the Socialist Republic's collapse. Two years ago, Alexievich told the German broadcaster Deutsche Welle how she came to write this way.



SVETLANA ALEXIEVICH: (Through interpreter) I got it from my childhood. I grew up in a village, and I always heard women's stories - the post-war women. The stories they told were captivating. They were stories I could've never found in books. So I wanted to write down with the bitter truth just like I heard it from others.

ULABY: The bitter truths of the Soviets' experience in Afghanistan is the topic of one book and an essay Alexievich wrote for the magazine Granta back in 1990. Then-editor Bill Buford says this Nobel is a win for narrative nonfiction at its best.

BILL BUFORD: This isn't, like, someone going out with a tape recorder. It is someone who's experiencing something really profound - death, fear, loss of a family, loss of a future, loss of the value of life.

ULABY: Something Svetlana Alexievich experienced firsthand when she visited a civilian hospital in Afghanistan and saw a little boy in bed holding a teddy bear with his teeth.



ALEXIEVICH: (Through interpreter) I asked his mother why. She lifted the blanket, and then I saw that the boy didn't have arms or legs. It was very hard to witness that, but I had to.

ULABY: Just as Alexievich felt she had to visit Chernobyl after the nuclear disaster to interview survivors. Her book, "Voices From Chernobyl," was adapted into a staged reading that's been performed all over the world. In a 2008 show in Burlington, Vt., a local actress inhabits the voice of the real wife of a firefighter who rushed to the hospital to find him.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS: Other wives of husbands who'd gone to put out the fire were there too, but none of us could get in, only ambulances. The police shouted, the ambulances are radioactive - stay back.

ULABY: "Voices From Chernobyl," the American title, was translated into English by writer Keith Gessen. Her language is simple, he says, but the scale of Alexievich's work is absolutely Nobel worthy.

KEITH GESSEN: Her books are unique for the multitude of voices that she gets into them, and also the kind of voices - people who do not ordinarily have a voice, who do not get talked to by journalists and certainly don't get much voice in the West.

ULABY: When she's talking to them, Svetlana Alexievich says she never asks about politics. She asks about love, childhood, hairstyles, dances - such mundane details, she said, are the only way to chase catastrophe into a story. Neda Ulaby, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.