Svetlana Alexievich, a Belarusian journalist and prose writer, won the Nobel Prize in Literature on Thursday “for her polyphonic writings, a monument to suffering and courage in our time,” the Swedish Academy announced. Alexievich, 67, becomes the 14th woman to win the Literature prize since it was first awarded in 1901. The last woman to win was Canada’s Alice Munro in 2013.
Alexievich’s work includes a series of books called the Voices of Utopia about individuals in the former Soviet Union as well as works on the consequences of the 1986 nuclear disaster in Chernobyl and the Russian war in Afghanistan.
“By means of her extraordinary method — a carefully composed collage of human voices — Alexievich deepens our comprehension of an entire era,” the academy said while announcing the prize of 8 million Swedish kronor (around $960,000) in Stockholm.
Sara Danius, permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy, said Alexievich had created “a history of emotions — a history of the soul, if you wish,” in works such as War’s Unwomanly Face, a 1988 book based on interviews with hundreds of women who took part in the Second World War. The book is the first in the Utopia series that depicted life in the Soviet Union “from the perspective of the individual,” the academy said.
“If you remove her works from the shelves, there would be gaping holes. That says a lot about how original she is,” said Danius. Born to a Belarusian father and a Ukrainian mother on May 31, 1948, in the now Ukranian town of Ivano-Frankivsk, Alexievich’s family later moved to her father native Belorussia and settled in a village where both parents worked as schoolteachers. The Guardian reports that she left school to work as a reporter on the local paper in the town of Narovl.
Over the past decade, the academy has regularly conferred the prize on European writers who were not widely read in English, including the French novelist J. M. G. Le Clézio (2008), the Romanian-German writer Herta Müller (2009) and the Swedish poet and translator Tomas Transtromer (2011).
In the company of laureates
108 Nobel Prizes in Literature have been awarded since 1901. It was not awarded on seven occasions: 1914, 1918, 1935, 1940-43. The prize was shared on four occasions and that makes it 112 winners in all
14 women have been awarded the Literature Nobel so far. Selma Ottilia Lovisa Lagerlöf (Sweden), Grazia Deledda (Italy), Sigrid Undset (Norway), Pearl Buck (US), Gabriela Mistral (Chile), Nelly Sachs (Germany/Sweden), Nadine Gordimer (South Africa), Toni Morisson (US), Wislawa Szymborska (Poland), Elfriede Jelinek (Austria), Doris Lessing (UK), Herta Muller (Germany), Alice Munro (Canada); Svetlana Alexievich (Belarus)
9 laureates younger than 50. The youngest Literature laureate is Rudyard Kipling, best known for The Jungle Book. He was 42 years old when he was awarded the prize in 1907. The oldest to win the prize is Doris Lessing, who was 88 in 2007 when she was awarded the Nobel.
2 Literature laureates declined the honour. Boris Pasternak, the 1958 winner, “accepted first, later caused by the authorities of his country (Soviet Union) to decline the prize”. Jean Paul Sartre, the 1964 winner, declined the prize because he had consistently declined all official honours.
The Literature medal was designed by Swedish sculptor and engraver Erik Lindberg and represents a young man sitting under a laurel tree who, enchanted, listens to and writes down the song of the Muse.