This week Nobel Committee announced journalist and nonfiction writer Svetlana Alexievich as this year’s Nobel laureate in Literature “for her polyphonic writings, a monument to suffering and courage in our time.” Alexievich’s selection marks a number of rarities in the history of the award and at least one first, as she is the first Literature laureate from Belarus. She is the fifth Belarusian to win a Nobel Prize in any discipline.
She is also the fourteenth woman to win the prize for Literature, joining the company of writers such as Toni Morrison, Doris Lessing, and Pearl S. Buck.
Most strikingly, however, is that Alexievich is the first person to win the prize specifically for her work in nonfiction in over sixty years. While many Nobel laureates were essayists in addition to their primary genres of poetry or fiction, the last person to receive the honor for literary contributions in nonfiction was Sir Winston Churchill in 1953.
Alexievich’s work focuses primarily on the history of Eastern Europe, and she’s explored such subjects as female Russian soldiers in World War II, the aftermath of the disaster at Chernobyl, the occupation of Belarus by the Nazis, and firsthand accounts of the Soviet War in Afghanistan. This prize acknowledging the literary accomplishment of her work is being celebrated by journalists worldwide, as it acknowledges that medium as an artform. Perhaps most importantly, however, is that Alexievich focuses her work on untold stories, shines a light on disregarded parts of history, and gives a voice to those who might not otherwise have it. In words, her work is nonfiction--and literature--at its best.
(For those keeping score, it has now been 22 years since an American was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, our last laureate being Toni Morrison in 1993. Also, just 12.5% of Nobel Prizes in Literature have gone to women.)
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