AskNelly congratulates 68-year-old Svetlana Alexievich on last year’s Nobel prize for literature and on today’s American literary debut of Secondhand Time: The Last of the Soviets, just published by Random House.
Svetlana Alexievich, Nobel Laureate, U.S. Book Debut
Invention of new literary genre
Svetlana Alexievich received the Nobel Prize in part for inventing a new literary genre. Instead of describing historical events, she defines them through the actual voices of the ordinary men and women who have experienced them.
Secondhand Time: The Last of the Soviets
Originally written in 2013, this book is an oral history taken from ordinary Russian citizens discussing history and everyday events, as they try to make sense of how their lives have been unsettled by the turmoil they have experienced since the Nineties. They have watched the Soviet Union shatter, collapse, and then be replaced by a predatory form of capitalism that has left many Russians utterly bewildered and longing for old times.
Other books by Ms. Alexievich
Her first book, War’s Unwomanly Face (1985), is about Russian women who had combat roles in World War II, only to return home to be shunned. (It will be published by Random House in 2017.)
The Last Witnesses (1985), her second book, consists of the memories of Russians who were children during World War II.
Her third book, Zinky Boys (1992) got her arrested on charges of defaming the Soviet Army. This book is about Soviet soldiers in Afghanistan—thousands of whom were sent back to Russia in zinc coffins. The authorities felt that the testimonies given by returning soldiers and their families eroded the ideals of military heroism. Luckily, she was acquitted.
Voices From Chernobyl, 2006, is about the 1986 nuclear disaster in the Ukraine and, like all her books, it’s based on years of interviews. The people with whom she speaks try to make sense of radiation—invisible yet powerful—and the disintegration of their bodies and the poisoning of their land. The catastrophe becomes a metaphor for the implosion of the entire Soviet Union.
Tired of war and politics, Ms. Alexievich is working on two new collections—aging and love. And once again she is preparing to travel across the former Soviet Union to gather her material in cozy private kitchens in a nation of 143 million people across 11 time zones.
Buying Secondhand Time: The Last of the Soviets online
Hardcover: $17.85; Kindle: $14.99
Hardcover: $18.35, free delivery
Ms. Alexievich was born in 1948 in the Ukraine to a Belarussian father (who never gave up his faith in socialism, but hated Stalin) and a Ukrainian mother. Both were teachers. She was deeply influenced by the war stories told by her grandmother. She studied journalism at the University of Minsk at a time when students had to ask permission to read Nietzsche and Freud (her request was denied).
For more information:
• nytimes.com - nobel laureate has English debute
• nytimes.com - book review - voices from a lost Russia
• bookdepository.com - Second-Hand Time