How the Writer Listens: Svetlana Alexievich
John Freeman in Conversation with the Nobel Laureate
For the past 30 years, Svetlana Alexievich has been writing one long book about the effect of communism and its demise on people in the former Soviet Bloc. Based on interviews, her books conjure a chorus of voices that rise and fall and arrange themselves into symphonic narratives: Here are the voices of Russians scarred by the meltdown of Chernobyl (Voices from Chernobyl), angered by the shame of Afghan War (Zinky Boys), and now, with Secondhand Time, bewildered by the collapse of communism and assumption they should all be capitalists now.
Alexievich was in some ways born into this task. Both of her parents were teachers and her father once studied journalism himself. At university, Alexievich was exposed to the work of Belarusian writer, Ales Adomovich, who believed the 20th century was so horrific it needed no elaboration.
Unlike Studs Terkel, whose oral histories of American life arrange themselves like transcribed radio interviews, Alexievich’s books are strange creations. They never ask the reader to think to imagine their subjects are representative individuals. When she won the Nobel in 2015, Alexievich described them as novels—which is a fair comparison given the meticulous arrangement required to create such clear and evocative pastiche. Whatever they are, her books are as eerie and beautiful as overheard voices on a crowded train car traveling through the night.
Alexievich came to New York this June for events around Secondhand Time (read an excerpt here), the first of three books that will be translated by Random House in the next three years. I spoke to her in the empty auditorium where she would be interviewed in an hour’s time through a translator.
John Freeman: I’m curious how you became a listener?
Svetlana Alexievich: It happened from early childhood. I lived in the country, in the village, that was after the war. My parents were both village teachers. The village was full of women. And they had to work very hard during the day, there were no men left in the village, and after they were done with work—the village was full of benches—they would all come outside and they would talk. It was scary to listen to them, but it was also very interesting.
They talked about war about death about loss, because some lost their husbands recently and this was much more exciting and much more interesting than reading the books that we had in the house. Our house was filled with books. When I got into journalism school, I tried a lot of different things. I applied myself in fiction, in drama, and I realized there was nothing as interesting as real life voices. And when you are a journalist and you are traveling to different villages, to small towns—Belarus is not a large country it is a small country—that’s how I came to this form.
This idea does exist in the traditional fashion, of folktales, just maybe not in the way I’ve done it, but the tradition of storytelling is obviously there. Every genre of arts, painting or sculpture or music, people are looking for new forms, people are looking for new ideas, and I thought well why not something new in literature. We had a remarkable writer in Belarus, his name is Ales Adamovich, and this is someone who I consider to be my mentor, my teacher, and he also worked in the genre and he always said that there is no need to invent anything, that life is rich enough there is no need for invention.
JF: Throughout this book I sense and I hear from various voices a frustration that literature did not prepare the people you speak to for the changes in Soviet life. Do you feel like this book and the people that you’re speaking to in it are expressing a frustration with the failure of imaginative literature to connect them to life? One character even says, with frustration and realization, “back then books replaced life.”
SA: I think it’s a very good observation because we are a word-centric country. It’s this Russian tendency to live in an idea or that people tend to live by the word and in the book. There has always been this ingrained idea in people’s minds that books are there to teach you how to live, that they create ideals for you to uphold. Especially in the Soviet times, when they were actually remaking a human being, remaking a person, literature was there as a major tool of support.
It’s also a closed country because people did not travel. They almost always saw Russian films. There were very little American films, very little music. So there was very little coming in from the outside world in general, so books really were the only outlet, and that’s why people react to them so intensely. It was a remarkable time. People were so desperate. I remember after Perestroika there were ads, handwritten ads, I will buy a kilo of food. It didn’t specify what food because everything became so scarce and people in that desperation really felt betrayed by their military and ideals.
I also remember how people got rid of Russian writers like Mayakovsky. At some point the bookshops stopped taking his books because they were full and you could go and find them basically in the dumpster and the garbage heap. And you know before people would actually try to assemble a small library and they would go and they would subscribe and the volumes would arrive by subscription and people would have to go and get them; it was a big point of pride to assemble a book collection, a small library and with Perestroika that all changed.
I remember visiting one family. It was supposed to be a family of the intelligentsia, but the woman was apologetically saying how, “Actually, I wanted to show you my new coffeemaker because I am ashamed of the old coffeemaker, and the new washing machine gives me just as much joy as books used to do.” People were apologetic but you could go out into the street markets and find an abundance of books that even a few years before were considered to be scarce. Suddenly, you could find them, you didn’t have to stay in line, and they were there in the bins nobody was interested in. It became a new world of materialism, people got pleasure from new food, from travel, from new things. And the book was defeated.
JF: The word shame comes up a lot in Secondhand Time. People say, “I’m ashamed.”
SA: I think it’s also very characteristic of Russian culture. I recall the story of women who were walking towards the river and the men were trying not to look at the women because they had their periods and they had nothing, no sanitary pads, so they had blood running down their legs and the blood was left on the sand and god knows what it caused later and in their bodies and their systems. But then they came to the river and the men ran and hid and the women were ashamed that they wanted to get into the river and clean themselves; a lot of those women died that day, of cold. On the one hand it’s very patriarchal culture, for the role of women, but on the other hand it’s a very communal culture because in the villages and collective farms a person is always part of a collective and never really an individual.
JF: This book begins with a series of unattributed voices and then gradually moves into acknowledged sources—so I wondered how you chose the people you interviewed for Zinky Boys and Voices From Chernobyl. Those books were about specific and discrete groups of people—survivors and parents of survivors or those who were lost—whereas this book, being about the end of the Soviet era, involves an enormous number of people. How did you choose which voices to record?
SA: I think this is why Secondhand Time was the most difficult book to write. Zinky Boys was really about war and there is such a thing as culture of war and you know in what space you work. But here we deal with a collapse of a huge empire and when it happened people found themselves sitting on its pieces and the pieces were different. In that sense, as a book, shaping its narrative was a challenge.
In the past 30 years I have largely been writing a history of Communism, the Red Communism in Russia, coming from the premise that the most important object was Communism and its disappearance. What was important was to mark the most painful things. What we were and what people were losing from under their feet as it was going away: the history of the war, the history of the camp, the history of the faith… that was the premise. I think it’s very much done not in order to create an exact picture, but a stained-glass window, if you will, as a musician or a composer might try to develop different melodies in order for them to blend in the ensemble and create that effect. I wanted to create the image of the time.
JF: Quite late in the book you speak to a waitress who has attempted suicide, she’s been married once to a man with a limp. How did you meet her?
SA: I don’t recall at this point but it might have been something I saw in the paper because this woman attempted suicide several times. It might also have been that somebody told me about her at the hospital because I came to the hospital to talk about the cases of people trying to commit suicide.
JF: There’s an epidemic it seems.
SA: I think yes, a very pronounced one, much higher than in Germany and most other countries. I think it is related to the fact that people live without being able to eat. Life under socialism gave you or gave a person some sort of a handout, it was the same for everyone, but now people are lost and they are depressed, on their own without any sort of support.
JF: Failure was their own fault.
SA: I think it’s complicated, some people were blaming the people who believed in the idea and they felt that they were betrayed the party. In that circle, a lot of people cannot teach themselves or adapt to living under capitalism. And other people were living with memories of the past, of what they went through and then we had Chechnya, we had people that came back from Afghanistan, so I was trying to kind of find the main or most important themes there.
JF: In one interview that broke my heart you spoke to the mother of a police office who was shot in Chechnya and the woman’s death was declared a suicide. I wonder when you sit and speak with people who have suffered such tremendous loss, I have two questions: one, how do you carry such stories the rest of your life? Does it have a cost to you? And second how do you disengage? These are people whose stories matter and you’re human, so how do you break off contact… or do you? Are you still in touch with many of these people?
SA: That was a woman right? A girl with a son?
SA: You know of course it is a cost, and today I have her face in front of me, she was a very beautiful Russian woman. It is hard and I do keep in touch with many of my characters, many women in particular, but a lot of them already passed away and especially the characters from my first book, The Unwomanly Face of War.
But when I consider this question, I actually think that the writers do not claim any special privilege here. Think about for example a pediatric surgeon who sees the terrible suffering of children every day, they then have to go and talk to parents. Imagine announcing the death of a child to a parent? Of course it’s a cost, but there are a lot of costs in many professions. I do not want at all to portray myself as some sort of superhero or suffering woman, but it is difficult.
I’ll tell you a story.
When I was in Afghanistan I received a call from a man. They were very resistant to having women on the battlefield so I got that call and suddenly he asks me, Do you want to see what remained of our boys that got blown up by an Italian mine? And I said, Well, what is left? And basically they’re trying to collect it with spoons so they at least have some DNA they can send to the mothers. Of course it’s 100 degrees outside and he thought I was confused or would be put off, but as a product of Russian culture I couldn’t be deterred. So I went and I saw these remains and I was human and of course I fainted.
Still, I am playing a secondary part here. I’m not the one suffering, I’m sitting in front of somebody, opposite of somebody, who really suffered and she’s sharing it with me, so this isn’t really my place, it’s her place. I stopped believing all the movies and plays where people who are suffering who cry and they yell out. This is absolutely not true. The people who truly suffer, they speak in very small voices, very quietly. They might cry a little but I don’t believe that outpouring, that is not true, that is not what I see. For me, interviewing and getting the story out, there’s a particular challenge because on the one hand I want to strip the story down to its most essential parts, on the other hand I want to go get away from that culture of crying because I want people when they tell the story to be thinking about her story and to not just sit there and cry.
JF: How do you decide who to leave out? Surely there must be five other books here of voices you did not include…
SA: You know it really all depends on the themes and the topics. A big one that is emerging is terrorism. In Secondhand Time there’s a story of a mother whose daughter got caught up in the terrorist attack that we had in our subway and there you have to decide really how the person is talking, whether they want to open up contact with you and have you know what is their process and who do you think this person really is? But I wanted to ask you what if anything grabbed you in the book?
JF: That some people could be funny. One guy says under capitalism, he learned that he had bad taste. Also, the fact that some of the heaviest suffering is born by women.
SA: In our culture this is so.
JF: Most unfortunately, it is true everywhere.
SA: Do you think it’s interesting for American readers?
JF: Absolutely. I think stories that are necessary have a peculiar vibration. My parents were social workers so they listened to people for a living.
SA: I think that they’ve probably heard no less than I did.