Chronicling personal stories has been a widespread phenomenon in our region, promoted by social media and the endless news channels that have flooded in since the end of 2010. As in every time of conflict, however, these stories have largely been politicized to suit opposing parties, contributing to the tense atmosphere of mistrust and incredibility.
The decision to grant this year’s Nobel Prize in Literature to a writer many have referred to as a journalist was met widely with astonishment. In Russia and Belarus some felt Belarusian writer Svetlana Alexievich was chosen for her critical stance on Vladimir Putin, evident in her Nobel lecture on Monday.
“I will take the liberty of saying that we missed the chance we had in the 1990s. The question was posed: what kind of country should we have? A strong country, or a worthy one where people can live decently? We chose the former – a strong country. Once again we are living in an era of power. Russians are fighting Ukrainians. Their brothers. My father is Belarusian, my mother, Ukrainian. That’s the way it is for many people. Russian planes are bombing Syria,” she said. “A time full of hope has been replaced by a time of fear. The era has turned around and headed back in time. The time we live in now is second-hand.”
Whether or not you’re concerned by the politics behind the prize itself, sifting through Alexievich’s chronicles you discover that her concern is to simply relate human experiences regardless of background or political affiliation. It’s the “eternal human” she set out to discover, in a quest that has exposed her to the cruelest stories imaginable.
For decades Alexievich has toured the former Soviet Union, conducting countless interviews before and after the dismantling of the communist empire, spending long hours with survivors of Joseph Stalin’s gulags, of the Chernobyl disaster, of World War II, of the Soviet war in Afghanistan and the many wars that followed that empire’s disintegration. She has a particular interest in collective experiences that have been denied or hushed up.
Because all we know about war stems from the accounts of men, writes Alexievich in her revised introduction to War’s Unwomanly Face (1988), “We are prisoners of the manly imagination.” In women’s stories, “Not only humans suffer, but also the earth, the birds and the trees. The whole earthly world. A suffering without words,” she writes. But Alexievich does write this suffering, and her books provided me with one of the most devastating readings I’ve had.
Writing in Russian, Alexievich stands in a long tradition of literary giants such as Fyodor Dostoyevsky and Anton Chekhov, both of whom are quoted in her books. Her stories are hard to put down. Writing in simple, clear prose, she knows how to build up to a climax, provide setting and a narrative atmosphere, and how to mix dialogue and monologues with vividly descriptive narration.
Alexievich has already received the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade, and most of her books have been translated into western European languages. Her most recent book, Secondhand Time: An Oral History of the Fall of the Soviet Union (2014), is released in English next year. And Masr El Arabyia Publishing House has bought the rights to publish Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster (1997) in Arabic, to publish in April 2016.
Working as a television news producer in crisis zones in Libya, Iraq and Yemen, I have interviewed many throughout the last four and a half years, listening to horrendous stories of those who have lost loved ones and everything they owned. But the camera “steals” a few shots of a human’s life and the whole process is rushed to meet transmission deadlines.
Alexievich spends endless hours with people in their kitchens, drinking tea, chatting and becoming acquainted until they’re able to unearth the past’s silent voices, recount a distant life that no longer seems their own, unleash demons. Many break down during their testimonies. Alexievich, who only seldom disrupts a narrative flow, offers the consolation of a stranger just granted access to their innermost secrets.
She doesn’t just recount stories of conflict. The gigantic Secondhand Time captures the mood in 1991 when a group of Russian generals and politicians sought to depose reformist President Mikhail Gorbachev in a coup. Protesters, defamed by adherents of the old, communist regime as drunks and addicts, rushed to the Red Square to prevent its return. Listening to people both for and against Gorbachev narrate the hopes and disappointments that followed the first free elections is very reminiscent of Egypt post-2011, particularly as their course toward democracy was irreversibly thwarted as well.
Alexievich juxtaposes the lives of two friends, for example, at opposite ends of the political spectrum. She recounts their fears, aspirations and opinions. She tells the stories of torturers and snipers as well as the heart-wrenching stories of love and sacrifice, of couples of two different nationalities and religions castigated by their own societies. This sort of balanced perspective is desperately missing in Egypt, where journalists almost always either voluntarily or involuntarily choose a clear side.
There are important efforts, of course. Alaa al-Aswany has been documenting individual cases of human rights abuses for more than a decade, and Mohamed Aboul Gheit has been writing critical articles for Al-Masry Al-Youm on torture and prison conditions. Filmmakers like the Mosireen collective documented vital stories of personal suffering and torture. The BuSSy Project, a group of performers, highlight “experiences of womanhood” including sexual harassment through women’s personal stories.
Most of this relies on fact-finding, and is aimed at stirring up sympathy for victims and creating understanding of the problems crippling our society. But it stands little chance in the face of a huge propaganda apparatus, disseminating its own version of all stories, confirming that history is largely written by the victors. But with the right storytelling tools, you can reach millions. Aswany’s The Yacoubian Building (2004), which helped expose the corrupt state of ex-President Hosny Mubarak, reached far more readers than his articles ever did.
Alexievich goes further by writing books containing the stories of real people in her own country, related with the skill and intensity of a fiction writer at the top of their game.
“I don’t write a story of war, but a story of feelings,” she writes. She goes beyond facts to describe not only horrors of war, but also shapes and types of trees, the taste of sweets baked for festivities, and the emotions of a teenage girl longing for romance. As in every well-narrated story, we identify with the protagonists as human beings, not just as victims.
One particularly striking story was that of a Jewish man about Nazis digging a grave for Jewish children whose parents refused to beg for their lives, because when you are “attacked by a wolf, you also do not cry and ask the wolf to spare you his life.” The soldiers threw sweets into the grave and buried the children alive. Put into a grave with his parents and little sister, he was miraculously pulled out by villagers who found he had not yet died. At another point, he joined Russian guerillas fighting the Germans. When their position was surrounded, he slit open a dead horse, took out its bowels, and hid inside it for two days.
Another account is that of an ardent communist party member wrongly imprisoned by party members with his wife, then brutally tortured. After he was released and rehabilitated through the act of fighting alongside one of his tormentors, he speaks of being incredibly happy to be reintegrated into the party, despite discovering that his wife was killed in prison.
“In each of us there is a piece of history,” writes Alexievich. “In one you find a page, in other two. Together we write the book of time.”
When I decided to become a journalist, a mentor taught me that the most important thing is to portray how human beings live and act and what they think and say. Since then I’ve produced dozens of news features, many of which have slipped into oblivion. In a era of growing totalitarianism and amid the limitations we face, there have been numerous moments in which I’ve begun to doubt my profession. But having read Alexievich’s books, I have deep gratitude for those who shared experiences with me. I now realize that there might be no greater gift than telling another person about your most vulnerable moments.