2015 Nobel Prize winner shows non-fiction growth


“They say that our soldiers found me near my dead mother. I was crying and asking her to stand up. It was at one of the railway stations in the suburbs of Minsk. The soldiers put me on a train that went to the east, taking me away farther from the war I ended up in the town of Khvalynsk. There, a husband and wife, the Cherkasovs, adopted me; they became my parents. As for my own parents — mother and father — I do not know them. I have no photos, not even memories: what kind of mummy, what kind of daddy. I don’t remember. I was very small I live with the feeling that war gave birth to me. Because from childhood I remember only war”

These are the words of Tamara Frolova as she remembers World War II when she was only three years old (Frolova is now an engineer living in Kuybyshev, Russia). These moving words are in the book, The Last Witnesses: The Book of Unchildlike Stories, by the winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2015, Svetlana Alexievich. Alexievich is the first person to win the Nobel Prize for writing nonfiction. A journalist, she applies literary devices to convey her stories with a luminous lustre.

Alexievich believes that reporting has a way of shining light to angles of life in a way that art (the novel, poem or play) cannot. Of course, this viewpoint can be challenged. Alexievich’s work tracks the rise and fall of the Soviet Union: chronicling World War II, the Soviet’s ill-fated occupation of Afghanistan and the Chernobyl nuclear disaster.

In all these stories, Alexievich has used the reporter’s scent to track down (with her recorder on and attuned eye and ear) the faces behind the stories. She is like one always looking for something that’s not there or looking at floating fragments after a shipwreck; always peering beyond the obvious to the hidden, minute and nuanced.


History will never present the human face of tragedies, and that’s what makes Alexievich’s work very compelling. Her work, as the Swedish (Nobel) Academy noted, is “not really about a history of events. It’s a history of emotions”. In her own words, Alexievich says that, “I don’t just record a dry history of events and facts, I’m writing a history of human feelings”.

One of the lessons from Alexievich’s work is that writers should do thorough research on their works, whether fiction or non-fiction to get the “substance” of the narrative or story (especially a true event) right. Alexievich has famously been quoted as saying that she interviewed at least 500 people for each of her five books!

The second lesson is that after research, writers should not present “dry” historical data and facts. They should get the feelings of the people affected. This brings the emotional impact and puts the explosions, gun wounds and arson attacks in perspective as we see how they affected real people.

After her research, Alexievich then puts her creative literary style to work; capturing pain, loss and tears in a powerful emotional wave. In some aspects, she is like a biographer, tormented by the demons that haunt biographers the world over, as Kenyan-born American biographer, Edmund Morris, once put it, “Loss is the biographer’s torment: longing for treasures unrecoverable, hardly assuaged by the recovery of trifles — an oar or a floating hat, after everything else has gone over the weir.

Private loss, too budding opportunities unblown, scripts unfilmed and books unfinished, a marriage in ashes, a boy gone underground. Loss of youth, of middle age, of time itself everybody who ever lived, young and beautiful and wise — lost too!”

Kenyan writers have many losses to write about (lest we forget!): From the 1998 bomb blast to the 2007/08 post-election violence, the Westgate attack, the Garissa massacre and many others. It’s time more writers went behind the scenes to document these events, like Alexievich has done; catching the flustered looks on the faces of those haunted by these events. This would be good for our own national healing and for progeny.