Svetlana Alexievich, the latest Nobel laureate in literature, has said that “after twenty years of work with documentary material and having written five books on their basis I declare that art has failed to understand many things about people.” But art is precisely what she has made: a “novel of voices,” as she has described her work, built from fact and feeling. Voices from Chernobyl, which Dalkey Archive Press published in 2005, is Alexievich’s fourth book but only her second to be translated into English. None of her other works have, to date, been published in English.
I asked Chad Post, who was then Dalkey’s associate director—he’s now the publisher of Open Letter Books—about what led him to publish Voices from Chernobyl in America and about his first impressions of Alexievich’s work, a blend of narrative and reportage that doesn’t offer conclusions. “Why can’t we say, I don’t want to be a slave anymore?” she said in a 2013 interview. “Why do we suffer again and again? Why does this remain our burden and fate? … I don’t have an answer, but I want my books to motivate readers to think about the question for themselves.”
What struck you about Alexievich’s writing when you first read her?
That it’s very political of course. She’s writing about the way the government ruined people’s lives. People died, they knew it, and they covered it up. They didn’t care. But at the same time, her writing is made up of all these voices—there are hundreds of people are in the book, but each one is fairly distinct, and even when their stories overlap, they retain their own voices, their own particular tales. That made it feel very human. It’s miserable to read, but it’s made very human and very powerful because of the way she allows their voices to tell truths that are hard to take. When those truths in the context of a narrative, of someone telling a story, it’s much stronger than if the experiences had been reported. Instead of “Then, on April 24, this thing happened, these people died in this way,” she let someone say, “My husband brought home his firefighter’s hat, and gave it to our son, who later got brain cancer and died.”
How did she come to your attention?
We had an intern at the time, a grad student, and later our the foreign editor, Ana Lucic, who is from Serbia and reads a number of different languages. She had heard of Alexievich or Alexievich had been recommended to her, and Anna translated a sample of Voices from Chernobyl. I remember also reading her sample of Zinky Boys and one other book of Alexievich’s we got a part of, a book about love that I don’t think has been translated. We read all of those, and we thought they were fantastic! Everyone agreed that we should publish Voices from Chernobyl because that was the most powerful of her books. Keith Gessen agreed to translate it. The whole process started in 2004.
Only Zinky Boys had been translated into English at that time?
Yes, it came out in the early nineties from Norton, but it was already out of print for the most part when we published our book. The set-up of Zinky Boys is the same as Voices from Chernobyl—she interviewed a bunch of soldiers who came back from the Soviet-Afghan war, and then converted their interviews into monologues. It’s the book that got her in a lot of trouble with the KGB because it’s critical of Russia’s role in Afghanistan. She was accused of slandering the army.
What was the critical and public reaction to the book?
It was really positive. It was the first hardcover Dalkey had done in about a decade. It was an important book that deserved to be a hardcover. It got a decent amount of review attention, but more importantly, I gave that book to everyone I talked to—and they read it! It was one of those few books that you give someone and they actually read instead of just being like, Oh, I’ll get to that someday. And they all were absolutely blown away. It was no time before we had sold the paperback rights to Picador. I had met Amber Qureshi at the PEN World Voices Festival and gave the book to her, and she called the next day, and said they wanted it.
Around the time the book won the National Book Critics Circle Award for general nonfiction, NPR wanted to do a feature on it. It was not long after A Million Little Pieces had been exposed as a complete lie, so NPR wrote to us to say, We need to verify that every single one of these statements is accurate and true, and does she have recordings of her interviews? Can she prove that everything that is in the book has been spoken exactly the way that it appears in the book? So Keith Gessen called Alexievich and spoke with her about it, and she said, This is dumb. These people’s stories are their stories. It doesn’t matter if I have it on recording or not, their suffering was more real than anything that is on an audiotape. We told NPR that, and I think they canceled the story.
Why did you feel the book was so important? How is it different from any other book on the subject?
Well, there aren’t that many other books on the subject. This was a weird time, too, because it was the year before the twentieth anniversary of the Chernobyl incident, and I’d learned that the UN was going to release a statement that all the crops from Belarus were totally fine and that it was safe to export stuff from Belarus. This book came out right at that moment. Even though the interviews were from ten years before, I don’t think anyone reading these people’s stories was going to be eating carrots from the Chernobyl area. The book is terrifying. So it was important because of its political moment and also because it highlighted what a bizarre tragedy it was—it was a moment where the Soviet Union still had a lot of power and just before they fell apart. They could control things, and they could abuse human beings in the most egregious ways and get away with it. And the book lays bare these facts and that it’s not okay. It has more power and resonance than fiction or a straightforward book of journalism because it lets characters speak rather than speaking for them. It’s a bit like A People’s History of the United States—and Alexievich had gotten to the grittiest, most fundamental part of a society and exposed it. And when it comes to Russia that’s fascinating, because Russia has been a huge part of our lives for a long time, even now. That was also a period of time in which we did not know what life was like in Russia. The stories in the book are raw. They’re rough. And the fallout is still an issue for people from that part of the world, and now, sadly, from other parts, too.