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.” Read More