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Historian Svetlana Alexievich Wins Nobel Prize for Literature

October 8, 2015, 7:50pm
Photo by Elke Wetzig. Photo via Wikimedia Commons

This Thursday, historian Svetlana Alexievich received the 2015 Nobel Prize for Literature. According to the New York Times, the Ukrainian historian is best known for her work chronicling Russian female World War II soldiers and survivors of the Chernobyl Disaster. The author says she never wanted to record "a dry history of events and facts," so she wrote "a history of human feeling."

Her books are a collection of other voices. On her website, Alexievich states, "I've been searching for a genre that would be most adequate to my vision of the world to convey how my ear hears and my eyes see life. I tried this and that and finally I chose a genre where human voices speak for themselves." Alexievich's books are composite histories. She interviews over 500 sources for a piece, and the rigorous listening process gives her writing a unique human quality, showcasing people history often forgets.


Over a million Soviet women fought in battle during WWII. They mastered warcraft alongside men, but their stories were forgotten after the fighting stopped. "Men stole the victory from the women," Alexievich wrote. Her books are living memories, snapshots from within war-torn minds. She doesn't want to lose the beautiful or ugly truths about fleeting moments in time. "Some day, our days," the author wrote, "the Chernobyl days, will become a myth. New generations will be looking back at us and wonder how it all happened, what sort of people lived then, what they felt and thought, how they related it all and what they remembered."

According to the Nobel Foundation's online database listing awardees' demographic information, Alexievitch received the award "for her polyphonic writings, a monument to suffering and courage in our time." The Nobel's annual, international tradition is probably the best known and most renowned award system in the world—the prizes determine whose work the world sees as significant.

Only 14 women have won the prize for literature. The Nobel Foundation has decorated nearly seven times as many men for their writing. Women and men are both awarded when they exhibit mastery over language and greatly influence culture. There seems to be an almost feminine trend in the motivation to award women; the foundation uses words like spiritual, sympathy, and musical to describe female winners' work.

The disproportionate number of women to receive a Nobel Prize in Literature, or any Nobel Prize really, is reflective of the disproportionate representation women have had throughout society. In America, for example, women make up over 50 percent of the total population, but only 20 percent of congress.

Whether in government or the award system of the Nobel Foundation, powerful people need to correct disproportionate misrepresentation. Inequality has disastrous social effects, and the widest range of experience will lead to the best representation of human diversity. Svetlana Alexievich has unforgivingly written the oral history of forgotten people. Without women like her excelling in the arts, sciences, and politics, inequality will not end, and we'll lose the voices of people whose stories matter.