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Svetlána Alexiévich: To Record an Era with the Sound of Words

AUG . 31 2016
Peking University, Aug. 29, 2016: On August 26, 2016, the 2015 Nobel Laureate in literature Svetlána Alexándrovna Alexiévich was invited to attend a roundtable discussion entitled “To Record an Era with the Sound of Words” as the keynote speaker at the School of Humanities, Peking University (PKU). She was accompanied by Li Jingze, vice chairman of the Chinese Writers’ Association, and Wu Zhipan, vice president of PKU. The event was co-organized by Department of Chinese Language and Literature and Office of International Relations at Peking University, Zhongxin Press, and Tencent, Inc., with professor Chen Xiaoming from Department of Chinese Language and Literature as the host.

The discussion commenced with a short opening speech by Wu Zhipan. The event became increasingly insightful as Alexiévich and the other guests engaged in discussions.
"Why it always took me so long to finish a book"
In answering the question of what special interviewing techniques enabled her to guide her interviewees to reveal their sufferings and speak out their true feelings, Alexiévich talked about the effort she made in arranging each interview: 

I tried to include people of all walks in my books. For instance, for the topic of wars, I talked with pilots and machine gunners fighting day and night in fierce combat, guerrillas who had to kill the German soldiers, who were their former acquaintances, and nurses who lost their femininity in the frontline. All these efforts are made to give a full picture of the topics in my books. In arranging interviews, I paid attention to every detail, like whether the appointment should be made in the morning, in the evening, or some other time, or whether or not to allow the presence of other people during the talk, and so on. For every interviewee whose speech was included in my books, I conducted interviews with them at least three to four times. This is why it always took me so long to finish a book. I have always enjoyed talking to people, and when I talk to my interviewees, I totally forget that I am doing an interview. Instead, I simply feel I am chatting with a friend.


"My works are not a collection of human plights"

In addressing the question of how documentary writings show their literariness, Alexiévich said: 

As is known by us all, Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago is regarded as documentary writing. It is not just a literary work based on a set of collected materials, but a demonstration of Solzhenitsyn’s thoughts and world view. Similarly, my works are not merely a collection of human plights. Actually, what I try to collect is something spiritual. I want to show my interviewees understanding of life.
When asked what the distinction is between good and bad literary works, poet Joseph Brodsky once said, “The fundamental difference between them is whether the work possesses metaphors.” In my literary creation, I try to search for the relationship between the universe and our reality. In my books, I try to show the immortality in my interviewees, who have experienced wars and crisis, personal and national plights. They have passed bitterness, wars. They have transcended time.


At the end of the discussion, Wu Zhipan, gave Alexiévich a clay plate engraved with the image of the PKU west gate as a gift. The audience applauded to show their gratefulness for this inspiring intellectual exchange event and their reverence for the admirable time recorder.
Reported by: Ou Kun
Edited by: Zhang Jiang