Oct 20 Update
Oct 12 Update
Man Asian Literary Prize winner Bi Feiyu praises Alexievich and her brand of non-fiction in an interview with Yangzi Evening News: 毕飞宇：今年的诺奖不是一个冷门 . But he does not cite any current practitioners of oral history or investigative journalism in China.
Oct 10 Post
Given China’s Nobel complex, it’s always interesting to see how the media reports on the newest winners. Year after year, those trouble-makers in Stockholm put the spotlight on the wrong sort of people, such as China’s own Liu Xiaobo (now serving time in a Chinese prison), Gao Xingjian — the China-born-and-raised author the state refuses to recognize as Chinese — and foreigners such as dissident writer Herta Müller, who wrote about the gulags.
So what is China’s media saying about Belarus’ 斯韦特兰娜·阿列克谢耶维奇 (Svetlana Alexievich)? It’s still early days, and we can expect more coverage and commentary soon. But that’s what makes the initial pronouncements such good fun; the state’s cultural spin doctors aren’t yet sure how politically correct — or incorrect — she is.
Cankao Xiaoxi (参考消息), Xinhua’s popular daily digest of translated international news that generally sells out on newsstands all over China by early afternoon, takes a cautious “smorgasbord” approach: It has run short excerpts from four multinational press agencies (四篇的原文). This allows it to create an impression of variety while deleting the (potentially troubling) opinions that one generally finds in a longer essay from the New York Times or the Financial Times, for instance. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find the exact same AFP piece on Alexievich’s award that appeared in the Oct 9 edition of Cankao Xiaoxi, but variations on it were widely published, such as here in the Singapore Times. Everywhere I’ve seen it online in English, the AFP news item contains this sentence or something very similar:
But her books, controversially written in Russian, are not published in her home country, long ruled by authoritarian president Alexander Lukashenko, amid what the author has described as “a creeping censorship”.
Through a bit of judicious editing, the Cankao Xiaoxi version implies that her work has not been published in Belarus simply because she wrote it in Russian, rather than her critical approach to Soviet history. The Chinese reader sees only the words that I have not struck out:
But her books, controversially written in Russian, are not published in her home country
, long ruled by authoritarian president Alexander Lukashenko, amid what the author has described as “a creeping censorship”.
Over at the always-reactionary-but-often-hilarious Global Times (Chronicler of Tears), the accent is on positioning this year’s award as politically motivated, thereby downplaying the literary value of the writing itself:
In Qiu’s opinion [Qiu Huadong, deputy editor-in-chief of People’s Literature magazine], political considerations had a lot of weight in the decision to give the Nobel to Alexievich.
“They wanted to select an author who has persistently criticized social realities in Russia and Alexievich is no doubt the best choice,” Qiu told the Global Times, adding that the Ukraine crisis has led to a taut relationship between Europe and Russia.
“Personally speaking, that’s the main reason they chose her.”
Meanwhile, the very official Chinanews.com — with a special section devoted to literature that generates hundreds of news items weekly — is uncharacteristically tightlipped (荣获). It devotes just 210 words to the award, mainly of a list of her published works. Given that at least four have been translated in Chinese and are available on the mainland (see Amazon.com.cn), that’s a little surprising. After all, unlike in her native Belarus, they aren’t banned in China.
So far, the most informative piece I’ve come across on Svetlana Alexievitch is yesterday’s interview (采访) with the editor of her translated books, Chen Liang (陈亮). A few factoids that emerge:
Alexievich visited the PRC in the 1980s.
Shortage of Russian-to-Chinese literary translators
The mainland edition of 切尔诺贝利之声 (Voices from Chernobyl) was first translated in Taiwan based on an English translation. Subsequent renditions of other works were done by mainland Chinese fluent in Russian, but Chen Liang laments that most of the highly qualified translators are getting on in age, and there are few younger ones to replace them.
Years in exile
Alexievich spent 2000-11 outside her native Belarus in places such as Paris (as well as Italy, Germany and Sweden, according to Global Times). Her exile is noted in several Chinese sources such as Baidu Baike, while it is not highlighted in global media such as The Guardian’s backgrounder.
It’s also interesting to note that Alexievich’s work is treated in isolation in all of the Chinese news items I read. That is to say, no one cites writers focusing on contemporary oral history in today’s China; curiously, discussion is limited to her books.
Several Chinese writers do come to mind, however, even if the work of the latter two has been partially fictionalized:
- Zhang Xinxin and Sang Ye and their Chinese Lives (北京人). Although this was published back in the 80s, this is one of the very best examples of low-key but hard-hitting post-1949 oral histories that I’ve ever read. The Chinese original reads uncannily like unedited speech, a rarity in China today.
Without a doubt, the most informative piece in Chinese that I’ve found so far is 前苏联悲惨时代的记录者 by 陆晶靖. But then, it’s not on a state-run web site.
In the English-speaking world, Nobel Prize Takes a Literary Swipe at Putin makes for a great read too.
If you’d like to read English excerpts from Alexievich’s work, visit: