Svetlana Alexievich finds light in the darkness

by Hassan Saleem AAP ‘20, for the Mario Einaudi Center for International Studies

Editor's note: The Belarusian writer and Nobel Prize winner Svetlana Alexievich visited Cornell's Ithaca campus on September 12 and 13 as the 2016-2017 Bartels World Affairs Fellow. During her visit, she met with two undergraduate classes, including Hassan Saleem's first-year writing seminar. What follows are Hassan's observations about that encounter. 

Svetlana Alexievich meets with students in professor Valerie Bunce's Russian politics class.

If there was one thing I took from the visit of Nobel Laureate Svetlana Alexievich to my Monday writing seminar, it was that she is an emotionally courageous woman.

It takes a certain kind of strength to write on the topics that brought Alexievich to renown – be it women on the war front or boy soldiers in zinc coffins – and she carries it well. When she walked into our classroom, I felt the urge to stand in respect until she had taken her seat. And when she spoke, even my teacher’s prompt, improvised translations bore the lyrical quality of poetry.

Our class for the day was structured as a simple question and answer session. Our inquiries were based on extracts we had read from her books, War’s Unwomanly Face and Zinky Boys. While Alexievich answered them in her own voice, it was clear that she was channeling the voices and experiences of others. To me, she became the embodiment of a Greek chorus, and as she spoke I felt the power of her words magnify.

“I wanted to write something that could make even generals of war feel sick to their stomachs.”
– Svetlana Alexievich

In her answers, she gave us a brief glimpse into her world, full of both horror and meaning. With brevity and candor, she spoke to the disconnect she perceives between our humanity and our needless violence. For instance, she told us of a woman who worked as a nurse during the Soviet-Afghanistan war, who described herself as “carrying an amputated leg like a baby.”

This sort of duality – between humanity and horror – came up again and again.

“People are not consistent,” she observed. “Some get carried away by the rhetoric of the times, even if it means to kill. Some, the thinkers, question and reflect on what it means to be human, and what it means to end a life.”

During the final minutes of the class, she told us that she wants her readers to feel empathy when they read her works. “The last thing I want to allow is for the reader to take a message of hatred – for it is love that will save us. I do not want to make a collection of horror stories, but one of human experiences.”

Despite having seen, heard, and written about the worst of humanity, Alexievich seems surprisingly optimistic about what awaits us. “The people of the future will look back at us and wonder about the cruelty of wars, and why we killed people rather than killing ideas,” she said.

If art can inspire change in the world, perhaps Svetlana Alexievich could be a catalyst, in her works and in her words. Despite the darkness she has experienced, she has somehow brought forth some of the most enlightening literature the world has known.

Her final piece of advice for us was never to settle for remaining average, and always to strive to be the best. That is the sort of thing that successful people always tell students, but I think her meaning was deeper. “Only one who stays above the water,” she said, “avoids being swept away by the waves.” 

A native of the Maldives, Hassan Saleem is studying urban and regional studies, and working as a student assistant at the Einaudi Center.

Read the Cornell Chronicle article about Svetlana Alexievich's Bartels World Affairs Lecture