SVETLANA ALEXIEVICH is usually the one doing the interviewing. For decades the author and investigative journalist, who writes in Russian, has used the words of ordinary people to chronicle the joys and suffering of her native Belarus. But this week Ms Alexievich became the centre of attention when the Swedish Academy announced that it would award her “polyphonic writings” with the Nobel prize in literature, calling her work “a monument to suffering and courage in our time”. The news is a nod to non-fiction writers around the world and a reminder that reality can be more remarkable than fiction—at least when someone like Ms Alexievich puts it to paper.

Born in 1948, she grew up amid the rubble of the Great Patriotic War, the Russian name for the second world war. Proportionally, Belarus lost more of its population than anywhere else. Her father's two brothers never came home. “We didn’t know a world without war, the world of war was the only world we knew,” she writes in her first book, “War’s Unwomanly Face” (1985), about the fresh-faced Belarusian, Ukrainian and Russian women who fought the Nazis. By the time Ms Alexievich sat these ladies down to talk, they were respectable Soviet accountants and teachers, wives and mothers. At first, many repeated the standard account of heroes and victories. Often it took her whole days drinking tea in strangers’ flats and metres of recording tape to get them to open up. Only then did they “start recalling not the war, but their youth.” Instead of grand narratives, these women talked about their everyday experiences. One woman, for example, recalled what it felt like when she cut off her beautiful long braids before joining the war effort. Some had been waiting for the chance to share their stories for years.

Ms Alexievich returned to war with “Zinky Boys” (1991), about the young soldiers who lost their lives and returned home in zinc coffins from the Soviet war in Afghanistan, which began in 1979. “It was a mothers’ war,” one woman tells her. For today’s reader, the unmarked graves in Russia of soldiers who died fighting in eastern Ukraine spring to mind.

In “Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster” (1997), Ms Alexievich encountered a different type of tragedy, what one person she meets called “the war of wars”. Written a decade after the nuclear-power plant exploded in 1986, the book paints a panorama of decay. Only one person is believed to have died in the blast; for others, death came slowly. “He started to change—every day I met a brand-new person,” recalls the wife of a young fireman sent in to put out the fire. His skin starts to flake off before her eyes, clumps of his hair stick to the pillow. The nurses warn her not to sleep beside him in hospital: “That’s not a person anymore, that’s a nuclear reactor.” Lyrical in its simplicity, the text often reads like a prayer. Yet even at its bleakest, it is punctuated by a wry Slavic humour. A market peddler shakes off advice not to advertise that her apples are from Chernobyl; people buy them anyway, she says. “Some need them for their mother-in-law, some for their boss.”

Amid all the voices, a pressing silence runs throughout Ms Alexievich’s writing, too. The women who once defended the fatherland from the Nazis rarely talk about their pasts. The dead fireman from Chernobyl is hushed forever. “He never calls to me...not even in my dreams,” his wife says. Soldiers lay silent in their zinc coffins. Eventually, one of their mothers wonders: “Why doesn’t anyone say anything? Why aren’t we being told who did it? Why aren’t they being put on trial?” Ms Alexievich is largely silent too. Her gift is in letting people speak for themselves.

Ms Alexievich’s phone call from Sweden came three days before the Belarusian election on October 11th, which is expected to be won by Alexander Lukashenko, the country’s president since 1994. Many of the questions put to Ms Alexievich since the prize was announced have been about politics. “They pretend I don’t exist,” she told journalists in Minsk on October 8th, referring to the Belarusian leadership (Mr Lukashenko congratulated her on his official website later). Some people will want to make Ms Alexievich, whose work has put her in trouble with authorities since Soviet times, an icon of the Belarusian opposition. Yet she did not win this award for her politics, but for her care in documenting the voices of the powerless. Her Nobel ensures these voices will now be heard around the world.

SVETLANA ALEXIEVICH thường là người thực hiện những cuộc phỏng vấn. Hàng chục năm nay, tác giả & ký giả chuyên về điều tra, viết bằng tiếng Nga, sử dụng từ ngữ của những con người bình thường để biên niên ký niềm vui và nỗi khổ đau của nước mẹ của bà, là Belarus. Nhưng tuần này Bà Alexievich trở thành tâm điểm của sự chú tâm khi Viện Hàn Lâm Thụy Điển trao cho tác phẩm của bà, những bài viết đa giọng giải thưởng Nobel văn chương, gọi tác phẩm của bà là “đài tưởng niệm cho nỗi khổ đau và lòng can đảm của thời của chúng ta”. Đám viết lách không giả tưởng bèn gật đầu 1 phát, rằng, thực tại có thể bảnh hơn là giả tưởng, nếu không với tất cả thì ít ra, với 1 người như Bà Alexievich, khi bà này viết nó lên trang giấy.