Edit: Re-posted after technical difficulties.
The 2015 Nobel Prize in Literature was awarded a few weeks ago to the journalist, Svetlana Alexievich, for her collected work of non-fiction on Soviet history. Like the performance artist, Anna Deavere Smith, Alexievich uses interviews to document the human impact of different historical events. Her most famous book is undoubtedly Voices From Chernobyl, in which she interviewed hundreds of people involved in the nuclear disaster that took place in the Soviet Union in 1986.
As you might expect, Voices from Chernobyl is a dark, dark read, and I struggled at times to even pick it up. Each interview was understandably depressing, telling a story of predominate hopelessness. But what I didn't expect was to come away with so many individual stories of suffering, unhappiness, and fear. How the firemen experienced early attempts to put out the fire at the reactor was incredibly different from how a soldier emotionally processed the situation a few weeks later while evacuating the exclusion zone. How the women went through that same time was often quite different from the men. That doesn't mean it was pleasant to read, but it helped me understand this event in a more personal and deeper way than what I had previously understood from the paragraph that is typically dedicated to Chernobyl in high school history books.
In a disaster, we tend to lump everyone's experience as one story, but if you think about it, of course each individual suffers very differently. How a father grieves the death of a son from a radiation contaminated hat is a different kind of pain than what a village experiences after losing track of a disabled woman during the evacuation. How a woman grieves for the lost chance at having a healthy baby is different from how a family mourns their already "damaged" or dying children.
Different levels of knowledge about nuclear energy and radiation also created very different experiences. The scientists near Chernobyl and Minsk understood the dangers of the total radioactive contamination and their instinct was to balk party orders during the early days of the disaster, and get the hell out before they and their families were poisoned any further. But peasants, who knew nothing about radiation, looked around their fields and saw healthy crops and blue skies. They didn't understand why they had to leave everything behind. On the surface, things appeared normal, beautiful even. To give up their ancestral homes, their gardens, their dogs, for what seemed like to reason at all? They were told that everything, absolutely everything they owned, even their own bodies, had been poisoned and furthermore, had become another source of the poison. Even their livestock had to be buried alive to prevent further contamination. One of the men involved with this "liquidation" of radioactive material during the evacuation said of the peasants, "We annulled their labor, the ancient meaning of their lives. We were their enemies," (p. 185).
You can't see radioactive elements clinging to dust particles, but it was everywhere around Chernobyl and quickly drifting across Europe. The interviewees often seemed more at odds with this radioactive paradox than they were angry at the Soviet corruption and incompetence that had led to the disaster in the first place. Of course they were mad at the government, but their completely transformed lives maybe made blame an almost secondary, perhaps even trivial emotion in comparison. How could everything be poisoned? they kept asking. The milk, the apple trees, the salami in the store? How could you really live knowing that everything you touched would eventually kill you. That you too were a source of poison and would be subsequently shunned by the rest of the country. There was no where to run. No where to live. And there was no context for that existence, no way to understand it or know what to do next.
Voices From Chernobyl recounts what is essentially the non-fiction equivalent of science fiction, and I'm glad to have read it, but I'm sorry that so many people had to live and die through such a nightmare.
It took me a long time to start reading non-fiction. Partially, I blame the way we were taught history growing up. Back then it was labeled "social studies" and was a somewhat incoherent mess of information. My teachers would use the class period to write an outline of the assigned text book chapter. We'd memorize the outline and regurgitate it on the test. It's really not surprising that I thought history was inherently boring given how we were being taught.
Much later, I had one excellent history teacher in high school (and one of my best writing teachers as well), who was the first to introduce me to the idea that history is really just a complex multi-arced story. He'd lecture at the front of the classroom, rarely writing on the chalkboard except to illustrate relationships between different events/people/processes. He was a natural storyteller and had no problems keeping a quiet classroom. We were all too busy listening to his way of making history into these incredible plotted episodes to think about misbehaving.
Only years later did I start to read historical non-fiction, so it took me a while to realize that my history teacher was not an aberration. A good historian is someone who is a both a driven researcher of primary sources and a good storyteller. Some of my favorite non-fiction books that exemplify these traits include Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea by Barbara Demick, Stasiland: Stories from Behind the Berlin Wall by Anna Funder, and my current reading, Voices of Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster by this year's Nobel Prize in Literature winner, Svetlana Alexievich. Yes, I am a little fascinated by the history of communism. It's also good research for my own book.
Lately, I've also been supplementing my non-fiction reading by listening to the history podcast, History Extra, from the BBC's History magazine. Each episode features an interview with a historian who discusses their recently published book of non-fiction. The topics are usually British-centric, and if they're not about British history, then they're almost always Western history, but regardless of the eurocentricism, I still enjoy listening to these excellent stories that just happen to be true (or as true as historians can determine based off research). Another history podcast I love is the History of Rome series. It's so good, but maybe I'm biased, because Roman history is probably my favorite time period. I guess now I just need to find a world history podcast now to round me out a little more (open to suggestions!)
Anyway, all of this is just to say that history contains a lot of excellent stories and characters that in some ways stand out even more than fictional variations because they were real. For similar reasons, I love historical fiction, though I have to be careful as I do have a tendency to equate historical fiction with fact. But don't you think King John (John Lackland) would make a great character for a book? Or Richard III?
Do you read much non-fiction? How about historical fiction?
A few weeks ago, I laid out my writing plans. I wanted to spend the rest of October working on my Organic Chemistry Primer (a step-by-step method for teaching the basics of electron-pushing), and then I promised myself I would set that project aside to return back to my novel for NaNoWriMo. I figured that I could in theory finish my book in the month of November if I hit close to that 50,000 word goal. Mostly, I wrote those plans down for myself. If the gantlet had been thrown, so to speak, would I answer the challenge?
Well, I'm all about accountability, so here's how October went:
I wrote four chapters of my Organic Primer, out of the planned nine . I'm really happy with that! One of the things I forgot when I wrote that writing plan was that my husband would be traveling for a week during October, which meant all the home and animal care would fall to me. Whenever that happens, my writing progress slows down. So given all the extra responsibilities I had last week, I'm still very pleased that I got through my Primer as far as I did. Now it's a solid project and not just this vague idea in my head that I've been kicking around for the last few years.
Much more work remains on it of course. There's still at least five more chapters to write (although they're short, this is a very small book). Then I have to go back and re-format the figures I drew, which are still very rough. And then I'll have to decide what problems to include in the book, since it will be a kind of workbook. So yes, a lot remains. But I'll get there.
Still a few days left in October to work on the Organic Chemistry Primer, and then come Sunday it will be NaNoWriMo and I'll transition back to the novel. We're throwing a Halloween party on Saturday evening, so I'll do my best not to drink too much like I did last year... Nothing worse than trying to accomplish anything while hungover and that would be such a bummer way to start NaNoWriMo.
What are your writing plans? Will you be doing NaNoWriMo?
Writer, editor, scientist.