Svetlana Alexievich’s “On the Battle Lost” on NobelPrize.org
“The road to this podium has been long–almost forty years, going from person to person, from voice to voice,” said Svetlana Alexievich in her 2015 Nobel Lecture. She has spent her life collecting voices, interviewing some 500-700 people over a period of years for each of her books. In the lecture, Alexievich explained,
Flaubert called himself a human pen; I would say that I am a human ear. When I walk down the street and catch words, phrases, and exclamations, I always think – how many novels disappear without a trace! Disappear into darkness. We haven’t been able to capture the conversational side of human life for literature. We don’t appreciate it, we aren’t surprised or delighted by it. But it fascinates me, and has made me its captive.
Reading about Alexievich’s work and life, I was overwhelmed by her quiet tenacity, the way that she has spent her life collecting and collecting and collecting voices. She didn’t stop doing her work, hasn’t stopped doing her work. As a writer, this gives me hope.
Lauren Williamson’s “The Snow White of the Dead” in Chicago Magazine
It takes guts to tackle a rarely written-about topic that received such iconic coverage by one of the greatest creative nonfiction writers of our time. I am speaking, of course, of Susan Orlean’s piece “Lifelike”, for the New Yorker back in 2003, about the World Taxidermy Championships. But writer Lauren Williamson does a fantastic job in this Chicago Magazine profile of young, hip—female—taxidermist Mickey Alice Kwapis. In any article about such a topic, you know you’re in for at least a few gory details, the “weird kid” backstory, and some whiff of the macabre, the morbid. And yes, Williamson does deliver on those fronts, but it isn’t necessarily overly gruesome. Williamson’s handling of the details reflects the mind-set of her subject: There is delicacy, a respect for animal life, and a sense of wonder at the natural world woven through both the prose and Kwapis’s work. For the piece, the writer sat in on one of Kwapis’s sold-out taxidermy classes, which offer some great opportunities for descriptive writing and quirky quotes.
Kwapis sets a tiny white body, slightly squashed from defrosting among 49 others in a plastic bag, in front of each person. As instructed, the students daintily stretch their specimens out on the table, spread-eagle, and part the fur along the spine with the scalpel so they can make a clean cut. When they make that first incision, she tells them, they must be careful not to pierce the membrane that separates the mouse’s skin from its innards. From there, well: “Then I’m basically taking its pants off,” Kwapis says as she demonstrates how to fold back the skin and push it off the mouse’s rump. (Pulling could tear the fragile hide.)
It’s a fascinating, humanizing examination of a hobby that many consider only the domain of woodsmen, creepy outcasts, or those fascinated by death.
Michelle García’s “My Name is Alex” in Oxford American
“My Name is Alex” is a short essay about impossible choices. García begins the essay by watching a young migrant attempt to hitch a ride in Texas. She ends up letting him in the back of her truck, but she doesn’t know what to do with him. She’s unwilling to take him the 300 miles to Houston, where he wants to go, and can’t take him to her cousin’s house where she’s staying—every moment he’s with her she’s committing a criminal act. And, as García writes, “In a day or two, if he continued his journey, the rattlesnakes would get him, or the heat.”
This is not the story of a heroic narrator that gives the teen migrant boy a new life—they decide together that she should call the border patrol so at least he’ll survive. And she never pretends to fully understand his situation. When she relays the story of her and her brother getting temporarily lost in the brush as kids she does it to show how deadly it can be, not to say, “We’re the same.” It is a story about a dangerous, messed up situation and her inability to make much of a difference:
On the borderlands, acts of compassion and humanity are buried by laws created by people in faraway places so as to make the word them a cushion against a feeling of utter helplessness. Only when you have offered death to a child can you understand that the laws of the borderlands don’t apply anywhere else within our country.