Dalkey Archive Press author wins Nobel Prize in Literature

Belarusian investigative journalist Svetlana Alexievich won the Nobel Prize in Literature on Thursday.

Svetlana Alexievich

In 2005, Alexievich’s book “Voices from Chernobyl” was translated from Russian to English by Dalkey Archive Press housed at the University of Houston-Victoria. Dalkey publishes about 50 books a year with an emphasis on translations from more than 40 countries. This is the third time a Dalkey author has won the Nobel Prize.

John O’Brien, Dalkey Archive Press publisher and UHV publisher in residence, said the award was richly deserved. He described Alexievich as a daring writer.

“Whatever cause she supports is almost always on the unpopular side,” O’Brien said. “She always takes the side of those who have been victimized by the government or the military. ‘Voices for Chernobyl’ was a deeply moving book. It’s deeply disturbing, though at times it’s also quite funny.”

O’Brien once ran into Svetlana Alexievich by accident in Santa Fe., N.M, when both were attending separate meetings at the Lannan Foundation. The foundation provided a grant to help support the publication of “Voices from Chernobyl.”

“She doesn’t speak a word of English, and I don’t speak a word of Russian, but fortunately a translator was there,” O’Brien said. “It was a treat meeting her. She was excited because it was her first American publication. I was excited because she is such a great writer.”

John O’Brien

O’Brien was at the London Book Fair in 2002 when he met a woman who ran a literary magazine that included a selection of Alexievich’s work. O’Brien contacted the editor to get more information about the author. The editor passed on the name of Alexievich’s agent, and the wheels started to turn from there.

“There was a selection of a few books of hers we could have translated, but I had a feeling about ‘Voices from Chernobyl,’” O’Brien said. “We had to make a big decision about how many copies to print and whether to use a paperback or cloth edition. We were only doing paperbacks at the time. This is not the way to run a business, but I had a hunch to do cloth and print 7,500 copies, which was a large printing.”

O’Brien said it was an expensive project, but the book started selling well, helped by winning a National Book Critics Circle Award, one of the most prestigious awards in the U.S. Dalkey was down to about 50 copies when it was contacted by Picador, a New York and British publisher, about a paperback version. Picador was sold the paperback rights, which will expire next year. The company is interested in renewing the license, but Dalkey may do its own paperback edition, O’Brien said.

Dalkey also will reprint its cloth edition and make the book available as an ebook.

Alexievich, 67, is primarily a newspaper journalist who spent her early career in Minsk compiling firsthand accounts of World War II, the Soviet-Afghan War, the fall of the Berlin Wall and the Chernobyl meltdown.

Alexievich interviewed hundreds of people affected by the meltdown. “Voices from Chernobyl” gives accounts of what happened to the people of Belarus and the fear, anger and uncertainty they lived through.

“Chernobyl showed us how dangerous is modern civilization’s ‘cult of force,’” Alexievich said in a past interview with Ana Lucic, former Dalkey Archive Press foreign language editor. “How glaring are the imperfections of this reliance on power and coercion above all else. How dangerous our modern worldviews are to us, ourselves. How humanitarian man is lagging behind technological man. Chernobyl blew up our whole worldview.”

Jeffrey Di Leo

The Nobel Prize in Literature has been awarded 108 times, starting in 1901. Alexievich is the 14th woman to win the literature prize. The Swedish Academy, announcing her win, praised Alexievich’s “polyphonic writings,” describing her work as a “monument to suffering and courage in our time.”

Dalkey Archive Press moved its operations from Illinois to Victoria this summer. The press plans to offer its applied literary translation program at UHV starting in January. O’Brien had a busy Thursday fielding media calls about Alexievich from CBS, The New York Times, Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal and others.

“This is thrilling news and shows the tremendous caliber of authors Dalkey Archive Press works with,” said Jeffrey Di Leo, dean of the UHV School of Arts & Sciences. “I am so excited that our students now how have the opportunity to work and study with Dalkey. John O’Brien and his staff run one of the premier small presses in America – and now have a Nobel laureate among the authors they publish and champion.”

More information about Dalkey Archive Press can be found at

The University of Houston-Victoria, located in the heart of the Coastal Bend region since 1973 in Victoria, Texas, offers courses leading to more than 80 academic programs in the schools of Arts & Sciences; Business Administration; and Education, Health Professions & Human Development. UHV provides face-to-face classes at its Victoria campus, as well as an instructional site in Katy, Texas, and online classes that students can take from anywhere. UHV supports the American Association of State Colleges and Universities Opportunities for All initiative to increase awareness about state colleges and universities and the important role they have in providing a high-quality and accessible education to an increasingly diverse student population, as well as contributing to regional and state economic development.

Jeremy Shapiro