Prized encounter for Nobel laureates

Since 1988 a group of Swedish school children have invited the winner of the Nobel prize for literature into their room

Belarusian author and investigative journalist Svetlana Alexievich won the Nobel Prize in Literature. Joel Saget / AFP
Powered by automated translation

While going to pick up her Nobel literature prize, Svetlana Alexievich will follow in the footsteps of previous winners by making a detour to meet the children of Rinkeby, one of Sweden’s most diverse neighbourhoods.

Seher Unver is late for class. It happens sometimes, but not last month, not for her visit to the Swedish Academy.

The Academy, founded in 1786 by King Gustav III, is responsible for choosing the Nobel laureates in literature. Seher and six other middle-school pupils were invited to witness the announcement of this year’s prize winner.

“It was so nice inside, and so many people speaking in so many languages,” says Seher, 14, of the room that could hardly contain the scrum waiting to hear the name of this year’s winner.

“When the door opened, it turned quiet,” she says.

Entering the room was the Academy’s permanent secretary, Sara Danius.

“What I wanted most of all was to know if it was going to be a man or a woman,” says Seher.

“Because only 47 women have won Nobel prizes – but they’ve given 900 prizes to men – I think it’s important that it’s fair.”

As luck would have it for Seher, the Academy announced it would award Belarusian author and investigative journalist Svetlana Alexievich this year’s prize.

With the event over, Seher travelled home to Rinkeby, a suburb 20 minutes north of central Stockholm, with much to ponder about her upcoming school assignments.

Since 1988, pupils at her school have studied Nobel winners’ works.

That first year the laureate winner was Egyptian author Naguib Mahfouz, which prompted a class project, led by teacher Elly Berg, to produce a booklet in Swedish and Arabic on Mahfouz’s work.

The finished product was presented to the author’s daughters, who had travelled to collect his award.

Berg has since passed away, but 27 years later, visits by the literature laureate to the Rinkeby school remains a key event on the Nobel calender.

Turkish novelist, screenwriter, academic and recipient of the 2006 Nobel Prize in Literature “Orhan Pamuk said it was the best day of his life”, says project co-ordinator and author Gunilla Lundgren. “And many have said it’s the best day of the entire Nobel week activities.”

Only Elfriede Jelinek, Harold Pinter, Doris Lessing, Herta Muller and Alice Munro have been unable to take part. A few times, physics, medicine, chemistry and economics laureates have stepped in.

With a week to go until Alexievich’s December 9 visit, the children are busy preparing for their esteemed guest. Fifteen of the pupils will welcome the author to their neighbourhood.

Alyazid Ahemri, 13, the group’s most theatrical member, will have the honour of leading Alexievich into the building.

“Don’t forget to walk her past the cloakroom if she has a big jacket,” Lundgren tells him, as she draws a floor plan on the whiteboard.

“The Nobel is an international award, and Rinkeby is an international neighbourhood,” she later says about why they have kept the tradition alive.

“Many laureates have lived in exile and wrote their best work in exile. Alfred Nobel himself grew up abroad, in Russia, so there are many ways this relates to the children here.”

Alyazid and his classmates have read excerpts from Alexievich’s Zinky Boys and The Last Witnesses to prepare.

“Svetlana is brave, she has the courage to express herself in her own way,” he says – a sentiment he shares with his classmates.

“She tells the truth when the government tries to hide it,” says Guleed Warsame, 13.

He’s looking forward to meeting a person who “tells the truth and doesn’t make things up just to make people feel better”.

One particular detail from Zinky Boys, which tells the story of soldiers killed in the Soviet war in Afghanistan, has stuck with Ladan Mahamud, 13.

“They put them in coffins so the parents weren’t allowed to see them,” she says of the zinc coffins that gave the book its title. “It’s important that the family gets to look at the person who has died.”

After a reprimand for being late to class, Seher explains that she cannot get a scene from The Last Witnesses: the Book of Unchildlike Stories out of her mind.

“That the soldiers killed all the people but let the cats live was scary,” she says. “We read it in class and I couldn’t bear to listen to it.”

Some of the children have parents who have fled conflicts, but none of the children have talked about the books much at home, even though their families are excited about attending the ceremony.

“The worst thing that can happen is that I make a mistake when reading,” says nervous Gabriel Tanjakovich, who has spent much of the morning’s rehearsals mumbling into a tiny, fake microphone made of a foam rubber ball stuck to a highlighter pen.

When one of the three adults coaching the pupils asks him to look up for a second try, Gabriel raises his chin, but his gaze stays glued to the linoleum flooring.

He is not the only one battling nerves. Classmates Alyazid and Emir Erdogan recite their part of the script – ploughing through it with furious fluidity, no matter how much Lundgren’s hand gestures try to get them to ease up on the pace.

Even the seemingly calm Gulmeed, who has written a three-stanza poem about conflict, has some work left before perfecting his recital.

Today it was decided Alyazid would read part of the poem at the ceremony. “It’s good,” Gulmeed says, magnanimous about handing over a stanza.

“I had a lot to read, Alyazid had nothing, so this is much more fair.”