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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Michele Norris.

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And I'm Melissa Block.

If you found yourself asking, who, when you heard who won the Nobel Prize for Literature today, you are not alone. To put it diplomatically, the award often goes to writers who are neglected on the world stage. Well, this year the Nobel went to German author Herta Mueller. Never Herta her?

NPR's Neda Ulaby fills us in.

NEDA ULABY: Herta Mueller was born and grew up in Romania in a tiny German community that's been there for centuries. Her village was suffocating and insular, but Mueller recently told Swedish television she was an outsider in Romania, too. Even to speak made her aware of her difference.

Ms. HERTA MUELLER (Winner, 2009 Nobel Prize in Literature): (Through translator) All these languages that I have borrowed, not even one belongs to me, not the one from home, not even the Romanian, and that's why there is such an impulse in me to write.

ULABY: Mueller began writing as a young intellectual under the regime of dictator Nicolae Ceausescu. She was shadowed on the street, fired for refusing to inform on co-workers and arrested. A friend committed suicide under similar pressure.

Ms. BRIDGET HAINES (Editor): The effects of living in Romania has remained with her ever since.

ULABY: Bridget Haines edited a book about Herta Mueller. The author fled to Germany when she was 22 years old. The culture shock was intense, says Haines, as when Mueller's first review was published in a newspaper.

Ms. HAINES: She went out and bought 20 copies of the newspaper because she didn't realize that you could photocopy anywhere. In Ceausescu's Romania, photocopiers were only owned by the secret service.

ULABY: Haines says Herta Mueller writes poetically about very grim things: exile, oppression and the horror of Nazi Germany, Soviet gulags and Eastern European dictatorships.

Her most recent book draws from her mother's memories of a Soviet labor camp. The hero is a teenager who almost welcomes the news he's on a list to be deported.

Unidentified Woman: (Reading) The timing was right for going away. I could've done without the list being the reason, but if things didn't turn out too badly, it would even be good for me. I wanted away from this thimble of a town where all the stones had eyes.

ULABY: Five years later, the teenager is released into a busy city where he could be stopped and interrogated at any moment. He's learned to keep his mouth tightly shut.

Unidentified Woman: (Reading) I have packed myself into silence so deeply and for so long that I can never unpack myself in words. I just pack myself differently each time I speak.

ULABY: Herta Mueller's own experiences had led her to stand up for newer refugees fleeing to Europe from all over the world. Mueller says they are not the problem.

Ms. MUELLER: (Through translator) Why has it always been in this world that people should leave their countries and others are the ones committing the crimes?

ULABY: Mueller has returned to Romania to visit.

Ms. MUELLER: (Through translator) One never comes back the same way after one has left once. Once you leave under such circumstances, you become a different person.

ULABY: Herta Mueller becomes the second woman writing in German to get a literature Nobel in the past five years. She's one of nine writers who are Europe-based or of European descent who've won the prize in the past decade.

Neda Ulaby, NPR News.

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