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Storytelling as Therapy: Alexievich's 'Zinky Boys'

By Lauren E. Claus, Contributing Writer

I admit that I cannot justly give tribute to the writings of Svetlana Alexievich, the most recent winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature. Her oral histories broadly challenge society to honesty while refusing to neglect the specifics of each experience—an undertaking that cannot be fully captured by my isolated voice. I feel compelled, however, to reference her work, in which she explores, as she puts it, “what happens to [the human being] in...our time. How does man behave and react. How much of the biological man is in him, how much of the man of his time, how much man of the man.” Alexievich takes on the roles of psychologist, sociologist, and journalist. She is an artist who defies boundaries in the service of human wellness and authenticity.

In this effort, whether intentionally or not, Alexievich captures the essence of the medical humanities. Her nonfiction work “Zinky Boys,” for instance, contains interviews from civilians and soldiers who experienced the 1979-1989 Soviet War in Afghanistan. Particular voices in the book acknowledge the limitations of the medical humanities, yet the work as a whole serves as a paragon of the genre which merges the social questions of this war with medical tragedy, individual perspective, and honest detail. “Zinky Boys” also allows the reader to explore one particular aspect of the medical humanities: how storytelling and literature provide powerful tools for attaining emotional wellness.

First, one must recognize that literature as a tool may be limited. One of the veterans speaks to this directly: “What’s the point of this book of yours? What good will it do? It won’t appeal to us vets. You’ll never be able to tell it like it really was over there.” This vet is cautionary as he reminds the author, as well as the reader, that one can never authentically represent the experience of war. Even “Zinky Boys,” which has an unusually intimate connection to life because of its interview format, cannot completely transgress literature's removal from reality. Portrayals of lived experiences may always raise questions of audience, authenticity, and applicability.

“Zinky Boys,” while it acknowledges these limitations and the validity of skepticism, also suggests that we should not forget the power of storytelling, because stories can foster empathy and understanding. Another vet asks the author and reader to do him a favor: to hear his story and attempt to understand. Adopting the language of religion, the vet says he is making a confession and even places the reader in the privileged position of the confessor. Narrating can be curative, then; individuals may want to express their experiences in hopes of being partially, if not fully, understood.

Storytelling also opens up definitions by providing speakers with the opportunity to describe or even deny their categories and names. One speaker, for instance, hates the category Afgantsi, which is so often applied to him and other veterans. This term is ambiguous—the speaker relates it to a “hero” and “idiot” as well as a “criminal”— but it definitely implies an unnecessary and unfavorable separation from the rest of society. Literature provides us with the opportunity to unpack and repack labels in this way, as Susan Sontag first illuminated in “Illness as Metaphor.” Writing and speaking—or, as in “Zinky Boys,” a combination of the two—allows one to comment on the social connotations of labels and can encourage readers to sympathize with stigmatized individuals.

“Zinky Boys” displays another tool of the medical humanities in its application of former works of the genre to contemporary perceptions and experiences. Two of the book's speakers use Dostoevsky, for example, as a medium through which to process their experiences. For these soldiers, the bleak power of Dostoevsky's prose becomes associated with their home. They call him a former teacher who cannot belong in their war experiences but taught them how to live before being in war changed everything. Literature can instruct and shape its readers, and it can provide a kind of mental handhold. As people’s lives change, a text remains constant.

Although traditional literature, like the classics of Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, is perhaps more commonly associated with the medical humanities, “Zinky Boys” profoundly places this tradition in the background of the insights of mothers, soldiers, and widows. Alexievich likewise plays with notions of textual authority, by inserting transcripts of readers' phone calls and letters in the postscript. Here, Alexievich's style itself reminds the reader that the field is one that inevitably links to the author’s and reader's contemporary experiences. Scientific, artistic, or ethical questions of life, death, and the struggles in between have the potential to remind readers of themselves, their families, and their friends. They also, though, suggest that there is a myriad of other individuals whom we may not understand but with whom we should try to sympathize. As Alexievich explains on her website, “I chose a genre where human voices speak for themselves.” In her work, then, one can begin to realize how intricate and important this process of understanding can be.

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