Author Interviews
5:07 pm
Sat September 22, 2012

Defending Israel At The Border Of Adulthood

Originally published on Wed October 3, 2012 10:37 am

At the age of 18, Shani Boianjiu, like most Israelis, began her mandatory two-year service in the Israeli Defense Forces.

Now at the ripe age of 25, she's drawn from those experiences in her first novel.

The People of Forever Are Not Afraid actually began in creative writing class when Boianjiu was studying English at Harvard University.

It turned into a novel that follows three friends: Yael, Avishag and Lea. They struggle to reconcile the rigors of army service with typical teenage angst. What results is a maelstrom of boys, body armor and bad behavior.

Borders are a theme throughout the novel - both the border between girl-hood and woman-hood and the borders between nations.

The soldiers in the novel spend hour upon hour guarding Israel's border. The task takes them between mind-numbing boredom and bone-chilling terror.

"I wanted to give people who have passed through these borders, the chance to imagine what the life of someone who is stuck at this border might be like," Boianjiu told weekends on All Things Considered Guest Host Jacki Lyden.


Interview Highlights

On borders
Israel is such a small country that basically everywhere you go there is a border. I think that's one of the things that distinguishes it. And at least for me, you know, the Lebanese border has been a huge part of my life because I live so close to it. There is this surreal experience; in a normal world you could take your car and drive for thirty minutes and be in Lebanon. But of course, you know, that's not how it goes. Plenty of people pass through borders, but they don't spend much time thinking about the people who are constantly at a border, such a soldiers, particularly Israeli borders.

On finding humor in unexpected places
For a nineteen-year-old person, you like whoever entertains you and you don't like whoever bores you. You know, in some cases, it's as simple as that ... One time, a few Palestinian kids stole the fence of one of the bases I was stationed in. I just thought that was so funny and so bold. You know, here we are guarding at all hours of the day and making sure that no one enters the base and they just up and take the fence itself. I thought that was hysterical.

On her worst day serving in the Army
When the second Lebanon War just broke out ... a boy I went to school with was recently kidnapped in Gaza, Gilad Shalit. Obviously he has since been released. The war started and everybody was very worried. People were dying, missiles were falling. And then I had to take [a] trip to bring some stuff from my home, and I had to pass through Tel Aviv. And what really astounded me was that everywhere in Tel Aviv people were eating in cafes, and walking down the streets, and sitting in the park and just having a summer. And there were even some graffiti against the war and against the soldiers. I remember feeling very hurt and just very, I guess, confused, too. It was almost shocking.

On not writing in her native language
I wrote the book in English, strangely enough. I never set out to write a book, you know. I never thought that I would publish my work, certainly not this young. I just took some creative writing classes at Harvard and for those classes I obviously had to submit my work in English. One thing led to another, and at the end of it I had a whole book and it was all in English. It just sort of happened. But I think that it really helped my writing, because when I write in Hebrew, you know, I can write pages and pages, and not really think about every single thing that I am saying. But in English, it's not my native language. I sometimes have to search for words to see how other people use the words I am about to use to make sure that I am using them the way that I want to use them.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

JACKI LYDEN, HOST:

It's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden, in for Guy Raz. Like most Israelis, Shani Boianjiu served a mandatory two years in the Israeli defense forces starting at the age of 18. Now, at the ripe age of 25, she's drawn from those experiences in her first novel. "The People of Forever are Not Afraid" began as a school assignment while Boianjiu was majoring in English at Harvard. It follows three friends, Yael, Avishag and Lea. They struggle to reconcile the rigors of army service with typical teenage angst, a whirlwind of boys, body armor and bad behavior.

Borders are a theme throughout the novel, both the border between girlhood and womanhood and the borders between nations. Shani Boianjiu joined me from Tel Aviv to talk about her new book and began by talking about the importance of borders.

SHANI BOIANJIU: Israel is such a small country that basically everywhere you go there is a border. I think that's one of the things that distinguishes it. And, at least for me, you know, the Lebanese border has been a huge part of my life because I live so close to it. There's this surreal experience in the normal world where you can take your car and drive for 30 minutes and be in Lebanon. But, of course, you know, that's not how it goes.

Plenty of people pass through borders but they don't spend much time thinking about the people who are constantly at a border, such as soldiers, particularly Israeli soldiers. So I wanted to give people who have passed through these borders the chance to imagine what the life for someone who is stuck at this border might be like.

LYDEN: I really liked how you did that on both sides. You have your young women soldiers thinking about the lives of the Palestinians who are passing in front of them. One of your protagonists mentions the life of this man called Fadi(ph) and is able to be quite empathetic. And then one day, Fadi becomes an attacker, the kind of segue from what seems safe to what seems dangerous in just a second.

BOIANJIU: I wanted her to, one, to imagine him, but I also - one can talk a lot about understanding and of how, you know, if we could only see the other side as a human being just like us, a lot of problems will be solved. And I wanted to show that just because Israelis and Palestinians, I believe, are not a strange kind of humans, you know, they are able to feel for each other. But just because you are able to walk a mile in another person's shoes doesn't mean that the conflict will be solved in any way.

LYDEN: Shani Boianjiu, this book has been called a combination of a classic war novel, such as the American author Tim O'Brien's "The Things They Carried," which is about American soldiers in Vietnam, and a movie, like "Mean Girls" with Lindsay Lohan. I note that many of these incidents are imagined or compiled from things that actually happened, but I would like to know about one of your worse days when you were serving in the IDF.

BOIANJIU: When the second Lebanon war just broke out and...

LYDEN: We're talking about 2006.

BOIANJIU: Yeah. And a boy I went to school with was recently kidnapped in Gaza, Gilad Shalit. Obviously, he has since been released. The war started and everybody was very worried. People were dying, missiles were falling. And then I had to take the trip to bring some stuff from my home, and I had to pass through Tel Aviv. And what really astounded me was that everywhere in Tel Aviv, people were eating in cafes and walking down the streets and sitting in a park and just having a summer. And there are even, you know, some graffiti against the war and against the soldier. I remember feeling very hurt and just very, I guess, confused too. It was almost shocking.

LYDEN: There's a very compelling scene where one of your protagonists Yael instructs a young man who can't shoot, and then something happens. She is terrified that Boris(ph) has actually killed some boys. Yael likes the Palestinian boys, who sort of hover at the edge of the camp - or at least she can see into their lives.

BOIANJIU: Yeah. She's an 18-year-old girl - or maybe she's 19 in that story - and the word like, I just wanted it - to put it into context, you know, the word like, the word hate. For a 19-year-old person, you like whoever entertains you. And you don't like whoever bores you, you know? In some cases, there's a symbol of that. And the Palestinian boys in the story start stealing all types of stuff from the base, and that's actually based on - not the whole story, but just, one time, a few Palestinian kids stole the fence of one of the bases I was stationed in. And I just thought that was so funny and so bold that, you know, here we are guarding at all hours of the day and making sure that no one enters the base and then just up and takes the fence itself. I thought that was hysterical.

LYDEN: Yeah. Did you write the book in Hebrew or English?

BOIANJIU: I wrote the book in English, strangely enough.

LYDEN: I wonder - and why so?

BOIANJIU: Well, I never set out to write a book, you know? I never thought that I would publish my work, certainly not this young. I just took some creative writing classes at Harvard. And for those classes, I obviously had to submit my work in English. One thing led to another, and at the end of it, I had a whole book. And it was all in English. It just sort of happened. But I think that it really helped my writing, because when I write in Hebrew, you know, I can write pages and pages and not really think about every single thing that I'm saying. But with English, it's not my native language. I sometimes have to search for words to see how other people use the words I'm about to use to make sure that I'm using them in the way that I want to use them.

LYDEN: But I think what you've translated is really a universal language, and that is the experience of the boredom and the terror and the frustration of conflict. So thank you so very much.

BOIANJIU: Thank you.

LYDEN: Shani Boianjiu is the author of the new novel "The People of Forever are Not Afraid." And you can read an excerpt on our website. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.