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Shani Boianjiu on Writing Forever Stories

Thursday, May 09, 2013 | Permalink

We prompted this year's Sami Rohr Prize awardees to write about "how they came to write their book." Over the next several weeks, we'll share their responses. Today, Shani Boianjiu discusses writing her novel The People of Forever Are Not Afraid (Hogarth).

Jews are known for asking questions. From the Four Questions in the Passover Hag­gadah to the Jewish teaching style, questions have an important role in the histories of Jews from all corners of the Diaspora and are also a distinctive feature of Israeli culture. Brash Israelis like myself are famous for asking inappropriate questions at inappropri­ate times. Questions are also an integral part of stories. Every story I ever wrote was my attempt to answer a question that would not leave me alone.

Questions can make the one questioned defensive because they are all too often actually differing opinions rather than questions. Differing opinions being, of course, one more thing Jews are known for. I know that questions about my book can make me defensive. When I am asked why I wrote my book in English, what I hear is that I should have written it in Hebrew, my native language. When I am asked why my first novel focused on female Israeli soldiers, I wonder what is wrong with writing about that.

By far, the questions that leave me most speechless are the many political questions I receive from both left and right. This is because these questions are most often actually specific assertions of differing opinions. The person asking them wants to know why I did not use my fiction to advance his own political view regarding the Israeli-Arab conflict.

It was not my goal to advance one specific statement about anything when I wrote this book. I started writing fiction because I could not not write. I spent countless hours staring into sand during long army guarding shifts and the only way I could pass the time was through telling and re-telling stories to myself, tweaking every image and word dozens of times. By the time I finally got a few days at home and had access to a computer, I already knew the words I would write by heart.

A few years later, when I was in college in the U.S., I wrote entirely different stories, but the way in which I wrote did not change much. I would let sentences and characters and scenes live inside my head for a very long time, and only wrote them down when I felt that if I did not get rid of them my head would explode. I wrote to answer what were burning questions for me: what it meant to be young under certain conditions; what a certain realization might taste like in my characters’ mouths. I wanted to write forever stories, and what was most important to me was to aspire to reach the type of books that lived in my own head forever, even when most of the time when I began writing my first book I failed and had to start all over again.

I did not set out to write about female Israeli soldiers. When I wrote my first book I was only a couple of years past my own service days. It only made sense to me that the characters I most wanted to spend time with were close to me in age. And military service just happens to be a fact of life for young Israeli females. I did not set out to write a book about an experience rarely described in fiction. I wrote what I had to say.

By far the most difficult question for me to answer is why I chose to write my book in English. This is a legitimate question to ask any writer whose native language is not English. But for Israelis, who cherish the Hebrew language as our most prized accomplishment, this is a particularly loaded question. The opinion I hear hidden in this question is that I have abandoned the Hebrew language that others have worked so hard to save from oblivion.

Moreover, modern Hebrew is a recent creation; it is only in the last forty years that there have even been many people who grew up speaking no language but Hebrew. Jewish history is full of writers who wrote in their third or even fourth language, at times mixing and matching and bending the rules of the languages they were working with to create a language that was entirely their own as Jews immersed in their diverse places of residence. Judging by the many times I have been asked why I chose to write in English, this particular Jewish literary tradition is expected to have stopped with Israelis.

I always start my answer about writing in English by saying it was an accident. And, the fact is, it was an accident in the truest sense of the word. I fell in love. I fell in love with the endless well of words that exist in English. With the ambiguities and subtleties it allows, the richness of the cultures it swal­lows, the sound of Hebrew phrases and slang as I transported them into English.

When speaking with fellow Jews and in particular fellow Israelis, I used to start my answer about English by saying I was sorry, guilt being another known Jewish tradition. But the more I think about it and hear the world’s response to my first book, I realize that I am not sorry at all. Is it not the prerogative of a native Hebrew speaker to fall in love with a different language? To celebrate her native tongue by writing about it in another? Is that not what being a nation among nations could also truly mean?

I am certain that the next time I am asked about writing in English, or any other question about my writing, I will start by saying I am sorry. But I hope that one day soon I can follow that by saying: actually, I am not sorry, I am not sorry at all. This is what I have to say and this is the way I choose to say it. The most I can do is ask you to listen.

Shani Boianjiu was born in Jerusalem in 1987 and is from an Iraqi and Romanian background. She was raised in a small town on the Lebanese border. At the age of eighteen, she entered the Israeli Defense Forces and served for two years. The People of Forever Are Not Afraid is her first book.

Meet Sami Rohr Prize Finalist...Shani Boianjiu

Monday, March 18, 2013 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

Over the next several weeks, we'll be introducing you to the five fiction finalists for this year's Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature. Last week, we introduced you to Stuart Nadler, who shared his love for the shorty story with our readers. Today, we hear from Shani Boianjiu, an Israeli writer who was named the youngest recipient ever of the National Book Foundation's 5 under 35 and whose debut novel The People of Forever Are Not Afraid was excerpted in the New Yorker. In a recent JBC/Jewcy #JLit Twitter Book Club, Shani discussed why she's NOT the voice of her generation ("My book is weird, and mine, and does not represnt anyone"), the many reviews and articles about her book, and the Israeli army. Below, find out more about the author who, in her first novel, "shows considerable range, creating surreal, absurd dilemmas for her characters:"

What are some of the most challenging things about writing fiction?

That the stakes are so high—there are so many wonderful books out there, so you must write something that buys you a seat at the table or not do it at all. Also, being alone.

What or who has been your inspiration for writing fiction?

When I was in the army I used to make up stories during long guarding shifts and keep them in my head for weeks, retelling them to myself and tweeking them a bit in my head until I reached a computer and finally typed the story down. So I would say that waiting had been my inspiration for writing fiction. Also my love of books. Reading makes me feel alive in a way nothing else ever had.

Who is your intended audience?

A twenty-four-year-old Chinese American girl from Marlborough, MA who works at Target. Also a couple of other people I love.

Are you working on anything new right now?

Yes. It is a book!

What are you reading now?

Contemporary memoirs. Basically every memoir that was written in the last five years. All of them. And at the same time. I have no idea why. Also, [the forthcoming novel] We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo and Bruno Schulz’s stories.

Top 5 Favorite Books

That’s impossible for me to answer, and it changes every minute, but if I had to choose five right now I’d say:

When did you decide to be a writer? Where were you?

I never decided to become a writer; I decided to write. I think the first time I decided to do that I was seventeen, and waiting for a train. I still have to decide to write every time I do it though.

What is the mountaintop for you — how do you define success?

I wish to write forever stories—stories that only I can write and that will live in people’s heads and have lives of their own inside those heads. It does not matter to me how many heads, only that the story be worthy to live forever in someone’s head. I am still far from that, which is why I have to work hard.

How do you write — what is your private modus operandi? What talismans, rituals, props do you use to assist you?

I usually get an idea for a story or a scene or a character and then I keep it in my head and retell it to myself hundreds of times until I feel like my head will explode if I don’t type the story down immediately. When I do type down what I have in my head, I spend ten percent of my time actually writing and the rest jumping around in my room and listening to music.

What do you want readers to get out of your book?

I want them to care and think deeply about the lives of people who don’t exist and who they cannot imagine being.

Shani Boianjiu was born in Jerusalem in 1987 and is from an Iraqi and Romanian background. She was raised in a small town on the Lebanese border. At the age of eighteen, she entered the Israeli Defense Forces and served for two years. The People of Forever Are Not Afraid is her first book.

The War of Narratives

Friday, September 14, 2012 | Permalink
Earlier this week, Shani Boianjiu explored the book of Jonah and writing her debut novel in a foreign language. She has been blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

When I first started writing, I loved reading advice for writers from my favorite authors. Yet there was one common piece of advice I didn't quite get. Whenever writers spoke about letting the characters control the story, I became skeptical. It sounded a bit too fluffy and hazy for my understanding. I had no idea how to implement that advice. After all—I was the writer. I was the one deciding my characters' fate. What does that mean, in a practical sense, letting the characters control the story?

I still don't fully get that advice, but after gaining more experience writing, I have learned that in order to produce my best work I have to be willing to abandon many intentions I had for a story when I first began writing it. This is probably one of the hardest things that I had to learn to do as a writer. Every writer comes to the page bursting to say something. Yet I found that in order for a story to work one must be willing to abandon their original intentions in the service of what works best on the page.

A few months ago I googled myself and found a bunch of thoughtful responses (both favorable and less favorable) that engaged with one of my just-published stories, “Means of Suppressing Demonstrations.”

Some responses, however, treated the story as if it was non-fiction, and clearly in service of one particular opinion or another. Because the story was fiction, I was surprised to read these polar opposite responses from people who held strong opinions on both sides of the Israeli-Arab conflict.

Some viewed the story as pro-Israeli propaganda and claimed that it was degrading to Palestinians, while others claimed that I must hate Israel, and that I’m trying to profit by negatively portraying my own country. The language of the responders on both sides was far less kind than my summary of their sentiments.

I was pleased to see that other readers pushed back on these purely political interpretations of my story, and that they urged for it to be understood as fiction. I think the fact my story managed to enrage people with opposite political views is actually an odd kind of accomplishment. The irony is that one of my story's central themes was the absurdity of the war of narratives that is happening in the West regarding the Israeli-Arab conflict.

A passionate war of narratives regarding this conflict has been going on for ages. People on both sides are eager to evaluate everyone and everything only in regards to how that person or work of art either agrees or disagrees with their point of view. Although I wish my work could be evaluated only as a work of art, I know that because of my subject matter that may not always happen.

While many differing interpretations have been given to the choices I made in that story, the truth is I feel as though many of those choices were not up to me. They were in service of the story. Whatever my original intentions were when I began writing that story, it was the story itself that dictated my later choices and brought me to write from my characters' perspectives in the ways that I did.

Shani Boianjiu was born in Jersualem in 1987. She served in the Israeli Defense Forces for two years. Her fiction has appeared inThe New Yorker, Vice magazine and Zoetrope: All Story. Shani is the youngest recipient ever of the National Book Foundation’s 5 under 35, and The People of Forever are Not Afraid is her first novel. She lives in Israel.

Writing in a Foreign Language

Wednesday, September 12, 2012 | Permalink
Earlier this week, Shani Boianjiu explored the book of Jonah. She will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

I was born and raised in Israel, and my novel The People of Forever Are Not Afraid takes place in Israel. Because of that, many people wonder why I wrote my book in English. Someone asked me if I had something against the Hebrew language. One Israeli person speculated online that I chose to write in English because I was looking for a shortcut into getting published widely. 

That's not at all true, but the question of why I chose to write in English is a valid one. 

The truth is—it happened by accident. I wrote my first book while I was studying at a US college. That's the only reason I wrote it in English. It wasn't really a conscious choice, and I never expected the book to get published, so I didn't give the decision to write in English too much thought.

Whatever I write next may be in Hebrew, or it may be in English. It all depends on what I feel like doing. I am terrible at writing English with pen and paper—I never quite got used to drawing those strange Latin letters, and I need my spell check, so it is easier for me in some ways to write in Hebrew because I don't need a computer for that.

Yet I believe writing in a foreign language helped my fiction. There is something about writing in a language that does not truly belong to you that is liberating. It is easier to create a new world from scratch when the words you are using are not the ones you used as a child, or those you use to talk to the people you love. Just the knowledge that the characters and places I was describing belonged to the Hebrew language meant that by using English, I was firmly footed in the realm of fantasy, where anything I wanted to make happen could happen as long as it made sense in the world of the story.

Additionally, writing about Israel in English meant that I sometimes had to translate Hebrew phrases and metaphors. The process of navigating between the two languages often resulted in some of the most significant parts of my book. My title, The People of Forever Are Not Afraid, is actually a translation of a Hebrew bumper sticker and slogan.

I also found that at times it was advantageous not to know all the words that I needed. I often knew what I wanted to say, but did not have the words to say it in English. This forced me to turn to a dictionary, then to others' fiction. To consider different possibilities, to examine how the new words I considered using were used by others. When writing in English, I am often at a loss for words. I have to fight harder for what comes naturally to native speakers. In Hebrew the choice of words is quickly obvious to me. I don't have to discover them.

My book is in the process of being translated into several languages, and I have found in my interactions with my translators that they ask the best questions. In my book, I describe the hairs inside a mean base commander's nose as looking like "the life lines of spiders." My Croatian translator recently asked me about that image. She wanted to know whether I meant "'life lines', the ones you throw into the water when somebody's drowning or just life + line?"

The truth is I meant both meanings, but even I didn't realize that was the case until my translator asked about it. She needed to know which of those two meanings I meant in order to accurately translate the text.

Unlike most readers, translators are forced to care about every word and comma. They really read what is in front of them. They press me to explain what I fully meant by every image or dialogue line. Is it a common Hebrew metaphor? Is it an American figure of speech? Did I just invent that image on my own? Could this or that line be a combination of a common metaphor and invention? I myself translate fiction, so I understand exactly how translating forces you to engage with a text in a way merely reading it never does.

I wrote my book in English, but when I wrote it I was often translating from Hebrew in my head. English was an accident, but not, I think, a bad accident.

Shani Boianjiu was born in Jersualem in 1987. She served in the Israeli Defense Forces for two years. Her fiction has appeared in The New Yorker, Vice magazine and Zoetrope: All Story. Shani is the youngest recipient ever of the National Book Foundation’s 5 under 35, and The People of Forever are Not Afraid is her first novel. She lives in Israel.

The Book of Jonah

Monday, September 10, 2012 | Permalink

Shani Boianjiu's debut novel, The People of Forever Are Not Afraid, is now available. She will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

The characters in my novel, The People of Forever Are Not Afraid, are Israeli. Because of that, my writing will undoubtedly be considered to be Jewish fiction. Yet the truth is there are only a few instances in which Judaism as a religion is a topic in the novel. The most significant instance involves the book of Jonah.

Religious feelings, if we narrow religion to mean having something to do with God, are perhaps not a large part of my novel because they haven't been a big part of my life. For me, being Jewish had nothing to do with God or even the bible. All of my friends at school were Jewish. Nearly all the people in my town were Jewish. I have fasted on Yom Kippur since I was in second grade and observed Passover, but never once went to temple while I was growing up. In my house, we never once discussed the existence of God, or the meaning of the bible.

At my secular school, as in all Israeli schools, Bible was a required subject. Yet our teachers never stressed theological issues, and the bible was taught just as literature was taught—the focus was on the bible as stories. The emphasis was placed on understanding what a parable meant, or on learning to understand biblical grammar and vocabulary.

Although my first book is just being published, I’ve learned from the few interviews I have already had that people love asking writers whether or not their fictional stories are based on real life experiences. I don't know why that is. Almost none of my book is based on my own experiences. The few details that I did draw from my own life are small moments that are in service of a larger narrative that comes directly from my imagination.

The part in the book that most closely resembles a personal experience is the section in which one of my characters describes studying the book of Jonah when she was in middle school. My character, Yael, is frustrated by having to learn about the book of Jonah three times in the same year. She finds that even though she is lectured about the book repeatedly, it still doesn't quite make sense to her.

When I was in seventh grade, I was forced to study the book of Jonah three times—the second time because of the change of a teacher, the third time because I think that new teacher had forgotten that we already spent months on the book of Jonah. One of the odd products of a secular education in Israel is that the student is made to become an expert on certain parts of the bible deemed test worthy by the minister of education, while knowing absolutely nothing about the other parts of the bible.

Like my character, I was confused by the book of Jonah, no matter how many times I had to study it. It is a strange tale, which many have found to be completely different from the stories of other prophets.

Here's what I think happens: as far as I can understand, God tries to force Jonah into being a prophet and orders him to tell a city full of really bad people that God is going to kill them all. Jonah is scared and doesn't want to, because he doesn't want the whole city to get pissed off at him. So he runs away from God, gets eaten by a whale that later vomits him up (the best part!), and in the end he realizes that running away from God was just about the world's a dumbest idea (duh), so he becomes a prophet and tells all these bad people they are super bad and God is going to kill them all. The bad people turn out to be surprisingly receptive to criticism, so they repent and become good. God spares them all, and then Jonah gets really pissed, because it is like so awkward— he already told all these people God is going to kill them. To top off the peachy month Jonah is having, he ends up in the desert and the heat almost kills him. The whole getting lost in the desert thing is actually a part of God's educational mission, so he creates a tree that saves Jonah from dying. Jonah is happy to be saved, but then God kills the tree and Jonah is so pissed he is suicidal. Then God says something to the effect of: "Ha! I got you Jonah! You see? You were so sad about the death of this tree, even though you did nothing to help it grow, and I am supposed to just kill all those people I worked so hard to create?"

This is where the story ends, and that's also the part that makes no sense to me. Jonah was sad about the death of the tree because it was giving him shade. He didn't love the tree, he needed it. But assuming there is a God, what does God need people for? I mean, the claim is he is almighty and all that. This metaphor makes zero sense to me. It didn't make sense to me in eighth grade, and it makes no sense still. In middle school it was not cool to ask the kind of questions that were not going to show up on a test. But I still wonder about it, which is maybe why I chose to include the book of Jonah in my novel, although I usually never write about real experiences. What does the ending of Jonah's story mean? And what does God need people for? I actually want to know. If anyone can get back to me on that, do let me know!

Shani Boianjiu was born in Jersualem in 1987. She served in the Israeli Defense Forces for two years. Her fiction has appeared in The New Yorker, Vice magazine and Zoetrope: All Story. Shani is the youngest recipient ever of the National Book Foundation’s 5 under 35, and The People of Forever are Not Afraid is her first novel. She lives in Israel.

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Book Cover of the Week: The People of Forever Are Not Afraid

Tuesday, July 03, 2012 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

Shani Boianjiu, the youngest recipient ever of the National Book Foundation’s 5 under 35 Award, for which she was chosen by Nicole Krauss, will be publishing her debut novel, The People of Forever Are Not Afraid, with Hogarth in September. Read an interview with the author here and an excerpt here.