The Peo­ple of For­ev­er Are Not Afraid

By – April 30, 2012

Write what you know.” Sol­id advice for young writ­ers who wish to flour­ish in an increas­ing­ly uncer­tain pub­lish­ing indus­try. Shani Boian­jiu fol­lows this max­im in her debut effort, The Peo­ple of For­ev­er Are Not Afraid. Draw­ing on her short but astute­ly observed life’s expe­ri­ence, the 25-year-old Boian­jiu builds a deeply engag­ing nar­ra­tive. This com­ing of age sto­ry doc­u­ments the jour­ney of three ado­les­cent friends — Yael, Avishag, and Lea — from child­hood through their ser­vice in the Israeli Defense Force. Like the author, the three girls hail from a remote Israel-Lebanon bor­der town. They strug­gle through the bore­dom and lim­i­ta­tions of small town life. The novel’s core is an explo­ration of mod­ern mil­i­tary life in the IDF. Boian­jiu dis­sects the lay­ered mil­i­tary bureau­cra­cy and exam­ines the com­pli­cat­ed gen­der issues that emerge when young men and women serve in close quar­ters. It is a reveal­ing look inside a tra­di­tion­al­ly opaque institution.

Boian­jiu shows con­sid­er­able range, cre­at­ing sur­re­al, absurd dilem­mas for her char­ac­ters. Con­sid­er one vignette in which Lea, sta­tioned at a remote and strate­gi­cal­ly worth­less check­point, is cajoled by three Pales­tin­ian pro­test­ers to sup­press their token demon­stra­tion. The author writes, He bowed a lit­tle as he spoke, Is there any way you could dis­perse us just a lit­tle, enough for a press blast, or some­thing?’” Ulti­mate­ly, Lea caves in to their demands, using every­thing from tear gas to rub­ber bul­lets in order to sat­is­fy their quest for recognition.

The Peo­ple of For­ev­er Are Not Afraid side­steps a larg­er dis­cus­sion of Israeli-Pales­tin­ian rela­tions, focus­ing intent­ly on the human con­se­quences of the strug­gle. In this way, the author avoids a poten­tial pit­fall and keeps the novel’s focus as a char­ac­ter study. A deep­er exam­i­na­tion of the con­flict would be inter­est­ing, but may have dis­tract­ed from the author’s char­ac­ter-dri­ven nar­ra­tive. An over­all smooth read and a promis­ing start to Boianjiu’s career.

Justin Petril­lo hails from Chevy Chase, MD. The city is not named for the actor, so stop ask­ing. He resides in Brook­lyn and spends time play­ing ten­nis, read­ing books by Jew­ish and non-Jew­ish authors, and scream­ing at the Wash­ing­ton Red­skins through the tele­vi­sion. He is a grad­u­ate of Emory University.

Discussion Questions

Cour­tesy of Ran­dom House

1. The chap­ters often take a page or more to reveal their nar­ra­tors by name. Why do you think the author did this? What clues did you find your­self latch­ing onto to iden­ti­fy each nar­ra­tor? Do you con­sid­er the work required of the read­er to be an asset to the novel?

2. Do you iden­ti­fy with Yael, Avishag, or Lea? How much are they the prod­uct of their place and time, and how do the small per­son­al­i­ty traits that dis­tin­guish them become sig­nif­i­cant once they are con­script­ed into the army?

3. What is the role of the sec­ondary char­ac­ters (such as Masha, Tom, Hamir, and the Sudanese girl), who fea­ture in tem­porar­i­ly close exam­i­na­tions? Did the pas­sages cen­tered on them fur­ther the sto­ry or enrich your read­ing experience?
4. Some more sig­nif­i­cant sec­ondary char­ac­ters, such as Dan, Fadi, Hagar, and Emu­na, are main­ly depict­ed through the eyes of the main char­ac­ters. How well do you feel you got to know each of these char­ac­ters? What role do they play in defin­ing or devel­op­ing the main char­ac­ters who know them?

5. How does the real­is­tic and sur­re­al­is­tic nature of the scenes shift through­out the novel?

6. Did you come to the book with knowl­edge of the Israeli Defense Force? Did you find the book edu­ca­tion­al? What do you feel you learned from it?

7. Some crit­ics have said that the twen­ty-five-year-old author’s youth shows in her writ­ing. Do you think this is true? What is the com­men­tary of the book about being young today?

8. While still in school, Yael won­ders, When are we going to stop think­ing about the things that don’t mat­ter and start­ing think­ing about the things that do mat­ter?” What, to Yael, are the things that do mat­ter”? What mat­ters to the oth­er main characters?

9. What is the sig­nif­i­cance of the sto­ry of Jon­ah, repeat­ed at least three times dur­ing the girls’ school­ing? What theme (if any) is the author try­ing to underscore?

10. Why does Yael keep break­ing up and reunit­ing with her child­hood boyfriend, Moshe? Do you think she tru­ly cares for him?

11. Avishag is often depict­ed as a qui­et, intro­spec­tive char­ac­ter, but through her nar­ra­tion the read­er is privy to a crav­ing for com­mu­ni­ca­tion and resent­ment for those who don’t lis­ten to her. What do you make of Avishag’s fear of silence?

12. In Avishag’s day­dreams, she imag­ines reward­ing an ordi­nary, unsus­pect­ing girl with recog­ni­tion for one out­stand­ing tal­ent. Is she imag­in­ing her­self? Does she think her­self wor­thy of such recognition?

13. Dis­cuss Lea’s active role in car­ry­ing out her ver­sion of jus­tice, from the per­ceived exact­ness of aveng­ing the olive tree to her even­tu­al tor­ture of Fadi. Are her actions iso­lat­ed, or do you see the episodes as signs of an esca­lat­ing state? Does her expe­ri­ence with the demon­stra­tors at the check­point fit into this theme at all?

14. In what ways do the main char­ac­ters break rules or court dan­ger for their own amuse­ment? Do they seem mind­ful of the risks they take?

15. How does each of the main char­ac­ters think about and plan for her future? What dri­ves each toward her activ­i­ties after the army? Are you sur­prised by the path any one of them chooses?

16. How do the main char­ac­ters seem to regard their fam­i­lies, and their fam­i­ly his­to­ries before com­ing to Israel? What influ­ence does the past have on the girls’ cur­rent lives?

17. At the end of the book, how do you feel about the women’s behav­ior dur­ing their impris­on­ment? How would you want them to react to the boys’ assault?

18. While plan­ning their Lima syn­drome” strat­e­gy, Yael describes her friends’ oppo­site per­sonas, and lat­er her own:“I have to not make a sound.… And pret­ty soon I may become a song.” What does she mean by this? Why is she so upset that her friends did not sug­gest this on their own?

19. Why does the author include the sto­ry of Yael’s moth­er and her time in the army, and Yael’s close rela­tion­ship with her moth­er pri­or to boot camp? Does it change the way you think about Yael?