The People of Forever Are Not Afraid

Hogarth  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.

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Read a transcript from the November 20, 2012 Twitter Book Club with Shani Boianjiu.

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The Book of Jonah

Writing in a Foreign Language

The War of Narratives

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?

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