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 some­ones 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.

Orig­i­nal­ly from Lan­cast­er, Penn­syl­va­nia, Nao­mi is the CEO of Jew­ish Book Coun­cil. She grad­u­at­ed from Emory Uni­ver­si­ty with degrees in Eng­lish and Art His­to­ry and, in addi­tion, stud­ied at Uni­ver­si­ty Col­lege Lon­don. Pri­or to her role as exec­u­tive direc­tor, Nao­mi served as the found­ing edi­tor of the JBC web­site and blog and man­ag­ing edi­tor of Jew­ish Book World. In addi­tion, she has over­seen JBC’s dig­i­tal ini­tia­tives, and also devel­oped the JBC’s Vis­it­ing Scribe series and Unpack­ing the Book: Jew­ish Writ­ers in Conversation.