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.
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.