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.