Israeli author Shani Boianjiu talks about her debut novel, The People of Forever Are Not Afraid, which her editor has described as The Things They Carried meets Mean Girls.
A striking thing about the book is the way it’s both an army story and a girls’ coming-of-age story. Were you thinking about genre as you wrote?
I wasn’t trying to merge genres. I was simply inventing the stories that fascinated me the most and this is the result. I don’t think the book is very much like anything. It is its own thing.
The book covers situations that are probably familiar to Israelis, but not outsiders, and at times it feels like a bulletin to non-Israelis. Is that one of the reasons you wrote in English?
The book is not meant to be an introduction to Israel for foreigners—the stories in the book came out of my own personal imagination and fascinations. I wrote it in English for many reasons. I was studying in the U.S. at the time, but it certainly was not an attempt to speak for any Israelis.
There’s a sandwich shop in the book called We Don’t Judge, where you can get anything you want. Is this just a joke, or is there something there that’s pertinent to Israel or Israelis?
The sandwich shop is meant to be funny, but it’s not just a joke. The idea came to me when I was studying abroad in Tokyo. I loved Tokyo, I loved Japanese culture, but the food was a real problem because I don’t eat any seafood or fish, I don’t eat pork, and I don’t mix cheese and meat. The sandwich shops in Tokyo weren’t big on making accommodations. This made me miss Israel, because in Israel there are plenty of shops where you explain in detail exactly how you like your sandwich, down to the smallest ingredient, and usually they are happy to accommodate you. I wanted to explore what it meant, or could mean about Israel, this eagerness to accommodate diners. To do so I invented an Israeli sandwich shop that truly accommodates one’s every wish, that truly doesn’t judge.
A number of incidents in the book have a surreal quality. Should readers believe them as we do more prosaic events, or are they a comment on the surreality of war?
To me, all of the incidents in the book are surreal and prosaic at the same time. I like stories that are only a bit off—some that could have happened but it’s hard to imagine that they did, some that probably could never happen but it is possible to imagine there’s a small chance they might have. I want readers to have the choice to believe or not believe each and every part of the book. It’s not a comment on the ongoing surreality of war alone; if anything it’s the way I chose to describe the ongoing surreality of being alive.