Author sparks controversy on both side of Mideast conflict

Shani Boianjiu [Alon Sigavi photo]

Shani Boianjiu didn’t set out to become a published author, but now she’s touring the world promoting her book, The People of Forever Are Not Afraid (Random House).

What began as a thesis for her studies at Harvard University led Boianjiu to be named the youngest recipient of the U.S. National Book Foundation’s Top 5 Under 35 Award in 2011.

 “I never thought this would see the light of day,” said the 25-year-old Israeli, adding that writing without the intention of publication probably helped her imagination run wild.

This dark story features three Israeli women completing their army service. The book, which is separated into chapters that are almost like short stories, has sparked controversy.

Although Boianjiu has received many positive reviews – and she said the vast majority fall into this category – some pro-Israel or Jewish people have panned the book, calling it “self-hating Jewish literature,” portraying Israel in a negative light.

Yet on the other side, pro-Palestinian and Arabic people have said her book tries to glorify the Israel Defence Forces and to humiliate the Palestinian people.

“I actually saw it as a kind of accomplishment, that I managed to anger people on both sides,” Boianjiu joked. But she said she expected this type of criticism.

“There’s this war of narratives when it comes to the Middle East in the West,” she said. “Everybody wants the West to hear their own narrow, very specific view of the conflict.”

She also said many of these people, particularly the Israeli critics, have not read her book – at least not in its entirety. The book is currently only available in English, though it will be translated into Hebrew and several other languages next year, including Korean, Serbian and Chinese.

Translation can be a bit difficult, said Boianjiu, who is working with a translator to write a Hebrew version. Some of the charm in the book is the way the English words are used, she said. “You have to find different ways to convey the same type of playfulness.” She said she’s a bit nervous for the Hebrew translation’s release, mostly because she is embarrassed to have her family and friends read it.

“When you write a book, you let your imagination go to the darkest or craziest [places] you can, and then to know your friends, who have known you your whole life, are going to read it,” she said. “In an ideal world, I would have it so no one that knows me personally could read the book.”

In the story, the three friends spend time in the army, with tons of downtime. They spend a lot of their time looking for ways to cure their boredom through playing pranks and sleeping around, and injecting themselves with water to keep cool.

While there are small parts of the story that are based on Boianjiu’s experience, she insisted the story is pure fiction, and a work of art.

Some portions are “more grounded” than others, but she’s hesitant to call them realistic experiences of an IDF soldier. However, “anything is possible. These stories come out of my imagination, but… everything is a ‘what-if’ scenario,” she said.

Boianjiu has received some criticism in reviews for her portrayal of men in the story. Critics have referred to them as almost incidental characters, just there for the women’s pleasure, and many of them die early and violently.

However, she said she thinks the problem is that people aren’t used to women being the subject of military novels.

“If you look at all coming-of-age novels, or all military novels that have male heroes – which are basically all military novels except for a few – you could make a similar argument that the women are incidental,” she said. “I don’t think that people make [these comments] at all about male war novels.”

Additionally, military service is somewhat segregated in terms of gender, she said, so it makes some sense that the focus is on the friendships between the women, rather than their relationships.Boianjiu didn’t intend to publish her book. After she submitted it as part of her thesis, an agent got wind of the story, and asked to see some pages. A week later, it was sold.

The fact that the book was picked up and published so quickly means Boianjiu didn’t have time to stop and think about how it would be received, and whether it was a good idea to publish it right away, she said.

“In hindsight, I wish it was a difficult decision, but it happened so fast and it was just so unrealistic for me, that I never stopped and thought, ‘Do I want to publish this book and have the world read it?’” she said. “In retrospect, it was like, ‘What was I thinking?’”

Following on the success of this book, she said she will keep on writing stories. But she’s not sure whether she wants to be a full-time author due to the uncertain nature of the career. Just because her first book did so well, doesn’t mean her future works will find the same success, she said.

There are plans for her first novel to become available in 25 countries, so people all around the world will be able to make their own interpretations of the story, she said. But apart from lamenting that many reviewers – even the positive ones – may have missed the point of the story, Boianjiu doesn’t mind that she’s generated so much controversy. She knew it was bound to happen.

“The critiques were mostly about things I knew people wouldn’t like, and I still chose to go this route because I felt that was true for this type of book,” she said. “I wrote a work of fiction and a work of art. Hopefully, when people read the book in full, they’ll see that.”