Book Club discussion: The People of Forever Are Not Afraid by Shani Boianjiu

Alex, Lora and I, along with our guest, intern Danya Cohen, discuss this scintillating debut novel by 25-year-old Shani Boianjiu. Informed by Boianjiu’s compulsory two-year service in the Israeli military, the novel shines with both humour and heartbreak.

The People of Forever Are Not Afraid by Shani Boianjiu

Alex, Lora and I, along with our guest, intern Danya Cohen, discuss this scintillating debut novel by 25-year-old Shani Boianjiu. Informed by Boianjiu’s compulsory two-year service in the Israeli military, the novel shines with both humour and heartbreak.

Laurie: Hello! Today Alex, Lora and I and our guest, intern Danya Cohen, chat about The People of Forever Are Not Afraid by Shani Boianjiu! A truly intense novel.

Danya: Yes. I can’t believe she is only 25!

Powerful stuff. Remembering how young she is gives the whole thing another layer, doesn’t it?

It does. It’s quite astonishing how skilled she is. And the fact that she’s also writing in her non-native language as well.

Danya: Yes. I read that she almost exclusively reads Hebrew translations of English novels so she also reads predominantly in Hebrew, not English. And the loss of innocence is apparent throughout the book.

Alex: It’s so poignantly addressed — hair brushing and laughing about boys one minute
and guarding watchtowers the next. Boianjiu told me that she actually devoured everything she could when she was growing up, reading-wise, because she couldn’t see the TV (she needed glasses but was too vain to get them!).

Lora: There’s that girly, childhood innocence coming through again!

Alex: You really feel that openness in her writing, don’t you?

At some moments I felt like I could relate to each girl so well, especially during those scenes when they were just relaxing and gabbing about boys. And then the next page, they’d be caught up in something so much deeper that I couldn’t even fathom being a part of.

Alex: She’s very frank. It’s unapologetically teenage.

I loved her almost dead-pan delivery of humour as well as the most serious moments in the book.

It’s that openness and honesty about her writing that’s so appealing and that draws you in. And the contrast between that and the situations the girls find themselves in.

Lora: Yes, Laurie! And you’re right, Alex. She was so unapologetic, and I loved her for it.

Danya: But so funny, too!

Laurie: And their appreciation of the at-times ludicrousness of it. Like when the boys steal the fence….STEAL THE FENCE!!!!

Lora: I loved that scene!

It happened in real life apparently. What could be more absurdist than that!

Alex: But then that’s contrasted with the harrowing abuse that they suffer at the hands of the boys.

Laurie: Absolutely. That was shocking. Had no idea that would come.

Danya: That chapter was hard to read.

Lora: I didn’t see it coming either. It was heart-wrenching.

Alex: Harrowing.

A shocking description of the effects of war and PTSD.

Laurie: They were more damaged by their own side. Bizarre. Even thought there were such shocking scenes before that — the ones with the girls in the trucks, and Masha. Awful.

Alex: But their compassion for each other, their strength and fight — it was incredible.

Lora: You feel their loss of innocence throughout, but those scenes almost took my breath away. I can’t even imagine…

Danya: I found the book surprisingly unpolitical.

Laurie: It was. And deliberately so, which was an interesting choice. I liked it for that.

Alex: She was focusing on a story, not a message.

Danya: It transcended politics and was more about adolescent emotions, coming of age…

Lora: I liked it for that, too.

Alex: Absolutely.

Danya: I never felt as though she was taking a side, proving a point. Just telling compelling stories.

Laurie: I think it was a wise choice. That was why I thought the last chapter/story was an odd one, and why I felt the arc of the novel was off a bit with its inclusion (without getting into details and giving things away…)

Danya: I couldn’t agree more about the last chapter. It was an interesting story, and based on true events, but its placement was odd.

Alex: Those events seemed to carry more weight, but I wonder if that’s because of our personal sensitivities.

Laurie: It felt odd to pan out to a much bigger picture, so to speak, away from the girls. The book lost focus for me there.

Lora: The last chapter caught me off-guard, but I felt the politics were related more to gender than anything else. And that’s almost unavoidable when you’re telling a story about women in war. (The topic is unavoidable, not what happened to them!)

Danya: I found it interesting how casually the characters spoke about war and mortality. Very telling of their psyches.

I think the long periods of time during which nothing happened meant they were intensely bored. And so, despite the threat of war, it felt removed. Plus, they’re young, and you always somehow feel immortal when you’re young.

Alex: Exactly. But I can imagine that that’s the coping mechanism in those situations — you have to move forward somehow.

Lora: Danya, did this story hit home for you at all? I know you have relatives who were in the Israeli army.

Danya: Absolutely. I’ve always known/felt that my family and friends in Israel grew up far more quickly than I did as a result of military service.

Laurie: What was their experience like? Was it similar to these girls?

Danya: I would say that most of my family didn’t go through such extreme situations. Most of those who fight are not doing their two years but are career officers.

Alex: So they’ve chosen that route?

Danya: Yes. But I think in many cases it is for a lack of better options for employment in the country. And those with the worst experiences are typically men.

Lora: That adds a very interesting perspective.

Laurie: Boianjiu is brilliant at conveying what life might be like in the service for such young girls. She writes with such a fresh and raw voice. And she’s so brilliant at the short story form, which is what this novel really is in a sense. My only criticism really would be the arc of the story and a somewhat unsatisfactory wrap-up to the story of the girls. I think it wavered at the end. What do you think?

Danya: Because she tells the story from so many perspectives, in also became a bit disjointed at times. But I still think she was unbelievably agile in jumping in and out of so many stories/perspectives.

Throughout I think I just found it easier to thread the stories together. I was ready to keep up with the jumping around. But then the focus was much more on Yael and her mom and that took some adjusting.

Lora: I agree with you, Laurie. She’s a very talented storyteller, but I was a bit disappointed with the way things were left. (I always seem to want more at the end, though!)

Alex: Would you prefer to have just cut the last chapter?

Lora: No, I wouldn’t want to take that away from the story.

Laurie: Having different characters’ perspectives worked (ie. Masha and the Sudanese girl—which was a story that will stay with me), but I think the shift in time frame and wider perspective of the last chapter didn’t work for me. And the attempt to tie in the sandwiches back to the beginning of the book was too weak. It just didn’t work for me. I think the chapter could have been cut.

Danya: I agree about the sandwiches!

Alex: It feels like she was trying to be reflective, to bring it full circle. But that’s it — it’s the only part of the book where you can feel her trying

Lora: I just wanted to know what happened to the girls later!

Alex: It would have been more up to the reader to make their own conclusions about the girls and how they survived.

Laurie: Yes, it felt like an effort, when the rest of the writing was much more effortless. The latter half felt more worked on somehow. Even that second last chapter felt not quite as good as the rest and not quite as in character. The girls, albeit older, would have acted differently, I think. I agree, Alex; just cut the last chapter and leave it up to the reader. There’s something to be said for that.

Lora: Absolutely. I would have been OK with that, too.

Laurie: What did you think, Danya?

Danya: I would have preferred the book without the last chapter. It felt more like a historical account than the emotional writing of the rest of the book.

Laurie: It felt very much to me like Boianjiu thought, OK, I have a bunch of short stories I want to make into a book and now I need something to wrap it all up neatly. But I could obviously be wrong making that assumption…

Alex: And she had published some of them independently before. Also, in some cases I quite liked the disorientation of not knowing exactly how the stories connected. It made me feel distanced and unsettled, which I assumed I was supposed to.

Danya: I agree. I would have preferred them to remain as they were without the neat attempt at tying them together, which failed for me.

Laurie: It’s good as is, but just leave that last chapter off. And I think, as you said at some point when we were talking about this before, Alex, the disjointedness is like teenager talk. Disjointed works. It’s a riveting debut.

Alex: Absolutely.

Danya: I see your point about the disjointed teenager talk. Boianjiu is an unbelievable talent. No question.

Laurie: I look forward to more from her.

Lora: I can’t wait to see what she comes out with next.

Alex: I could relate, but I also felt like I learned about a different culture, by osmosis.

Laurie: So true, that! Which is always great.

Danya: Yes. For a conflict that most of us only know in headlines, it is a great insight into the lives of people who live there.

Laurie: Which chapter stood out most for each of you?

Alex: The second to last. I just held my breath the entire time. And I loved that it felt so raw. It was such a journey that chapter, when they start out saying, “We’ll just have to do lots of drugs,” but then their resolve is really challenged. Heartbreaking.

Danya: The story of the women in the truck at the border stayed with me.

Lora: Me, too, Danya. And the whole part about Avishag and her imaginary people. That really got me.

Laurie: Yeah, that was my favourite: the imaginary people and Sudanese girl. Shocking. Although also the tear-gas tent one.

Alex: Oh my GOD, yes!

Lora: THE TEAR-GAS TENT! That is my nightmare.

Danya: Yes. And the story with Lea at the checkpoint. Because it was brewing. Boianjiu built it up so well.

Alex: That was powerful.

Laurie: And the Palestinian protesters. Such farce, and yet so serious. “Today rubber.”

Lora: I enjoyed that part, too!

Laurie: So many good stories. So many funny ones and so many heartbreaking ones.

Danya: You don’t know whether to laugh or cry.

Laurie: That’s it.

Danya: At one point she talks about the tragedy of waking up every morning and compares it to the tragedy of sleeping with a guy who will only sleep with you once. It’s so sad and poignant and true and adolescent.

Alex: Livable — but sad.

Laurie: That it is. Well, thank you for joining me today for this chat, ladies. Next month, we’ll be chatting about our Nov. Book Club Pick, The Housemaid’s Daughter by Barbara Mutch. Until then!

Alex: Can’t wait!

Lora: Ta for now!

Read an excerpt from The People of Forever Are Not Afraid by Shani Boianjiu, here!