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Novel looks at Israel's untold stories, fringe characters

'The People of Forever are Not Afraid,' Shani Boianjiu's debut novel, is based partly on her own experiences as woman in the Israeli Defense Forces, hardly political

Reuters, Wednesday 19 Sep 2012
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Yael, Avishag and Lea grow up together in a remote Israeli town, graduating to military service in the Israeli army, where they come of age amidst a mix of the routine and tension that comes from living with the constant possibility of danger.

"The People of Forever are Not Afraid," Shani Boianjiu's debut novel, is based partly on her own experiences in the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF), but the young author feels that it was leaving her native land to study abroad that ultimately freed her to write.

"I think this book could not have been written had I not lived someplace else besides Israel - I was in the U.S. for quite some time," Boianjiu, 25, said in a telephone interview. "To me, it was just completely normal to assume that you could go about your regular day but then one day something might happen - missiles would start falling. I'd never even thought about it as something that wasn't normal."

A rapid transition from her own years of compulsory military service to university life in the United States left Boianjiu without time to reflect on her army experience, where she trained other soldiers in marksmanship - a situation that eventually led her to write the linked stories of the novel.

"I'm forever fascinated by the kind of story that hasn't been written yet," she said. "So I like finding fringe characters, immigrants, people that live in parts of Israel that are not so commonly portrayed."

Her three heroines gossip, fight boredom and try to maintain their friendship even as they come of age in the military, an environment that Boianjiu said came as a bit of a shock.

"It's surprising for a lot of women in high school who are used to competing with guys on a level field and when you're drafted all of a sudden the opportunities that you have are reduced drastically because you're a girl," she said. "I guess I just wanted to show how people can be individuals while at the same time not being individuals so much in that environment."

Though setting the story in the armed forces means aspects of the overall regional political situation become an inevitable part of things, Boianjiu is adamant that her book should be looked at as a piece of writing first, not a statement on Israel or the Middle East.

In fact, she said she felt that Israel and its people bear a symbolic weight assigned them by the rest of the world - a situation that she felt turned people into representations of something other than people, and frustrating. "One of the things I found interesting in the response from people is that every literary choice that I made was looked at in the light of, 'of course she chose this because it's representative of a land where blah blah blah'," she said.

"Whereas I made literary choices just the way every other writer does, because when I sat down to write the story that's the way I imagined events unfolding."

She hopes the real message of her book is universal. "It's human experience, shared by a lot of women in the IDF, that I was trying to render," she said.

"Of course, there are some lines that have to deal with the situation in Israel because that's just part of our lives, but it's not the only message. I actually think... a lot of it has to do with the experience of being female, wherever you are."

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