Shani Boianjiu talks about writing while in the Israeli Defense Forces

Winner of the National Book Foundation’s “5 Under 35,” Shani Boianjiu creates an unforgettably intense world

The youngest recipient ever of the National Book Foundation’s 5 under 35, Shani Boianjiu has a way with words, to say the least. Her debut novel, The People of Forever Are Not Afraid is told in a relentlessly energetic and arresting voice marked by humor and fierce intelligence. She has created an unforgettably intense world, capturing that unique time in a young woman’s life when a single moment can change everything.

And although The People of Forever Are Not Afraid is Shani’s first novel, it is not the first story she has written. While serving two years in the Israeli Defense Forces, she had plenty of solitary time to let her imagination run wild.

And don’t forget to read Shani’s experiences as a soldier in her recent New York Times op-ed, “What Happens When the Two Israels Meet.”

By Shani Boianjiu

I wrote a few stories during my final year of high school, but I only started writing regularly while I was serving in the Israeli Defense Forces.

There was so much solitary waiting in the army. Waiting for a train or a bus. Waiting for  boot camp to end. Waiting for a day, then a week, then a month in the shooting ranges to finally be over. Waiting for the blissful conclusion of four or eight hour long lonely guarding shifts, all the while staring at the same green hill. It was during those hours and years of waiting, and especially during guarding shifts, that I thought up a lot of my early stories.

I am virtually unable to write anything with pen and paper, and did not have much free time in the army anyway, so I did all of my actual writing during weekend breaks. But I did all of my imagining when I was on base.

Sometimes I would just think of how I would tell about something that happened when I’d get home and have access to a computer. Sometimes I would use an event or an image or a sentence someone said as a springboard for fictional tales. I would mull over those ideas in my head during guarding and other hours of waiting, until I had a version of the story I wanted to tell and the way I wanted to tell it burned in my memory.

Every time I got released for a weekend vacation from the army I would rush to a computer and type the fictional or true story I had been storing in my head. It was the only time in my life that the physical task of writing felt easy rather than nerve-racking. By the time I got to the page I already knew exactly what I wanted to say. Sometimes I’d email what I wrote to my old high school English teacher. Sometimes I’d just save the stories for myself. By the time I finished my service I had hundreds of pages full of fictional tales, and more pages that told my version of real events.

I only began writing the pages that are now my first novel, The People of Forever Are Not Afraid, three years later.

Here’s the funny thing: none of the stories that I wrote during my time in the army made their way into my novel. There may be a borrowed image, or sentence, or occurrence, but I never looked at what I wrote in my army days while I was writing my first book. I don’t know why that is. Perhaps I thought that what was left burned in my memory over years, rather than over a week of guarding duty, was the type of memory I wanted to use when inventing the characters and scenes of my novel.

I recently looked at the writing I did in the army. The voice and stories in those pieces of writing bear almost no resemblance to what ended up being The People of Forever Are Not Afraid. I don’t know if I can say that my earlier writing is better or worse—it is just different. Still, I don’t think I’ll ever share the stories I wrote while I was in the army. The girl soldier who concocted those stories during what was a seemingly endless wait doesn’t exist anymore, and hasn’t for years. Her wait has ended. And maybe that’s why I’d like to keep the stories I have left of her to myself.

The People of Forever Are Not Afraid Book Excerpt

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