A Review: The People of Forever Are Not Afraid by Shani Boianjiu
In October 2011, Vice (volume 18, number 10) ran a story titled “The Sound of All Girls Screaming,” about a young woman’s mandatory military service in Israel; they “liked the story very much, despite knowing next to nothing about its author.” A few days later, the still unfamiliar author received a “5 Under 35” Award from the National Book Foundation for her unfinished novel, The People of Forever Are Not Afraid, from which the story of girls’ screams came. “My talking serves a purpose,” writes Shani Boianjiu, a 25-year-old Israeli woman, in her debut novel. “My talking, my tears, are a matter of national security. A part of our training. I will be prepared for an attack by unconventional weapons. I could save the whole country, that’s how prepared I’ll be.” The “talking” refers to a bluntly depicted training rite—minutes passed in a tear-gas tent, without a gas mask—but could easily stand in for the words of Boianjiu’s book, words as a line of defense, as medicine, as weapons against being young and Israeli and a woman.
The novel narrates the experiences of three childhood friends, Yael, Avishag, and Lea, as they enter and, eventually, leave the Israeli army, each determined not to let these seemingly vain years dictate their lines of their lives: “Whatever happened inside of [those years] was decoration and air and would not change where she would end up.”
Allow me a few assumptions: you, reader, have probably not served in the army. But, still, you can think of in-between times that you would skip—hours at work when you’d rather be, just, anywhere, arguments, plane rides, the blank morning stare. Though the girls would prefer to blink and leave their military service a blank, Boianjiu uses their experiences to weave a narrative about battling the devils inside of us as much as the enemies across the border, about the loneliness of friendship, and, most achingly, about the struggle between men and women, the female obsession with throwing off male oppression and the difficulty of doing so.
The story, surprisingly, takes shape around the girls’ various romantic roles, rather than their roles in warfare. Lovers and rapists appear in, if not the same category, side-by-side. What is a woman without a man? Boianjiu seems to ask. What is a man without a woman? The girls’ service duties act interchangeably as the author jumps, chapter by chapter, between them; second-tier characters jumble. Men are men. “More men. More men. More men,” Lea thinks. The girls grapple with this distinction:
If you are a boy and you go into the army, one thing that can happen is that you can die. The other thing that can happen is that you can live. If you are a girl and you go into the army you probably won’t die. You might send reservists to die in a war. You might suppress demonstrations at checkpoints. But you probably won’t die.
Those are the simple avenues, left and right, live or die. But horrors, often more complicated and scarring than death, abound: trucks filled with women, soiled, stopped at checkpoints; necks cut open; demands that “We Are Whores” be written out in stones. This wealth of possible paths creates some confusion, a Möbius strip story that circles on itself, the narrative a little lost at times. We watch a Ukrainian immigrant rush the Egyptian border; neither she nor we are quite sure where she’s come from or where she’s going. But while the energetic prose lends some structural weakness, that energy, blazing from the author’s run-on, rushed, childlike sentences, pushes the story forward. “Write, girl, write,” we think as we read. “Faster.”
(The author, during her military service)
And onward she goes, coaxing out the humor and the tragedy in the lives of her three terribly ordinary girls. Yael recalls her first sexual experiences with candor, “I didn’t blame my boyfriend. I hated him. I wasn’t trying to prove his father wrong. It was how it happened. When we slept together, I did quadratic equations in my head.” A sharp contrast to the lines in her school notebook, disclosed in the novel’s early pages: “fuck me raw.” The discord between Yael’s rawness and quadratic equations notably occurs within her own head—the novel’s most truthful moments are interior ones. Though the relationships between the characters seems natural and honest enough, they’re terrible, ripe with misplaced affections, mistrust, and misunderstanding. Avishag, who once found words in a tear-gas tent, returns to a world in which no one listens to anyone else: “He kept her mouth covered, even though there was no need. Avishag was not going to talk. Lying on that sofa, Avishag questioned why our world even gives us words.” In the midst of all that physicality—descriptions of heft and color and shapes fill the book—only the girls’ interior lives matter. They surrender their bodies so easily; like their time in the military, their bodies are temporal. Air.
“Waking up every morning was a tragedy,” Lea thinks, “like killing your own mother, or losing your virginity to a guy who will only sleep with you once, and realizing what you have done just as you are forced to open your eyes.”
Does this realization of tragedy occur before the military or during or after and does it make a difference and is it, in fact, possible to detach their service from time? Or does life drag us and our most miserable moments forward? Boianjiu’s novel, hopping between times before, in, and after the girls’ military service, suggests the latter. The girls’ world could trivialize the problems of many American youth, problems that do not involve military drafts and diplomatic relations; there is a bleakness in the story, of course, and, in that bleakness, an honesty about universal facts—of time and waking and heartbreak and enduring—that we all must accept in order to live.
* * *
The People of Forever Are Not Afraid by Shani Boianjiu
Hogarth, September 2012
ISBN 978-0-307-95595-1. 352 pp.