“A true war story is never moral,” Tim O’Brien wrote in his semi-fictional Vietnam classic, “The Things They Carried.” “It does not instruct, nor encourage virtue, nor suggest models of proper human behavior.”
O’Brien’s words could easily serve as an epigraph to Shani Boianjiu’s blistering debut novel, “The People of Forever Are Not Afraid,” or as a warning label affixed to its jacket. A true war story, wrote O’Brien, does not “restrain men from doing the things men have always done.” In “The People of Forever Are Not Afraid,” Boianjiu asks what happens when the people doing the things men have always done are not men at all, but rather 18-year-old girls.
In this case, those girls are Yael, Avishag, and Lea, about to graduate from their small high school in a dusty development town on the northern border and — by law, as well as by rite of passage — join the Israeli Defense Forces. It is 2005 and they don’t yet know that the status quo with their neighbor Lebanon will soon devolve into war.
These aren’t the eager-eyed, ideology-driven female soldiers of early Zionist lore, singing pioneer songs while standing guard late into the night. These are girls who watch “Sex and the City” reruns, know every episode of “Dawson’s Creek” by memory, and wear knockoff Prada sunglasses. With their petty jealousies and body image problems, Boianjiu knows these girls well — perhaps because she was so recently one of them herself. Boianjiu completed her requisite two years of army service in 2007, before enrolling as a student at Harvard, where she wrote some of the book’s early chapters.
Given that so much of her character’s cultural frame of reference is American, it is fitting that Boianjiu wrote this book in English, a language over which she displays a blunt-edged mastery. Although she referred to this choice as an “accident” in an interview with The New York Times’ Art Beats blog, she also acknowledged that doing so “forced me to think carefully about every word I used.” Like her characters, Boianjiu’s voice is confident and awkward at the same time, bearing traces of the cadence of her mother tongue.
One of the book’s central themes is the rift between the characters’ lives as Ordinary Teenage Girls and the demands placed on them by virtue of a collective identity they did not choose. Indeed, Boianjiu’s protagonists don’t question the fact of their conscription and initially try to succeed in the tasks set before them. But the pressures of military service quickly push them to their breaking points.
In an early scene, Avishag and her fellow conscripts are called one by one into a tent filled with teargas, where their commanders ask them the following questions, first with, then without, their gas masks:
“Do you love the army?”
“Do you love the country?”
“Who do you love more, your mother or father?”
“Are you afraid to die?”
The goal of the exercise, Avishag understands, is “to train you not to panic.” Indeed, she is able to answer all of these questions and more, until finally the poisonous gas overcomes her and she runs out of the tent, tasting blood and gasping for air.
“I run and I run, until arms catch me midair… when I can finally see again, through the water in my eyes, I see where I was heading: the cliff. It was my commander’s arms that grabbed me.”
In a way, this scene sets the tone for the whole book: These girls just want to do their service and get it over with, but they can’t — at least not with their identities and humanity intact.
As Boianjiu writes, the biggest threat to girls in the military is not physical, but spiritual and psychological:
“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.”
Indeed, as the stories accumulate, it becomes disturbingly clear that the threats Boianjiu’s protagonists face are in some ways more insidious than those facing their male counterparts — a threat not to their lives, but to their most basic sense of themselves and to the women they hope to become. These are Avishag’s words to her commanding officer as he allows yet another truck crammed with trafficked young Eastern European women to cross the border into Israel: “‘I won’t let you do this to me,’ Avishag said, and she grabbed Nadav by the arm. ‘You don’t know who I am. I am nothing like this.’”
It’s been widely noted that Boianjiu’s first book is not exactly a novel, despite calling itself one. It is rather a collection of loosely linked stories, some far more developed than others. In the best of them, Boianjiu writes not only from the perspective of one of her three protagonists, but gets inside the skins of the people they encounter.
In the story “Checkpoint,” Lea imagines the marriage and home life of Fadi, a Palestinian man trying to cross into Israel from the West Bank for day work. In “People That Don’t Exist,” the points of view alternate between Avishag and the Sudanese girl who hurls herself onto a barbed-wire fence while she stands guard. And in the book’s most complex and layered story, we witness not only Avishag’s defiance of military authority but also those of the Egyptian soldiers who are watching her from their own guard tower across the border. It is a testament to Boianjiu’s skill as a writer that these renderings never feel precious or sentimental.
In her interview with The New York Times, Boianjiu listed “The Things They Carried” as an inspiration for her work. This is evident not only in the fact that she shares with O’Brien the task of writing about unpopular military operations, but in the economy and directness of her prose.
“It wasn’t right,” a character reflects in “1.5 Bedrooms in Tel Aviv,” the bleakest story in a book full of bleak stories. “It had never been right, this whole seventy-year-long war. He had never realized that before now.”
But while O’Brien published his episodic masterpiece in his early forties, two decades after he stopped being a soldier, at 25, Boianjiu’s military service is still fresh. Her age alone has conferred upon her semi-celebrity status, followed by the predictable backlash.
“There is a chance that the most talked-about author of the year will be Shani Boianjiu,” Maya Sela recently wrote in Haaretz, “even if we’re not talking about her for literary reasons.”
Of course, it’s not every day that a girl from the northern town of Kfar Vradim with a population of some 5,000 people follows her army service with a degree from Harvard, an international book deal and interviews with The New York Times. And yet, Boianjiu is a writer who should be talked about for literary reasons, not the least of which is that her stories refuse to submit to moral clichés.
“If a story seems moral,” O’Brien admonishes in “The Things They Carried,” “do not believe it.” Indeed, by the time I finished “The People of Forever Are Not Afraid,” I had long since given up on discovering a moral within its pages. And at some point, I also had to abandon any hope of finding out how things turn out for Yael, Avishag, and Lea. There are no tidy endings here, nor are we offered the palliative of distinct character arcs. When I closed the final page, there was only a lingering sense of sadness and unease, which is probably as it should be.
Click here for an exclusive excerpt from “The People of Forever Are Not Afraid” in The Times of Israel’s Book of The Times corner.