Shani Boianjiu: How I Write
The Israeli author, whose debut novel, The People of Forever Are Not Afraid, is out in paperback, talks about serving in the Israel Defense Forces, her favorite Israeli authors, and failing to run into Justin Bieber.
Where did you grow up?
Kfar Vradim, Israel. I also lived briefly in Ma’alot-Tarshiha as a child, and I was actually born in Jerusalem, but almost all of the growing up I can remember doing I did in Kfar Vradim.
You served in the Israel Defense Forces. For Americans today, the idea of serving in the military is either a professional choice or something most would dread. Israel still has mandatory service. What was your view of being a soldier prior to your time in the army, and has it changed since then?
I would like to question your assumption that for Americans today, the idea of serving in the military is a professional choice or something most would dread. It most certainly is both those things—many Americans dread the thought of having to serve in their own wars, and many of those who serve do so because that is their personal, professional choice and the life they want for themselves. But after having spent close to six years, on and off, in the U.S., speaking to many Americans, I think there is also a third group: those who chose to go to war because they believed that was the best, or even at times only, financial decision they could make to survive or better their lives. As for me, as long as Israel needs to have an army—which I believe will be for a very long time—I do not understand how I could have, at 18, as a grown moral agent, justified having another human being sacrifice two years of their life in my place. That is an enormous amount of me to take of another 18-year-old girl. And what if the soldier who served in my place died, or lost a limb, or lost her mind, or lost something, anything, during those service years? Who am I to say that my life or mind was more important? And there are so many 18-year-old girls with lives and minds to be lost. I don’t know how any person, of any nationality, rationalizes doing that for themselves, but I could not.
I have a classmate who did not serve because she wanted to “be a dancer” and believed two years in the army would not allow her to best utilize her skills as a contributing member of society, and that being in a military institution did not fit her personality, and would make her suffer more than she could handle. On a personal level, of course, I felt that, at 18 and 19 and 20, there were just about a million other things I could have been doing—instead of staring at a locked gate for eight hours, and again, and again, and more, or spending week after week at a shooting range, hearing comments about what my body looks like—that would have been a better utilization of my skills. I felt like I was the last person to fit in any institution, let alone the IDF, and I harbored small and bitter and ugly feelings. But how can I calculate that my suffering is greater than any other person’s? I do not own such calculator.
There are people who feel that they cannot serve in the IDF for ideological reasons, and those people, though I did not and would not make the choice they did, I can at least better understand. For those people I would say: first, that there are many ways to spend two or three years in national service in Israel in lieu of military service, at hospitals and schools and youth movements, and that I personally believe that if I needed to make the choice they did, that is what I would do. And that I also hope they make damn sure they spend every breathing second of their lives doing whatever they humanely can to change whatever conditions have led them to believe they cannot morally serve in the IDF. As for me, I felt as though the only mind I have full access to is my own, and the only body I had control over was mine, and that someone was going to be wearing those uniform regardless of what I chose to do—so the most moral choice was to make sure the person wearing the uniform was someone whose actions I could most fully control. I still feel the same way today, which is why if they call me for reserve duty, I go if I am in Israel.
Please recommend three books by Israeli authors and tell us why you like them.
The Falafel King Is Dead by Sara Shilo. I am not sure why they changed the title in translation. I would translate the title into: No Gnomes Are Going to Come. I love it because, I think, if anyone who is not Israeli did in fact believe that reading literature could help him better understand the conflict in the Middle East, so that he may see if he could in any way help those affected by the violence on all sides, and was then trying to decide which Jewish author he should read and asking for my recommendation, this is in my opinion the most useful book written in the last 100 years he could choose.
Suddenly All The Lights Went Out by Tirza Atar. Tirza Atar was an Israeli poet and translator who died in 1977. She also wrote short stories that were never published in her lifetime. They are beautiful, and small, and sad, and brilliantly whimsical. They are a mix of the oddest parts of Israeli history and fantastical allegorical tales and a very generous and serious examination of one woman’s own inconceivable humdrum suffering. The prose chapters were found 40 years after they were written and published in 2010. You should really read them! Except you cannot, because I do not believe they have been translated into English. I have translated them, so I guess if you really wanted to, you could find a way to reach someone who knows me, and I’ll send you the book via email.
Flowers of Perhaps by Rachel the Poetess. This is not the fairest translation of these poems in my opinion, but I think it is the only easily available collection of her work in English. Fun, simple, pretty, serious, honest poems I love a lot and that I always enjoy thinking about. The poems show a lot of strange colliding influences from the first Zionist pioneers to the Russians to the Bible to just Rachel dealing with what it meant to be writing in what Hebrew was becoming in the 1920s. Some of the poems are a little sad, because she is like sad that they kicked her out of the kibbutz she came from Russia to build with her own two hands at 19 instead of going to Italy to study art and philosophy and having a kid like she always really wanted to. They kicked her out because she contracted tuberculosis while teaching Jewish refugee children in Russia during World War I. So she is a little upset that when she got sick, she was immediately shunned by everyone at the kibbutz and sent to spend the last years of her life completely alone and destitute and starving and excruciatingly dying in an ugly tiny apartment in Tel Aviv and writing all these poems. But mostly she is really LOL and accepting about it.
What are some of the differences between writing in Hebrew versus English? Does one language express certain things better than the other?
I cannot even begin to answer this question seriously in the space allotted to me, as I do not believe there is one thing aside from the blatantly obvious that is the same about writing in English and writing in Hebrew. I would guess that is the case for all languages. I don’t think it is for me to speak so reductively about any other people’s language and say “it is good for this” or “it is bad for that,” particularly since I am not even a native English speaker, and the language is not even mine to get to speak of. Each one language can in some cases even be a whole world, for some people, who can only speak that one language. I have one friend who can only speak English. I am sure she can make it good for whatever she needs it for.
I will say I like English because it has a lot of words. And even if I don’t use them in excess—I guess in life I am the type of person who always likes the idea of knowing there is something saved up in the bank for a rainy day even if she only spends a little, and that’s why I like the comfort of knowing English has a lot of words in the bank. It allows me to write with just a slightly lessened sense of panic, so that I may think more calmly and deeply, the way writing while knowing you have rent covered allows one to write.
With Hebrew, with the a particular sentence in the right place for a brief moment when the air is just right in the room—you could tell the story of the whole world and his sister with the correct five words, and that transiency and epicenes and miniaturization is alluring to me as well.
Describe your routine when conceiving of a book and its plot, before the writing begins. Do you like to map out your books ahead of time or just let it flow?
The only way I know how to write is that I accidently get an idea in my head, and then I tell the story to myself in my head again and again, for the longest amount of time that I am possibly able to, until I cannot possibly keep it in my head anymore, or my head will metaphorically explode, and so I write it all down. I then wait for another idea to come that will tell me where to go from there.
What has to happen on page one, and in chapter one, to make for a successful book that urges you to read on?
Literature’s purpose is to alleviate suffering in the world. I am looking for evidence that the writer has tried, the best that only they humanely could, to do everything in their power to write a story that can alleviate the greatest amount of suffering in the world, in whatever strange way. Of course, that’s really hard to judge from reading just one page or chapter, so I usually read more from a book, but if an author can show me that he is doing that on page one or chapter one, well, there is no force in the world that will make me NOT read on.
Is there anything distinctive or unusual about your workspace? Besides the obvious, what do you keep on your desk? What is the view from your favorite workspace?
I just need a computer and, preferably, a chair and a desk, because otherwise, if I am working long hours, my back can hurt. But the chair and desk are not very necessary. And I need a space where I can play loud music and be alone and jump around. It does not matter where. But if people live below me, they hate me.
What is your favorite snack?
Bread with corn-based margarine spread and tomato slices with salt.
What phrase do you overuse?
“Very, very very,” “really, really, really,” “much, much less,” and so on. But I feel like that’s not really my fault, because a lot of times something is the exact same word except in a lesser or higher degree, almost in a mathematical sense, and it would be a lie to use another word, and it is only because of a type of bias inherent in so many languages that we feel like we must. Because of course something could be 72.5 percent less terrible than something that is terrible. And there is no word that would express that better if that were the truth.
What do you need to have produced/completed in order to feel that you’ve had a productive writing day?
I do not think in those terms at all. I write everything I have to write down until I am finished, if I have something I have to write down. In rare cases, physical limitations such as food/shelter/sleep/other people/technology/other commitments prevent me from finishing what I need to finish, and then I have to go to sleep without having finished, and I guess then I feel I was not productive during that writing day. I then cry. In the morning I write a sad poem about it in my journal and move on. LOL.
Tell us a funny story related to a book tour or book event.
I was in Stockholm at the same time when Bruce Springsteen and One Direction were there, who I don’t care about at all, but I missed Justin Bieber by, like, a couple of days, and I missed him again on my connection flight from Turkey by, like, four hours. I don’t get how that’s even possible that this happens or who plans these ironies for me. In Budapest, I laughed every second I was there, but I don’t want to share those jokes with anyone, because they are mine and Budapest’s.
What would you like carved onto your tombstone?
This year Israel decided that it is going to start collecting 1,000 shekels a year in taxes for every grave, which basically means you’ll be paying rent for eternity, and even though I know I’d be dead and not care, the thought of still having to worry about rent, even in eternity, makes me go “Ahhhh!” I also hope to live for at least another 20 years, and I very much doubt there will be room for tombstones then in Israel, because real estate is so precious! But on the off chance I somehow get a tombstone, I’d like it to say:
I am so sorry to be bothering you, but there has been a terrible mistake and someone put me here and now I can’t do anything about it because I am dead, so I was wondering if maybe you could help me. I am sure so many people really need to use this space, so please move away this stone, or use it if you can figure out what to do with it, and let people use this real estate in whatever way would be most beneficial to society. Also if someone super wants to be buried here, and it bothers them that my body is already here, could you please remove my body and throw it in the garbage, or wherever you think it will be easiest for you to dispose of it, and will cause the least interruption to the living?
Thanks so so much!
p.s. (It had just occurred to me that you deserve some financial compensation for having to remove a stone and a cadaver, and for getting bizarre-o blasts from the past and all. I emailed my life insurance person and asked him if he could put in a clause that says that if anyone in the future can prove they have done this favor for me, they will receive compensation in the value of 2000 shekels. He hasn’t emailed me back yet, so I guess only you, future person, will know if that is even legally feasible).
What is your next project?
Hopefully you’ll get to read it one day.
This interview has been edited and condensed.