Already a hit abroad, but can she find success at home?
Shani Boianjiu’s debut novel was written in English, snapped up by a major American publisher, and sold for translation in nearly two dozen countries. But how will the 25-year-old Israeli do in her own country?
There is a chance that the most talked about author of the year will be Shani Boianjiu, even if we’re not talking about her for literary reasons. The debut novel, written in English, of 25-year-old Boianjiu from Kfar Vradim was published in the United States and Canada by Hogarth Press, part of Random House, one of the publishing world’s biggest names. At a book fair in Frankfurt, the book was sold for translation in 22 countries. Even before it was published, the National Book Foundation declared Boianjiu one of the “5 under 35” most promising fiction writers on the recommendation of author Nicole Krauss. This year, we will see if the promise is fulfilled.
The story Boianjiu tells is very Israeli and very familiar. Her book, “The People of Forever Are Not Afraid,” is the coming-of-age story of three teenage girls – Avishag, Yael and Lea – who went to the same high school and are about to begin their army service, where they will experience what all Israelis of that age do. The book portrays the excruciatingly slow passing of time, the boredom, the day-to-day violence that we are so capable of pushing into the background as we live completely ordinary lives – everything that is so routine for Israelis but seems bizarre, even surreal, to outsiders.
Why did Boianjiu write the book in English? Because she went to Harvard after the army and was required to write a collection of short stories for a final project. Her teacher sent the stories to literary agents, who soon contacted her. One was Andrew Wylie, who quickly signed a contract with Boianjui, the Cinderella of Kfar Vradim. The publisher's public relations department built up expectations for the novel, and the press anxiously waited.
“Shani Boianjiu has found a way to expose the effects of war and national doctrine on the lives of young Israelis," Krauss, Boianjiu’s mentor, wrote. "So her subject is serious, but lest I make her work sound in any way heavy let me point out how funny she is, how disarming and full of life. Even when she is writing about death, Boianjiu is more full of life than any young writer I've come across in a long time.”
Celebrated Israeli author Etgar Keret weighed in as well. “The expression ‘a new voice in literature’ became a cliché long before Shani Boianjiu was born,” he wrote, “but there is no better way to describe her penetrating, unique voice. Reading her book makes you feel as though your heart has been sliced in two with a dull knife. Her novel is one of those rare books that really make you want to cry, but at the same time doesn’t let you cry.”
Meanwhile, the critics are less enthusiastic. The Internet magazine The Millions wrote, “Boianjiu’s generation is comprised of the young women who, having completed high school, are conscripted into the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF). Army service provides the backdrop for much of “The People of Forever Are Not Afraid,” though the book has little to do with the business of war.... [T]he three friends who split narratorial duties and narrative focus, are mostly bored, biding their time at checkpoints, like wasting time in dead-end internships, waiting for their real lives to begin.”
The writer from Publisher’s Weekly, who interviewed Boianjiu briefly in August (she is now in Kfar Vradim and not interested in being interviewed), did not show much enthusiasm either. “[A]t times it feels like a bulletin to non-Israelis. Is that one of the reasons you wrote in English?” asks the interviewer.
“The book is not meant to be an introduction to Israel for foreigners,” Boianjiu answered. “The stories in the book came out of my own personal imagination and fascinations. I wrote it in English for many reasons. I was studying in the U.S. at the time, but it certainly was not an attempt to speak for any Israelis.”
“A number of incidents in the book have a surreal quality,” asked the interviewer. “Should readers believe them as we do more prosaic events, or are they a comment on the surreality of war?”
Boianjiu answered, “To me, all of the incidents in the book are surreal and prosaic at the same time. I like stories that are only a bit off – some that could have happened but it’s hard to imagine that they did, some that probably could never happen but it is possible to imagine there’s a small chance they might have. I want readers to have the choice to believe or not believe each and every part of the book. It’s not a comment on the ongoing surreality of war alone; if anything it’s the way I chose to describe the ongoing surreality of being alive.”
Could it be that the publisher’s enthusiasm over the Israeli author is just part of the worldwide trend of seeking voices on the periphery? The French are going out of France, searching for other Francophone voices. For Americans, Boianjiu is perhaps the intriguing other: a woman, an Israeli, an author, the army, guns, sexuality, boredom, darkness. On one website, someone even wrote that her book is the Israeli version of Fifty Shades of Grey. Maybe the combination of a woman with a gun is responsible for this kind of erotic situation.
Will Israelis be as interested in Boianjiu’s book as the Americans are? After all, for Israelis, she is not the other, and there is nothing exotic about a young woman with a braid holding a gun. Boianjiu describes experiences that are banal for Israelis. Of course, the question is how she describes them, because that is the point in literature. Her book was supposed to be published last February by Kinneret Zmora Bitan, but it looks like it is going to be postponed a bit. Meanwhile, it is being translated from English into Hebrew, and that seems to be no easy task.
Maybe Israelis will take Boianjiu to their hearts because she is an Israeli who has made good. But it is not going too far to assume that they will give her a kick in the rear for that same reason. Israelis are suspicious of authors who succeed in the world. When she published a story in The New Yorker last June, Israeli online commentators were quick to condemn it as a betrayal.
In any case, Boianjiu is not the first Israeli woman writer to be successful. Her success is now a promise she must fulfill. Books by Israeli writers are translated all the time and published abroad. But none of them started out there, and none of them sold to so many countries, sight unseen, just because of the buzz.