How a Young Israeli Woman Became an Acclaimed English Author

Shani Boianjiu grew up in Kfar Vradim and never imagined the success her first novel would have. In an interview with Haaretz, she confides: 'Ninety-nine percent of what I write wouldn’t happen'.

The way Shani Boianjiu tells it, it was a fluke that she wrote her first book in English. In fact, when she wrote the stories that make up “The People of Forever Are Not Afraid” as a college senior, she didn’t really imagine a book coming out at all, much less a handsome hardcover volume from Hogarth, a prestigious new imprint of Random House, that was heralded by the publication of one of its chapters in The New Yorker.

Here’s how it all happened.

Until she was in high school, Boianjiu, today 25, had spent her entire life in Israel, most of it in Kfar Vradim, the small community in the Galilee established in the 1980s by high-tech industrialist Stef Wertheimer to house employees from his nearby industrial park, Tefen.

High school in Kfar Vradim, however, didn’t do it for Boianjiu. “A few teachers gave very interesting assignments, and we had to do a huge research paper on the Holocaust, and that was very rigorous, but ... the rest of the classes were boring,” she told me when we spoke by telephone late last summer.

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Boianjiu says she was a serious student and had been looking forward to secondary school, so when her local school didn’t measure up, she transferred to the high school at Kibbutz Cabri, in the Western Galilee, which she says is considered one of the country’s best. But that was frustrating too, “because the focus was on bagruyot [matriculation exams], and kids didn’t care much about school. I would wake up and I was, like, ‘Oh my God, I was so waiting for high school, and this is so boring.’”

That’s when she had the idea of applying to boarding school in the United States. And not just any boarding school, but the prestigious Phillips Exeter Academy, in New Hampshire, established in 1781. Her parents her father is of Romanian descent, her mother of Iraqi origin did not like the idea, but she prevailed upon them.

Exeter, where she attended 11th and 12th grades, was, she says, “exhilarating.” True, she had to contend with four to five hours of homework a night “at least for me, because my English wasn’t too great” but there were sports, and clubs and labs. “And there was a skeleton of a whale that students had built, and I could take classes in economics.”

At the same time, she says that socially, prep school was “very, very hard a completely different world. People were very nice and accommodating, but there are all these traditions and ways of behaving.” She made a few good friends, though, “many of whom also didn’t really fit in. My best friend was an immigrant from China.”

Like many other Exeter graduates, Boianjiu was accepted to Harvard University. But first there was the matter of army service back home. She received a deferral from Harvard, and returned to Israel for her two years of mandatory service.

During her last semester at Exeter, Boianjiu took a class in creative writing, but says she had never devoted much time before that to writing. Later, in college, she was a literature major, but “it was quite obvious that I didn’t have the skills to write a critical [senior] thesis,” as was required in her department, “so I applied to do a creative thesis in fiction.” The application was supposed to be accompanied by a few stories, and so she wrote some specially for that purpose, “in English, because people there didn’t read Hebrew.”

That senior thesis served as the rough basis of “The People of Forever,” whose loosely linked chapters chronicle the experiences of its three female protagonists friends who grew up together in a small town in Israel’s north during and following their army service. Now, Boianjiu, back at home in Israel, alternates between writing in Hebrew and in English, but she also stresses that, “I am not necessarily going to be only a writer for the rest of my life. I am 25. I am still trying to figure out what I wish to do next.” A Hebrew translation of “The People of Forever Are Not Afraid” is due out later this year from Kinneret Zmora-Bitan publishers, and rights have been sold in another 22 countries.

When I ask Boianjiu if she thinks it’s correct to describe the ending of her book as apocalyptic, she demurs, but does agree that “it’s definitely a departure from reality.” Which is typical for her. “Everything that I’ve ever written is on the cusp of the surreal. Some are definitely surreal, but I never have flying donkeys, nothing that defies the laws of physics. I don’t know why that is. But 99.9 percent of what I write wouldn’t happen.”

“‘All’s well that ends well’ is not how I perceive reality,” she declares. “I’m a young person, which makes me a pissed-off person.”

I suggest to her that publishing a work with such a disturbing vision took some courage. “Or stupidity,” she interrupts. “But when I wrote, I never thought it would be out [before the public]. I didn’t mean to be courageous.”

In a posting on an anti-Zionist website last summer, one blogger, characterizing Boianjiu’s then-still-unpublished novel as “a coming of age tale about bored female soldiers,” complained about Boianjiu’s supposed lack of political consciousness and shortage of empathy for the Palestinians. Boianjiu told me that she fully expected to be attacked on political grounds, although she had anticipated the criticism coming from the other direction. “I thought people would say she hates Israel. So, I’m happy that the same story can elicit polar opposite responses from different people. My stories are not meant to be political; I hate stories like that. It’s about characters.”

She says she understands, however, “that there are some people who build their identity based on their point of view about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and they might not be Jewish, or Israeli or Arab. And their Twitter account is built around it, and they live or die around it.”

“But there also people who respond to it as fiction, people who don’t have a horse in this race,” adds Boianjiu. “There’s nothing I can do about it except next time not write about the Arab-Israeli conflict.”

Alon Sigawi