Welcome to the Kveller Book Club chat for our latest pick, The People of Forever Are Not Afraid by Israeli writer Shani Boianjiu. Besides making me feel totally unaccomplished because I haven’t already written a book at age 25, Boianjiu’s debut forced me to spend a lot of time thinking about things I’d probably rather not think about, i.e. what would happen if I had to join the army?
For those of you who haven’t read the book, The People of Forever follows the story lines of three young Israeli girls as they graduate high school and join the Israeli Defense Force. We see them before, during, and after their years in service, and besides learning how to properly throw a hand grenade, we get a glimpse into their interior lives, rifled with neuroses, self-consciousness, and sexual escapades. They are 18, after all.
I will admit, I did not know very much about the IDF before reading this book. I grew up with the understanding that the Israeli army is one of the most powerful armies in the world, and that both boys and girls were drafted, meaning that everyone in Israel was just way tougher than me. (To put it in perspective, the summer after I graduated high school, instead of joining the army I worked at a Coldstone Creamery during which I constantly complained that crushing candy bars into people’s ice cream was really hard on the wrists.) When I went on a Birthright trip last summer, I met a handful of real Israeli soldiers, and while they were definitely in better shape than me (they could have lapped me on the Masada climb), they were still young adults in the way that I thought of myself as a young adult. They liked drinking and flirting and teaching us all the Hebrew swear words. The female soldiers gossiped with us about which American boy they thought was the cutest, and in the end, we all borrowed each other’s makeup and hair stuff.
Even though there is plenty to be found about the army and the various wars and political situations that present-day Israel faces, I found the essence of this book to be hardly about that at all. So what was it about? Girls. (Cue the Lena Dunham comparisons now.) You can dress them up in army fatigues and stick an M16 on their wiry frames, but in the end, the girls in this book are mostly self-centered and often vain, just how you’d expect an 18-year-old girl to be. Are they worried about the big picture? Peace in the Middle East? A Jewish democratic state? I’m not so sure. They are immature. They get naked in watch towers. They have sex in emergency storage containers.
Again, they are 18.
Boianjiu has said in interviews that a large part of this book was based on her own experiences in the IDF, so I can only believe that this is a somewhat authentic representation of a female soldier’s experience–or at least a certain kind of female soldier’s experience. I suspect a lot of people may read this book and be horrified to hear of the irresponsible behavior that goes down in the army that’s supposed to be protecting our Holy Land. If that’s the case, I’d love to hear from you. Some more talking points to consider, before unleashing your thoughts in the comments below:
1. Do you think these girls are better off for having served in the army, or worse? Did they grow, learn, mature?
2. Did you connect with one character more than the others?
3. How do you think Palestinians and other non-Israeli characters were portrayed in the novel? Fairly? Sympathetically? Cruelly?
4. Would you consider living in a country, knowing that when your daughter (or son!) turns 18, you’d have to send them off to the army?
5. What would you like to ask Shani about this book and her experience?
Speaking of asking questions to Shani, those of you on Twitter will be able to ask her anything you want (in 140 characters or less) tomorrow, during our Twitter chat! The chat will go from 12 noon – 1 p.m., and you can follow along with the hashtag #kvellerlit and by directing all questions to @shaniboianjiu.
But now it’s your turn to tell us what you thought about the book. Join the discussion by sharing your thoughts in the comments below. I can’t wait to hear them!