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Shani Boianjiu Writes the Good Stuff

In last month's SpO0oO0oky Issue we ran a wonderful story by a young Israeli writer named Shani Boniajiu. We liked the story a lot, despite knowing next to nothing about its author.

by Tim Small
Nov 3 2011, 8:30am

In last month’s SpO0oO0oky Issue we ran a wonderful story by a young Israeli writer of Romanian and Iraqi descent named Shani Boianjiu. We liked the story very much, despite knowing next to nothing about its author. The story is called "The Sound of All Girls Screaming," and it deals with a young girl serving her mandatory military duty in Israel. As it turns out, it was Shani's first published story. We had no idea about that, either.

A few days after we sent the magazine to print, Shani was selected by the National Book Foundation as a recipient of their "5 under 35" award, a prize given to five authors under 35, selected by past National Book Award winners or finalists. Shani is currently living in Tel Aviv, where she's working on her first novel, The People of Forever Are Not Afraid.

That’s about all the dirt we could find on her via internet stalking, so we decided to email her a few questions so we could get to know her better. We avoided asking about the prize she just won, because that would be crass.

VICE: I did a search for your name on the internet and found a page from Harvard. Did you take part in an MFA?
Boianjiu: I didn't do an MFA, but I graduated from Harvard this spring.

What are you up to now?
At the moment I am in Israel, trying to figure out what to do next.

What did you study?
I studied English and social anthropology. It was sort of an accident. If I could do it over again I'd study computer science or economics. Something useful.

How do you like living in Israel right now? How are the young people reacting to this year of protests? These are very strange, interesting times in Israel. Over the summer there was a huge social protest. It started with a girl who built a tent in the middle of Tel Aviv because she could no longer afford her rent. Very quickly, thousands joined her and tents were built all over the country. Then it spread to other sectors in society. Medical interns resigned because the conditions they were working under were so unbearable they decided to quit the field of medicine altogether. Even train workers went on strike. In general young people in Israel feel exploited by the system, and perhaps a bit inspired by young people's protests all over the world. I am not sure if it will make a difference. The problem with social change in Israel is that it always gets pushed to the sidelines of the public discourse whenever there is a threat to national security, which happens all the time. Maybe it is just me, but the current times feel surreal.

Can you tell me about your experiences in the Israeli Army?
I served my mandatory two years and taught soldiers how to shoot M-16s and other weapons.

How was that?
I was bored and very unhappy for most of those two years, even though I also remember a lot of laughter. But the experiences I write about are not my own—they're based on snippets of conversations or images I saw while I served.

So the story is not autobiographical?
No. I got the idea for it when somehow the memory of a girl in my boot camp came into my head. She got into a world of trouble because she called her mom after freaking out in the tear gas tent. At the time, I thought that was a very dumb thing to do—risking punishment just to talk to her mom, who was far away and couldn't help her. Now I can see that this was a very understandable urge. It was just the circumstances that made it seem crazy. So I wrote a story to explore that urge to communicate even in an environment that tells you no one cares about what you have to say.

Can you tell me more about the novel you are working on?
There are three young female characters in the book. They all come from the same small town. They each have a very different experience during their mandatory military service, and the stories in the book shed light on those experiences. Basically, I am trying to figure our what an individual has to lean at a very young age, when they are placed in an environment that's very limiting. I am always interested in how individuals survive institutions. I think that often we are quick to think our experiences are very personal, when in fact the circumstances we are placed in have a much larger influence than we think.

What kind of challenges do you face when writing in English? I assume it’s not your native language.
I enjoy writing in English because it has a lot of words. I feel more liberated when writing in English—somehow the fact that it's not my language allows me to write with less inhibition. Translating idioms and figures of speech from Hebrew is challenging, but those very challenges are often what end up making the story worthwhile. Very rarely do we think of where our language comes from until we have to translate it. I think that this challenge ends up helping the story. No matter how hard I try, I still struggle with grammar. I always mix up "has,” "have," and "had." Luckily for me, I have a bunch of friends who are native speakers. I can always count on their help.

Do you read in English?
I almost exclusively read books translated into Hebrew. I only read the original if it hasn't been translated.

Oh. What have you been reading lately?

I read all the time, but mainly I reread. Today I reread Mister God, This is Anna, by Finn; Bonjour Tristesse, by Françoise Sagan; Wir Kinder vom Bahnhof Zoo, by Christiane F.; and Drown, by Junot Diaz. Yesterday I reread Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire; The Last Samurai, by Helen Dewitt; and Prisoner's Dilemma, by William Poundstone. The most recent books I read for the first time were How the Light Gets In, by M.J Hyland, and Nervous Conditions, by Tsitsi Dangarembga. The older I get the more I only like books I already know. It is a terrible habit.

Can you recommend some Israeli writers?
Of the widely translated ones I like Etgar Keret and David Grossman. I also like Sara Shilo. My favorite Israeli author, however, is Galila Ron Feder Amit.

I also find translations incredibly interesting. When I think of all the great books I was only able to read because of translators, it makes me slightly upset that these people are not more famous.
I translate all the time, but only for my own pleasure. I worked really hard to translate Suddenly All the Lights Went Out, by Tirtza Atar into English. It is a collection of prose pieces written by a wonderful Israeli poet who died many years ago when she was very young. Right now I am working on translating all of Elizabeth Talent's short stories into Hebrew and a new translation of Rushdie's Midnight's Children, because I think the current one is on the verge of becoming outdated. Translating is a very good method for improving one's writing. I also think translators are far more important than authors.