Title: The People of Forever Are Not Afraid
Author: Shani Boianjiu
Publication date: 2012
For this year’s Book Diaries, in a departure from my usual focus, instead of being inspired in a random fashion, I’m looking for inspiration that I can take to my writing. (See my general blog to find out why I’m doing this.)
The novel is a collection of vignettes from the lives of three Israeli women. We follow them from school to military service, and witness the emotional fallout each of them experiences as they then attempt to move on with their lives in the civilian world.
- Read more information on Goodreads.
- Find the book in a library near you (worldwide).
- Support local bookshops (UK): buy the book from Hive.
What did I find out?
I found out just how little I know about the ongoing conflict in the Middle East. It’s been in the background all my life, but although I have a general awareness of the issues, I’ve never fully got to grips with the details of each new exacerbation. This novel, with its descriptions of life in the non-combative segment of Israeli military service, presents those details in all their numbing horror. It is always an effective narrative technique to illustrate a national situation through the tales of individuals caught up in it, but the choice of characters for this story give it a particular poignancy.
Women who should be plunging headlong into life – becoming adults, forming relationships, finding themselves and their way in the world – are instead resigned to sit in a mental and emotional no-man’s land, killing time and looking for kicks while the fighting goes on elsewhere. The point and purpose of their lives is dissected, and very few answers are found: life away from the battleground seems to reflect life on the battleground itself.
The relentlessness of the conflict is depicted most starkly at the end of the novel, with the final chapter telling the story not of the lead character Yael but of her mother when she was in the military. Reading about two successive generations fighting the same war brings it home to us just how difficult it must be to find hope and meaning in a life that essentially repeats those before it.
What do I now see differently?
One of the most distinct messages to emerge from the book is the reminder that we are all human, with similar doubts, worries and fears, no matter which side we are on. Again, the story of Yael’s mother is key to bringing this home: she has to ‘make the case for compassion’ to a chef inclined to poison sandwiches that he believes he is making for Palestinian prisoners, but which she knows are intended for rescued Jewish hostages.
She convinces him to hold off the poison by appealing to his inner awareness that, in different circumstances, he too could have gone down the road that his imagined prisoners have taken: made one mistake; travelled on a different road; been knocked off course. We cannot judge others until we know what they have faced, until we have understood the reasons behind their actions; we owe it to our fellow humans to, at the very least, find out the facts before we condemn.
It’s a natural human trait to make assumptions, but this novel reminds us that, when it comes to the bigger questions – life and death – we can always benefit from taking a different perspective.
How will this inspire my writing?
The characters in The People of Forever… are placed in a number of harrowing situations, finding, by turns, their dignity, freedom and even lives threatened; trauma is juxtaposed with frivolity to excellent effect. In my novel, my characters face a peril that menaces their very essence – what it means to be themselves – and I need to make sure that this threat is portrayed as the danger it really is.
At the moment I have several characters affected by the plague that is spreading through the supernatural world, and I’m not sure if I’ve fully expressed the effect that this is having on the victims. In particular I need to ensure that the longer-term repercussions of the crisis are meaningfully explored and credibly presented: how will the characters recover after their ordeal? will there be permanent damage?
I’m hoping that this will come naturally as I progress through the novel, but it’s good to have a reminder that a story is not just about the plot: it’s about the characters – and they don’t stop existing just because the last page has been written. They have their whole lives (or undead existence…) ahead of them, and I need readers to believe in them.
A musical interlude
This was another struggle to find an appropriate track. I really wanted to pick a song by a girl band, to reflect the characters in the novel; but locating a song by a girl band about the particular situation described in the book was challenging, to say the least.
In the end I’ve picked this one by The Primitives: it’s not perfect, but I think it comes close to expressing feelings that would not be out of place in The People of Forever…