In October 2011, Vice (volume 18, number 10) ran a story titled “The Sound of All Girls Screaming,” about a young woman’s mandatory military service in Israel; they “liked the story very much, despite knowing next to nothing about its author.” A few days later, the still unfamiliar author received a “5 Under 35” Award from the National Book Foundation for her unfinished novel, The People of Forever Are Not Afraid, from which the story of girls’ screams came. “My talking serves a purpose,” writes Shani Boianjiu, a 25-year-old Israeli woman, in her debut novel. “My talking, my tears, are a matter of national security. A part of our training. I will be prepared for an attack by unconventional weapons. I could save the whole country, that’s how prepared I’ll be.” The “talking” refers to a bluntly depicted training rite—minutes passed in a tear-gas tent, without a gas mask—but could easily stand in for the words of Boianjiu’s book, words as a line of defense, as medicine, as weapons against being young and Israeli and a woman.
The novel narrates the experiences of three childhood friends, Yael, Avishag, and Lea, as they enter and, eventually, leave the Israeli army, each determined not to let these seemingly vain years dictate their lines of their lives: “Whatever happened inside of [those years] was decoration and air and would not change where she would end up.”
Allow me a few assumptions: you, reader, have probably not served in the army. But, still, you can think of in-between times that you would skip—hours at work when you’d rather be, just, anywhere, arguments, plane rides, the blank morning stare. Though the girls would prefer to blink and leave their military service a blank, Boianjiu uses their experiences to weave a narrative about battling the devils inside of us as much as the enemies across the border, about the loneliness of friendship, and, most achingly, about the struggle between men and women, the female obsession with throwing off male oppression and the difficulty of doing so.
The story, surprisingly, takes shape around the girls’ various romantic roles, rather than their roles in warfare. Lovers and rapists appear in, if not the same category, side-by-side. What is a woman without a man? Boianjiu seems to ask. What is a man without a woman? The girls’ service duties act interchangeably as the author jumps, chapter by chapter, between them; second-tier characters jumble. Men are men. “More men. More men. More men,” Lea thinks. The girls grapple with this distinction:
If you are a boy and you go into the army, one thing that can happen is that you can die. The other thing that can happen is that you can live. If you are a girl and you go into the army you probably won’t die. You might send reservists to die in a war. You might suppress demonstrations at checkpoints. But you probably won’t die.