“Cheap Wine, Plastic Chairs” is a weekly series that celebrates everyone’s favorite part of the author reading: the Q&A. This week, Shani Boianjiu discusses the powers of observation that come with being a young woman in her 20s.
WORD Bookstore Manager Jenn Northington: At 23 years old, you were the youngest person in the National Book Foundation’s “5 Under 35” in 2011. Do you feel there’s pressure as a writer because you’re so young?
Boianjiu: As I get older as a writer, I get sadder and realize how much I need to cherish these years, particularly as a young woman. This is what I find interesting: As a young woman, walking down the street, going to Duane Reade or trying to hail a taxi (which I never do), you’re always the least important person in the conversation, the least important person in the room and the least important person in general. It doesn’t matter how deep your thoughts are. In the smallest ways, it affects the way you behave and the way other people behave towards you. It just gives you such powers of observation that you’re never going to have again if you, say, choose to get married and you’re 32 — that’s going to afford you a type of respect in the world that you’re just never going to have as a 24-year-old girl. I think to be really well read — and not just well read in a literary sense, but just really well educated in as many areas as possible — and to own the body of a young female person is one of the more powerful tools to me as a writer in terms of things I get to observe that I don’t think a 40-year-old guy gets to see.
Audience member: Why did you choose to write in English first and then translate the book into Hebrew, rather than the other way around?
I like English because it has a lot of words. I like the idea of using a language that doesn’t belong to me, so it gave me more freedom. There’s actually a great tradition amongst Hebrew writers, before the establishment of Israel, to write in foreign languages. The most famous Jewish writers actually never wrote in the language of the lands where they lived. One would be hard pressed to name one. We were actually having a discussion a few months ago, and it took us 12 minutes to name one: Shai Agnon.
I get asked if this is a bizarre thing, as if it’s never been done before; that’s because the state of Israel was established, and there’s a great deal of pride in what we’ve accomplished and in creating our own language, a language that was created out of nothing that has ever been used before. It’s a really beautiful thing to have as a writer. But at the same time, Hebrew is a language that eats itself. If I pick up a book that was written in Hebrew 20 years ago, it’s ridiculous to me now. The language in which it’s written is not the language in which I live now. I see what the words and the characters are saying to each other, but I could never imagine anyone now saying them. It’s mockery.
It’s not just in terms of idioms and pronouns; it’s the grammar, the verbs, everything. It changes so rapidly, within five years, even. On the occasion of Yoram Kaniuk passing, American and Israeli authors wrote these beautiful eulogies, and then the only reviewer in Israel there said, “It’s a shame Kaniuk died, but it’s also a shame that there is no value in his work.” And then he went on to do a very careful analysis of how already the last book Kaniuk published in 2010 is already losing any relevance to the language of 2012. Every point the reviewer made was completely correct.
One of the complicated things about Hebrew is that it’s a very gender-based language, and it’s always being innovated by women. And the Hebrew language is always being dictated by Jews of non-European countries, so the establishment of the language took the route of the non-European Jews (but not for political reasons). But a lot of our famous authors, like the ones who have won Prize Israel, our “Nobel Prize,” are all European. There are a lot of problems writing in Hebrew, and for a writer, there’s an opportunity to solve it. There are all these Hebrew writers trying to find creative solutions. I’m not saying that’s why I wrote in English, but it was one way for me to get to think about what’s going on with Hebrew right now.
WORD Bookstore Manager Jenn Northington: Are you trying anything experimental in the translation you’re doing now? You mentioned you were following a lot of 14-year-olds on Twitter.
I have to! For example: In one of my stories, there is a certain type of taxi that’s taken in Israel right now. When I was in the army, it was named one thing — but I’ve been a hermit the last two years I’ve been in Israel, so I realized I didn’t know what it’s called now. My sister is an officer in the army, but she doesn’t go out a lot, so she was offended by my questions. She’d say, “Thanks for asking. I haven’t left the base in a month, so I haven’t taken a taxi in a really long time.”
There was nowhere for me to find that out, so I started checking people’s Twitters. I couldn’t do an online search because it wasn’t in any articles. I couldn’t go on the street and find out because that would require a lot of asking around. I went to 14-year-olds’ Twitter accounts to find out what they’re calling it now because you also have to be a type of prophet, I guess. It wouldn’t really help if I looked at what a 28-year-old was calling it. Hopefully, this book will be relevant — if I’m really optimistic — up to four years from now.