It begins, it seems, at 23. You turn over to the back cover of the book you’re reading and find that the author is your age, or not much older. Sure, the world has its S.E. Hintons and similarly young literary prodigies, but at 23 we’re the adults who are steadily getting older than young Hollywood and creeping up towards writers who have had the time to gain buckets of talent. Sure enough, midway through Shani Boianjiu’s powerful debut novel, The People of Forever Are Not Afraid, I noticed in her bio that she was born in 1987, just two years before me. It is a hulking book, full of the full lives of three girls – Yael, Avishag, and Lea – as they complete their mandatory military service in Israel. Everything about it is full, their histories and their relationships and their voices. This book contains everything from the traditions of magic realism to war stories, as realized as the three lives within it.
But something else begins at 23, too. Now that the writers behind the strongest forces of literature are a part of my own generation, there is an added pressure to connect, to get it on a level that other readers might not. Yael, Avishag, and Lea are, after all, like young women anywhere: their time spent in the military is dotted with the same conversations that peppered by college years, and they braid one another’s hair and gossip about boys as if there weren’t missiles falling outside their base. There is an alienation and embarrassment in not accessing what they go through, because there’s no Palestine to my Israel, as it were; I have no ceaseless, unsubstantiated enemy, no patriotic duties to my country. And so on some level, seeing the three girls emerge from their years of lost innocence is like seeing what my life could have been through purely geographical coincidences.