Shani Boianjiu: “Means of Suppressing Demonstrations”

Click here to read the story in its entirety on The New Yorker webpage.  Shani Boianjiu’s “Means of Suppressing Demonstrations” was originally published in the June 25, 2012 issue of The New Yorker.

 

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We are still in the process of moving (this is the big week), so I haven’t had a chance to read this yet and am not entirely sure when I will.  Looking forward to getting this move done and getting hopefully even more time back on here.  In the meantime, please feel free to comment below.

20 thoughts on “Shani Boianjiu: “Means of Suppressing Demonstrations””

  1. Jon says:

    I like this quite a lot, even though I’m assuming this is an excerpt from her book (and feels a bit incomplete).

    First off, the setting is perfect. Israeli checkpoints in the West Bank really are as surrealistic as described and perfect settings for fiction (they look like groups of teenagers hanging out recovering from last night’s kegger–except with guns.) (And if not familiar with the surrealistic extremes of image management by both sides of conflict, check youtube for “pallywood” excerpts.)

    I like the many layers to the language used in the story (as the means to suppress demonstrations gets more toward “live” fire, I wondered how female character’s behavior could be interpreted as “demonstrations,” etc.)

    And while the sudden shifts into elegiac / poetic prose felt initially jarring, it worked for me, and captured something of the tone of the situation the heroine found herself in, and the overall tone of life in Israel/Palestine.

    In terms of her relationship with the boy and their nightly rituals, I felt like there wasn’t enough context to know what to make of it. Her intense displacement is just presented to us as is, but I would have liked to know more about her history or internal life to make sense of it.

    But overall, quite original and does a great job of sustaining a unique and compelling tone.

  2. Aaron says:

    Jon, I think you’re just right in talking about the surreal experience of checkpoints, especially these arbitrary ones that sap the energies of everyone around them. It made the excellent film JSA (about the North/South Korean border) jump to mind: I highly recommend it.

    As for this story, I didn’t think of it as an excerpt at all, particularly given the exceedingly tight structure (and yet well-maneuvered prose within that). There’s a solid beginning, middle, and end, to say nothing of the parallels between Lea and the protesters, both of whom seem to be requiring pain and attention in order to *feel* something. This reading appears to be supported, too, by the final sentence, in which, from a distance, you might mistake the two (tragically young) Israeli soldiers as the parents of the Palestinian boy they’ve just “arrested.”

    Everybody in this story is going through motions, motions that have been defined and recorded by the actions of the past. Neither the soldiers nor the protesters even know how to represent their sides: the sad thing is that they’re so well-defined by the history of the region that they can simply follow guidelines in a manual, stand the required amount of paces apart, and take the beating that THEY demand (in order to validate or spark their own anger, lest it die out).

    I don’t know if it’s merely the fact that stories about America seem to be so tedious and overwrought or if it’s just that American AUTHORS have been so beat down by literary expectations (what gets published v. what doesn’t), but I’m certainly noticing a trend in the sort of stories/subjects that I *enjoy* in the New Yorker. More thoughts, as usual, here: http://bit.ly/MLkXEJ

  3. Jon says:

    Aaron, thanks for your thoughts. Relevant links below–it appears she wrote this as a short story, which is now becoming part of her forthcoming novel.

    I would have been interested to hear whether she had the idea of the novel in mind when she wrote the story. The “motivation” we get for Lea’s disassociation is her age (confusion of coming into adulthood), and witnessing a soldier getting half his neck cut off. It just felt a bit awkward to parallel her resulting numbness to the protesters’ numbness (who, we imagine have experienced and witnessed their own horrors.) Lea is more personal and less iconic than the protesters, so I wanted to know more about her internal life and history (and perhaps that’s part of what will drive the novel).

    I wonder how much of the situation she’s describing is meant to be iconic (perhaps just to Israelis?). I just spent a few weeks in Israel over two visits, and it’s striking that I witnessed a bunch of what she talks about: female officers trying to instruct scowling male soldiers, bored teenagers lounging around checkpoints, and the tough on the outside, soft on the inside persona of those doing military service.

    I like how the political angle doesn’t feel political at all–just human. For me, just reaffirms my view of the conflict, so, while not a revelation, it does a give a new angle to view things from. I was left reminded of what a liberal Israeli politician said: the Israeli/Palestinian conflict is notable for how obvious the solution is to most people, but how impossible it is to get there.

    Amazon page for novel:
    http://www.amazon.com/The-People-Forever-Are-Afraid/dp/0307955958/ref=la_B007NQPQ3A_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1340207265&sr=1-1

    Author interview is here: http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/books/2012/06/this-week-in-fiction-shani-boianjiu.html

  4. Aaron says:

    One of the aspects of this story that I find interesting is that I’m *not* sure we’re meant to imagine that the protesters have experienced and witnessed their own horrors, so much as they’ve read and heard about them, and now need the validation of personal experience to validate what they’re being told is the cultural norm.

    It’ll be interesting to see what Boianjiu is able to accomplish with a novel that she doesn’t think she’s already done here — if anything, I feel as if reading more shorts akin to this one would diminish her accomplishments, not amplify them. But I’m ready to be proven wrong: as I said, I really enjoyed this one.

  5. Jon says:

    but I’m certainly noticing a trend in the sort of stories/subjects that I *enjoy* in the New Yorker.

    Not sure if here’s the right place to discuss this, but as someone commented in the past “Debra Triesman is the harbinger of end times.” I agree with this and I’d go higher up and pin the blame on Remnick. I happened to see a video of him commenting on the Gates arrest affair, and he was so full of smug, “we all know this to be true,” groupthing, I couldn’t help imagine that sort of attitude trickles down to the fiction where so many of the choices of what gets published seems more to do with market segmentation issues than literary quality. (Present story perhaps included.)

  6. Paul Monsky says:

    Am I alone in finding this story morally repellent?

  7. Trevor says:

    How come you feel this story is morally repellent, Paul?

  8. Paul Monsky says:

    Try transposing it to the not so far-off American south with black protestors pleading to be arrested to get publicity. I think no pleas would be necessary. The story doesn’t ring true, it’s condescending, and it makes a joke of serious concerns. The cliched image of the benevolent Israeli soldier is being peddled. That the character accepts IDF claims unquestioningly isn’t troubling, but it seems that the author does as well. But I did find one useful thing in the piece; how thin the line is separating rubber from live fire.

  9. Trevor says:

    Thanks for responding, Paul. I haven’t read the story yet (as you can see by the lack of thoughts above), but I will see when I read it if I see this or not. Hopefully others will return and respond as well.

  10. Jon says:

    Trevor: I’ll add a voice on this contentious issue. (There were a number of similar comments on the New Yorker site by commenters who were guided there by an anti-Israel / anti-zionist conspiracy website.)

    First off, I don’t think the story is supposed to ring true in any sort of literal way. It has an unmistakable and distinctly surrealistic tone.

    And I think one needs to take the protestors’ actions in the context of the extreme stage management that has been documented in this conflict (e.g., staged funerals). (Again, see “Pallywood” videos for a partisan look at Palestinian version of this. Same sort of things practiced by Israelis.) It actually does ring true as an extreme / ironic version of stuff that really does go on in the fight over getting sympathetic press coverage.

    And the depiction of the Palestinian doesn’t seem at all condescending, in that, on the human level, they have just as much agency as the Israeli soldiers (and in fact are able to make the soldiers do their bidding.) I.e., they are not depicted as dehumanized, idealized, helpless victims, as so often Palestinian are in liberal circles.

    Comparison to black protestors in deep South is too inflammatory and baseless a comparison to merit discussion.

    I think it’s a matter of taking the story as it’s presented–i.e., literature–as opposed to imposing ideology onto it. The only way to call it “morally repellant” is by reading things into it that aren’t there, or simply sifting the story through an ideological correctness filter and finding it lacking (e.g., I’ve never heard of a “cliched” benevolent IDF soldier. Sounds more like Paul is just objecting to any nuanced depiction that doesn’t equate them with the KKK.)

  11. Aaron says:

    I’m confused, too. Wasn’t the point of the protests in the story to gain attention? How exactly is it offensive, the lengths to which they’d go to get the attention that, as I imagine you’re arguing, Palestinians are apparently denied? It’s an argument in the reductio ad absurdum style, no?

    But then again, I’ve become used to the fact that for some people, there are subjects that are Off Limits, no matter how eloquently or interestingly phrased.

  12. Paul Monsky says:

    Aaron: Olive fields are burned down, rights to travel denied, houses demolished. Most Palestinians have friends or relatives who have been badly treated, so your earlier comment about “the validation of personal experience” isn’t to the point. Protests have aims other than gaining publicity–I find the author’s denial of that objectionable. What makes you think I find the subject off limits? Jon: I don’t idealize the Palestinians, but they often are victims. If you thought, as I do, that the comparison with the deep South had some point to it, would you perhaps be dismayed by the story? I don’t equate white Americans or Israeli soldiers with KKK members. The IDF peddles the cliche I spoke of (though no doubt all militaries do the same).

  13. Jon says:

    Paul:

    So, when asking if anyone else find the story morally repellent, you’re just asking if anyone shares your biases and political agenda.

    How are you different than a right-wing Israeli settler who objects on the grounds that the Palestinians are shown as generally peaceful (in the context of children being murdered, cars attacked, and god’s sacred promise to the settlers being denied), and the story seems to endorse possibility of co-existence (which the settler knows is just liberal/Palestinian progaganda?)

    I find it troubling that otherwise intelligent people evaluate literature only in terms of how good a mirror it is for their own worldview and how much it helps their cause. It’s so much more rewarding to try to appreciate others’ points of view…

  14. Aaron says:

    Paul, I still think you’re misreading the story. While it’s true that Palestinians have been mistreated — I just saw an excellent play, “Food and Fadwa,” that addressed this in a roundabout way — it’s equally true that the occupation isn’t good for Israelis either, and what the author appears to be driving at from the last line of the story is that they’re BOTH in the same boat: there’s a play very much like this, whose title I can’t remember, in which the torturer and the tortured are revealed to BOTH be in agony. And as I said, there’s an absurdity to the fact that both parties, as seen in this story, are just going through the motions of a system that’s been laid in place for them, rather than really desiring to continue this struggle.

    As for why I thought you found things to be Off Limits for discussion, well, whenever someone leads off with “morally repellent,” I generally assume that they’d prefer that such stories NOT be written.

  15. Paul Monsky says:

    Aaron: Thanks for your response; I suspect that we have similar views on the
    conflict. There’s certainly lots of theatre involved in the Mideast, but the author’s
    emphasis on the theatrical aspects upset me. My comparison with the old South wasn’t frivolous–think of Levinger and his thugs running amok, with the politicians not lifting a finger. I think a story that featured black civil-rights protesters begging to be dispersed, tear-gassed and arrested, with benevolent whites refraining from killing them, would draw some justified complaints. I was no doubt hasty in assuming that the author, like her character, doesn’t question the IDF. I may have moral concerns, but I’m not in the least censorious, and ( in
    response to Jon), though I have biases like everyone, I have no political agenda.

  16. Ken says:

    I have opinions much like Paul’s in terms of this situation, but I liked the story and didn’t feel it was offensive ideologically. The idea that on both sides the average person is to some degree programmed by an overall ideological superstructure is extremely relevant. As a, more or less, humanist I’d argue that people on both sides are relatively the same but they are then required to play certain roles. I’m not saying that this is only theatre. Obviously, it’s deadly serious but still for many they simply follow what they’ve been taught. That said, I’m far more sympathetic to the position of the Palestinians but as individuals the Israeli soldiers are equally sympathetic. And yes, I can separate the personal from the political. Maybe the most enlightened of us can always see how the two connect, but I think most of us often have an internal separation between their behavior and their larger, ideological beliefs. I agree with Jon that the flash-forward isn’t necessary (I had a similar problem with the “frame” in Peter Stamm’s story) but was impressed with her stylistic ability and interesting take on the, oft-written about in the past, idea of war as absurd. Here the idea of defending useless land is discussed. Always good for fiction, that one.

  17. Jon says:

    Just to expand on the “theatre” aspect. As I made the case above, my sense is that both sides are aware of media manipulation and theatrical aspects of some aspects of the conflict.

    If you were demonstrating to prevent your olive grove from being demolished, yes, that could be deadly serious to you–but that’s not what’s being portrayed in the story. She deliberately chose an absurd checkpoint (not so deadly serious in the immediate circumstances), which allows for exactly the dynamic that Ken is describing–both parties being driven by some over-arching narrative neither buys into.

    This sets up the opportunity for the theatrical aspect to bring the two sides together (they’re both acting in the same play. They’re comrades of a sort.) I overwhelmingly had the sense this is what the author was going for and she was making a larger (meta) point on the healing powers of art.

    P.s.,
    That’s why I really dislike bringing ideology into this. Paul–there’s no way I can’t see you having an agenda, since your one comment to this (literary) site was political in nature. And while I also see some valid comparisons to deep south in what life is like for Palestinians under occupation, I don’t see it as a fair comparison when assessing the morality of a checkpoint.

    (My simple (centrist) argument, is blacks in deep south were actually purely victims (only the most extreme racist these days would think segregation was justified). Palestinians have had more agency than that. Can we leave it at that, rather than arguing how much agency, who’s more to blame, who negotiated in better faith, etc?)

  18. Jon says:

    P.p.s.,

    On my last point, I think the author was completely aware of the moral issues here. Palestinians were presumably protesting the road closure. The road was closed because a motorcyclist was shot–not so arbitrary. (But debatable, since even some Israelis think using violence against Israelis in occupied areas is justified.)

    And on the morally provocative incident that the story opens with (a quite odd thing to do, I thought), see:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Criticism_of_Human_Rights_Watch

  19. madwomanintheattic says:

    Although I feared when reading the story that my political views would keep me from seeing it clearly as literature, I agree with the commentators who perceive its theatrical and surrealistic nature. It treats both sides evenhandedly, going so far as to present a ‘written’ script for both: past/present for the Israelis in the directions for handling demonstrations; and future for the Palestinians who are trying to get ‘published.’ Because the story avoids mention of the terrible harm on both sides, it does a powerful job of presenting the ridiculous aspects of the state of affairs. Ridiculous. Sad. Terrible. But here almost funny.

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