An Interview with Ayelet Tsabariby Beth Carswell
There's a voice in the Canadian literary scene not to be missed. Toronto's Ayelet Tsabari celebrates the publication of her first book of short stories, called The Best Place on Earth, released by HarperCollins in March 2013. The book consists of 11 pieces of short fiction. While none are related in terms of recurring characters or storylines, one nevertheless flows seamlessly into the next. As a reader, one can appreciate the connecting themes and questions surrounding each character in the book, and we are granted the luxury they are not, of realizing they are not as alone as they might think.
Tsabari's writing is casual in tone, rich in sensory detail, and easy to become enthralled by as she settles into the rhythm of each of the stories she tells. The landscapes are varied, from the buoyancy of the Dead Sea to the heat and noise of Tel Aviv, to the silent darkness of Hornby Island BC, to the white winter landscape of Toronto. While most of the characters' struggles are human, universal and transferable, most stories are set in Israel, against a backdrop often involving class struggles, war, conflict and uncertainty, as well as the contrast between tradition and modernity. The attention to detail in the stories – of scenery, smells, food, plant life, music – also place the reader firmly in the setting of each.
The overwhelming theme of the aptly titled The Best Place on Earth is one of belonging, and home. Whether a Yemeni mother missing her daughter in Canada, a Canadian girl grieving the loss of both her mother and her Canadian homeland, or a woman discovering her Bedouin roots and understanding why she has always felt a certain pull in her heart, these stories speak of identity and homeland.
No wonder – Tsabari herself was born and raised in Israel, is of Yemeni descent, and has made her home in Canada, both Vancouver and now Toronto, for the last 15 years. Her loving descriptions of places betrays a feeling of longing for - and belonging to - each.
Tsabari is a writer through and through. She was first published at age 10, has spent time as a journalist, and has been writing for magazines since she was 15. Her stories have been published in Grain, Room and PRISM. She has twice won the EVENT Creative Non-Fiction Contest. She earned her MFA at the University of Guelph, and now lives with her partner and daughter in Toronto, where she is working on a novel.
Read on for an interview with Ayelet Tsabari, author of The Best Place on Earth .
AbeBooks: What inspired you to become a writer?
Ayelet Tsabari: I've always been a storyteller. Before I could write, I used to make up stories and tell them to my friends and family. They were always really dramatic, with ghosts and people falling into holes in the ground, and ships lost at stormy seas. Then, I started drawing comic strips and I would show them to my mom and narrate them. As soon as I learned the alphabet I started writing stories and poems. I wrote every day, usually in the afternoons, when my parents were napping. My sister (who is seven years older) and my father recognized my love of storytelling and writing early on, and they fostered and encouraged it. My sister bought me my first diary when I was five, and transcribed what I told her into it, and my father read everything I wrote and discussed books and writing with me. At eight, I started a library of my notebooks (I made covers for them and everything) and the kids in the neighbourhood would come and borrow them. And at nine I started sending my writing to an Israeli children's magazine that published them. I realize now that I'm lucky in that way: it's like there was never anything else I was supposed to do. Like I didn't really choose it. It came built-in.
AbeBooks: How long have you been at work on the stories in The Best Place on Earth?
Ayelet Tsabari: I wrote most of the stories during my MFA at Guelph. I added one story after the completion of the program, and two of the stories I originally wrote in Hebrew years ago. I wrote the very first version of 'Casualties' when I was 19 and a soldier in the Israeli army. The story changed significantly since then, but the general scenario and the main character, a badass female soldier named Yael, remained.
I wrote 'The Poets in the Kitchen Window' about 10 years ago when I was living in Israel. It was a time when I wasn't really writing at all and was kind of unhappy and hopelessly blocked, so I was pleased when this story came to me and was quite proud of it at the time. Again, a lot changed in the story since, but it was always about the relationship between Uri and his sister Yasmin.
AbeBooks: What kind of research did you have to do for the book?
Ayelet Tsabari: So much of the writing process is done in the privacy of your own home, often in your pajamas, so I love that research forces me to get out of the house, try new things, meet new people. It keeps me from getting too comfortable and pushes me outside my comfort zone. Despite writing about places I know and communities I'm familiar with, there was still a lot of research to be done, and thank God for that! It would be really boring to write only about stuff I know so well that I never have to leave my desk to explore. I'm very serious about research and I want to make sure I get even the smallest details right. Obviously, every story required some internet research, and in some cases spending time in libraries and archives (which I love doing). But my favourite part was following my characters' journeys and documenting them. For example, for 'Say it Again, Say Something Else,' I swam to the wave breakers in Tel Aviv one hot summer day, climbed up the rocks, and watched the Tel Aviv shoreline, memorizing it to provide specific details. I remember feeling so lucky to be able to consider that research. For 'Tikkun,' I travelled to Ein Kerem in Jerusalem and spent a day there, took photos, drew maps, even recorded the singing in The Church of the Visitation so I could listen to it afterward. For 'Borders,' I travelled to Eilat and recorded my observations along the way. I also found and contacted a few people who had lived in that small hippie community in Sinai in the 70's, and chatted with them over the phone from Canada.
AbeBooks: What are some of your favorite books?
Ayelet Tsabari: I'm going to narrow it down a little, because after a lifetime of reading, I don't even know where to start answering... So I'll focus on some of my favourite short story collections because I've spent the last couple of years reading so many of them. In fact, as a tribute to YOSS (Year of the Short Story) I dedicated 2011 to reading as many short story collections as I could. I love Birds of America by Lorrie Moore: it's a book I'll never get tired of reading and I'm a huge fan of Moore's writing style. I also loved Jhumpa Lahiri's Interpreter of Maladies, Barbara Gowdy's We So Seldom Look on Love and Junot Diaz's Drown. Each one of these books blew me away and introduced me to new possibilities in terms of what you can do with short fiction. As for the classics: I am a great admirer of Chekov's, Gogol's and Gabriel Garcia Marquez's short stories.
The Beauty of Humanity Movement
by Camilla Gibb
Birds of America
by Lorrie Moore
by Junot Diaz
Interpreter of Maladies
by Jhumpa Lahiri
We So Seldom Look on Love
by Barbara Gowdy
Ayelet Tsabari: That's a really tough question as it always changes. When I was a kid I enjoyed fairy tales: Hans Christian Andersen and Brothers Grimm. As a teenager I loved Nabokov, Chekhov and Hesse and Israeli writers like Yonatan Gefen, Eli Amir and Sami Michael. But when I was writing The Best Place on Earth, I'd have to say the writers who most inspired me were Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Aleksandar Hemon, and Daniel Alarcon, all of them immigrants who wrote collections of short stories about their country of origin, dealing with similar themes to mine, and set against a backdrop of political unrest and conflict. Like me, Hemon is also writing in his second language. Also Camilla Gibb who was my mentor and advisor during my two years at Guelph and had a hand in shaping this collection and making it better.
AbeBooks: Do you have writing rituals – a particular location, a necessary hat, a specific time of day etc.?
Ayelet Tsabari: I used to be a night owl, probably a result of working in bars for many years, so I romanticized writing at night, and was fond of the image of myself tapping on keys while smoking cigarettes and drinking scotch. Then someone challenged me to rethink it, suggesting that human beings are designed to be most productive during the day. Someone else made another helpful suggestion to me by saying, “If you wake up an hour earlier you'll have an extra hour to write.” As I became more serious about my writing, and eventually quit smoking, and working nights, I decided to try that. I slowly changed my schedule and my sleeping patterns and it worked. I now write best during the day, then I take a break for lunch, exercise or run errands, and then I either get back to it in the afternoon or I don't: depends on how I feel. I often find that I generate material best in the mornings, while I revise and edit best in the afternoons. That said, none of my routines are ever set in stone. They change often. I'm not big on routine.
AbeBooks: With your international background, where feels most like home to you, and why?
Ayelet Tsabari: In my twenties I travelled a lot. I owned next to nothing by the time I was 30: a toaster, a discman and a mattress. I was really resistant to buying furniture or committing to a place. I remember once saying to my wiser, older brother, “I have many homes. I'm lucky that way.” And he replied : “Or none at all.” At some point in my early thirties I was getting tired of starting over. I had to confront the fact that my transient lifestyle came with a price and that I was becoming rootless. I think The Best Place on Earth really captures both my wanderlust and my search for a place to call home. It is also a meditation on what home is: is it family? A landscape? Memories? Community? Belongings?
Obviously Israel will always be home. I feel it most intensely when I'm there for a long enough period. When I first arrive, I'm not so sure about it, but once I stay for a few weeks, it feels like I could easily move back and live there. It's beyond the fact that my entire family lives there: It's a visceral thing, an attachment to the physicality of the place, to how the place smells and tastes. I also have an intense connection to the sea in Israel; I actually have to say goodbye to it whenever I leave and it's always a difficult parting. Then again, Canada has been home for the past 15 years and I love it here. When I lived in East Vancouver, where I had a tight community of like-minded people, that felt like home to me. In my twenties, when I was spending a lot of time in India, I thought India could be my home.
With the risk of sounding corny, I'd have to say that now I think of my partner Sean as my home. We're both new to Toronto—he was born and raised in Victoria—and I'm comfortable and content in the home we built ourselves here. I love this city, which I find vibrant and diverse and friendly. But I'm also confident that if we ever choose to move for whatever reason, since we're both inflicted with the travelling bug, we'll be able to maintain that feeling of home.
AbeBooks: If you weren't a writer, what would you be?
Ayelet Tsabari: For a while there I wanted to be an actress and a singer. I studied acting and singing as a teenager and performed quite a bit in school. I once represented my school in a song competition and won third place with a song I wrote and my brother composed. Later, I was in the National Theatre youth group, and I was really into theatre: I read plays and practiced monologues and watched fringe festivals. I acted in a couple short movies and once got a paying commercial gig. After the army, I auditioned to theatre schools and really thought it was my future. Then, one day at an acting class the teacher said, “If acting doesn't burn in your veins, don't do it. If you can do anything else, do that.” And I knew at that moment that as much as I enjoyed it, it wasn't what burned in my veins. I think I knew, too, that I was a mediocre actress and singer, and that I didn't have what it takes. I still love to sing and act: maybe in my old age I'll start a band, or join some community theatre and do some plays. That would be really fun!
AbeBooks: What are you working on next?
Ayelet Tsabari: I've started working on a novel about the Yemeni community in Israel, taking place alternately in the 50's, when thousands of Yemeni Jews were airlifted to Israel, and the 90's. As an Israeli of Yemeni descent, it's important for me to write about my community and the hardships they experienced in the country's early days. I'm also completing a book of personal essays/true stories I've been working on for the past few years.