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Land, longing, identity: a conversation with Ayelet Tsabari

Over the summer, I had the privilege of reading The Best Place on Earth, one of the best short fiction collections I’ve read in some time. Ayelet Tsabari’s stories are complex microcosms of the dilemmas experienced by those who face the push and pull of competing and multi-layered identities – nationality, language, and culture chief among them.

What resonated so strongly for me in Ayelet’s work is the search for belonging, and the longing for home, wherever that may be. Her narrators struggle to find meaning and forge connections in foreign, often hostile lands. Their mobility — their sense of rootlessness and an impulse toward re-invention through travel — proves disorienting but ultimately liberating.

The Best Place on Earth has been rightly lauded by critics, and Ayelet has been named a writer to watch by CBC Books. I have a feeling we’ll be hearing more about this collection throughout this year’s awards season.

Ayelet Tsabari is the author of the short story collection The Best Place on Earth (HarperCollins), which was nominated for the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award. Her nonfiction has won a National Magazine Award and a Western Magazine Award and her writing also appeared in Prism, Event, Room, Grain, and Prairie Fire.

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How and when did you start writing? Do you remember the first thing you wrote?

My first stories were drawn as comic strips and required narration. I remember one about a man who fell into a hole in the ground and was trying to get out. Then my sister, who is seven years older than me, bought me a notebook and transcribed some of my stories. After I learned the alphabet I wrote every day. I used to give poems and stories to my parents for birthdays and anniversaries, and I made books out of school notebooks with covers and synopses and bios on the back, even a pocket for a library card… When I was in Israel last year I came across the first one I made in grade one, an illustrated collection of stories and poems about the holidays.

You collection The Best Place on Earth explores, among many themes, the sense of overlapping identities, and of characters often at odds with the world around them. In “A Sign of Harmony” for example, Maya feels at home in India, and finds solace with a British boyfriend, but her equilibrium is threatened when she meets Omer, who reminds her of what she’s left behind in Israel. Can you comment broadly on the role of identity—and its many layers—in your work?

I’ve always grappled with questions of identity. What makes an identity; can we pick and choose? Can we shed the old one and put on a new one instead? Obviously, our identities are layered and nobody is just one thing, but our nationality is one layer that is rarely questioned. We are where we are from. Maybe because I’ve always felt like a bit of an outsider, or because I’ve been fascinated by the idea of reinventing oneself, I felt a rebellious urge to challenge that notion. As an immigrant, a traveler and a writer I reinvent myself constantly. It’s what I love about fiction: it lets you be someone else. It is also what draws me to nonfiction, though, because in nonfiction we are ever-shifting: we create a different persona and shuffle identities for each story. Ironically, in the end, I often feel more Israeli than anything else.

In the same story, Omer asks Maya “So what’s your story? What are you running away from?” There’s a sense in many of your stories of flight, of both the movement towards and the movement away from land, history, language, even love.  What role do you feel storytelling—our “story”—plays in reconciling this cycle of push and pull?

I guess from a very personal perspective writing about Israel is a way for me to keep it close to my heart, while still maintaining the distance I need to be able to write about it… It speaks to the immigrant dichotomy: telling stories about ‘the old country’ mythologizes the place and by doing that it keeps it both desirable and inaccessible, a fantasy.

Who are some of your literary heroes?

When I was writing The Best Place on Earth I was inspired by other immigrant writers who write about their homeland from a distance, some also in their second language: Aleksander Hemon, Chimamanda Adichie Nguzi, Junot Diaz, Edwidge Danticat, and Daniel Alarcon. I’m also a huge fan of Camilla Gibb, Jhumpa Lahiri, Lorrie Moore and Chekov.

Your writing in The Best Place on Earth is gorgeous, so polished and sure, that many readers may forget that English is your second language. What was that like, to find your writing chops in a new language?

Thank you! I wrote in Hebrew my whole life, but fell out of it in my twenties for all kinds of reasons, mostly doubt and insecurity. I had also moved to Canada and was struggling to express myself, even verbally, in a new language. When I started writing again in my early thirties, English posed both a welcome challenge and exciting newness: a clean slate. I had to express myself in fewer words, which was an excellent exercise in constraint. I also found comfort in the anonymity it afforded me. You can say that I escaped to English, which goes back to reinventing oneself, and to the sense of flight you spoke about earlier.

You write both fiction and non-fiction. Your short stories have the intimate, close narrative feel of good non-fiction. How do you decide when something’s right for one genre or another?

I usually save my true stories for nonfiction, rather than fictionalizing them. Fiction for me is an opportunity to imagine. At times I may start with some kernel from real life—a scenario or location or character—and then allow myself to imagine it further and let the story take flight. Other times I start with fiction, and may add some real-life details to colour it. But if I have a good true story, I tell it as it is.

There’s the constant menace, in many of the stories, of death — the threat of war and suicide bombings and quieter, less obvious forms of self-destruction. Do you feel yourself as part of a lineage (or perhaps a generation) of Israeli writers who have grappled and continue to grapple with these threats? How has this shaped you as a writer?

That feeling of menace is something I grew up with. It shaped me as a person and as a writer. I think it is a characteristic of Israeli writing, along with a somber, nostalgic tone, and a sense of drama and sentimentality that you rarely see in Canadian writing. In fact, in Canada sentimentality is considered a flaw to be avoided at all costs. I’d like to argue that it doesn’t have to be. I love this quote by Robertson Davis, “People who prate of sentimentality are very often people who hate being made to feel.” I admit that I tried to resist this style and tone, at first. I worried that it wasn’t going to work here… But it was like going against my nature and it wasn’t ‘true.’ I eventually had to accept that no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t NOT be an Israeli writer. It reminds me of a heated discussion from a couple of years ago about what makes a Canadian writer—is it Canadian content? Do they have to live in Canada? Someone eventually said, You have to come of age in Canada to be considered a Canadian writer. At first, I resented that, because it excluded me, despite living in Canada for fifteen years. I don’t think it’s as simple as this, and I think trying to force it into these kinds of parameters is artificial, but I also know, that my writing draws heavily on Israeli traditions, on Israeli style, that it’s informed by Israelis’ collective history. I’ve learned to embrace it.

You’ve very deservedly received rave reviews for the collection in Canada. What has the response to the collection been like in Israel? Are there any plans to translate the book into Hebrew or Arabic?

The collection received great reviews in a couple of Anglo-Israeli websites and I know it was well received by English-speaking Israelis, but I’m not sure how Hebrew-speaking Israelis feel about it. I worried a lot more about the reception in Israel at first and was disappointed that there were no plans to translate it to Hebrew. That said, I wrote the book in English, with a Canadian audience in mind. I accept that and I’m so grateful for every review.

In the final story, “The Best Place on Earth” Tamar finds peace on Hornby Island, BC, far from her former life in Israel. Her sister Naomi observes how much Tamar has changed, so much that her mannerisms and intonation are different. The story suggests that to transform one’s identity—while initially full of conflict—can ultimately be a liberating, empowering experience. Can you comment further?

I can relate to Tamar’s experience (and to Maya in Sign of Harmony, and well… most of my characters). I remember how free I felt when I first started travelling and spending time in India, like Maya, and later, when I moved to BC: how enamoured I was with the idea that I could be anybody here. I was half across the world from my home. Nobody knew me. There wasn’t a single door I could knock on. It was intoxicating. I love that I ended up in Canada, but I also know now (with the risk of sounding dramatic) that I sentenced myself to a self-imposed exile – a life of never quite belonging. In The Best Place on Earth I tried to address both that sense of exile and displacement, and the empowerment of taking control over our identity.

What’s next for Ayelet Tsabari? What projects can we expect to see in the future?

I’ve been working on a collection of essays/true stories which deal with similar themes for a few years now. I hope to finish it soon. I’m also working on a novel that takes place within the Yemeni community in Israel.

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Ayelet Tsabari will be reading throughout the fall. To check out dates and locations or to order your own copy of The Best Place on Earth, check out her website.

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