GIVATAYIM — The subtle spice binding together Ayelet Tsabari’s first book, an award-winning collection of short stories, is the distilled essence of the author’s Israeli childhood and nomadic post-army existence. In the 11 chapters of “The Best Place on Earth,” extract of Tsabari — real-life details and anecdotes — is used, a dash here, a splash there, to give the stories grounding and authenticity.
Tsabari grew up the fifth of six children in a Yemenite Jewish household in Petah Tikva, Israel, but has lived in Canada off and on for the past 16 years. Her stories focus on questions of identity and identification, and are set in Israel and Canada, and also India, where she spent significant periods of time after her compulsory, and very dissatisfactory, Israeli army service.
But it’s not an autobiography. Her memoir of years “living loudly” is what she’s working on now, the second book in a three-book deal from Random House. The first in her contract is a rerelease of “The Best Place on Earth,” which recently won the 2015 $100,000 Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature. The third book, a novel, has “bits and pieces” written too.
Though she has been writing and identifying as a writer for decades (who admittedly usually made a living waitressing), in person the 41-year-old Tsabari is reluctant to say she’s “made it” as an author, and qualifies herself as an “emerging writer.”
“I couldn’t believe that I got the book deal, got the award,” she says in a Givatayyim cafe last week while on a brief Chalmers research fellowship in Israel, accompanied by her Canadian partner and their 22-month-old baby. “Whose life it that?!”
She says the award and book deal are definitely game changers, which give her the courage to put on hold her many revenue avenues — as a creative writing teacher, wedding/portrait photographer, speaker — to concentrate on writing books.
But this chapter of her writing career actually started as a dare and a gamble, both instigated by her partner, whom she met in 2004.
When they met Tsabari was, ironically, in Canada to finish her Canadian citizenship bureaucracy after a six-month stint in Israel during which she had decided to return “home” for good. But then she met this non-Jewish sailor…
On their one-year anniversary, he dared Tsabari to write him a story.
“Like a smoker who doesn’t smoke, I always felt myself a writer, even when I wasn’t writing,” she says. And Tsabari, who at age 15 had written regularly for an Israeli youth paper, who had spent her miserable army years composing short stories about equally miserable female soldiers, hadn’t been writing in Canada.
‘Like a smoker who doesn’t smoke, I always felt myself a writer, even when I wasn’t writing’
In Canada, her command of English hadn’t initially allowed her to express herself, and somehow Hebrew just didn’t fit.
“I wasn’t writing at all. I thought I was blocked, but really I was in limbo between two languages. I was really unhappy about it. It was like an unrequited love, really painful,” she says.
Her partner asked her frankly, “Are you one of those writers who just never writes?” and “demanded” she compose a story.
“I really hated him for it,” she says with a self-mocking smile.
She began seriously writing in English in 2006 and in 2007 she enrolled in a non-credit writing course in Vancouver where she began to follow the “real” writer’s discipline of making deadlines and consistent progress. After the course she continued with regular meetings with her writers’ circle. Eventually she moved to Toronto, her current home base, and she and her partner decided to gamble their financial stability to allow Tsabari the time to focus on her creative efforts.
She was mentored by author Camilla Gibb at the MFA Program in Creative Writing at the University of Guelph and graduated in 2011 with most of “The Best Place on Earth” written.
Tsabari doesn’t take her writer lifestyle for granted. Her roots in a large Yemenite family that struggled to feed its six children are featured in many of her stories. Her mother and grandmother cleaned houses for a living. Along her path to “emerging writerhood,” Tsabari has as well.
Today, she says, she feels like she’s living in a dream.
“It’s a privilege. I have to write; this is what I want to do. I’ve always felt really blessed that this is how I spend my days,” she says.
This first published book of short stories allowed Tsabari to explore shades of her past as a jumping-off point for her imagination. The Yemenite savta in “Invisible” was based on her own grandmother, she says, in the way she communicated and in how she would be poutingly angry with her grandchildren.
The depiction of the 17-year-old scuba diver friends in Eilat in “Borders” got its credibility from her experiences there with a girlfriend at that age. A bombing at Jerusalem’s Cafe Rimon in “Tikkun” is all too real. And the death of her closet-poet father when she was nine shows up in “Warplanes” and “The Poets in the Kitchen Window.”
Her themes, she says, are very personal.
“They occupy me forever — identity, belonging, displacement. They’re very Jewish themes as well.”
‘For some strange reason, I’ve always felt in the margins, and felt comfortable in the margins’
Today she says she has reconciled with her multiple identities and calls several places home. “For some strange reason, I’ve always felt in the margins, and felt comfortable in the margins,” she says.
“I’m an exile by choice, but where did it come from, when did it start? This sense of not belonging early in life… I wonder if it’s losing a parent at an early age, a sense of looking for him in the world, looking for a place that would be that type of connection,” she says.
But regardless of where her stories are set, they always revolve around Israel. She says she used to worry about authenticity in writing about the country while living her life abroad.
“I wasn’t sure I wanted that responsibility,” she says, afraid “people might think I got it wrong — as if there’s only one story.”
In the end, she says, there was no real choice.
“You write what you have to write, what burns inside of you. Nowhere inspires me like Israel. Whether I like it or not, I’m probably always going to write about Israel,” she says.