Ayelet Tsabari has just published her debut collection of short stories. The Best Place on Earth is "peopled with characters at the crossroads of nationalities, religions and communities: expatriates, travelers, immigrants and locals." It is most definitely an Israeli book, yet Ayelet lives permanently in Toronto, Canada.
As the author says, the book "is a collection of short stories set against a backdrop of war, conflict, and the army service that explore aspects of the Israeli experience while dealing with themes of home, family, displacement, love and loss."
The Best Place on Earth has been long-listed for the prestigious international Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award. I interviewed Ayelet by email about her stories, her background, and her connection to Israel.
Ayelet: I was born and raised in Israel and came to Canada in my twenties so I will probably always see myself as an Israeli first. With the exception of one brother, who lives in Montreal, my entire family lives in Israel and I still spend long periods of time there: in 2012 I was there for almost six months of the year, longer than the amount of time I spent in Toronto! It’s still home to me, despite not living my day-to-day life there. It’s shaped who I am now. On the other hand, I love Canada and I’m happy and grateful to be living here, and though I may have came of age in Israel, I feel as though my writerly self came of age in Canada. I love and cherish the literary community I made here, both in Toronto and in Vancouver, where I lived for many years. So I definitely also see myself as a Canadian writer.
Q: You write in English, yet English is not your native language. Why do you not express yourself creatively in Hebrew? How easy is it for you to write in English?
Ayelet: It wasn’t really a conscious decision. When I first moved to Canada, I couldn’t imagine writing in English and was convinced that I’d continue writing in Hebrew. But as time passed, and I wasn’t using Hebrew in my daily life as often anymore, I found myself not writing in either language, and feeling sort of lost between them. After a few years of writers’ block, when I finally found my way back to writing, it happened to be in English. I didn’t question it. I was so happy to be back in my writing groove that I simply let it be. Writing in English isn’t the easy choice; I often find it difficult (but then again, I often find writing difficult) and I probably have to work harder than native speakers on grammar and vocabulary. But I like the challenge and I like the constraint. It also keeps me humble and that’s a good thing.
Q: Your stories tell the tales of Mizrachi Jews (Jews who immigrated to Israel from Arab lands). Are these stories not commonly told in Israeli fiction? Do you think Israelis continue to make the distinction of where everybody comes from?
Ayelet: As a kid, I never read a character like me in Israeli fiction. The canonical Israeli literature is still very much dominated by Ashkenazi writers who generally depict Ashkenazi stories and characters. It may be changing and improving from when I was a child, but there’s still much to aspire for. It’s true not only in literature but in many other fields, like politics. And though many young Israelis are now of mixed heritage, this was not the case when I was growing up. Israelis seem to be endlessly interested in where people come from, and maybe we all are—Canadians too; maybe we all feel the need to classify people that way. I can’t tell you how often people in Israel ask me what my background is: am I Yemeni? Persian? Indian? It’s also important to remember that the older generation is still around and still carries with them the pain of discrimination, marginalization and racism they experienced. This baggage cannot be simply erased because things may have improved.
Q: Is there a difference between how Canadians relate to Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jews?
Ayelet: The point of reference for Jews in Canada is very much an Ashkenazi one. It’s very narrow and very exclusive. Every Passover I sigh when I open the paper and read, yet again, about matzo ball soup recipes for the holidays. I never even tried a matzo ball soup before I came to Canada. It doesn’t speak to me, to my heritage and my culture. Most Canadians aren’t aware of Mizrahi Jews so when I speak about my background they are usually curious and intrigued.
Q: What role did your own IDF service play in the background of your stories?
Ayelet: The army is in the background of several of my stories - some more directly than others. Obviously, the mandatory service has a huge impact on Israeli mentality. I think it affects our demeanour, our gender dynamics, the way we bump up against each other and the world. I’ve always been interested in how it may affect men who may not be naturally inclined toward these prescribed roles and I think many of my male characters are struggling with that. I’ve also been told that my female characters are assertive and strong, which I think is true of Israeli women, and I also attribute that, partially, to the army service.
Q: You received some criticism that your stories don't relate to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. How do you relate to that?
Ayelet: Actually the criticism I received was that my stories didn’t feature Palestinian characters. In this collection, most of the stories are set against the conflict, against suicide bombings, army service, and wars. The criticism you refer to was about non-fiction essays I have written in the past about my own life, which I’ve been told weren’t political enough because they didn’t mention the conflict. As for the question why I didn’t feature more Palestinian characters: to me this is indicative of how segregated we are in Israel. But I also find the question (and the criticism regarding my non-fiction) unfair. No one asks Canadian born writers to include all minorities in their writing or to write personal essays that reflect on the politics of their country. I’m writing about a facet of Israeli society, an aspect of Israeli experience. I don’t claim to represent an entire culture or a country. No writer does.
Q: Are there Jewish themes in your stories? Would your book be considered Jewish literature, or does it only relate to a secular Israel?
Ayelet: It’s an interesting question. It raises the question of what is Jewish literature, and what does it mean to be Jewish? Do we not consider secular Israeli themes to be Jewish? Can a person identify as Jewish even if she is not practicing? It’s an issue I’m interested in exploring through my writing; in fact, this question is at the heart of one of the stories in the collection, ‘Brit Milah,’ where a traditional Yemeni grandmother travels to Toronto to stay with her daughter who just gave birth to a son. The two women’s clashing ideas of what it means to be Jewish provides the main source of conflict in the story.
Q: Do you see yourself in any of the characters that make up the stories of your book?
Ayelet: I see myself in all of them in one way or another. I have a soft spot for the younger narrators in this collection, the young girl in ‘Warplanes’ who lost her dad to illness during the Lebanon war, or Uri, the young boy who aspires to be a poet in ‘The Poets in the Kitchen Window,’ which is set against the Gulf War, or Lily in ‘Say it Again, Say Something Else,’ who moves to Israel from Canada after her mom passes away. But I truly relate to all of them: I relate to Lior, the male narrator in ‘Tikkun’ as much as I relate to Rosalynn, the Filipina caretaker in ‘Invisible.’
Q: What's next for you?
Ayelet: I’m working on a novel about the Yemeni community and their immigration to Israel. I’ve also been working, on and off, on a book of personal essays.
Originally published on The Times of Israel.
See my review of The Best Place on Earth.