Author explores Israeli-immigrant experience

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March 14, 2013

Reviewed by Will Johnson

Ayelet Tsabari didn’t want to write about Israel.

Although she grew up there, and visited regularly, she didn’t feel prepared to tackle such a weighty subject. While completing her MFA at the University of Guelph, she toyed with the idea of writing a novel. Then she started a collection of stories that explored the immigrant experience. But nothing was working out as she planned, and she found herself obsessing over her homeland.

“I was scared to go there, because it’s such a loaded place. It’s almost impossible to write about Israel in a way that would not be perceived as political, and I wasn’t sure I wanted the responsibility,” Tsabari said.

But after some gentle encouragement from her mentor Camilla Gibb, she decided to tackle Israel head-on. “Once I committed to it, my writing really started to flow,” she said.

That manuscript ultimately became The Best Place on Earth, a collection of short fiction that will be released in March by Harper Collins.

Tsabari knew early on that she wanted to finish the collection with the title story “The Best Place on Earth” because she liked the idea of ending with the image of two Israeli sisters on a Gulf Island in the Pacific.  This theme of travel and displacement flows through the book. Tsabari has spent a large amount of her adult life travelling, in India as well as the Middle East, before settling in Toronto.

“I’ve always been fascinated, and somewhat envious, by how some immigrants are able to move on and embrace their new homes fully. I have friends like that. For some reason, I’ve always been torn between my two homes, and I don’t know how to reconcile this dichotomy. I love Canada; it has been extremely good to me and I’m happy with my life here. But Israel continues to haunt me,” Tsabari said.

“The protagonist of the stories are mainly Israelis of Mizrahi (North African and Middle Eastern) descent and the majority of the stories take place in Israel. Like most writers I write about subjects I’m obsessed with: family relationships, loss, displacement, gender dynamics. I think many of my characters feel exiled in some way and are searching for a home.”

One story that has special significance to Tsabari is “Warplanes.” She said it was the first story in which she consciously tackled an aspect of Israeli life she’d been nervous to write about. “It also has a strong autobiographical element, unlike most of my stories,” she added. “I, too, lost my father to illness during the Lebanon War and I remember feeling like his death was overshadowed by the death of soldiers at the front.”

“It wasn’t a rational thought, but I was ten and obviously couldn’t comprehend or cope with his loss,” she said.

Tsabari said she prefers not to think about her audience too much while writing, because it has the potential to paralyze her process. However, she would have written her book differently if it was intended for an Israeli readership rather than the Canadian audience that might be unfamiliar with some of the customs, place names and events she’s writing about.

“Still, I’d like to believe that literature has the power to transcend the boundaries of land and race and citizenship, and that people can relate to stories from everywhere,” she said.

Tsabari is now working on a novel that tells the story of the Yemeni community and the hardships they face when they immigrated to Israel in the 1950s.

 

Will Johnson has just completed his master’s degree in writing at UBC.

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