An Interview with Ayelet Tsabari

By andrea bennett 

You’ve written in the past about how you didn’t come across much writing by or about Mizrahi Jews while you were growing up in Israel. How important do you think it is for young writers and readers to have writing role models from their communities to look up to? Have things improved much since you were a young kid seeking out Mizrahi writing?

As a kid and an avid reader, not seeing myself in Israeli literature and in the books assigned to us in school said to me that my voice, my family’s narrative, our memory and history, didn’t matter.

As a kid who wanted to be a writer, the absence of Mizrahi role models made me feel as though my dreams were beyond reach. Things have improved, obviously, from my time, but still—very few Mizrahi writers have made it into the Israeli canon or into the school curriculum, and the history they teach children is still very Eurocentric. The underrepresentation of Mizrahi and Palestinians in the school system is an act of erasure that puts limitations on children’s possibilities and futures and rewrites their past by telling a very narrow, partial, exclusive narrative. It establishes their place in the margins. I have no doubt that teaching Mizrahi and Palestinian literature in schools would make a great impact on the way Israeli children are raised and on the dreams they believe they’re entitled to have.

Do you think the publishing industry in Canada encourages diversity? What do you think can be done to improve gender balances and diversity in Canadian publishing?

I think the literary canon in Canada, similarly to that in Israel, is dominated by white males, but the issue is layered and complex. The publishing industry is made of all kinds of people with different agendas and tastes, some who encourage diversity and actively seek it, others who are less comfortable with works depicting cultures they aren’t familiar with. It’s not just up to publishers, either. Just the other day, my editor at HarperCollins gave me a pile of books by writers of colour to read as a part of my project. Unfortunately I had not heard of most of them, which has to do more with reviewers, and awards, and exposure in the media, which of course feed into the choices publishers make.

It seems like, at times, there are certain expectations from writers of colour to produce a certain type of book. A friend of mine calls them “books with mango trees.” Books that don’t fit the bill have a harder time getting published or receiving attention. I also know of a friend who was trying to publish her book (which was devoid of mango trees), and was actually told by publishers that they’ve already published books by Indo-Canadian writers this year, as if there were a quota. Furthermore, immigrant writers, some of whom write in their second language, draw from their background and culture and language, not just in terms of content but of style as well, which may fall outside publishers’ or reviewers’ comfort zones. What can we do to improve the situation? I think we’re already doing something by talking about these things. Also, be a better reader. Read widely; read outside your experiences; read outside your comfort zone.

So many of the stories in The Best Place on Earth—“Tikkun,” “Brit Milah,” and “Borders,” for example—deal with conflicts of culture and identity between family members, lovers, and friends. At the same time, they plumb the deep emotional connections that exist despite these conflicts. Could you talk a bit about what drives this tension in your writing?

It’s the story of my life. People often assume that my stories are autobiographical; they’re not, but my themes are very personal. Cultural clashes abound in my life. I’m very close to my family, but I live half a world away from them, and as years pass, I can see gaps between us, and it breaks my heart. I’ve always been interested in how one can feel like a stranger in their own family. Growing up in Israel, I was fascinated by my grandmother who, despite living in Israel for decades, remained very traditionally Yemeni. Now I have my own family, with a man who’s Canadian and a daughter who was born in the heart of Toronto. I can’t even fathom how different her upbringing is going to be and how hard it would be to reconcile it with my own. So it looks like I’m going to continue writing about these themes for a while.

Themes of home and place, temporariness and permanence, permeate The Best Place on Earth—characters live in, and long for, everywhere from India to Israel to the Gulf Islands in BC. You also teach writing workshops about the importance of place in good prose. How do questions of home and belonging inform your writing? Why is it important for good writing to have a strong sense of place?

Place is deeply connected to the feelings of characters and always serves as a mirror of emotion. Eudora Welty said, “You can’t write a story that happens nowhere.” We read partly to be transported into another place, and for me, I guess the act of writing is one that takes me places too. I suppose it’s a way to keep Israel close to my heart. I’ve always been interested in place and belonging, maybe because I’ve always felt like an outsider, or because I’ve been fascinated by the idea of reinventing oneself and seeking myself in other places. For me, these issues of place and identity also tie in with language. I am writing from a strange place about a faraway homeland, in an adopted language that is a stranger to that place I write about… There’s displacement in every step of the process.

You recently decided to undertake a reading project in 2014, modelled on Lilit Marcus’s “Why I Read Only Books by Women in 2013,” titled “Why I Choose to Only Read Books by Writers of Colour in 2014.” What did you choose to take this project on, and what do you hope to learn over the coming year?

I came up with this project because I felt it was important for me, as a writer of colour, to do my part: to act as an audience, to be a better reader. I’ve read so many books by white authors in my lifetime that this year is only going to start balancing the scale. I’ve heard some people say that I’m imposing limitations on my reading choices, but I think it is quite the opposite. Reading only writers of colour for an entire year is going to give me a new and enlarged perspective of the world. It’s been only two months so far, and I spent much of this time in Israel, so I ended up reading books by Palestinian and Mizrahi writers. I believe that there is a power in numbers, and a power in immersion, and the experience of reading these stories back to back was powerful and illuminating. From a writer’s point of view, I think it’s going to be a very inspiring year. Emerging writers can only gain from reading diverse books. They may find that there’s room for different voices, stories, and styles of writing in the world. To me, this realization was very liberating. 

In your “How to Make a Cream Sauce” essay, published in EVENT 42.1, you wrote about participating in a writing workshop in which you were often told that you were “too much,” or that your writing was “too much”—but when you found yourself conforming to a more dominant Canadian literary aesthetic, you felt lost as a writer and totally unhappy. Can you describe your sense of this dominant Canadian literary aesthetic?

I was devastated at first when people told me that my writing was too much, too dramatic, too sentimental. I knew, from the writing classes I took, that this was a bad thing. So for a while I tried to fit in, and write in a manner that I thought to be more Canadian. Which of course made me miserable. My background and my history and my cultural upbringing informed my writing style, and so by trying to change it I was resisting my natural inclination, which led to a feeling of self-betrayal. When I really dug deep, I realized that I don’t actually believe that sentimentality is all bad, or maybe it’s the way we define “sentimentality” that needs to be examined. When I read, I want to feel deeply. I love it when a book makes me cry. I crave the emotional drama, the passion; I want to be on the edge of my seat. This is what I hope to elicit in readers. Fear of sentimentality can result in repressing hard, raw, honest emotions (and sex, too!) which to me doesn’t make for a good read. I love this quote by Robertson Davies, “People who prate of sentimentality are very often people who hate being made to feel,” and this one by John Irving, “A short story about a four-course meal from the point of view of a fork will never be sentimental; it may never matter very much to us, either.” I would love to investigate this fear of sentimentality in Canadian literature and write about it one day. Being so scared of feeling hard when reading strikes me as a real loss.

Could you talk a bit about why you became a CWILA member? What makes interventions like CWILA’s annual count meaningful?

The idea of power in numbers, which I mentioned already, relates to both parts of the question in different ways. The count tells us a story in numbers; it maps patterns and trends in a way that is hard to dispute. And it is meaningful because it fosters a discussion. It especially appeals to me because I’m a person who counts. I’m a compulsive counter. I count at events, parties, festivals, even while walking on the street in a new place, and calculate the ratio of women to men, whites to non-whites. I have this need for balance. I’m always acutely aware when I’m outnumbered, as a woman, or as a person of colour.

I believe it’s important to be a part of CWILA because there’s strength in belonging to something larger. This is how you make an impact, and how you can make the margins become more centralized.

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Photo by Elsin Davidi.

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 she is a two-time winner of Event’s Creative Non-Fiction Contest. A graduate of the MFA program at the University of Guelph, Ayelet has taught creative writing through the University of Toronto and the University of Guelph. She was named as one of ten Canadian writers to watch by CBC.

 

andrea bennett writes poetry, fiction and non-fiction. She’s a contributing editor at Geist magazine, and her debut poetry book, Canoodlers, is forthcoming with Nightwood Editions in April 2014.

Published on February 24th, 2014

 

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