Ayelet Tsabari, author of The Best Place on Earth and an upcoming IFOA Weekly participant, answered our five questions!
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IFOA: The Best Place on Earth is a collection of stories set in Israel. Did you always want to write from the Israeli perspective, and do you feel the Israeli perspective needs more of a voice in literature?
Ayelet Tsabari © Elsin Davidi
Ayelet Tsabari: I started out NOT wanting to write about Israel at all! Israel is such a contentious place and it felt too risky, too volatile, too controversial. I didn’t want anything to do with it. My first stories in English took place elsewhere, and my characters were often from other countries, or, if they were Israelis, their nationality was incidental to the plot. But these stories felt untrue and as time passed I felt a growing urge to write about my homeland, to evoke the smells and sights and sounds of it. Israel inspires me like no other place. It’s the setting of my childhood, where my family lives, and I still think of it as home. So at the end I gave in, stopped worrying about potentially pissing people off, and my writing began to flow.
I definitely think we need a more diverse perspective on Israel in English literature. Most books about Israel tell stories by and about Ashkenazi (European) Jews. My family immigrated to Israel from Yemen so I chose to write about Mizrahi characters whose stories are rarely told in literature: Jews who descended from the Middle East and North Africa, Jews who spoke Arabic and not Yiddish, ate pita and not gefilte fish. It was also a chance to rectify my childhood experience of not finding my family or myself in the books that I read.
IFOA: You’ve served in the Israeli army, and your story “Casualties” deals with a female solider. How much of The Best Place on Earth is informed by your own life?
The Best Place on Earth stories by Ayelet Tsabari
Tsabari: A lot of the book is informed by my experiences, yet it isn’t autobiographical. I write about Mizrahi Jews, mostly of Yemeni descent, because this is my background. I write about the army, because serving in the IDF shaped me as a young woman, and I am fascinated by how Israeli society is influenced by the mandatory service. I write stories set against the backdrop of war and conflict because that was how I grew up, and I am interested in how entwined the political and the personal are in Israel. There are also details and anecdotes from my own life woven in. The themes of displacement, identity and belonging abound in my life, as they do in the book.
IFOA: You’ve written a lot of short stories and essays. Have you ever given thought to taking on a longer piece of fictional work, such as a novel?
Tsabari: Currently, I am finishing a memoir in essays. I also started working on a novel that takes place in the Yemeni community in Israel’s early days. I’ve done a fair amount of research over the last few years, and I recently received a Chalmers Arts Fellowship to travel to Israel for further research. I will be looking into the oral traditions, folklore and rituals of Jewish Yemeni women.
IFOA: When did you know you wanted to be a writer?
Tsabari: I’ve wanted to be a writer ever since I can remember. I used to draw comic strips before I knew the alphabet. By grade one I was writing stories and poems, and moved on to novels the size of school notebooks by grade three. At some point in elementary school I created a library from all my books. I drew covers for them and glued a pocket for a library card and convinced the neighbourhood kids and my million cousins to come borrow books during my mother’s afternoon naps.
IFOA: What are some of your favourite books from the last six months that you can recommend to our readers?
Tsabari: In the beginning of 2014, I made a public pledge on my blog to read only writers of colour for a year. Some of the books I enjoyed these past six months are The Outer Harbour by Wayde Compton, which is an inventive and original book of linked short stories, Where the Air is Sweet by Tasneem Jamal, a family saga that takes place in the Ismaili community in Uganda, and Ru by Kim Thuy. I also devoured The Truth About Stories: A Native Narrative by Thomas King.
Ayelet Tsabari is the author of The Best Place on Earth. Join her on February 3 at Ben McNally Books, where she will read from and discuss her collection. This is a FREE event.