Tsabari gives voice to place
Ayelet Tsabari’s short stories win Rohr Prize. (photo from @AyeletTsabari)
One of the best contemporary works of fiction I’ve read in the last few years has been Israeli-Canadian Ayelet Tsabari’s The Best Place on Earth, her 2013 debut collection of short stories. The characters and settings draw the reader in effortlessly. The conflicts are both internal and situational, and they feel urgent and real. The writing is intelligent, sexy and restrained. The judges of the prestigious Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature clearly thought so, too, as the book is the newest winner of the $100,000 US award.
I recently caught up with the Toronto-based Tsabari by phone in Israel, where she was visiting family and friends. She is insightful, thoughtful and articulate, as well as warm and humble – she told me she was “shocked” when she heard the news of the prize. We spoke about identity, the short story form, her favorite summer spot, what makes a novel Canadian and Israeli, and how to write a decent sex scene.
One of the first things that comes to mind in Ayelet’s writing is the ethnicity of the characters: almost all are Mizrahi, a label with which she herself identifies. “It was really important to me to have Mizrahi characters who go about their lives, and not having their Mizrahi [identity] be an issue. That’s never questioned when you have stories about Ashkenazis; that’s the default. I wanted to shatter that, to break the pattern.”
Some of Tsabari’s stories are set in Canada. There is a memorable one set on Hornby Island – the tiny B.C. oasis whose peacefulness Ayelet found she was mentally contrasting with the intensity of Jerusalem – and another in Toronto. Most are set in Israel, though, revealing important themes about life, love and loss set against the background of physical insecurity. Ayelet wrote the book in Canada, was mentored by another Canadian author, Camilla Gibb, and acknowledged that others have told her the book possesses a Canadian sensibility.
Ayelet confided that she tried to avoid writing a conventionally “political” book. “I didn’t want to write about the war, about conflict. What I’m interested in is people’s lives…. But I wanted to set it against that backdrop. This is how I grew up; it’s always there, the conflict, that sense of menace.”
Still, she did have what she considers a political aim. She wanted to give voice to a place that is often better known to outsiders through the media. She wanted to “complicate things,” she told me, to “focus on the lives of one family … and one person, rather than the mass of people you see when you watch the news.”
Why the short story form?, I asked her. While she is currently working on a couple of longer-form projects, she told me that she “love[s] the brevity of [short stories]; I love imagining a life in a short span; I love the idea of a collection.” She added, “It’s kind of like traveling…. You get to know people, you really feel like they’re a part of you, you forge what you think are lifelasting relationships, then you move on. And because so many of the characters [in the book] are transient and nomads, immigrants, and travelers, I felt that the container fit….”
As for how to write a good sex scene, Ayelet explained that writers should provide as much detail as they would for any other type of scene, include it only if it advances the plot and, above all, avoid euphemisms. It’s good advice, really, that could be applied to most everyday interactions: as we encounter one another, we should strive to understand the inner lives of people as they really are. And, as readers, we can be grateful for glimpses of our country’s fine new voices helping us understand other places at the same time as we are able to discover new truths about ourselves.
Mira Sucharov is an associate professor of political science at Carleton University. She blogs at Haaretz and the Jewish Daily Forward. This article was originally published in the Canadian Jewish News. For an Oct. 11, 2013, interview with Tsabari (“Making a home in Canada”) about The Best Place on Earth, visit jewishindependent.ca.