Episode 3 | Ayelet Tsabari

Ayelet Tsabari:

I think Junot Diaz once said that he thinks of his life, not, not as a novel, but as a short book of short stories. And I think I really relate to that. And because I left so many times and started again so many times, it kind of also makes sense. Like the, the structure actually fits the, the theme of the book, you know, you start again and then you start again and then you start again.

Claire Tacon:

You’re listening to Parallel Careers where writers who also teach share the big ideas and practical tips that they take into the classroom.

Ayelet Tsabari:

I’m Ayelet Tsabari. And I am a writer, a teacher of writing, a mother, and I’m also many other things. I teach creative writing at a few different places. Recently I’ve taught at Guelph MFA—I’ve taught creative non-fiction there. I teach at Kings MFA in creative nonfiction as well.

It always surprises people when they find out that I did not have such a good experience as a student in high school. I did not go to university, you know, until much later in life. And then I went straight into an MFA. So I don’t actually have a bachelor degree. And for a really long time, I kind of resisted that system. I see that as an advantage, you know, because, because of what I’m teaching. And I also think that there’s, there’s something inspiring to them about knowing that I don’t come from an academic background, my career experience in my thirties, I was a waitress and a house cleaner. So I think that that’s actually a good balance to have in an institute, you know, that teaches something creative.

When I was teaching at the writer in residence program at the Toronto Public Library, I wanted to run a workshop, a drop-in workshop for immigrants and people who specifically write in their second language.

At some point I counted people from 17 different countries. It’s definitely one of my most memorable teaching experiences. First of all, just to be in a room where I felt very, I felt seen, and I felt included, even though I was the one teaching it, you know, we share in so many of the experiences. Uh, I remember one time when we were talking about firsts, I was talking about my first time having to answer the phone in English. And not knowing how to say that and, and saying something like “Who’s that?” There’s so many little things about life as an immigrant that I don’t think people who’ve never experienced it understand or can imagine.

For me, it really made me have to articulate how does one write in a second language and how that differs from writing in your mother tongue.

I had to really let go of my need to know all the words right off the bat, which is something that you know, is good for everyone. I think in, in when you’re starting to write, you know, to quiet the censor in your brain, to quiet the critic, to allow yourself to be playful, to allow yourself to have fun and just kind of just write, you know, just not worry so much about it being perfect. But writing in a second language really brings that home. And really, it was a really challenging thing for me, but also very liberating because it allowed me to worry less and, and feel like it’s okay. It’s okay if you come last. You actually are probably going to fail. I think the other thing, and this is something I always teach, I teach a lot about the place. I love teaching about place.

And I think immigrants may have a higher awareness of place and what makes a place different than another, you know? And so, yeah, teaching place in that setting, uh, was particularly special for me. Trying to evoke both the feelings of the place we left and of the, the new place we arrived to.

One of the things I find most important when teaching about place, I try to emphasize the idea of place never being neutral, really. It’s always a mirror of emotion. It’s always reflected through the state of mind of the character at the time. One day they would look at the sunset and they would see this glorious, colorful, very calming image. And then the next day it would be bleeding over the skyscrapers. And that’s why also it connects to me to the idea of writing, using adverbs or adjectives, you know, like using saying something is big—it means nothing to us. Saying a place is beautiful—you know, what’s beautiful to you and what’s beautiful to me is not the same thing. So it’s always, always through the eyes of a character.

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Excerpt from The Best Place on Earth

She loved and hated Jerusalem: a city that would forever be contested, forever divided, never at peace. But there was more to Jerusalem than what one saw in the news, like how beautiful it was, not in the way BC was, but in a hard, raw and broken way. How it felt alive, a kind of beast, pulsating, breathing, vibrating under her feet. How sometimes, when she walks through the old city and saw tourists snapping photos and looking at everything with awe, she would see Jerusalem through their eyes and be reminded that people used to walk there two thousand years ago in togas, and it would make her feel small and insignificant, but in a good way. How at times, the city truly felt sacred, magical, and the centre of everything, like at sunset, when the sun reflected crimson and gold on the limestone, and the Dome of the Rock shone like a rare amber in the middle of the city. Or on a winter night, when it snowed and everything was briefly muted and still, the sharp edges softened. Or how on Friday evenings, when the buses disappeared into the jaws of Central Station to park for Shabbat and the Hasidic neighborhoods blocked their roads from traffic, and everywhere smelled of home-cooked dinners, it felt like the most peaceful city in the world. The best place on earth.

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So when I started taking classes, I got a lot of confusing feedback. People found my work confusing at times, even though, I mean, I worked really hard. I, if anything, sometimes I worried about being over didactic and explaining the background of characters. They complained in a memoir piece about the fact that all of the characters’ first names begin with an “S.” I don’t know what to do about that. And they commented often about style issues. Like, uh, sentimentalism, you know, like I remember one classmate wrote on the first page. “It’s only the first page and already it’s too much.” That hurt me so much because when I first came to Canada—you know, after living there for 20 years, I have become more Canadian to the point that now I’m this polite person to Israelis—but when I first came, I often felt like I’m too much, you know, like people, they, they don’t know what to make of me. I’m too in their faces. I’m too loud. It sounded like a very personal thing.

And it was so bad that after a while, I, I actually didn’t want to write anymore.

So that journey and eventually finding my voice, again, thanks to a wonderful teacher. I was studying with Camilla Gibb at the time. And she pointed out all the places that I was trying to be what I’m not and asked for my true self back. Somehow she could tell, you know, she would say things like, “I want more backstory here.” I have a friend who’s a writer, Gurjinder Basran, who is also an immigrant. And she once said to me, “How can people tell you you’ll have too much backstory? You’re an immigrant, you’re the granddaughter of immigrants. You have to have backstory. You know, you’re writing about immigrants, they come with back stories!”

And the other thing that we did during that time, and that was also such a significant decision for me, we decided to read only writers of color during that year. And reading, you know, again, lots of them immigrants, a lot of them were transnational, a lot of them were writing in their second language. I saw how many different ways people can tell stories. How many rules they break. They do all these things that I was told you can’t do. And it really made me feel like there was room for my own writing in, in the world.

I say that, in a strange way, it both made my world so much bigger because I read so many different stories, so many different places, but also made it smaller because I felt like I felt, I saw myself.

I found myself, you know, and this is from a person who’s never, I’ve never read myself in literature growing up. And suddenly I found myself in those unexpected places and in stories that were not supposed to tell my story, but I found myself. And that was also a very important lesson for me, how your writing can resonate even if you’re writing from some little messed up country in the Middle East and still people may find themselves. So there were so many lessons in that year, and these are all lessons that I take into teaching.

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Excerpt from The Art of Leaving

Growing up, hanging out with Savta was not my idea of a good time. We had no common language: she barely understood my modern Hebrew, while I struggled to follow her heavily accented one. Her wit and wry sense of humor were lost on me. In elementary school, I weaved elaborate fantasies in which my grandmother was a European pioneer who had paved roads and planted trees in the land of Israel, and my grandfather was a partisan in the concentration camps in Poland. I envied my classmates, whose grandmothers took them to matinées and cafés in Tel Aviv, where they sat with their puffed hair and tailored skirts, speaking Yiddish as they sip their filtered coffee, leaving lipstick stamps on the edge of their cups. My grandmother didn’t watch movies and I couldn’t imagine her lounging at a café. Savta drank her coffee with hawayij, a Yemeni mixture of herbs that tinted the coffee a rusty shade and floated on the surface like leaves in a pond. Even as a child, I knew you couldn’t find hawayij in Tel Aviv c cafés.

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The Art of Leaving traces my life from childhood to motherhood. Because I wrote it in, in bits and pieces. I call it a memoir in essays. I think I was trying in this book to investigate how grief at an early age affected my life and my life choices growing up, and later as a young adult. I wanted to also, like my first book, give voice to my community and shed some light on it because there are very few stories told about not just Mizrahi Jews, but also more specifically Jews of Yemeni descent, uh, which is my family’s story.

I think I always knew that my father was going to be present in the book in a big way. I say sometimes, I’m sorry to make it all about my dad. It’s because it is. I knew that the age that I, that I lost him was—I mean, it’s always significant to lose a parent—but there’s something about losing a parent at an age when your identity is still very much entwined with theirs. And that connects to leaving because I think of your parents at that age as your, as your homeland. You know, there’s a reason I think why we call it a motherland and the land of our fathers and all that.

I talk about it in the book where every time I walk in the neighborhood of my grandparents, the old ladies asked me, “Whose daughter are you?” because that’s how they place you. So I knew something about my sense of home when he died, was fractured. So that was, to me, kind of the origin story. It was the “inciting incident” for this book. So I knew that it had to be there and yet, and that’s a really interesting thing that happened when I was writing the book, I somehow managed to write an entire book that he was such a big presence in it and yet I skipped the moment that he died.

And I didn’t even notice that. When I was told that by my editors, I was like, what? No, what are you talking about? Of course it’s there! And they’re like, no, actually, it’s not. And I realized that even though, even though so many years have passed and I thought that—obviously I’m writing about it all the time—I didn’t actually go there to the heart of that wound. I remember like actually stealing myself, you know, like taking this really deep breath and sitting down to, to add that to that first chapter/story.

My earliest research journey was very personal. I interviewed my grandmother long before I was writing or thinking about writing. I’m so fortunate that I interviewed her because I have those video tapes where I can see her and I can hear her. And I actually lifted entire sentence and included them in the book. So the dialogue is it. This is, you know, her voice. When I read it, I can hear her. Of course it’s translated. And it’s translated from kind of a broken Hebrew that is not, you know, it was hard for me to even understand. So that’s not an easy translating job. But sometimes I would say things, you know, I would read something that she said in front of an audience that I think is funny and it doesn’t seem like the Canadian audience quite gets it.

I always worry about that. You know did I capture her? Am I doing her justice? But isn’t writing all like just us trying and failing and trying and failing? In a sense, even that is good representation of her. Because I didn’t always understand her, you know what I mean? Our communication was kind of fractured in a way, with the language barrier and all of it. So maybe not being able to capture her completely or fully, uh, is, you know, that failure is actually a part of the story.

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Excerpt from The Art of Leaving

Once, in a drawer in my mother’s bedside table, I found a Palestine Immigrant Certificate for Saleh Mahdoon, my grandfather, issued by the Jewish Agency for Palestine in Aden, a port city in the south of Yemen, on December 14th, 1934. The picture showed my grandfather and his two wives, one on each side, black-and-white ghosts, cheeks sunken from hunger: my grandmother and her tsara, the biblical word for a sister-wife, also translated as “trouble.” In Israel, my grandmother, for whom the first wife was more trouble than sister, quickly discerned that polygamy wasn’t practiced amongst the local Jews. “It’s me or her,” she told my grandfather, and then took two-year-old Rivka with her and left. My grandfather followed her soon after. The first wife never forgave my grandmother this transgression, and forbade her daughter, Halya, my mother’s half sister, from seeing her siblings. Even after the first wife had passed, the daughter continued to reject her half-siblings’ efforts to reconcile, carried on the inheritance of hurt and indignation until the end of her days.

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I don’t remember the exact moment, unfortunately, of my discovery of the women’s song, the Yemeni women’s song. But I discovered that there was this really rich tradition of women singing that I did not know about because once it came to Israel, it was largely discontinued. While the men’s singing, which was devotional and sung mostly in Hebrew and Aramaic, remained. And I knew about it, but then I discovered that the women, who sang in Arabic because they usually did not know Hebrew because they didn’t pray, the songs were mostly domestic. They were writing about love and disappointment and not getting along with the second wife, and betrayal and heartache, and things like that. And now here, you know, I grew up my whole life thinking I don’t have literary history or heritage or ancestral literary history. And that is something that really bothered me, you know, as a writer. And then I realized actually I do.

And not only I do it also, it was sung history and I’m a singer. I love singing. And I decided that I wanted to delve more deeply into that. I met a woman named Gila Beshari, who was a teacher and a singer, and I just talked to her about it. And then I was like, what am I doing? I need to sing talking about it, theoretically, you know, studying the tradition without actually learning to sing, as a Jewish, Yemeni woman? Like, duh?! How could I not figure it out sooner?

Now, what I’m trying to do with it is also kind of figure out some of the literary characteristics. It’s a beautiful tradition because it’s also maybe because it wasn’t written, partially because it wasn’t written, it was very dynamic. There was a lot of call and response, but also it changed all the time.

They had this, uh, poetess a woman who kind of was in charge in her community and she would be the main one to sing and get the responses, but she would often change it a bit. So over time the songs changed. Sometimes you’d find the same song in different melodies. And one of the most amazing things that happened once I started researching, is that one day I think I started singing or I mentioned it while my mom and her sisters were sitting together at my aunt’s house. And then they all joined and we all sang together and it turned out, they know all the songs, they, you know, have known them their whole lives. I never heard them, but it’s been there. And it was such a, such an amazing, an amazing moment for me.

One of my favorite writers is Jhumpa Lahiri. And the one thing I learned from her is how she achieves realism through details. And I love teaching the short story, especially from the first book, The Interpreter of Maladies, she uses like just a million of everyday details to create this domestic realistic context in which the story takes place. And then it becomes so believable. You’re really there and you really see it. And I admire that.

I think writers look differently in the world. I really, I really do. You know, we always observe, are always on the hunt, on the lookout. And you have to be, have to be this meticulous and persistent harvester of detail and to be a thief. One of the things that gets in the way of that nowadays is our phones. You know, we get on public transit. Back in the day, we’d be looking out the window or, you know, listening to conversations. Now we just kind of bury ourselves in the phone and we miss so much.

So this exercise kind of tries to reawaken that hunter and to re-focus our attention on the world. So this is the exercise. You want to find a high traffic spot, like a cafe or a park or a train station, and just sit there for a while. Grab that notebook that you should always have on you. Get comfortable and start collecting details. And not mentally, cause that’s not enough—you won’t remember them, just write them down. You want to observe how people move and talk and how the clouds look and you know, what the, the hum of traffic and find that right word for it. And the gurgling of pipes and the pattern on the frosty condensation on your window and listen to the conversation between the strangers on the bus and the teenagers in the cafe and how the waitress giggles and how she folds the napkin in whatever way.

And just look for all of those details and don’t think too much, and don’t be selective and don’t censor. List them. And then when you go home, you want to create a scene based on those things. And you can, you know, you can maybe witnessed something that could have spurred on that scene, or it could be something completely imagined, but use some of those details and carefully select them. And the right words, of course, the precise word, especially when it comes to verbs.

Another–it’s kind of an offshoot of this, basically of this exercise.  When I say to be present in the world and to engage with the world, I think of another, there’s another quote by Ernest Hemingway. He says, in order to write about life first, you must live it. So I encourage students, especially in our very first meetings, our very first lessons, to go out and do something they’ve never done before.

And it could be, it doesn’t have to be anything, you know, major, like it could be planting flowers. That is something that I’ve done because I was trying to do those things too. I always love to see the kind of things people write about. Going to a restaurant for the first time on their own. You know, I’ve done that many times but some people have never done that.

One of my students went to the park and sat on a bench and took off her shirt and wrote there. And she really, she actually kind of incorporated because she wrote about the sensation, the physical sensations, you know, also the emotions that, uh, there were many. Um, so yeah, that’s a, that’s also a very fun kind of a first day exercise. So it’s almost a two-part. Be present in the world, but also engage with that, do something new. I think writers need to, to do more of that.

Claire Tacon:

You’ve been listening to Parallel Careers, which is produced by myself, Claire Tacon in partnership with The New Quarterly literary magazine. Erin MacIndoe-Sproule is our Technical Producer and Story Editor. Financial and in-kind support was provided by the The Region of Waterloo Arts Fund, St. Jerome’s University and the Government of Canada. The music you heard on this episode was composed by Amadeo Ventura. You can hear more of his music at amadeoventura.weebly.com

Visit tnq.ca/parallel for more information on Ayelet’s work, including her memoir The Art of Leaving. There, you can also listen to outtakes from this episode and check out more teaching and writing tips. Thanks for listening. 

In this episode, Ayelet Tsabari discusses writing about contested places, giving voice to her community and how stories can resonate in unexpected ways. She discusses:

1:46 | Being Writer-in-Residence at the Toronto Public Library and running drop-in
workshops for immigrants and people who write in their second language
3:41 | Writing place as a mirror of your characters’ emotions
6:40 | Getting workshop feedback that confused cultural differences with style, and how
she re-discovered her own authorial voice
8:30 | Spending a year only reading books by BIPOC writers
11:10 | Delving into difficult emotions when writing her memoir The Art of Leaving
14:00 | the impossibility of trying to fully capture her grandmother in the text
16:55 | Her research into the literary traditions of Yemeni women’s songs
20:00 | Helping students re-focus their attention on the world and engage with it

  Bonus Writing Exercises

Tongues Anthology

Vulnerability in CNF

Recommended Reading

 The Anti-Racist Writing Workshop: How To Decolonize the Creative Classroom by Felicia Rose Chavez

Salt Houses by Hala Alyan

Meander Spiral Explode by Jane Allison

You can find Ayelet's work here:

  More About Ayelet

Ayelet Tsabari was born in Israel to a large family of Yemeni descent. She wrote her first story in English in 2007. She is the author of The Art of Leaving, winner of the Canadian Jewish Literary Award for Memoir, finalist for the Writer’s Trust Hilary Weston Prize, finalist for the Vine Awards for Nonfiction, and an Apple Books, CBC Books, and Kirkus Review Best Book of 2019. Her first book, The Best Place on Earth, won both the Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature and the Edward Lewis Wallant Award for Jewish Fiction, was longlisted for the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award, was a New York Times Book Review Editors’ Choice and Kirkus Review Best Book of 2016, and has been published internationally. Her translations appeared in the New Quarterly, Berlin Quarterly, Paper Brigade, and Mantis. She teaches creative writing at the University of King’s College MFA, the University of Guelph Creative Writing MFA, and at Tel Aviv University. She lives in Toronto.