Ayelet Tsabari on Writing, Food and Rules
The pages of EVENT magazine bring you many experienced and established writers. But it is the up-and-coming voices that can be the most exciting to discover. Over the past 25 years, the winners of the annual EVENT Non-Fiction Contest have been fresh, talented writers. One such writer is Ayelet Tsabari.
Tsabari, a writer from Israel, arrived in Canada in 1988. Writing in her second language of English was a challenge she soon overcame, winning EVENT’s non-fiction contest with “You and What Army” in 2007, and again in 2009 for “Victim,” a stark account of her assault on a Vancouver city bus.
Tsabari’s award-winning stories have appeared in Grain, PRISM international and Room. This spring she published her first book, The Best Place on Earth (HarperCollins), a collection of short fiction that plunges the reader into the vibrant sights, sounds and tastes of Israel and fearlessly explore the complicated relationships among people living in war. She currently teaches creative writing at the University of Guelph and University of Toronto and is working on a novel.
I recently interviewed the very busy Tsabari about writing in English, learning the rules and cooking.
EVENT: In 2006 you wrote your very first story in English, your second language. How did you get from there to publishing an acclaimed book of short stories in just seven years?
Aylet Tsabari: When I first moved to Canada I met a woman who told me that I should try writing in English, that maybe writing in my second language was comparable to switching from watercolour to acrylic. Same skill, different medium. At the time I thought she was totally crazy. I couldn’t even imagine writing in my second language. Writing in my first was difficult enough! But after a few years of living in English I found myself drawn to writing in it. My friend was right: the storytelling skills I had in my native language were transferrable even if my vocabulary and grammar skills were not. I worked really hard to get better at it: I read a lot, wrote daily, took classes, including a grammar course I absolutely hated. I think I was motivated by the challenge of it, too. I wanted to prove to myself that I could do it.
E: How did you feel when you were recently named on CBC’s Writers to Watch list?
AT: I think I’m still not really grasping it. It was a huge, wonderful surprise. I’m really grateful. It also made me feel a little more legit as a Canadian. Even after living here for 15 years I still sometimes feel not Canadian enough.
E: You’re a two-time winner of EVENT’s non-fiction contest, as well as a winner of several other non-fiction awards and contests. But the stories in the Best Place on Earth are fictional. Which genre do you prefer writing in and why?
AT: Fiction is my first love. I’ve been writing fiction since I was a kid. It was my way of living in an imaginary world and having imaginary friends. When I started writing in English, I was really intimidated by the idea of writing fiction in my second language. Then I discovered creative non-fiction—through reading the winners of EVENT’s non-fiction contest, actually—and I was in awe of it. I spent my entire 20s travelling and living somewhat recklessly, so I had many stories to tell. It had just never occurred to me that I could write about my own life in that way. I decided that maybe this new language required a new genre, and the pressure sort of lifted off my shoulders: creative non-fiction became my entry point into writing in English. I eventually found my way back to fiction and now I am happy to write in both genres. I can’t say that I prefer one over the other. I like the variety. (By the way, EVENT was also the very first magazine to publish me in English, in 2007. I love you guys.)
E: In your recent essay “How to Make a Cream Sauce” in EVENT’s latest Notes on Writing issue (42/1) you talk about the “rules” of writing fiction that you learned in many creative writing classes and how those rules constrained your writing. Now that you are teaching creative writing classes, what do you tell your students about following rules in their writing?
AT: I’m big on technique, and so I teach my students skills and guidelines that I think would be helpful to them, but I always balance it by showing them examples that work despite not following the rules, and encourage them to experiment and have fun with their writing. I also tell them to not worry about it too much in the generative stage and just write. Those skills would be useful to them in the editing stage. I like to believe that I am not prescriptive. I never say, “Don’t do it.” Okay, maybe sometimes I do. I try to be really sensitive to the potential ramifications and make sure that they retain a sense of joy in their craft.
E: Who are the literary role models that have inspired your writing?
AT: Growing up I was obsessed with European writers like Nabokov, Chekhov, Hesse. I also loved Israeli writers like Yonatan Gefen, Eli Amir and David Grossman. Later, I started reading a lot of North American authors: I admire short story writers and novelists Chimamanda Adichie Ngozi, Lorri Moore, Camilla Gibb, Aleksandar Hemon and Jhumpa Lahiri. I am sure there are many others that I can’t think of right now.
JM: “Yemeni Soup and Other Recipes” won both a National and a Western Magazine award. Food appears quite often in your work. What does the theme of cooking and food represent in your writing?
AT: I just really, really love food! I worked in the food industry for years as a waitress and even then the kitchens were my favourite places to hang out. Kitchens are my happy place. Sharing food feels tribal and visceral to me: a way to connect and communicate with people. In my mother’s house, the kitchen is the heart of the house: it’s alive, with food being cooked and baked and consumed, and with people coming and going and talking and arguing. Guests often come by unannounced for lunch and it is not unusual to see siblings’ friends helping themselves to food from the fridge. I’ve tried to recreate that everywhere I’ve lived.
E: You have a fantastic website and blog ( www.ayelettsabari.com ). What kind of a role do you think social media plays in the career of a writer today?
AT: Thank you! I think it is important having some presence: a website, a blog. It’s a way for people to find you and contact you, and I’ve received lovely email from readers through it. I’m still pondering the value of Facebook author pages and Twitter as a promotional tool. I don’t know how helpful they are in getting more sales. But I love Twitter because it helps foster a community of writers and readers and allows for unfiltered discussion to take place. I made some great friends through Twitter.
E: The website also showcases your photography. Will you continue with photography as well as your writing career?
AT: I will always take photos in some capacity. Just today I took a friend’s headshots, which is something I love doing. But it has been on the back burner recently. I’ve been way too busy. I do take a million photos of my awesome baby.
E: You have a baby, you’re promoting your new book, and you’re teaching. How do you find time to write?
AT: This is me making a sad face. It’s been hard to find the time to write these past few months. I’m hoping to have more time in the fall. The other day, while my students worked on a writing exercise in class, I decided I might as well do it too and ended up writing something I am happy with. The joy! I get short bursts of it here and there. Since my baby was born I started a short story, a couple of non-fiction pieces and tinkered with my novel. But I haven’t spent a good, solid day of writing in quite a while.
E: What kinds of writing can we look forward to from you in the future?
AT: I am still working on my collection of creative non-fiction and I hope to finish it soon. I also started working on a novel set in Israel. I got a fair amount of research done while I was there in the fall and wrote a few chapters before I had to take a break and raise my tiny human.
Ayelet Tsabari’s Note on Writing “How to Make a Cream Sauce” appears in EVENT 42/1.
Interview by Jacki Mameli.