Unmoored by the death of her father when she was 9 years old, Ayelet Tsabari spent much of her adulthood wandering from country to country, gathering little possessions only to give them away. When Ayelet was growing up in Israel, her grandparents’ neighborhood, built by Yemeni Jews in the early 20th century, felt to her like another country. After serving in the Israeli army, Tsabari left Israel. She traveled to southeast Asia, North America, and Europe before settling in Vancouver, BC, living between her native Hebrew and her adopted language, English. Her father had been a poet and had encouraged her to write as a child. She ignored this for 10 years, but fueled by her experiences as a “wandering Jew,” Tsabari wrote The Best Place on Earth, her debut short story collection that went on to win the Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature in 2015. Her forthcoming memoir, The Art of Leaving, recounts the years she spent wandering and gathering and her experience connecting her past with who she is as a woman and writer today.
Jewish in Seattle: Your memoir feels like it was written to lead you back to your father and your family. Do you feel like in your leaving Israel you were preparing yourself to return?
Ayelet Tsabari: I was so young and shortsighted I couldn’t comprehend the future at all. I think I assumed I would eventually return and, at the same time, felt like I would never be back. I almost said I couldn’t see beyond the present moment, but that certainly was not true, either. I wasn’t thinking about the future, but I wasn’t really living in the present either. I was mostly haunted by the past during that time of my life. My leaving was very much a direct response to loss and to my fear of loss.
You have said that you were worried about writing about Israel, about people’s reactions, about getting it “right.” What is it like to write about the thing you are afraid to write about?
I think I came to understand that the only way to write is to write about the things we’re afraid of. Otherwise, what’s the point? A teacher of mine once told me that to feel afraid when writing is a good thing. It means we’re on the right track. So now, whenever I feel fear while writing, I’m thrilled. When we’re afraid, we’re also very aware, very sensitive, our senses are heightened. We feel alive. These are all good things you can channel into your writing. That is also why I used the quote from Cynthia Ozick as an epigraph for the second section of the book. “You’re walking on the edge of a very narrow road over a boiling crevice and you might fall in; in fact, you will fall in.” While it was appropriate to that time of my life, Ozick actually referred to the act of writing.
Your debut collection of stories, The Best Place on Earth, was translated into Hebrew. How do you feel your work is received in Israel?
I was pleased with the reception in Israel. Naturally, I was really nervous about it. We all want to be accepted and approved at home. I should mention that I had a hand in the translation. While I didn’t translate it, I then read over it and changed it significantly, from word choices to rewriting entire sentences, and in some cases even removing or inserting new lines. So I was very happy with the end result. I was so happy and relieved when Israelis told me how Israeli the book is. It goes back to the whole question of belonging.
Choreographer Mark Morris says that before he begins a dance he will put limitations on himself, like no male dancers or no leaps or jumps, and this forces him to not rely on using all that he knows, thus challenging him. How did writing in your second language affect you as a writer?
I can talk about that for hours! Constraints in art are a common tool. The limitation can be both challenging and liberating. For me, having to tell a story with fewer words meant I couldn’t rely on fancy, floral language as I enjoyed doing in Hebrew as a young writer. My prose became sparer, but also more precise. I think that ultimately, it made me a better writer. It also circles back to the issues of duality in my life and to the content of my work. It makes sense that my work is written in one language about another language. From one place about another.
Toward the end of your book I found myself really hoping and wanting you to stay in Israel, to choose Israel. Your book is more than just your story, it is the story of your family, Yemeni Jews who have lived in Israel for over 100 years. And it is the story of Israel. You write that as a child, older women in your grandmother’s neighborhood would ask you, “Bat mi at?” (“Whose daughter are you?”). Their question feels so deep, so Israeli, and so universal. I think this is the central question of the book. What are your thoughts?
I love that. It’s funny that you say that, because in the end I did choose Israel! At least for now. It just happened after I completed writing the book. And of course, I wonder if it’s not a coincidence. Once I finished writing, I did feel a sense of closure, of letting go. And maybe that’s what I needed in order for our decision to return to mature. I always knew the book would end with a metaphorical return. I just didn’t expect it to coincide with a physical one. I love your reflection on that phrase, Bat mi at? Perhaps this should have been the title of the book! I believe that in writing a memoir, one has to find a way to reach beyond their own story and engage with the world. This is why we read memoirs, after all. We’re looking for a mirror to our own lives.
Ayelet Tsabari will discuss The Art of Leaving with UW professor Sasha Senderovich February 28 at 6:30 p.m. at the Ethnic Cultural Theatre. jewishstudies.washington.edu