Guelph Grads on the Go – Writing takes more than talent

MFA grad finds inspiration in her childhood home

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Ayelet Tsabari

You can never go home again, but for Ayelet Tsabari, writing about home keeps it close to her heart. For her thesis project in U of G’s MFA creative writing program, she wrote a collection of short stories called The Best Place on Earth. The stories take place in Israel, which is where she was born and lived until she moved to Canada at the age of 25. “I was trying to show a side of Israel that you don’t always see,” says Tsabari, MFA ’11. “There are stories about love and loss and family and displacement – very universal themes – but they’re often set against conflict, which I think is very true of Israeli life.”

Since military service is mandatory for both men and women in Israel, she used her experience in the army as the backdrop for some of her stories. One story is about a female soldier who sells forged sick-leave forms to earn extra cash while her boyfriend is stationed on the Gaza Strip; another tells the tale of a young boy who is torn between his conflicting dreams of becoming a poet or an army captain during the Gulf War.

“I find endless inspiration in Israel,” says Tsabari. “I mean, it’s home and it always will be. It’s where I grew up; it’s where my childhood took place.”

She originally intended to write a book about immigrants in Canada, but a voice inside her kept telling her to write about the Israeli experience and what it’s like “to live with a constant sense of urgency and emergency.”

Although Tsabari was born and raised in Israel, she found it daunting to write about her homeland because it was already a subject much written about. “When I first started writing in English, I was trying to stay away from Israel because I was too scared of it,” she says. “It draws a lot of heat; I just didn’t want to touch it. Whatever I do, I’m bound to make people mad somehow.”

As a child growing up in Israel, Tsabari found it difficult to relate to the characters in the books she read. “I didn’t have characters like me,” she says. But her background inspired many of the characters in her own stories. “That was definitely intentional. It occurred to me growing up that we didn’t really have Yemeni characters in literature in Israel. Most of the books I read as a child were about Ashkenazi Jews.” Her characters are often Jews of Middle Eastern or North African descent, and she weaves the sights, sounds and smells of their cultures into her stories.

When asked what brought her to Canada, she gives a two-worded answer: “a guy.” Love brought her to Vancouver, and she stayed there for 11 years, long after the relationship ended. She moved to Toronto three years ago to enter the MFA creative writing program at the University of Guelph-Humber. “I loved it,” she says of the program. “I think one of the best things about it is the summer mentorship where you actually work with the author of your choice one-on-one for the entire summer.” Canadian novelist Camilla Gibb was Tsabari’s mentor and later her thesis adviser in second year.

Tsabari also credits the program for giving her a sense of community when she moved to Toronto. Along with classmate Eufemia Fantetti, she started a monthly reading series called Speakeasy in which the program’s students, faculty and alumni share their writing. Being part of a literary community also helped her grow as a writer. “We read each other’s work and we give each other feedback,” she says.

In her second year, an editor from HarperCollins visited the class and mentioned a collection of short stories they were publishing later that year. “Everyone will tell you in the literary community and in the publishing industry that short fiction doesn’t sell,” says Tsabari, but that didn’t stop her from sending a query letter to HarperCollins.

She received a reply within an hour. By the end of the week, she was meeting with editors. “I feel very lucky,” she says. “To be honest, I almost felt a little guilty for not spending months in the slush pile and being rejected over and over again.” Despite the relative speed with which she landed her first publishing deal, a friend reassured her that she wasn’t an overnight success. Her book was the result of a lifetime writing journey, with a few bumps along the way.

At the age of 15, Tsabari began writing for a teen magazine in Israel and later worked as a journalist for the magazine’s parent newspaper. When she moved to Canada, writing in English proved to be a challenge because she had previously only written in Hebrew. Although she published a few articles in English, “as time passed, I started to realize just how bad my English was.”

Her insecurity forced her to stop writing for several years. Then she began to read more English and took some grammar courses, “which I hated.” But her persistence paid off. “You really have to be driven,” she says. “A lot of people want to be writers but don’t have the discipline. Talent alone is not enough.”

That’s advice she now shares with other writers as an instructor in a U of G certificate program in creative writing. Offered for the first time last fall, the program is offered jointly by the School of English and Theatre Studies through the existing MFA program and by U of G’s Centre for Open Learning and Educational Support.

Find Tsabari’s MFA thesis in the McLaughlin Library Atrium.