This landed on my front step today… I am thrilled! I love the cover. I love the sound of the title… Il Posto Migliore Del Mondo… I love everything about it! Thank you, Nuova Editrice Berti. And then I found this review in the Italian newspaper, The Republic. Google Translate assures me it’s a good one!
In the beginning of 2014 I made a public pledge to read only writers of colour for a year. My decision was inspired by Lilit Marcus’s essay, “Why I Only Read Books by Women in 2013,” and by a lifetime of reading mostly works by white authors and not finding myself in the books that I read. In my original post I said many things about my decision but I think the last paragraph sums it pretty well.
“I’m choosing to spend the year reading only books by writers of colour, because I want to read more deeply. Because as a writer of colour who wants to be read I realize I should do my part, and become a reader, an audience.Because I’m interested in the world around me, and the stories these writers have to tell. … Because when I was suffering from a major writing block, trying and failing to fit my writing into what I thought the Canadian literature mainstream expected of me, my mentor Camilla Gibb suggested that I read books by writers from other cultures, and I discovered Edwidge Danticat, and Chimamanda Adichie Ngozi, and Daniyal Mueenuddin, and Junot Diaz, and Yiyun Li, and I was instantly cured. Because reading their stories made me feel like there was room for my writing in this world.”
The post garnered some attention and mixed responses. Some people wrote to tell me they were inspired to make similar pledges, like writer Jeffery Ricker who wrote this on his blog. Chelsea Rooney (author of the critically acclaimed Pedal) spoke about my initiative on her January 26th episode of The Storytelling Show (which you can listen to here. My segment begins around halfway through although the first half, in which she interviews artist and writer Cara Cole, is also fascinating!) And CWILA interviewed me about it on their website.
Others were unimpressed, offended even. I was told (though not to my face) that it was stupid, even racist. I also heard from Twitter friends that my reading project led to some heated dinner party conversations. For that I am glad.
In March, my teacher, Russell Smith, wrote an interesting column for The Globe and Mail about the perils of writing fiction that is “good for you,” fiction depicting characters who are moral or likeable or nice, telling stories that are hopeful and empowering. He made some interesting points, some of which I agreed with. Then, at the end of the column, he tacked on this thought:
“At the beginning of this year, I noticed a social-media trend among writerly colleagues. Everyone was announcing some kind of self-improvement plan in their reading. They were going to read only women writers this year, or writers of colour. Whether this was to correct their own ideological deficiencies or to improve the world at large was not clear. It gives me to understand that their reading is not for pleasure but for moral improvement. I think, then, that they should give up reading altogether. If it’s good, it will be bad for them.”
Smith’s final comment made me think about why we read. Back when I was a smoker I used to pray for some magical new research to declare that smoking was actually good for us because, how could something that feels so good be so be bad? Obviously, that never happened. Lucky for me, reading is the perfect drug: it is both pleasurable and good for me. Reading makes me happy; it provides entertainment, escape and refuge. It also (I like to believe) makes me smarter. It challenges me. It teaches me to be a better writer. It inspires me. It makes me feel deeply. It enlarges my view of the world, exposes me to other voices, other experiences, other cultures. And yes, I believe that reading can make the world a better place, that reading can make us more compassionate, can promote empathy and understanding (and research proves this to be true), regardless to how moral (or not) the characters depicted in these books are. I think of something novelist Catherine Bush, a teacher and a friend, posted on Facebook once; she was pondering the “altruistic” act of reading fiction – “the depth of entry, the sustained attention, the giving over.” I see that as a bonus
My year of reading only writers of colour made me aware of how much more visible white authors are in the media, and in the material taught in schools. This is true in both countries I call home. I saw it in the all-white panels I attended in Writers’ Festivals, in a writing class I took where every author taught was white. It also made me pay attention to the reading selections I was choosing for my own students, who—coincidentally this year—were mostly of colour. I found myself seeking new essays to teach, new essayists to introduce to myself and to my students.
As far as reading itself, my year of reading writers of colour was just like any year. I read books I loved and books I didn’t. Books right up my alley and books outside my comfort zone. Contemporary and classic. In Hebrew and in English. Fiction, nonfiction and poetry. I felt moved, engrossed, captivated, disturbed, heartbroken. Reading more diversely did not feel like a chore, but a privilege. If I felt limited by anything it was time. I hadn’t read half of the books I had planned on reading at the beginning of the year. (You can check out the ones I read on GoodReads.)
But it was also very different than other years, because (like I said in my CWILA interview) there is power in numbers, and there is power in immersion. In reading only books by writers of colour, books largely depicting characters of colour, I engaged on a daily basis with diverse voices and perspectives outside the dominant culture’s frame of reference, lived with their stories of marginalization, displacement and immigration, contemplated their profound explorations of race, identity, belonging and language. And as time passed and the books piled up, my absorption—my “sustained attention”—deepened. I was not just a weekend visitor; I was moving in.
Lilith Marcus in her thoughtful essay says her year of reading only women altered the way she looked at the world. I have always been highly aware of race; it’s hard not to be when you are not white. But as the year went on, I was becoming mindful of others’ experiences of race. Reading widely complicated my ideas of race and identity in Canada, in Israel, and in the world, pushed against the frames of the “single story,” which is how Author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, in her 2009 TED talk, refers to the common narrative we associate with certain cultures. The world around me cracked open, exploded, and expanded while at the same time, felt smaller, more intimate, familiar. I was not alone. The little Yemeni girl who grew up not seeing herself in the books she read had found literary camaraderie at last. And not just because I discovered works by (two!) Yemeni Israeli women for the first time in my life (Yes, you read that right. First time. EVER. More on that in a follow-up post) but because I saw my experiences—as an immigrant, a person of colour, a minority, an outsider—reflected in many of the books I read. In a poetry book by a young Yemeni Israeli writer (Black on Black by Adi Keissar) and in a book of lyric prose by a young Vietnamese Canadian writer (Ru by Kim Thuy). In a novel about a Nigerian woman discovering race in United States (Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie), and in a book of essays by a Native Canadian writer (The Truth About Stories, by Thomas King). In a book about a young Arab man’s blurring identities within Israeli Jewish society (To Jaffa by Ayman Sikseck), and in a memoir by an Afro-Canadian woman growing up in a predominantly white Ontario suburb (The Stone Thrower by Jael Ealey Richardson).
And it was humbling, and empowering, and thrilling, and totally fucking wonderful.
And this, really, is the point. In her TED talk Adichie said she did not think “that people like me could exist in literature.” Dionne Brand once spoke about never reading a character like her when she was growing up. The picture books I read to my daughter (in both languages) are filled with fair-skinned characters. Introducing diverse books to kids at a young age could change how children of colour see themselves and their place in the world; it could change how white children see themselves and others. It could change the world.
And this year? No pledge. There are still many books “leftover” that I never got around to read, like Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Lowland, Janie Chang’s Three Souls, and Andrea Thompson’s Over Our Heads. I also have some books I saved for 2015, like Miriam Towes’ All my Puny Sorrows, Chelsea Rooney’s Pedal, and Angie Abdou’s Between (ha! All women!). My plan for 2015 is to continue to read deeply and widely, outside the realm of my experience, outside my comfort zone. I will keep seeking diverse books to read for my toddler. And I will keep writing Mizrahi stories.
On November 12th I’ll be reading at the U of T’s Reading Series, The Platform, with some of my creative non-fiction students at the U of T School of Continuing Studies. They are a wonderful, talented group: Lina Barkas, Maisie Jacobson, Laura Sky, Tamara Jong, and Leonarda Carranza. Hopefully some of my other students will take advantage of the open mic portion of the night too. The reading will take place at The Social Capital Theatre in Toronto,
154 Danforth Ave – Second Floor, at 7:30pm.
I have hosted a reading of my students before but this would be my first time reading with my students, and I’m excited about sharing the stage with them. In honour of my students’ first public reading, I decided to read something brand new, which will make me equally nervous. I still remember the first time I read in public, in a reading series just like this one, SFU’s Writer’s Studio reading series in Vancouver. I could barely speak; my voice shook, my hands sweated, my heart raced. I kept adjusting my glasses, which threatened to slip off my sweaty nose. Then, about halfway through it I slowed down, took a deep breath, and started to enjoy it. In that moment, I recognized what a privilege it was, to reach readers in such a direct way, especially since at that point I hadn’t been published yet (not in English, anyway.) By the time I got off the stage I had no doubt in my mind that I’d be doing it again.
I’ve been thinking a lot about teaching lately and how lucky I feel to be a teacher. Teaching creative writing isn’t just something I do to supplement my income because no one can make a living out of writing anymore. I mean, yes, making some money is nice, but I also love it. Teaching is a vital part of my writing life, a companion vocation in a sense. Engaging in an ongoing conversation about writing and craft, and figuring out ways to communicate some of these insights to others is challenging, inspiring and stimulating. It keeps me learning and developing as a writer. I love being able to share my passion with aspiring writers, and I love watching them grow and become better writers, implement what they learned, gain confidence. I vividly remember how terrified I was on my first writing class. I was new to Canada, and making my first stabs at writing in a second language. “I’m not even supposed to be here,” I said. I owe much of my own success to the support and encouragement of my creative writing teachers and mentors, so in a sense, teaching is my way of paying it forward.
Needless to say, I get ridiculously proud when my students do well. Lately some of them had amazing successes I am delighted to report here.
– Emily McKibbon, who took my intro to Creative Non-Fiction last winter and is now enrolled in my Creative Non-Fiction II, just won the The Edna Staebler Personal Essay Contest! It’s a huge deal (HUGE!) and I am SO PROUD! (Sorry for the all caps, I am too excited!) Emily worked on her beautiful, multi-layered essay, “Latencies,” in our workshop last winter. It was also her final portfolio piece and I encouraged her to submit it to the contest. The essay (the first thing she has ever sent out!) will be published in The New Quarterly’s next issue, 132.
– K. A. MacKinnon (who also took both my intro and advanced creative non-fiction class at U of T) was recently published in the latest issue of Prism with her innovative essay, “Character Sketch. ” The staff at Prism called it, “a uniquely-structured piece about two women traveling through Europe as circus employees.” K. wrote the piece as an assignment for our Intro to Creative Non-fiction two winters ago. The assignment was to write a lyric essay and she nailed it. I recommended she’d send it out and she did! This is her first publication.
– I first met Lara Janze at a workshop about place (“Wish You Were Here”) I had taught in Vancouver last year. She then contacted me about private mentorship and it’s been a pleasure to work with her these past few months. The very first story we worked on, the wonderful, subtly-crafted “Bootlegger,” was recently shortlisted to Room Magazine’s fiction contest!
– Dhana Musil was my first private mentee. She approached me at a reading in Vancouver three years ago and asked if I’d be interested in mentoring her as she worked on her memoir, These Little Earthquakes, the story of the decade she spent living in the underbelly of Japan. We have been working together ever since and she’s had several successes with submitting excerpts of the memoir. Last year she has received an honourable mention at the San Miguel Writers’ Conference writing contest. Recently she was a runner up (out of nearly 300 entries) in a memoir contest put up by Serendipity Literary Agency and She Writes Press. As I told Dhana, I was pleased but not surprised. It’s been great working with her on her amazing story and I hope she’ll finish it soon so the world can read it too.
This has been the nicest, warmest fall I’ve yet to experienced in Ontario (and perhaps in my entire time Canada!) The weather has been warm and beautiful and though climate change is probably to blame I guiltily love every minute of it. I actually enjoy fall in Toronto, even if it’s a gateway season to the horror that is winter (yes, I said horror and I stand behind it). It’s been five years since I moved here, and still, every year I am in awe of the changing fall colours, the vibrancy of the yellows and reds. They make the city look so festive. Fall is also the season for writer’s festivals and reading series and literary events. There is so much to see and do in the city, and I get to wear jackets and scarves and boots and cute woolly hats while I sashay around town from one event to the other.
Speaking of writerly events: I have a couple readings coming up soon.
I am reading and speaking next week (October 30th) in Waterloo, as a part of the reading series at St. Jerome’s University. I met Tristanne Connolly, who runs the series (and is also the poetry editor for The New Quarterly) at the Wild Writers Festival last fall. She moderated the panel I was on, “Writers at Risk,” and did a fabulous job of it. I’m thrilled to be invited to Waterloo for the evening. The event begins at 4:30 on the St. Jerome’s campus (in STJ 3027).
I am also reading as part of the Platform Reading Series on November 12th. The Platform is a new series featuring an evening of poetry and prose with emerging writers from the University of Toronto School of Continuing Studies Creative Writing Program. I will be reading with five of my Creative Non-Fiction II students so it’s particularly exciting. The reading is at 7:30 at the The Black Swan Tavern, 154 Danforth Avenue, Toronto.
Speaking of The New Quarterly. My stories, “Soldiers,” and “Learning to Stand Still,” which were published in their War issue (131), received a nod from the kind folks at Prism on their “favourite writing from literary magazines” post. Thank you, Prism!
I reviewed Chez L’arabe, a fabulous book of short stories by Montreal writer Mireille Silcoff for Shtetl Montreal. It is my first published review. I have mentioned my irrational fear of writing reviews before, so I was glad for the challenge. Read the review here (and read the book too! It’s great and features a hilarious Israeli mother character… Of course I’d like it.)
CWILA (Canadian Women in Literary Arts) has asked me to speak of why I support CWILA (and why you should too!) I answered here, amongst writers like Lynn Coady, Sachiko Murakami and others. If you haven’t joined yet, please consider supporting this important organization.
Finally: I am judging Room magazine’s Creative Non-Fiction contest this year. I am delighted to be reading some fine new essays! Saleema Nawaz who judged their fiction contest last year wrote a blog post explaining how the process works, so here is a link in case you are curious. And click here to submit to the contest.
I had a wonderful whirlwind two-day trip to a torrential Houston last month. I had been to Houston once, driven through it nearly twenty years ago (impossible!) on a young, broken-hearted coast-to-coast trip with my friends after the army. After staying in cities like New York, Los Angeles, and San Diego, and visiting places like Bryce Canyon and Yosemite and The Grand Canyon I remember finding Houston dull and uninspiring. This time around the city left a much more positive impact on me. Mostly thanks to the lovely people I met, their hospitality and their warmth.
Melissa Weininger, a professor of Modern Hebrew and Jewish Studies from Rice University, kindly invited me to speak at Rice and arranged the visit. Melissa (who speaks fluent Hebrew, and apparently Yiddish!) contacted me after she had written a fascinating essay—to be published soon—about my book and Shani Boinajiu’s book, titled “Hebrew in English.” Rice University and the Israeli consulate in Houston helped finance the trip.
I started my visit at the University of Houston, where I spoke to students from History of the Modern Middle East course, taught by the illustrious Dina Alsowayel, whom I promptly fell in love with. Then I gave a lunch lecture at Rice, titled “Language, Longing and Belonging,” and finally met Melissa, whom I’ve been emailing for so long now that it felt as though we were already friends. In person, she was lovely, warm, and generous. That night, I was invited to a casual chat with the Hebrew speakers association’s book club, hosted by Miriam Pacht in her beautiful home. It was great to talk Hebrew books and Israeli authors over wine and snacks with a group of avid readers.
I haven’t been blogging. I have good reasons and bad reasons. The good reason is that I’ve spent the summer writing up a storm, working on my memoir. I was fortunate enough to receive a grant that made it possible: I rented a shared writing space outside my home, paid someone to help with childcare, and three times a week I go to my little office and write write write. It feels wonderful. On days when I don’t write, we enjoy summer in the city, spending time in parks and pools and patios. We also spent beautiful two weeks on the west coast, swimming in the ocean and hanging out with friends and family.
The bad reason for my non-blogging is that between writing my memoir and swimming in seas, I’ve been consumed by the war that’s been raging in Israel and Palestine. I found it difficult to blog about it, or even write Facebook statuses about it. At the same time, I struggled to blog about things that are not related to the war. I know you shouldn’t compare, but so much of everything else seemed small in comparison, insignificant. Even things I usually care about. I felt overwhelmed by the information and misinformation on social media (it’s a full time job trying to differentiate between the two!) and struggled to balance my need to be informed with my need to be sane. As if it wasn’t enough that the news was horribly depressing, the hatred people spewed on some threads (Why? Why do I read comments?) was sickening and frightening. Other times I got annoyed by things people posted when it was clear they had no idea what they are talking about. It was all-consuming; I couldn’t get away. Eventually, Sean took matters into his own hands and deleted the Facebook app from my iphone. Now I get my information from news sources I trust in a more controlled way.
People have been telling me to write about it since this war started. Write about it. You’re a writer and you’re Israeli and you have opinions. But when I sat in front if the computer to write I was paralyzed. Write what specifically? Where do I start? How do I make sense of it? What if I make people angry? And why do I care? And then I felt chicken shit about not writing about it, for not engaging politically. When I tried to comment on other people’s posts it came out wrong. When I shared my feelings (because surely I can do that? My feelings are my feelings. Not opinions to be disputed and argued about) people ended up arguing in the comment thread. I know I annoy people with my Gemini-esque way of seeing both sides, disappoint people who want me to make a clear stand that is more than simply pro-peace. But this is all I can do right now.
And still, after everything that happened, and after thinking to myself, Thank god I live in Canada, I actually still wish some days I lived in Israel, still miss it all the time, still imagine that maybe one day I could move back. I am not over Israel, probably never will be (which is why I will always write about it). But at the same time, these last few weeks taught me to appreciate Canada more, be grateful for it and for all that it has given me, and to accept that this is home now, regardless of what may happen in the future.
“War becomes everything and sometimes it feels like it is what life is, always will be, like war is bigger than love, or passion, or hope. Sometimes it’s difficult to see myself clearly, to separate my own story from that of my country.”
The issue is wonderful. I haven’t finished it yet but I did enjoy some of the fiction in it, like a story by Molly Lynch and another by Brent Van Staalduinen and an essay about reporting from Afghanistan by May Jeong.
This week I am hosting a guest blogger as part of the blog tour that has been going around. It is my first time ever. I’m pretty excited about it! Devyani Saltzman, author of Shooting Water, to whom I’d passed the baton last week, answers four questions about writing and speaks of her transition from literary nonfiction to fiction.
I had the pleasure of meeting Ayelet at the National Festival Director’s social at Harbourfront Centre. The night was winding down and a group of wonderful writers, including Ayelet, Martha Baillie and Alissa York, shared a beer and caught up. Since we’ve met, I’ve been looking forward to reading her collection The Best Place on Earth.
What am I working on?
I’m working on my first novel, currently entitled Army of Peace. It’s been a big transition for me, coming from literary nonfiction (Shooting Water, a memoir) and journalism. That said, it’s the form I’ve been the most drawn to. As Ayelet echoed in her post, “writing a novel requires a lack of control I find terrifying. It’s just so big and uncontainable.” I feel the same way, and I think because of this the novel draws on a real political group, and historical idea, which gives me a framework to work within. The novel is based on a group of individuals I’ve been fascinated by for a long time, civilian peacekeepers, and an idea I’ve been equally fascinated by, nonviolence. The narrative follows a strong female protagonist on a delegation to the subcontinent, with the history of pacifism (from Gandhi to the Quakers) woven into the story.
I wrote the first draft while programming the literary portion of the Luminato Festival in Toronto. In a way programming is the perfect counterpoint for me (it’s my teaching gig), and it provides a way of having a finger on the pulse of contemporary writing globally whilst doing my own work. I also review for the Globe and the Post. The reviews have actually kept me sane during the marathon process of the novel. I never thought I’d touch the dreaded arena of criticism, but I actual find the thousand-word sprints of review writing refreshing, challenging, and instantly rewarding. It’s an important art form, and reading and thinking about the work of others has only helped me hone my own work as a writer.
Ayelet mentioned E.L. Doctorow’s quote “Writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can see only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”
I’ll add another one to our virtual conversation. I think Stephen King said writing is like crossing the Atlantic alone in a bathtub. That’s the image I think of when I’m stuck in the process and need a good laugh.
How does my work differ from other work in its genre?
I’d like to think my nonfiction, and now fiction, as just good story, but I know they are of course informed by my background. Specifically being born into two very different cultures, Indian (my mother’s family is from the Punjab) and Jewish (my father’s family are Russian Jews who immigrated to Canada in the 19th and early 20th century). The characters in Shooting Water, and now the novel, are on some level searching for personal/internal reconciliation within a global space. They are not hemmed in by nationality or religion, and in that sense they are also seeking their own sense of global citizenship.
Why do I write what I do?
Because I love reading work which balances the political and personal. Because I love reading novels where I learn. Because, as Michael Ondaatje said, it helps me clarify myself. Because books are the only world I ever wanted to play in (although at one point I thought I could escape that and become a geneticist…it didn’t last)
How does my writing process work?
Discipline. Discipline. Discipline.
I can’t function without structure. Five years at the festival meant that I kept a regular work day. Programming meetings, coffee breaks, commuting. I need that same structure to write. I wake up in the morning and head to work. That involves a quick coffee and a stroll down to the office (one of three coffee shops). I sit down at the ‘desk’ at nine and start my day. I usually write (or revise) from 9-1pm. Then I take a quick lunch break and then do a few more hours. My freelance work happens in the afternoon, but the morning is pure book. I try to swim three times a week and see friends in the evenings so I don’t feel like I’m going crazy.
The hardest, and most essential thing for me during the process of the novel, is setting my own deadlines. It’s easy for me to deliver on journalism/reviews, even the first book, but with fiction I feel I can endlessly tinker, and need to create deadlines (even if false) to ensure progress. i.e. It must go to one my core readers on a a specific date. I’ll revise a specific number of pages a day etc. I need to create that forward momentum in order to function.
Don’t forget to check out some of the other authors who contributed to this blog tour.
Angie Abdou * Kathy Para* Theodora Armstrong * Eufemia Fanetti * Janie Chang * Lorna Suzuki * Barbara Lambert * Matilda Magtree * Alice Zorn * Anita Lahey * Pearl Pirie * Julie Paul *Sarah Mian * Steve McOrmond * Susan Gillis * Jason Heroux
Theodora Armstrong, author of the wonderful short story collection Clear Skies, No Wind, 100% Visibility (which was nominated for the BC Book Prize) asked me to participate in a blog tour, and answer some questions about my writing and process. I’ve been a rotten blogger recently so I figured it would be a chance to post something new. (I have, however, been writing new material, which I am very excited about!)
I met Theo at the Vancouver’s Writers Fest and we bonded over being short story writers (our collections were released within days of each other’s), photographers, and mothers. You can read Theo’s contribution on Janie Chang’s blog (who kindly hosted a blogless Theo) and you should also visit her website, and read her book!
What am I working on?
I’m working on a memoir and a novel, because I like to mix it up. Right now, I’m putting more energy toward the memoir because it is closer to being finished, which is a good thing considering I started it in 2007 (though I haven’t been working on it steadily). An earlier version of the memoir was shortlisted for the 1st Book Competition in 2010 (back then it was called You and What Army.) Despite how disappointed I was at the time, I’m glad it didn’t win. It was not ready. The memoir deals with similar themes to my short story collection, The Best Place on Earth: transience, home, identity and belonging. It is a coming-of-age story that follows my journey from growing up in a suburb of Tel Aviv to a large Yemeni family, through my turbulent service in the Israeli army, and my years of backpacking and travelling. If you’d like a sneak peek, you can read “Yemeni Soup and Other Recipes” here (it won a National Magazine Award and a Western Magazine Award last year!). Also, two pieces from the memoir are forthcoming with The New Quarterly’s summer issue.
I’m also working on a novel about the Yemeni community in Israel. It’s still pretty raw and I find the process intimidating and difficult. Writing a novel requires a lack of control I find terrifying. It’s just so big and uncontainable. I used to think that I write shorts partly because I have commitment issues; it mirrored other aspects of my life. I’m a different person now and I’ve learned to commit to things and people and places, but I still find writing a novel daunting. Theodora spoke eloquently about how difficult she finds the transition from the short form to the long form in her blog post. I try to just write, put words on paper, and remember this wonderful quote by E.L. Doctorow: ‘Writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can see only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.’
Also, I still write short fiction here and there because I love short fiction and I don’t plan to ever stop.
How does my work differ from other work in its genre?
I write stories that are set mostly in Israel, against a backdrop of conflict and army service. I write about Mizrahi characters, particularly of Yemeni Jewish heritage, which are rarely depicted in literature. Then there’s the fact that I write in my second language, while still being largely influenced and informed by my first language. I feel that I am a Canadian writer, because this is where I grew as a writer and where I write, but my writing doesn’t fit the Canadian lit stereotype (whatever that means). I think my cultural heritage and where I’m from is evident in more than my themes and content. It’s in my style, even my word choice. I talk more about that in this essay I wrote for Event’s Notes on Writing issue.
Why do I write what I do?
Because when I tried to write other things that were safer, less scary, less likely to get me in trouble, I failed. Because I grew up not finding characters like me and stories like my family’s in the books I read. Because you write the book you want to read (Toni Morrison said it, not me). Because I don’t know that I have a choice.
How does my writing process work?
It’s a bit of a mystery, really. I work on a computer. Except for when I am really stuck with something (a sentence, an image, a paragraph) and then I move it to paper and try to loosen it up a bit. I’ve been known to walk around in my neighbourhood with a notebook and write while walking when I really need to loosen things up. I feel like movement helps. When I am in the generative stage I try to just write, not think or edit as I go along, and leave all that for the editing process. It’s not always easy—the critic/editor in me wants to weigh in; she can be a bit of a jerk—but I resist the urge.
I spent 15 years working physical jobs like waitressing and cleaning houses, so despite growing up a lazy kid, I’ve taught myself to be a hard worker. I apply these ethics to writing. I try to write every day, but sometimes I don’t, because I have a baby and there are other things to get done. Having a baby changed my writing practice drastically (and everything else in my life!), which was to be expected. Before I wrote almost every morning, then took a break for lunch, exercise, errands, and in the afternoons, if I was still in the zone, I’d go on writing, or if not, I’d start editing. Toward the end of a manuscript I’d be at it all day, locked in my room, eating in front of the computer, stopping just a little past the point of becoming delirious (which I don’t recommend).
When Sean went back to work after his paternity leave and I couldn’t write I was losing my shit. Turns out I need to write to be happy. So I got help a couple of times a week. I also rented a space in a shared-workspace and I go there and write for a few hours. I love it; there are no distractions and since it costs me money to have those quiet hours I don’t waste time on facebook. I write with a new urgency I hadn’t felt before.
Next week, two other wonderful writers will be posting their answers on the next leg of the tour:
I first met the lovely Angie Abdou in the Real Vancouver Writers Reading Series—we were the two out-of-towners. Then, we hung out in the Victoria Writers Festival. Angie’s new book, Between, is coming out this fall and I cannot wait to read it!
I met Devyani Saltzman just recently in a Toronto literary event, and have since got together to talk shop over coffee. But I have been familiar with her work for a long time. I loved her memoir, Shooting Water, and have been teaching her creative nonfiction piece, “Amma,” in my CNF classes. Devyani is currently working on a novel.
Don’t forget to check out some of the other authors who contributed to this blog tour.
Kathy Para* Theodora Armstrong * Eufemia Fanetti * Kathy Page * Janie Chang * Lorna Suzuki * Barbara Lambert * Matilda Magtree * Alice Zorn * Anita Lahey * Pearl Pirie * Julie Paul *Sarah Mian * Steve McOrmond * Susan Gillis * Jason Heroux
Remember when I used to blog? What happened to that? Oh, right. I had a baby. And I work. And I write. Well, sometimes I do, though this past month has been all about grant applications and mentoring other writers (which is also great). June 15th is my day to get back to writing and I cannot wait!
I do have several pieces of wonderful news to share:
1) The Best Place on Earth is going to be published in Italian! The publisher is Nuova Editrice Berti, and they make beautiful books. Sono eccitato!
2) I (finally) signed with a literary agency! Inkwell Management is one of the world’s leading literary agencies and I’m thrilled to be working with them. I got to meet Kimberly Witherspoon and David Forrer at their Fifth Avenue office when I was in New York for my New America Fund event. I’m proud that I signed my first book deal on my own, but I think I’m ready for an agency to take over.
3) I have two pieces of creative non-fiction forthcoming with The New Quarterly, “Soldiers,” and “Learning to Stand Still.” Both pieces are from my memoir. I love The New Quarterly and am pleased to be included in their war-themed issue.
4) I gave up my office for Baby recently. I wasn’t too happy about it, but then Sean created an amazing writing space for me upstairs, in this little nook in the living room. He even made a barrier in the form of a large bookshelf so the room is now divided into two. I love my new office! I have a view of the street and a breeze and it’s beautiful. Sean is awesome.
5) Not my news but extremely exciting: my dear friend Eufemia Fantetti is runner-up for the Danuta Gleed award for her book Recipe for Disaster and Other Unlikely Tales of Love! I couldn’t be more proud! Her book is beautifully written and darkly funny and you should all read it. Do it.
Oh, and summer is here! It’s hot and sunny and I got new dresses and cute sandals and my Mediterranean blood is happy. Sometimes I pretend that the lake is a sea, and that the water is warm and salty, and then I’m really really happy. (Read more about my love of the sea, my brief belly-dancing stint and why I write detailed sex scenes in this interview on author Lauren Carter’s blog).
It’s a busy busy time. Sean went to work full time, which means I have to juggle momming and writing and teaching and promoting. It’s been crazy. So here’s a quick recap of some new and exciting things that are happening. I am now (and for the next three weeks) the writer in residence at Crescent School in Toronto, working with high school students on their independent study projects for their Writers’ Craft class. The students are wonderful, and I have a little office with some view where I write with no interruptions. It’s pretty great.
My event at the New America Foundation in New York City was wonderful. The conversation with Lisa Goldman and Sigal Samuel, and the Q & A that followed was inspiring and illuminating. You can listen to the podcast here.
I’m reading at Draft reading series on April 27th, as part of National Poetry Month. No, I’m not reading any poetry. But I will be reading something new, which is exciting and a bit nerve racking. The reading is at 3:00pm in The Black Swan Tavern, 154 Danforth Ave, Toronto.
Finally, I was interviewed in Hebrew for the first time, for Ynet! It is particularly exciting because now my mother can finally read one of my interviews. You can check out the story here.
I am thrilled to be doing an event in New York City next week, on April 1st. The New America Foundation (“a nonprofit, nonpartisan public policy institute that invests in new thinkers and new ideas to address the next generation of challenges facing the United States”) invited me to talk about The Best Place on Earth, Mizrahi identity and Israeli contemporary literature at their snazzy Soho location. I get to talk with two fiercely intelligent women, internationally-published and acclaimed journalist Lisa Goldman who is the New America’s Israel-Palestine Initiative director (and whose blog I used to follow when she was a Canadian living in Israel) and The Forward’s Editor and award-winning writer, Sigal Samuel, who wrote this beautiful review of The Best Place on Earth on The Daily Beast.
I love New York. I lived in Manhattan for a few months when I was twenty-two in a tiny bachelor apartment I shared with my best friend. I visited many times since (though it’s been a while). So I am excited about spending time there and catching up with old friends.
Israeli contemporary literature has undergone a shift over the last decade. For decades its international reputation was dominated by men who were representative of Israel’s establishment, which was mostly of European descent — like Amos Oz and David Grossman.
But in recent years a new crop of authors have been translated into English, and they offer a much more cosmopolitan picture of Israeli society. Some prominent examples include Sayed Kashua, who writes in Hebrew from the perspective of a Palestinian Arab citizen of Israel. Dorit Rabinyan, whose writing is informed by her Persian roots. Sara Shilo, whose widely praised novel “The Falafel King is Dead” is set in an impoverished town on the Lebanese border that is populated primarily by Jews of North African descent. Haim Sabato, whose prize winning novels describe Israel through the eyes of a religious soldier from a Syrian family. And the Iraqi-born Sami Michael, who sets many of his novels in his native country.
Joining these diverse voices is Ayelet Tsabari, an Israeli woman of Yemenite descent who identifies as an Arab Jew. Last year she published her debut collection of short stories in English, titled “The Best Place on Earth.” Writing in English rather than her native Hebrew, Tsabari describes in vivid, confident, earthy prose an Israel and an Israeliness that are deeply recognizable to anyone who has lived there and knows Hebrew, but are all-but unknown abroad. Her mostly young, Mizrahi and secular characters live universal experiences of love, family and grief against a particularly Israeli backdrop that includes the sealed rooms and gas masks of the 1991 Gulf War, mandatory army service, the post-army trip to India that has become a rite of passage, and the wave of suicide bombings of 2001-2. Multicultural and sensual,Tsabari’s stories take the reader to the vibrant heart of contemporary Israeli society.
Join New America NYC for an evening of storytelling and conversation about evolving identities in Israeli society.
To RSVP (did I mention the Middle Eastern treats?) click here.
How could it have been a year already? The Best Place on Earth is one year old today! I remember that this day last year was just as gloomy and miserable as today is. I remember feeling anxious and a little bit crazy and not as joyous as I had wanted to feel (that elated feeling came the following day, at my launch, which was hands down the best party I ever had) I remember that that morning I struggled to zip up my parka, which was starting to feel pretty tight on my hugely pregnant belly. I also remember driving across town to several Book City’s, signing books and taking pictures.
I didn’t get a chance to do a proper yearly recap this year to commemorate 2013. This has been the best year of my life and it has flown by so fast, as only the best years can. Obviously, the book has only been a part of it. 2013 is also the year I became a mother, a month after I published my first book. There’s that. Talk about a life-changing year!
But this post is for the book’s birthday. Baby’s birthday is going to be a big (and more private) event, which will bring on much celebration and reflection (which I may or may not blog about. But probably not.)
So here are some book highlights from the year:
I appeared in 5 literary festivals around the country, Spur and Luminato in Toronto, Wild Writers Festival in Waterloo, The Vancouver Writers’ Fest (a dream come true for me), and The Victoria Writers Festival, which was another highlight.
The Best Place on Earth was long listed to an award (The Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award)
I was named one of ten Canadian writers to watch by CBC!
I worked on a video book trailer with my friend Elsin Davidi, which was so much fun to do (and I love the result.)
There were so many thoughtful and generous reviews for The Best Place on Earth. I especially loved this review in The Vancouver Sun, this recent one in The Ottawa Jewish Bulletin, and in the blogosphere, these two reviews, by Book Club in a Box and The Daily Beast, nearly made me cry. (I also loved Buried in Print‘s take on the book).
I was interviewed by many bloggers and magazines. My favourites would be this one for Cwila, and this one by Trevor Corkum of Currently Living. (And this one, “The Dirty Dozen” by Open Book Toronto, was kind of fun, too.)
The Best Place on Earth made it on a few lists: Book Club in a Box included it on their Summer Must-Reads (along with other great titles!), 49th Shelf included The Best Place on Earth on their list celebrating great works by immigrant writers, and it was also on Schema Magazine Annie’s Picks: New Ethnic Books to Read in 2013
Other exciting things that happened this year:
I was a guest editor for The National Post’s Afterword
British Stylist Magazine asked me to write them a Christmas story (I got my cousin in Britain to mail me a few copies).
I spoke in front of a class of high school students and an auditorium of 200 (!) elementary school students
I read as part of The Toronto Public Library’s Eh List Series
On a personal note:
My mother came to spend time with Baby and me in Toronto (only the second time she’s visited me in Canada)
I travelled to Israel for two months to introduce Baby to her extended family and my friends
I made many new writer friends in the festivals I attended.
I was on the jury for the Toronto Arts Council Writers grant (it was an illuminating experience)
I didn’t write (or read) as much as I would have liked
I discovered how little sleep I actually need to function
I say it was the best year of my life, and it was, but it was also challenging and at times, crazy making. I guess it is to be expected, considering I spent the year figuring out the ropes of new motherhood while also being public as an author (which are two almost opposing forces) and that I had to work and support my family while Sean was on paternity leave, and do all of this on so little sleep and while my body was changing and my hormones were raging. I feel so grateful for everything that happened this year. And I feel ridiculously lucky to have people read the book and grateful to the many readers who came to my events, wrote reviews, emailed me or spoke with me about my work.
As far as resolutions: I am hoping to write more and read more this year. So far I’m doing relatively well on both fronts. I have an exciting reading project for 2014, and I’ve been working on-and-off on both my novel and my memoir in stories. Also, spring is coming any day now. I can’t wait!
Only a month (and a week) late! I finally got around to go through some of the photos from my events with the New Israel Fund of Canada in February. It was a pleasure to tour with the NIFCAN, and to speak in those different cities. The event in Toronto was at the Gladstone Hotel, and I was interviewed by Gabe Gonda of the Globe and Mail who asked some tough questions, including one that started with, “So there’s a lot of sex in the book,” (to which I replied with, “Yes. Yes, there is.”) It was a great evening. Two mothers from my mothers’ group came too, and I loved seeing them in a different setting. No babies and drinks in hand!
In Montreal, I was lucky to have the event in La Sala Rossa, a great music venue some of my musician friends have performed in and raved about, and to be interviewed by the lovely Tamara Kramer, who is the wild mind behind Shtetl Montreal (both the radio show and the magazine). I loved her questions and her energy, and the audience was responsive and fun. I also got to see some of my dear Montreal friends, visit with my brother and his family, hang out with the lovely Saleema Nawaz, and reconnect with an old friend I hadn’t seen in over a decade! I even made a new friend, singer/songwriter Orit Shimoni, who also moved to Canada from Israel a few years ago. We have already collaborated on her project, “Let’s Get Persecuted,” (after her new song by that same name). You can read my story for this project on her site.
In Ottawa I was interviewed by an open-minded and progressive Rabbi Steven Garten who actually liked my book (despite the sex)! Imagine my surprise and delight. I’ve only been to Ottawa once before, many many years ago, for a night of debauchery and partying (and everyone says Ottawa is boring!) I don’t know anyone in Ottawa so it was nice when one of my Twitter buddies, Kaarina Stiff, showed up and introduced herself.
The Toronto photos were taken by Mark Tennenhouse. The Montreal photos were taken by Leslie Schachter.
Next: New York City! The New America Foundation is flying me to the big city for an event on April 1st. I’m thrilled! More details soon.
A wonderful, well-written review of The Best Place on Earth appeared in The Ottawa Jewish Bulletin. Reviewer Mira Sucharov calls the book “Smart, sexy and absorbing.” Sucahrov also says, “I didn’t want to put down The Best Place on Earth… but I frequently did. I wanted to savour each story, willing the book not to end. Though, when I did sometimes read straight from one story to the next, I realized how flawless is Tsabari’s ability to introduce us to a new set of characters with a new set of challenges. As soon as a new story has begun, the reader is entirely invested in it.”
Sucharov is is an Associate Professor of Political Science at Carleton University. She also blogs frequently for Haaretz and the Daily Beast.
Read the full review here.
I’m reading at the Wonderful Women Writers Series on February 27th, at 5:00pm with Elizabeth Ruth. The event is sponsored by the Centre for Women’s Studies in Education at OISE/University of Toronto and will be hosted by their current writer-in-residence, Dr. Nora Gold. The centre is (from their website) “committed to promoting, supporting, and enriching feminist work at OISE and UofT; and connecting scholarship, education, and activism through constructive and critical dialogues with feminist communities locally, nationally, and globally.” So it’s a great honour to be be invited to read at this series and to be paired with the lovely Elizabeth Ruth.
I’m also thrilled to be in an event hosted by Dr. Nora Gold. I met Nora last year at my event at Spur Festival and we clicked instantly. We since met for coffee and have been in touch via email. She is an award-winning writer whose novel, Fields of Exile, will be coming out in May 2014 and I can’t wait to read it. She is also the founder and editor of JewishFiction.net, an online literary journal dedicated to Jewish fiction. I’m really looking forward to a wonderful evening with some wonderful women writers!
Here’s a link to the Facebook event with more details.
Last week my mother and her partner moved to a new temporary home, leaving behind the house she had lived in for the past thirty years, the house my father had planned and built before he passed away. Sean, Baby and I moved with them, at least for the next few days before going back to Canada.
I wrote the following post in December, when the idea that the house would soon be torn down didn’t fully sink in. Then I got busy—packing, cleaning, teaching workshops, visiting friends and family—and I never got around to publishing this. Now, one day before the house’s final moment (and two days before our flight back to Toronto), I read the post in the brand new apartment we all moved to and find that I lamented mostly about the loss of our books. Maybe it was easier than thinking about losing my childhood home.
Reading it now, it is the present tense that breaks my heart.
I’m posting it as is.
I was seven years old when my parents started building their dream home. At the time, my family —father, mother and six children—was living in a cramped three-bedroom apartment in downtown Petah Tikva, thirteen kilometres east of Tel Aviv. My father was thrilled when he found cheap land in Mahane Yehuda, where he was born and lived until he was ten. The neighbourhood was a village once, a jumble of sheds and small stone houses, founded by Yemeni immigrants in 1913. Later, the city expanded around the village, swallowing it whole.
During the year it was being built my dad took us to the house every Saturday and we walked around the skeleton of it—all concrete and brick and poking metal wires—and imagined it alive. I still remember it new, the smell of fresh paint and sawdust and earth, the sheen on the tile floors, the promise of possibilities. It was a large, split-level house linked by many staircases, with six bedrooms, three and a half bathrooms, and even a shower in the garage. The shower was a grand gesture from my father to my mother, the clean freak, installed especially for when we came back from the beach on Saturdays, so that we wouldn’t drag sand all over my mother’s new floors. From our rooftop we could see palm trees poking from between the smoky city roofs, hazy hills in the distance. And in the back, the eight olive trees my father had planted—one for each member of the family. An ancient lemon tree stood at the edge of the lot, the house built conveniently next to it so my mother was able to reach outside her kitchen window on the second floor, and pluck lemons off the branches. After years of sharing small living quarters, we were intoxicated by the spaciousness. The house felt vast, endless, filled with cozy nooks and secret places, and when my cousins and I played hide and seek they would run up and down the stairs until they were out of breath and they still couldn’t find me.
My father enjoyed the house he had built for less than a year before he suffered a heart attack. He was ill for a few months, and for a while there was talk of installing a special elevator. A contractor came by and drew marks on the wall where the elevator would start. My father passed away before it was set up.
In the thirty years since it was built, the house has slowly deteriorated. My mother struggled to maintain it while trying to raise her six children. What once seemed like a luxurious mansion is now a drafty, derelict concrete monster. The wooden shutters are crooked and missing slats, windows are wedged in their tracks, the paint is peeling and the walls are cracked, swollen with moisture. Half the outlets hang by a thread, the electric wires exposed. The front yard is strewn with weeds and wild life has been slowly migrating indoors: cockroaches and ants and mice. Pigeons coo on window sills and crows crowd the roof. In the yard, stray cats laze in sunshine and porcupines hide in bushes. Once, my mother found a snake in the kitchen. My brother killed it with an ornamental sword while standing on a chair. The house has been becoming less and less hospitable every time I visit. Last week, during one of the worst storms we had in years, Sean and I sat huddled by an electric heater dressed in coats and could still see our breath. We woke up to puddles in the living room and had to place three buckets in my childhood room, which quickly filled to the brim. The next morning, as I was snuggling my baby who was having her first cold during the storm, we woke up to water dripping into her crib.
“Maybe,” I told my mother. “It’s nature’s way of helping us let go of the house. So by the time they tear it down you’d be thinking Good Riddance.”
“Maybe,” my mom said.
They’ve been talking about tearing the house down for so long that it has become a myth. For the past few years, every time I came to stay it was the last time. But this time it’s really happening. Next month, the house will be bulldozed and an apartment building will be built on its ruins, where my mom and her husband will gracefully retire. It’s the right thing to do, obviously. We all know it. Accept it. But it doesn’t make it any easier. An act so violent, so final. An erasure of our past.
I volunteered to tackle the books. There were hoards of them. This was a house of eight avid readers, collectors and compulsive gifters of books (many were inscribed from one family member to another), shoppers at used bookstores, forgetful borrowers. After we left home, my mother and her husband collected the remaining books and created a library of floor-to-ceilings bookshelves in one of my brothers’ rooms. But there is no space for so them in my mother’s new apartment. The library had to be dismantled and given away, destroyed, much like the house. I started by dividing the books into ones I thought my siblings would want to look at first and the ones I figured we can let go of. Nissim, my mother’s husband who works in the flea market in Jaffa, said he’d take them to his bookseller friend. I started packing them into boxes but it was taking forever and was heavy to transport, and so Nissim came up with a better idea. He’ll open the back of his work truck and toss the books from the second floor window straight into it. I didn’t like the idea much. Like the demolition, it felt too harsh, too disrespectful. But there was so much more work to be done and I had no help and I was tired and so I agreed.
Then, over one of our last Friday dinners at the house, my brother accused me of throwing away books he had wanted to keep. Books that meant something. How could you know which books mattered to me? He said. These were my childhood memories. I felt horribly guilty, even after my mother assured me that she’s been telling my siblings they had to deal with the books for months now. That they all knew that that she’d be getting rid of them, and that everyone is just being emotional and sensitive right now. I continued to feel guilty even after my brother forgot all about it. When I asked Nissim if I could track the books down, he said they are all gone by now. “He only keeps them for a few days and then he throws them in the garbage.” My heart broke. I wouldn’t have done it if I knew, I told Sean. I thought I was passing them on to a book aficionado, giving them new life. I can’t shake the feeling that I committed some crime against books, and even worse, like I had a part in the process of erasing and bulldozing my siblings’ memories. These pictures I took when I could have still saved the books take on a new meaning now. (Of course, many of the books featured here I did save. They were my favourites).
Exciting news! I’m going on another mini-tour on the first week of February. I will be reading from The Best Place on Earth and speaking about my experience as an Israeli of Yemeni descent and about writing Mizrahi stories. There will also be some time for a Q & A and books for sale. Oh, and did I mention that it will take place in licensed venues? So you can have a glass of wine and a snack with it?
The event is called “Say it Again, Say Something else,” after one of the stories in the book. New Israel Fund of Canada, (a non-profit organization committed to equality of social and political rights in Israel, without regard to religion, race, gender or national identity), is putting up the events and I’m honoured to be working with them. I also love that in their email announcement of the event they quoted this from my recent post about Why I Choose to Only Read Writers of Colour in 2014, “In writing The Best Place on Earth, I was trying to rectify the experience I had as a child growing up in Israel and reading books that didn’t include characters like me. There was never a Yemeni girl in the books I read and loved and so I ended up feeling invisible…”
I’ll be in Montreal on Wednesday, February 5, 7:30 PM, at La Sala Rossa, 4848 boul. Saint-Laurent. Tamara Kramer, Creator and Host of the radio show Shtetl on the Shortwave & Editor of Shtetl Magazine, will be interviewing me.
The events are free but you have to reserve your spot here.
In other news, there are still a couple spots left in my writing workshops in Israel—“The Lyric Essay, The Beautiful Wild Child of CNF”, on January 20 in Jerusalem, and “Wish You Were Here: Writing about Place” on January 23rd in Moshav Beit Zayit. They are running out fast! Check here for more information and registration.
2014 started with a new (true) story published in Little Fiction’s new sibling, Big Truths! I’m so pleased to be a part of this great little literary magazine. And this particular story is close to my heart… Read Running on Blueberries here.
Oh, and I’m already on book #4 on my reading pledge this year (which I speak about in this post, Why I Choose to Only Read Writers of Colour in 2014). You can check the books I’m reading and follow my progress on Goodreads!
I’m excited to be doing two writing workshops in Israel this month! As a Hebrew-speaking Israeli writer who writes in English I’m in a unique position. I still feel strongly and deeply connected to my Israeli identity, but I don’t really belong in the Israeli literary community. I’ve learned to accept it, and realized that I can be Israeli first and still be a Canadian writer, but a part of me—reminiscent of the young girl who grew up in Israel, wrote in Hebrew and dreamt of publishing a book— longs to be accepted in my country of birth.
Since The Best Place in Earth was published, I’ve been connecting with Israel’s English writing community and I’m amazed by how vibrant and dynamic and diverse it is. There’s an even an MA in Creative Writing in English in Bar-llan university, and bookstores like Tmol Shilshom in Jerusalem and Sipur Pashut in Tel Aviv regularly hold readings and other literary events in English. So I was thrilled to be invited to run these workshops (one of them put up by Bar Ilan), even if it means I don’t get to have a real vacation while I’m in Israel. (Who am I kidding? This was never going to be a real vacation. There’s always more research to be done, and this time, I’m helping my mother move too, which is a story for another post. Also, baby.) I should also mention the beautiful, inspiring locations. The first workshop (Finding the Creative in Creative Nonfiction) is at Stern House, a villa opposite the walls of the Old City of Jerusalem, and the second one (Writing about Place) is in The Writing Pad in the beautiful Moshav Beit Zayit near Jerusalem.
If you have writer friends in Israel who write in English, please tell them about these opportunities!
The Lyric Essay, The Beautiful Wild Child of Creative Nonfiction: Possibilities of Form in Creative Nonfiction