My book of short stories, The Best Place on Earth, will be coming out with HarperCollins in 2013. I have a contract signed, an editor assigned, and a cheque with my name on it. It’s for real.
People ask me how it felt, getting that email inviting me to the HarperCollins offices for a ‘chat.’ Did I scream? they ask. I totally screamed. I also cried a little bit. I played Matisyahu in my office really loudly and did a silly dance. I called my mom, my mentor in Toronto (Camilla Gibb), my mentor in Vancouver (Betsy Warland). I smiled like a fool on the subway on the way to my meeting. I kept smiling like that for days. Then I freaked out. I borrowed ‘How to be your own Literary Agent‘ from the library and spent hours researching on the internet. I actually had to cut down on coffee because I was having anxiety attacks.
I wanted to be a writer ever since I had learned the alphabet. As a kid, I filled school notebooks with stories and poems, then created a cover and a jacket, glued a pocket on for a library card, wrote a synopsis on the back and a short bio: Ayelet Tsabari is eight years old and goes to Hes Elementary in Petah Tikva.
Then, for my tenth birthday, my father promised he would publish my writing in a book.
“A real book?” I asked.
“A real book,” he said. “Just put together your best writing.”
I knew my father used to write too. A nosy kid, I’d found scribbling in his bedside drawer, parts of poems, unsent letters. His handwriting fascinated me, quick and elegant, artfully drawn and rounded with long strokes. At the bottom of the drawer, I found a yellowing magazine from 1967, titled Afikim, in which his poem was featured, his only publication.
My father was a second child to a poor family of eight siblings: my grandparents had immigrated from Yemen to Israel in the 1930’s. He had studied for his high school graduation exams by the street lamp outside his house because their home had no electricity. He started writing in 1959 and wrote for an entire year, winter and summer. His verse was in eloquent, proper Hebrew; his love poems to my mother paid homage to King Solomon. Yet he never really dared to envision a future as a writer. In one of his poems he wrote: “A poet’s craft is an artist’s realm / not for you, son of Yemen.” There were no published Yemeni poets in Israel at the time. Our celebrated poets were all Ashkenazi. When my father gathered his courage and handed the poems to his literature teacher from high school, the teacher critiqued them harshly, littering my father’s notebook with red ink. My father was discouraged. He concentrated on his law studies and abandoned his literary aspirations.
Only in his forties, a father of six and a successful lawyer, my father finally decided to follow his dream and signed up for literature studies in the University of Tel Aviv. He never got to attend them. He died a month before my tenth birthday.
Looking back now, I’m not sure when my dream of becoming an author had gotten away from me. I don’t know if the fact that my father wasn’t there to cheer me on had something to do with it, or if I simply had let doubt and insecurities get the better of me, the same way my father had.
As a reluctant soldier in the IDF, I wrote a book of linked short stories about unhappy female soldiers. The stories circulated in my unit, passed around between my fellow soldiers. When my friends asked why I didn’t send them to publishers I told them it was too soon. I was too young. No one ever writes an awesome book when they’re nineteen, I said (which I know now to not be true).
In my early twenties, I worked as a journalist, and found that writing fiction wasn’t easy to do when you had deadlines piling up. I associated writing with work. When I was done working I wanted to do something else (which is why I quit being a journalist).
Then I started travelling, and waitressing, and travelling some more. Eventually, my travels brought me to Canada. Writing in English, then, seemed impossible. Writing in Hebrew in a world where no one else knew the language felt alienating. It used to be that people could guess that I’m a writer by how I spoke. In English, my vocabulary was limited, my verb tense faulty, my sentence structure all wrong. I even found reading in English difficult; there were so many words I didn’t understand and reading with a dictionary was slow and frustrating. I worked as a waitress, dabbled in other creative pursuits, mostly photography, but also video, belly dancing, comics, singing, jewellery. Every now and then I’d write something, usually in Hebrew, sometimes in English. Neither language felt completely right. Sometimes I wondered if I’d ever get back to writing and was burdened by an enormous sense of loss. I felt I had owed it to my father to write, to publish that book he had wanted to publish for me. Put together my best writing. But it was too late. I was blocked. Sometimes I wondered if I had lost it for good. The dream was slipping away. Maybe I just had to let it go.
All kinds of amazing things happened after that. I met a man who thought that I had to give writing a real shot. For our first anniversary he demanded a story. I hated him for it. I did it anyways. In English. The story was riddled with errors. He didn’t care.
In 2007, I joined the Writer’s Studio and suddenly I had teachers who cared and supported me, writers like Wayde Compton and Betsy Warland who told me I could do this. I met other emerging writers, heard their stories, and felt I wasn’t alone. I had a community. Then I was accepted to the MFA program at Guelph. I moved to Toronto.
The book deal with HarperCollins happened fast: unusually, freakishly fast. I sent a query letter and within three days was already sitting in their glassed office in downtown Toronto, stupefied and underdressed (a picture of my dad tucked in my purse). I felt too lucky (if there is such thing) that it happened that way, guilty somehow that I didn’t suffer more for it, that my work didn’t sit in the slush pile for months. But then a friend reminded me that it hadn’t been fast at all. I’ve been working for thirty years, she said, to get me to this, suffered many setbacks, many rejections, a severe writer’s block, doubts and insecurities, learning to write in my second language.
So I try to listen to my friend, shake off the guilt, be happy and grateful for this gift and for this journey. I remind myself to give back, through mentorship and community support and general, everyday kindnesses, because I know that these are the kinds of things that would really make my father proud, a man who was known in my hometown for his charity and generosity, and because the truth is: underneath this cynical, crusty exterior, I’m just a big ol’ hippie.