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Yemeni Jewish author leading charge for immigrant stories

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Ayelet Tsabari, the Toronto Public Library's writer-in-residence. JONATHAN BLOOM PHOTO

On a Saturday morning this February, Toronto-based author Ayelet Tsabari hosted the first of five free drop-in workshops for aspiring writers. The theme of the workshops: writing memoirs about immigration.

The scribes who arrived for this session – and came from 15 countries, by Tsabari’s count – were interested in sharpening their skills of telling stories about their experiences in a new country. Many of them were also hoping to write these tales in a second language.

That struggle is familiar to Tsabari, who immigrated to Canada at age 25 with serviceable but limited fluency in English. Around five years later, she penned her first English-language story.

To Tsabari, the Toronto Public Library’s current writer-in-residence, these workshops have been an unexpected highlight of her brief tenure, which will last until May.

“It’s a unique experience to be able to sit with these people and share the difficulties of translating our culture into writing,” says Tsabari. “Every time (we meet), I find it really invigorating.”

“I think, in writing our own stories, we can find some meaning in our lives, in understanding some of the events that happened to us,… making sense of that experience.”

Tsabari also seems like a perfect representative for this workshop because her fiction and creative non-fiction is often informed by her cultural upbringing. She grew up in a Yemeni Jewish home in Israel and served in the army before moving to Canada in 1998.

Tsabari identifies as an Arab Jew, and several of her stories contain moments where characters are confused by, or unwilling to accept, a person’s status as both an Arab and a Jew.

The latest workshop, held March 3, revolved around writers finding their voice. Tsabari says that a writer’s voice is “infused with all those things you bring with you,” which can include one’s age, heritage and memories from his or her country of origin.

Tsabari can speak about that with expertise. She wrote much of her debut short story collection, The Best Place on Earth, in Canada, taking advantage of the distance from and nostalgia of Israel to colour the text.

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She wrote many of the segments from that 2013 collection while pursuing a master of fine arts (MFA) degree in creative writing at the University of Guelph.

The Best Place on Earth even led to awards, such as the Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature.

Tsabari is now refining a book of essays that is due in bookstores next year, and she has already signed with HarperCollins Canada to publish a novel.

The honours may have been surprising, since those stories examine the lives of Mizrachi Jews – a community often ignored by mainstream Israeli press.

Tsabari says that her lack of exposure to Mizrachi writing, as well as to characters that reflected her cultural experience, was not initially encouraging to someone who aspired to write. She says she did not think she could do so professionally “because there were no examples of (Mizrachi stories) around in Israeli literature.”

Various stories and characters from The Best Place on Earth stand in sharp contrast to the heavily white, Ashkenazi, male points of view that flourish on Israel’s bestseller lists.

Despite her success, Tsabari has received some criticism that can seem misguided. She has been asked, as a writer focused on marginalized groups within Israel, why she doesn’t prioritize the experience of Palestinians.

“Isn’t that a little bit presumptuous of me to think that I can really describe from (a Palestinian) point of view?” Tsabari asks. “Nobody expects a Canadian writer to write of all of the people who live within Canada.

“I did think about writing a story from a Palestinian point of view, but that’s not what I was called to write.”

Aside from being the library’s writer-in- residence, she also teaches creative writing at the University of Toronto’s School of Continuing Studies. With manuscripts to sort through, students to oversee and three more workshops still upcoming, Tsabari says she craves time to sit down and write.

From her third-floor office at the Toronto Reference Library, she seems slightly annoyed that she may not be able to dive into new material until the summer.

“It mostly lives in my head right now,” she says of her forthcoming fiction project.