Author Profiles: Crossing borders

Ayelet Tsabari_openbooktoronto.com

 By Monica Miller
Photos by openbooktoronto.com

Ayelet Tsabari’s first language is not English, yet her manuscript You and What Army was shortlisted for the First Book Competition, and her new book of short stories, The Best Place On Earth has received glowing reviews in national newspapers. Tsabari is an Israeli of Yemeni descent, grew up outside of Tel Aviv, and served mandatory time in the military as a young adult. In Israel, Tsabari worked as a journalist writing non-fiction but when she moved to Canada in 1998 she found these skills non-transferable from Hebrew to English.

She took a break from writing because it felt debilitating being unable to express herself properly, and explored other forms of storytelling. She studied film and photography at Capilano University and one of her documentary films won the grand prize in the Palm Spring International Short Film Festival.

In 2006 she returned to writing, but this time in her second language. “I was often resorting to cliches,” laments Tsabari. She enrolled in The Writers’ Studio at SFU where she “found [her] voice and childhood dream.” Learning many practical skills and a business knack was important, but it was the community of like-minded people that made the experience notable for Tsabari.

Her life in Israel is a big inspiration for Tsabari, who says that “writing keeps [Israel] close to my heart.” She had initially resisted the urge to write about Israel, but realized that she needed to. “The subject chose me, I had to let go and let it happen.”

The details, smells, and sounds are a catalogue of her home, and part of the sensory experience in her writing. The Best Place On Earth gathers these elements and follows Mizrahi characters — Jewish people of Middle Eastern and North African descent. The novel examines identities inherent in our cultures and how we navigate the crossroads of nationality and religion. These themes also echo Tsabari’s personal essays in You and What Army, which she describes as “non-fiction stories about my life that document leaving my home and finding my way back.”

Through her own story, Tsabari explores the idea of “home and questioning what determines home. Is it your family, the physical landscape, where you grew up, or something undefinable?”

Writing in English is still a challenge for Tsabari, but it is both “motivating and inspiring.” Although her vocabulary and grammar skills are less in English than in Hebrew, she said it has kept her humble. “It is an exercise in constraint. Hebrew is a lot more flowery, and so I have to write a lot simpler, which I like.”

 

BWdaniela_elza_FrankLee

Photos by Frank Lee

Daniela Elza is a Vancouver poet with four books published this year: two anthologies to which she contributed, one anthology she co-edited, and her third book of poetry. Elza doesn’t write with a specific publication or purpose in mind. “I write because I have to,” she says, explaining that sometimes the poetry pours out, and other times the poem builds on a philosophical idea or concept that is too dry or academic. As her mind circles around these queries, images arrive and fit together, “maybe a week, day, or even month later.” Her recent poetry book, milk tooth bane bone (Leaf Press, April 2013) is still a bit of a puzzle which Elza describes as “one of [her] more mysterious works.”

Alive at the Centre: An Anthology of Poems is a collaboration published by Ooligan Press with poetry editors from Vancouver, BC, Portland, OR, and Seattle, WA. The idea came out of the Pacific Poetry Project, publishing contemporary poems from the Pacific Northwest.

Daniela Elza was approached by John Sibley Williams, a poet from Portland who helped generate the idea of the book while working at Ooligan Press. Williams brought two other Vancouver co-editors on board, Bonnie Nish and Robin Susanto. They worked for two years on the Vancouver edition of Alive at the Centre, gathering poems of the “voices of Vancouver.” They made a list of 125 poets and those creating a poetry community, and narrowed it down from there.

Elza explains why she chose to participate, even though it was unpaid. “It has to be exciting for you,” she explains, gushing about the concept of crossing borders and working with Nish and Susanto, two people she already knew. “Crossing borders has beautiful side effects . . . a cross-pollination of the cultural, poetic, and social.”

The other anthology Daniela Elza has been a part of is a collection of poetry from the Planet Earth Reading Series in Victoria. The open mic reading series is named after a P.K. Page poem featuring the line: “launching pad for the energies of writers and poets established and not.” The anthology, Poems from Planet Earth, features writers from 18 years of events, and was published this spring by Leaf Press.

Following the idea of crossing boundaries, Elza completed her PhD at SFU in Education and received the Dean’s Convocation Medal. Her doctoral thesis — due to unforeseen circumstances — had to be completed in a mere four days. She ended up creating poems that were philosophical musings on metaphor research. “I wanted my work to be valid in both literary and academic journals, again crossing these boundaries.” Elza recently discovered the term “Lyric Philosophy” which fits this style of poetic inquiry.

Elza has also been collaborating with artists in other mediums such as dance and visual art, having their work inspire her poetry, and vice versa. She describes it as a “scary, intimate experience” where you have to “depend and trust the other person” and “really let go, especially of [your] ego.”

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