A Sense of Place

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Author Ayelet Tsabari joins Banff Centre as faculty for the Fall 2018 Emerging Writers Intensive. 

Ayelet Tsabari was born in Tel Aviv, moved to Vancouver after years of extensive travel, and now finds herself based in Toronto. Her first book of short stories, The Best Place on Earth, was released in 2013, has since earned strong critical acclaim, and been translated widely. Her stories are lush and character-driven. Tsabari, who is faculty this fall for Banff Centre’s Emerging Writers Intensive, is also an experienced teacher of creative writing, which she views as an important complement to her own practice. This year, Tsabari will locate herself somewhere new once agai—Halifax, where, she joins the faculty of the MFA in Creative Nonfiction program at the University of King’s College.

Your new book, coming out February 2019, is a collection of essays called "The Art of Leaving"—a really evocative title. Could you tell me about how you arrived at that title, and how it’s meant to frame the work?

Writing a memoir is basically an act of looking back and finding meaning in the events of your life. I noticed as I was writing it that leaving seemed to be a pattern, the one constant thing in my life up until a few years ago. So, it was an investigation of that. I felt that I sort of made the act of leaving my life, my home. I felt that I perfected it, and made it into an art, but, of course, looking back now, I know that there is no art to leaving. It’s a messy thing. For me, it feels like it’s never complete, either. You’re always leaving parts of yourself in all of these places you’ve been and all of those people that you’ve loved.

When I read your work, I get such a clear sense of place. To what degree does the fact that you’ve lived so many places and travelled so widely animate your work?

I’m very attuned to place because, I think, most migrants are.

If you don’t move around a lot, I don’t think you pay as much attention to the particularities of [a] place as people who are new to it—to the sensory experience of a place, to the people, to the language. It’s everywhere, I feel, in my work—both in my fiction and my non-fiction. It’s really important to me to evoke a strong sense of place, to transport the reader, to take them with me.

Have you ever had the experience of returning to somewhere you’ve written about and feeling, “Wow, I nailed it—I captured this place perfectly”?

You write about a place, and the place you write about is frozen in time. You can’t really go back. It’s constantly changing. So, it’s never been a concern for me to “nail it.” And I don’t mean that the details aren’t important, but it’s about the character, the experience they’re having of the place. What we see is always, always coloured by how we feel at the time. The same place would be very different to two different people, or even to the same person on different days. As long as it feels true to the story, to the character, then I nailed it.

How has teaching shaped your own writing?

You have to really understand the intricacies of craft to be able to teach, to be able to answer questions and troubleshoot problems students may have. In that way, it’s helped me in my own writing. And working with students is very inspiring. Having your preconceived notions, your judgement challenged—I love that. You’ll expect from students one thing, and they blow your mind. That’s really exciting, and it’s educating for me, as well. I don’t just do it as a way to support my writing.

You’ll be teaching a short fiction workshop at Banff Centre in October—how do you see the importance of programs like this one for emerging writers?

A lot of times, people are just waiting for that moment when you can write all day—it doesn’t happen. There’s always work, there’s always life. So, this is such a gift, to be able to do it for a week. I’ve been in residencies where you’re sort of plucked from civilization, and unplugged, and spend a week concentrating on your craft, and it’s always been such an inspiring and prolific experience.

Adam Wray is a writer and editor based in Montreal.