The Best Place on Earth: Stories
By Ayelet Tsabari
I didn’t want to put down The Best Place on Earth: Stories. Ayelet Tsabari’s first book is a smart, sexy, and absorbing collection of short stories. Tsabari, an Israeli-Canadian who moved to Canada in 1998, studied creative writing, and now writes in English about the Israeli and Israeli-Canadian experience. Most of her characters in this collection are Mizrahi-Israeli – whose family lineage traces to Yemen, Tunisia, Spain or Morocco – plus one intriguing story where the narrator is a Filipina caregiver.
The press around Tsabari’s work focuses on this minority aspect of her writing as she seeks to introduce an additional voice to what is an Ashkenazi-dominated Israeli literature canon.
Though this sense of minority identity peppers the work, to me, her stories, like any piercing writing, are primarily about themes that are much more universal in nature than they are particular to any ethnic, gender, sexual or religious group. The stories are about love and loss, sexuality and sexual identity, loyalty and morality, the shifting sense of home, parent-child relationships, and redefining cultural traditions.
Perhaps mirroring the visible minority themes, though, is precariousness to these characters’ situations. Tsabari ensures, in just a few pages, that we care deeply about their fates. A Filipina caregiver lives in fear of being deported at the same time as she is nurturing a new love interest with an Israeli man. A pre-army girl wants to lose her virginity before she is drafted, as she searches frantically for clues to her biological past. A medical clinician soldier dabbles in illegal pursuits, as she finds herself a lifeline for the soldier boyfriend after whom she no longer lusts. And a new arrival to Israel, a girl from Canada, discovers her sexuality with a Russian-Israeli girl who sways between being lavish and fickle with her attentions.
Many of these narrative threads point to issues surrounding the body – whether the silent genes of paternity, the intactness of a circumcision foregone, the moments of wanted and unwanted sexual trysts, and the clinical setting, where soldiers roll up their sleeves and stick up their tongues in hopes of being granted leave.
In the background to the personal journeys of each character are themes central to the Israeli experience: the shock of terrorism – Tsabari expertly weaves the Hebrew term pigua (attack) into the English prose, initially jarring and then familiar; the challenges of arrival, departure and distance; the military experience of boredom and fear; the bomb shelters, the gas masks, the military weekend furlough’s sexual energy; and the post-military escapes to India.
Using Israeli themes in the background of each story, Tsabari enables us to empathize with a land to which we may be only tourists. We identify with these characters’ struggles, no matter how far their day-to-day experience may be from ours. But, wisely, Tsabari paints these characters as flawed, as all three-dimensional characters should be. We empathize without necessarily taking sides. It’s a powerful and subtle metaphor, perhaps, for how observers can best engage with Israel: understand its struggles, absorb its narratives, all while seeing the whole country in its complexity; all while not being blind to its flaws. Though politics differ from literature, of course, in politics the story is always being written. The reader of politics, the keen observer, can even help write the story, if he or she is a committed, wise and pragmatic friend.
If I have one quibble, it would be that, while the endings are beautifully poetic, they do tend to each land on a similar chord. But it is a haunting chord, not easily forgotten.
I said I didn’t want to put down the book, 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.