Waterloo Region Record
Finding a winning formula with Yiddish, fart jokes and a talking parrot
By way of introduction, it’s worth noting that among his many artistic achievements, the novel for which Gary Barwin is best known, “Yiddish for Pirates,” has been described as a “frequently over-the-top mash-up of 15th- and 16th-century European history, Talmudic and Kabbalistic Jewish lore, swashbuckling pirate narratives and (ahem) fart jokes.”
Forget ivory towers and stately dictums from the balcony.
Barwin — appointed writer in residence at Wilfrid Laurier University starting in January — resides in that shadowy netherworld inhabited by all creative innovators, making connections that didn’t previously exist, finding meaning between the lines.
Born in Ireland in 1964, before immigrating to Ottawa as a kid, the mildmannered Hamilton resident has pursued his muse like a man possessed not only through writing but
sound poetry, video, sax solos and a bunch of experimental hybrids I can’t even pronounce.
With 21 books of fiction and poetry and a slate of awards longer than your grocery list, the low-key maverick is that rarest of entities: an artist for all seasons.
Not to be impolite, but “Yiddish For Pirates” doesn’t seem like the kind of thing you sit down to write thinking “I’m gonna win me a Giller!”
Yes, it’s eccentric, but I was interested in typical adventure epic stories — pirate stories — that were very compelling and page-turning and exciting. I loved those kind of books when I was young.
Then, once you’re in a car and it’s got no brakes and you’re hurtling down a hill, you can do anything you want.
A Globe & Mail critic called it “the funniest and most engaging book about genocide I have ever read.”
Each culture has its own particular way of using humour. There’s an old Jewish joke that asks why Jews don’t drink ... (imaginary drum roll) ... because it dulls the pain! It’s dark, fatalistic humour. It’s about identifying that you might feel pain, but at least it’s your pain.
Were you surprised when it became not only a national bestseller, but a finalist for the Giller and Governor General’s Award and won the Stephen Leacock Medal for Humour?
I was completely flabbergasted by its success in speaking to people. Holocaust survivors would want to talk to me about their experiences — to have some old man or woman speak to me at a reading was really extraordinarily moving.
At the Giller event, this guy came up explaining he had emigrated from Nigeria and related to my book because it talks about immigration and being a refugee and escaping from a difficult place. I wouldn’t have expected it would communicate that. I am surprised, delighted and moved.
Alter kaker? Meshugeh? Boychik?
Am I the only one surprised by your use of Yiddish, a Judeo-German dialect associated with Borscht Belt comedy in the Catskills? What’s the appeal to the average shmo on the street?
Jewish humour and culture have become quite mainstream, like schlep and schmuck, and through “Seinfeld.” Part of my goal with my book was to expand to a broader range of Jewish culture. The main character is learning all this stuff.
The book also ties into speaking truth to power and being an outsider, which are things people relate to. We understand that through a Jewish perspective, but it stands in for other perspectives as well.
Finally, people speaking authentically and with great affection and colour about their own culture speaks to other people.
I read books written by great Canadian Indigenous writers. Even though I’m not Indigenous, the fact it’s so specific to the way they experience the world invites me into that experience. The very specific makes it more universal.
Why the focus on puns and fart jokes?
I do love those kind of classic bad jokes that speak to some sort of existential truth. It’s a way of unpacking what’s going on. Jewish jokes carry that kind of world view. It’s the world of my grandparents who grew up in Eastern Europe.
What prompted you to use a 500-year-old parrot as narrator?
I was going to tell a story about a pirate and thought, “Who would be there all the time?” The parrot is sitting on his shoulder watching what happens, a Greek chorus of one, commenting on what goes on.
Do you have a parrot?
No, but we once had some birds, one of which desperately tried to mate with me. I would be typing and it would back its tail up to my fingers.
I’m going to guess you were an unusual kid.
I left Ireland at nine. I remember the week before we left: my parents were playing tennis somewhere and I remember standing by the tennis court and the sun was shining, slanting sideways in a golden light. And I remember thinking “Ah, Ireland, my homeland, I will see you no more!”
I was very nostalgically framing it with some kind of self-conscious narrative. I imagined I was living the story of myself, always, with the possibility that the world was a story and I was in it.
(He laughs) ... I was very much in my head.
What about now?
As much as I may have looked like some snotty-nosed little schoolboy, I remember the kind of subtlety and landscape of what I was feeling inside.
We all have that complex, rich, subtle inner world that we’re often taught not to attend to, so it falls away and we forget it was there.
What is your main goal as writer in residence?
To help people trust their own imaginations and really listen to what they want to do and help them find what it is.
I’m always amazed sometimes that people just want me to hear their story, as a writer. It’s very personal, intimate thing, a privilege to hear what people think.
You’ve done this author-inresidence gig before. What are the typical student questions?
“Is this thing I’m doing any good?” Part of my role is to help them find out.
Sometimes they just say “This isn’t working out. How can I make it better? It’s boring or sloppy.”
Once I had somebody come in, a mother with her son, who were Russian: “Please help me with Igor. Igor has no imagination. I want Igor to have imagination.”
This little boy was 12, and I said “OK, we can talk about it — Igor, come back without your mom.” And Igor was really imaginative. He wrote all this really cool stuff ... (laughs) ... Igor’s problem was his mother!
Part of it was trying to communicate to his mom to look at what he actually is doing — not what you hope he's doing. “Igor must be Tolstoy!”
He wasn’t Tolstoy, but he wrote this really mind-bending amazing science fiction thing that was really cool.
So you’re a surrogate life counsellor?
In the sense that people will tell me things from their past. It’s about bearing witness to people’s stories that may or may not end up being in their work.
Writers are people who speak truth, or the slipperiness of the truth, so they engage on those levels.
In addition to novels, you write poetry, short fiction, kids lit and play the sax. Why not stick to one thing?
It never occurred to me that you couldn’t try many different arts and explore the connections between them, so basically I started making up stuff as a kid and just never stopped.
Tell me about your career as a musician.
I used to play saxophone at a local mall in Ottawa. I’d go to the loading dock at three in the morning because the echo was so great. I don’t think my parents knew — I was 12 or 13. I wasn’t out partying.
“Yiddish for Pirates” took four years to complete. Did you take a lot of naps?
Novels can just take a long time ... (laughs) ... because every word is so “gemlike” and “polished” and “clever.”
And the parrot tells stories from a variety of sources: famous novels, private stories, events in history.
It can take some serious time to dive deep into a world — and for me particularly. It was my first full-length adult novel. I was trying to figure out how to do it.
How did you pace yourself ?
Instead of thinking it’s stupid and not going anywhere and every sentence feels like a molecule, I made it about quantity: 500 words a day. All I had to do was make the best 500 words, cross that finish line and keep going.
Still, four years is a long time.
Stephen King would have done 10 novels. That didn’t work for me because the text is quite intricate. With puns and language play, it took a lot of working over to just do that, so it did evolve over time.
Tell me about the novel you’re working on now.
It takes place in 1941 Lithuania during the Holocaust, so it’s another “uproarious” book about a genocide. My main character is seeing it through the frame of cowboy westerns and had his testicles blown off 20 years before. It’s a satire on masculinity in westerns and the military.
Westerns? Testicles? Holocaust? You have a knack for taking provocative topics and blowing them up.
It makes it readable and accessible and not just incredibly depressing. But also, humour opens up different ways of being able to think about complicated topics. You can see them from a number of perspectives. Kurt Vonnegut was a master of this.
In the movie version of “Yiddish for Pirates,” who would star?
The book is so “bookish” — it’s about books, oral storytelling. It would have to be told in some different way. Maybe (director) Peter Jackson could do some hobbit-like CGI sort of thing? ... not that anybody is knocking at my door.
(He laughs) ... But Lady Gaga should definitely be the parrot. She looks good in feathers.