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The Chat With 2016 Giller Finalist Gary Barwin

For our final interview in this special Giller Prize edition of The Chat, I’m in conversation with Hamilton-based writer Gary Barwin.



For our final interview in this special Giller Prize edition of The Chat, I’m in conversation with Hamilton-based writer Gary Barwin. Set in the years around 1492, Barwin’s whimsical novel Yiddish for Pirates recounts the compelling story of Moishe, a Bar Mitzvah boy who leaves home to join a ship's crew, where he meets Aaron, the polyglot parrot who becomes his near-constant companion.

Gary Barwin is a writer, composer, and multimedia artist, and the author of 20 books of poetry, fiction and books for children. His recent books include the short fiction collection I, Dr Greenblatt, Orthodontist, 251–1457 and the poetry collections Moon Baboon Canoe and The Wild and Unfathomable Always. A PhD in music composition, Barwin has been Writer-in-Residence at Western University and Young Voices eWriter-in-residence at the Toronto Public Library and has taught creative writing at a number of colleges and universities. Born in Northern Ireland to South African parents of Ashkenazi descent, Barwin moved to Canada as a child. He is married with three adult children, and lives in Hamilton, Ontario.

Once you've enjoyed my chat with Gary, don't miss the rest of our 2016 Giller Prize special, featuring interviews with Madeleine Thien, Zoe Whittall, Emma Donoghue, Catherine Leroux, and Mona Awad!





How was Yiddish for Pirates born?


A forensic scientist has to pull on big rubber boots and wade through the mucky obscure past trying to recreate what happened. I feel that way about the beginnings of Yiddish for Pirates. But I’ve hauled on my Birks and socks and there are some things I know.

I read about the existence of Jewish pirates. And I was thinking about genocide. These led me to two other major beginnings:

Exile, adventure and “discovery”

1492 was both the year Columbus sailed the ocean blue and when Jews had to convert or be expelled from Spain. Some of Jews (or conversos—those who converted) sailed with Columbus. I wondered why: to leave the persecutions and betrayals of Europe behind? to find a different world, “the one where all goes well” (to quote Voltaire’s Candide)? And how would they feel when they encountered the Indigenous peoples? Solidarity? Privilege?

And language?

When you have to leave everything behind, what remains? There’s an old Yiddish saying, “The tongue is not in exile.” How does the language and its expression, jokes and stories, carry the self and the culture with it? Is language always its own homeland? Can it sometimes trick you into being someone else?

When you have to leave everything behind, what remains?

The novel is narrated by a smart-alecky, wisecracking parrot named Aaron. If you and Aaron were to hit the road together on a trip in 2016, where would you go? What would he teach you?

Near the end of the novel, Aaron and his shoulder, the pirate captain Moishe, arrive at what might be the Fountain of Youth. Maybe Moishe is dead—or maybe he’s been shpritzed by the Fountain and will live forever.

For a 2016 road trip, I’d rent an old boat of a car (a Continental? an Eldorado? A Firebird?) screech up to the Shalom Home for the Aged in Florida where Aaron is currently living and we’d go in search of Moishe. Maybe the alter kaker old gramps is with Sarah, his betrothed. Maybe he’s still wandering, looking for her. What would Aaron teach me? Memory, sorrow, adventure, loyalty, love, surprise, happiness, and old jokes. They hold language together the way rum and hardtack bind an old pirate’s kishkas. And language holds us together.

Memory, sorrow, adventure, loyalty, love, surprise, happiness, and old jokes. They hold language together the way rum and hardtack bind an old pirate’s kishkas. And language holds us together.

The novel is set during the Inquisition, and follows Aaron and a young man named Moishe as they journey with Christopher Columbus to the Caribbean. What’s the most surprising fact you learned during your research?

Columbus brought a Hebrew and Aramaic translator with him. He thought he might encounter one of the lost Twelve Tribes. So, how’ve you been these last 2000 years? What’d you have for breakfast the morning you left—was it eggs? Also, Columbus kept two logbooks—one for the crew and one secret one. He knew the crew didn’t want to starve and would want to turn back when they’d used half the food. So he didn’t tell them how far they’d actually travelled.

What’s a question no one has asked you about the book, that you wish they would ask? How would you respond?

The question: So, near the end of the novel, Aaron and Moishe arrive at what may be the Fountain of Youth. As was already mentioned, it’s not clear if Moishe survives or if he lives forever. And Aaron? Is he an alter bok old geezer recounting the tale or—and this is possible—is what we’re reading the words and the story passed down for all these years from one parrot to another?

My answer? Alexander von Humboldt, the explorer, once came across a parrot from an indigenous South American village that had been entirely destroyed. Being an oral culture there was no record of the language of these villagers. Except the parrot knew many of their words. The parrot was the archive, dictionary, and memory for these people. And von Humboldt wrote down the words the parrot spoke. I saw an art installation where the contemporary artist Rachel Berwick trained parrots to speak this language, continuing the process of transmission. In what way do we keep alive the memories and experience of those who came before us? How do we form our identity based on the words, stories, and tropes we receive? What is us and what is our language? How can we use this received language to express our most fundamental experiences and our core identity? Do we live forever through our stories?

49thShelf is built around a large community of readers and fans who love great CanLit. What Canadian authors are you reading these days? 

I’m rereading an old favourite, The Bass Saxophone by Josef Škvorecký. I came across the edition which I first read as a teenager at the People’s Co-op Bookstore in Vancouver. I’m about to dive into two recent poetry collections: Kate Sutherland’s new collection How to Draw a Rhinoceros (Bookthug), and Saint Twin by Sarah Burgoyne (Mansfield.)

Another imminent read is Malarky by Anakana Schofield (I loved her amazing Martin John) which I picked up at J.H. Gordon Books in Hamilton while wandering around, avoiding some pressing commitment. I’m keen to read Drew Hayden Taylor’s Me Funny which is about Indigenous humour. I heard him speak about it at the North Words Literary Festival in Mukoka this fall when we read together.

Through my micropress, serif of nottingham editions, I’m about to publish a visual poetry collection by Kevin Spenst, and a collection of sonnets by Stuart Ross and Richard Huttel. I guess I better make sure I read those, too.**


"Across time and across continents, Gary Barwin’s novel “parrots” in an altogether new way. In a ferment of salty witticism, parroty puns and unforgettable Yiddish vocabulary, this is a novel borne not just on the wings of its feathery narrator, but on its own jubilant and alluring language; its own voice. Playful, mocking, using history with audacious abandon, Yiddish for Pirates is a resplendent enjoyment. But, literally viewed from above, the novel also admonishes us about man’s inexhaustible zeal for butchery, for incessant genocide, and for affliction. We have had animal narrators throughout literary history, but Aaron the African grey parrot, from the shoulder of his pirate master, will lift you to new heights."
Hello. Howaya? Feh. You think those are the only words I know? Boychik, you don’t know from knowing. You ain’t seen knowing. I may be meshugeh crazy, but I know from words. You think I’m a fool shmegegge? I’m all words.
Hello? If you want the story of a life, don’t wait for your alter kaker old gramps over there to wake up. Maybe he’ll never wake. But me? Listen to my words. They tell some story. Because I remember. Sometimes too much, but I remember.
So, nu, bench your fat little oysgepasheter Cape Horn tuches down on that chair and listen to my beaking. Come all ye brave lads, and so forth. I’ll tell you the whole megillah story from fore to aft.
What’s it about? Pirates. Parrots. Jews. Jewels. The Inquisition. Gefilte fish. Gold. A girl.
Boychik, I was a pirate’s parrot, and had I not noshed from the Fountain of Eternal Youth hundreds of years ago, I would rest beside my scurvy captain and Davy Jones hisself at the bottom of the sea where the soulless creatures crawl. And then where would you be?
Without a story.
That life. It was a book made into a life. A wonder tale. The glinty waves. The deep jungle. A world I wouldn’t have believed if I hadn’t sailed right into it. And for a time, that world had but one shoulder, blue and fussy with epaulettes hanging off the rigging of a stolen frock coat, a cutlass of a collarbone covered in flesh like mangy beef jerky.
My captain’s shoulder.
Feh, these days no one wants to hear. Maybe not even you. They treat us like leftovers—wizened chicken-gizzard pupiklech in this birdhouse of leftover Yids. But nu, it’s true, most of us look like yesterday’s chicken or its gizzards. Though look at these feathers. A young bird would be proud of such grey.
The Shalom Home for the Aged.
Shalom? In Hebrew, “shalom” means hello, goodbye, peace. Imagine the crazy farkakteh waving of some poultry-skinned geezer on the fifth floor, squinting out from between the orange curtains. Is he waving hello or goodbye? Ptuh! It’s an old age home, so who knows? Maybe the shlemiel thinks he’s in a crow’s nest and is warning of an invading armada. Alav ha’shalom. Peace be upon him, old nudnik.
But what does peace look like? Is it better to be careened tsitskehs-over-tuches, nipples-over-nethers in dry dock, the dangling clams of your ballsack scraped daily for barnacles by some balmelocheh know-it-all nurse, or lost somewhere on the seventh of the seven seas snorting the scent of new flowers and the soft jellyfish pazookheh breasts of beautiful sheyneh maidens?
Too often, stories in this library of lost people are told in the farmisht confused language of forgetting, but I speak many languages and I’m fluent in both remembering and forgetting.
Though, nu, it’s easier to tell the stories you remember.
Or pretend to. And what you don’t remember, the stories tell for you.
Ach. I talk too much. I’ve got myself twisted fardreyt with words turncoating again, thinking about my bastard mamzer captain himself. But what do you expect? Five hundred years old, I’m an alter kaker geezer of the highest degree, with a brain like a cabbage roll. A parrot brain like a chameleon on Jewish tartan.
The horizon, I once told a Spanish painter, it gives you a whole new perspective. It doesn’t exist except from far away. The horizon is always a story, and as soon as we get there, it’s somewhere else.
The horizon, it’s a line we crossed just to see what we could see. And believe me, we saw many things, some things that wouldn’t just stay over the horizon.
They wanted our souls for eternal barbecue so we travelled with Columbus into that braves’ new world as if across a vast and chilly Jordan. An undividing Red Sea. And what did the ancients find? A promising land. Thousands of years of history. Regret. Happiness. The future.
And what did we find? Ach, this is a pirate tale I’m telling you, so it has to be treasure. So, nu, you ask, what is this treasure and where is it buried?
This I’ll try to answer. As well as another, the big question of all stories: And then what happened?
Yes, it brings mazel for a pimply boy like you to hear about blood, kishkas—guts—dangerous books, and shtupping. It puts some hair between your ears and above your skinny-dick shmeckel.
You’ll like it.
So, nu, in the beginning what was there?
A beginning.
Credit: Copyright © 2016 Gary Barwin Published in 2016 by Random House Canada, a division of Penguin Random House Canada Limited. Distributed in Canada by Penguin Random House Canada Limited, Toronto.

DON'T MISS the rest of our 2016 Giller Prize special, featuring interviews with Madeleine Thien, Zoe Whittall, Emma Donoghue, Catherine Leroux, and Mona Awad!

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