Interview: Gary Barwin

Gary Barwin is a writer, composer, and multidisciplinary artist and the author of twenty-one books of poetry, fiction and books for children. His latest book is the poetry collection No TV for Woodpeckers (Wolsak & Wynn). His recent national bestselling novel Yiddish for Pirates (Random House Canada) was a finalist for both the Governor General’s Award for Fiction and the Scotiabank Giller Prize. A PhD in music composition, Barwin has been Writer-in-Residence at Western University and Young Voices E-Writer-in-Residence at the Toronto Public Library and will be writer-in-residence at McMaster University and the Hamilton Public Library in 2017-2018. He has taught creative writing at a number of colleges and universities and currently teaches writing to at-risk youth in Hamilton through the ArtForms program. Though born in Northern Ireland to South African parents of Ashenazi descent, Barwin lives in Hamilton, Ontario.

The book jacket of the Yiddish for Pirates gives a brief description of the story. Set in the years around 1492, the novel 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. From a present-day Florida nursing home, this wisecracking yet poetic bird guides us through a world of pirate ships, Yiddish jokes and treasure maps. But Inquisition Spain is a dangerous time to be Jewish and Moishe joins a band of hidden Jews trying to preserve some forbidden books. He falls in love with a young woman, Sarah; though they are separated by circumstance, Moishe’s wanderings are motivated as much by their connection as by his quest for loot and freedom. When all Jews are expelled from Spain, Moishe travels to the Caribbean with the ambitious Christopher Columbus, a self-made man who loves his creator. Moishe eventually becomes a pirate and seeks revenge on the Spanish while seeking the ultimate booty: the Fountain of Youth.

Yiddish for Pirates is a story about a young Jewish man during the time of the Spanish Inquisition told from the view of his friend and pet, an African grey parrot. What inspired you to write this story? Why from the point of view of a parrot?

I was amused and intrigued to read about the historical reality of Jewish pirates — though in truth they existed 100 years later than when I wrote about and mostly in the Mediterranean. And they didn’t speak Yiddish. There were various theories and old wives’ tales which posited that Columbus was actually Jewish, or from a converso background. The famous Nazi-hunter Simon Wiesenthal even wrote a book marshalling the evidence as he saw it.

The notion of Jewish pirates seemed a rich fictional world ripe with comic possibilities. It’s also a compelling idea that some of the Jewish mariners sailed because they hoped to find a “new world” that was safe for the Jews.  I was further stuck by the fact that the Jews were expelled from Spain in 1492—the exact moment when Columbus left on his voyage of discovery.  I’ve always been intrigued by the notion of crypto-Jews – hidden Jews.

There is also the matter of the European attitude toward the native peoples. What would be the relationship between my Jewish protagonist and this new persecution? In the manner of a Bildungsroman, my youth/explorer/pirate protagonist experiences the moral, social, and conceptual turbulence of the age, and develops both psychologically and morally.

The parrot is like a Go-Pro camera on the shoulder of the pirate and seemed an obvious (and comic) choice to have a pirate narrative told by a parrot.  He is a wise-cracking, quick-witted Greek chorus-of-one. The other thing is that the parrot “parrots,” – that is, he speaks in the language acquired from those around him and can only use this language and the tropes of character and story to tell this tale. Like a writer, and like everyone else, he must use this received culture and language to try to express his perspective, thoughts and feeling. In what way does what he has received affect how he sees the world? Is it possible to use this received language in new ways to shape a new vision? It is because of this that there is much of the book that is plundered from other sources (for example, Treasure Island, Dostoyevsky, Shakespeare, Captain Blood, Candide.)

In terms of language, I was thinking about the tremendous vitality of both the Yiddish language and nautical argot. And about how the use of multiple languages in a single sentence make that sentence more energetic and supercharged, and rich in association. Once I started seeing how some old fashioned nautical-sounding words bumped up against Yiddish phrases, I found ‘my’ voice (or, actually, my parrot narrator’s voice.)

I was thinking also thinking generally about identity, history, oppression, the self, masks. And money.

Aaron, our narrator, uses copious amounts of Yiddish words and phrases while telling his story. Was it hard writing using Yiddish? Did you already know it or did you have to learn it? Were you ever concerned it would make the book difficult to read for people?

Like many Jews, I have a very strong connection to Yiddish without actually knowing how to speak it. I do know many words and expressions because I heard my relatives use them and, I was, I suppose, particularly sensitive to their appearance in my verbal environment. As I wrote, I was surprised by how many words I did know, how many words I dredged up from cultural memory. I did, however, use many word lists and engineered opportunities to use them in the novel, or, when needing a certain kind of verbal move, searched for the appropriate Yiddish term or phrase. I did get a Jewish editor (the writer of popular books on Yiddish, Michael Wex) to check my Yiddish to ensure that I had made no mistakes. Did I make mistakes!

I endeavoured to make the Yiddish intelligible by context but I also included the translation of any Yiddish word in almost every sentence that it was used, except for certain words which were more commonly known or which the reader would know from earlier in the book. This rhythm or rhetorical device of having both the English and the Yiddish created a certain effect (both rhythmic and tonal) in the book which I explored as I wrote. I was also influenced by Junot Diaz’s work in which he uses Dominican Spanish. Part of the effect of his work is to represent a profoundly different non-Anglo sensibility. The world he writes about is a different world, a world outside of White privilege. I wanted to explore how the use of this language of the other would present such a different sensibility and perhaps would make clear to those who were not Jewish or Yiddish speakers that my protagonists were “other,” that they had a different experience of the world than people of traditional privilege.

What was your process while writing this book? How did it differ from the process used when writing I, Dr. Greenblatt or a book of poetry like Moon Baboon Canoe?

The main difference is that it is one very long textual object. The other books you mention are an accumulation of diverse elements and, as books slowly accrete without any overarching plan. Yiddish for Pirates is a single entity and is deliberately suffused with research and source material and riffs off historical fact and characters. I wrote a minimum of 500 words a day in order to give myself a concrete and quantifiable goal to attain. I didn’t plot the book in advance, however, I made charts and summaries of what I had written as I went along and did write some short term plot elements, for example, the next scene. I would say, however, that all of my books—whatever else may inform them—originate in language. The language is the driving force behind the creation and the nature of the language determines the nature of the book and the process of its creation.

In the story our main character, Moishe, meets Christopher Columbus. Columbus is described as short on gratitude but never short on words about himself. He is fanatical about Christianity and obsessive about traveling. When he finds new lands, he is described as sitting “enthroned, benevolent and regal”. Why did you write Christopher Columbus in this way? Was there research that showed his personality or did you make it up yourself?

I read a lot of historical and fictional sources about Columbus. I also read some of his own writing in translation. (I incorporated some of it in the book.) The historical Columbus is a fascinating and complex figure. I thought a lot about his motivation. He has been considered both a hero as well as the symbol of colonialism and genocide. I wanted to think about what was really inspiring him. As far as I could tell, it seemed to be a web of ambition, the willingness to say whatever was needed to be said to achieve his goal (fame and prestige primarily, but also, though less so, money and power.) He did have a powerful religious bent which did come out, as is reflected in my novel, in eccentric religious behaviour in his later voyages. (He really would dress as a monk and he would quote biblical passages with near prophetic zeal.)

In the book Aaron tells quite a few jokes and small tales, or parables. What prompted you to include these? Did you make them up yourself or did you learn them from somewhere else?

I knew many of the jokes, tales, and parables. Some of them are old standards that I have heard over the years. Many of the jokes I’ve been told by people in my family. I did also make up or adapt others to fit the situation or for other reasons. Why did I include these? The Jewish tradition—and, in fact, the Jewish rabbinical tradition—is replete with these kind of jokes, parables, and tales. The Jewish Midrash is filled with stories, homilies, and riffs on iconic tales. Storytelling and humour is a powerful component of Jewish life and thought. They express a quintessentially Jewish irony and a fatalistic yet celebratory humour. And a love of paradox.

I believe that humour is one of the great technologies of humanity. It gives you distance, and also an opportunity to deal with difficult things. Jewish humour in particular has this optimistic pessimism, or pessimistic optimism, that is so much part of the culture. The speaker can connect with the people they’re telling the jokes to, and they’re able to stand outside what’s happening and look at it philosophically. Through this kind of humour, they find a way to engage, think about what is happening and still have agency. Humour always gives you agency, because you are the one telling the jokes. That’s a very powerful position from which to address tragedy.

The novel is separated into five parts: wind, fire, water, land and quintessence. The parts all seem to relate to the titles of each part. Why did you separate the book into five parts? What effect were you trying to convey?

I wanted to frame the book with a metaphysical structure. Though the plot involves searching for treasure (at first, for books and then, later, the Fountain of Youth), what is really being explored is more metaphysical: life, death, memory, love, the presence of goodness/evil/God on earth, the attainability of immortality, the role of language/memory/story in living forever. There is also play between physical reality and the immaterial. And so, I chose to divide the book into the four traditional elements of Western culture plus the fifth, the one of which the heavenly bodies are composed and which is present in everything. Also, they are part of Kaballistic thought (cf. Tzimtzum and Tikkun Olam) with the quintessence representing divine light.

And each element relates to the plot. The first, air, is when Moishe is a dreamer (a luftmensch, literally an “air” man.) Fire represents Spain and the burning fires of its Inquisition. Water is the transatlantic crossing. Land is the European “discovery” of the Americas. Quintessence is the Fountain of Youth. Clever, eh?

Each of the five parts of the book begins with a different quote. What made you choose these five quotes for each of the five parts? What was their significance or relevance to each chapter and the book?

Each quotation addresses something that happens in the part it precedes. My goal was to contextualize the events. Not only to frame them within the larger context of thought and literature (and often anachronistically – though Aaron is speaking from the present day and he often draws on the entire range of his experience which have often occurred the events described in the novel) but to establish a central question or concept for each part. Here are two examples:

The book begins with a quote from Candide. (“We are going to a different world…and I expect it is the one where all goes well.”) The book ends with a riff off the end of Candide where Candide’s solution to the strife, immortality, and senselessness of the world is addressed by return to and tending his garden. Moishe begins the novel as a naïf, like Candide, and, by the end, like Candide, he has experienced many terrible things which have challenged his unexamined optimism and faith in the good.  In Part Two, “Fire,” the quote is “my flesh burns with history.” The quote obviously refers to the burning of heretics in the Inquisition, but also metaphorically to the consuming fires of history and the events of Part Two. It also connects this specific persecution with the persecution and genocide of Indigenous people (which will come later in the book) as the quote is from Qwo-Li Driskill, a Queer Cherokee poet.

Through out the story there are pieces of song. The first one sung by pirates, “I wish I was back in my native land heave away! Haul away!”. In another part, the Christians sing “Venite, adoremus” and in response the Jewish people sing “Sh’ma Yisroel Adonai Eloheinu Adonai Echad”. How did your knowledge of music contribute to the story and why include these snippets of song?

I was trying to represent a range of language but also to set the mood. Pirate or nautical songs are a characteristic part of the mariners’ life but also of classic pirate narratives and so I wanted to include some, though I modified them to include Yiddish. These songs would also have been a part of the life (and literature) of the time. They also provide a useful change of rhetorical pace. The book is so densely packed with wordplay, allusion and metaphor, the songs provide a brief respite.

The songs (the Christian and Jewish examples you provide) are also another way to incorporate allusions. The Christian song would have been the prayer that would have been sung when I represent it. The Jewish prayer, The Sh’ma, is the central affirmation of faith for Jews. I deliberatly engineered this scene to include it. It is an allusion to an event that happened in the Warsaw Ghetto during the Holocaust. A group of Jews knew they were about to be executed by the Nazis and stood up and spontaneously sang this song. It always seemed to me to be a very powerful moment, these people who knew they were going to die, standing a proclaiming their identity and choosing to die with dignity on their own terms. There is a remarkable musical composition by Arnold Schoenberg called, “A Survivor from Warsaw,” which I have always found very powerful.

Other than specific knowledge of music and such compositions as the one that I cited above, I would say that my general approach to language is very musical. I approach the pacing and prosody of a text in a very musical way, as if I were writing music rather than text. It allows me to hear the overall shape, pacing, drama, tension and tone of the text in addition to its content.

The book has been shortlisted for the Scotiabank Giller Prize and nominated for the Governor-General’s award for Literature. What are your thoughts and feelings on this?

It has been a remarkable experience to have this kind of attention and engagement from readers and the media. Hitherto, my work only reached a quite specialized and marginal readership (often only particular kinds of literary aficionados and/or other writers and literary specialists.) This book, greatly helped by these nominations, has secured a vastly wider audience of the general public. This has been hugely gratifying. I did set out to write a book that didn’t do anything that would unduly marginalize it, that is, that would alienate a mainstream audience (unless I felt that the needs of the book demanded it.) I set myself the challenge to write such a book which at the same time would explore those themes and elements that most concerned me at the time, using the full range of my abilities and techniques as a writer. The fact that it received these “mainstream” fiction nominations means, at least in part, that I was successful. I’m happy about that! I have also had many very moving encounters with a wide range of readers – from older Jewish men and women – to a banker who immigrated to Canada from West Africa – to whom the book spoke and who connected with what I was doing. For that I am profoundly grateful.

In the acknowledgements at the end of the book you express appreciation for the year as writer-in-residence at Western University. What is this position and how did it affect your writing of the book?

I was lucky enough to be Writer in Residence at Western for a year when I was writing the book. The position, shared between Western and the London Public Library, places a writer in residence to advise, teach and be available for consultations with the students of the university and the residents of London. I ran many workshops and met with many writers of many levels of experience. Part of the role is to give the writer time (via

Sarah Rockx is a twenty-six year old university from Niagara Falls. She studies at Brock University majoring in English and Creative Writing and minoring in French. She likes to read and write fiction in her spare time.

This interview was originally written as an assignment for Natalee Caple as part of the Brock University Creative Writing Program.


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