Gary Barwin explores tragedy through humour in his epic adventure novel Yiddish for Pirates
Yiddish for Pirates is on the Canada Reads 2021 longlist
Gary Barwin's novel Yiddish for Pirates takes place in the years around 1492, when a young Jewish man named Moishe flees the Spanish Inquisition by hitching a ride with Christopher Columbus, then becomes a pirate and sets off in search of the Fountain of Youth. Oh, and the whole tale is narrated by Moishe's highly intelligent, multilingual parrot, Aaron.
Yiddish for Pirates was a finalist for the Scotiabank Giller Prize and was shortlisted for the Governor General's Literary Award for fiction when it was published in 2016.
Barwin spoke to CBC Books about Yiddish for Pirates when the book first came out.
Finding the comedy in tragedy
"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.
Humour is one of the great technologies of humanity. It gives you distance, and also an opportunity to deal with difficult things.
"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."
Why a parrot made the perfect narrator
"[Aaron, the parrot who narrates the novel] is telling the story from a number of perspectives. He's speaking from the present day so he's able to make connections between the historical events and contemporary events. He's also able to draw on language and stories from the whole range of history.
Writing Aaron's voice was tremendously fun and exciting — I had that experience of never knowing what he was going to say.
"Writing Aaron's voice was tremendously fun and exciting — I had that experience of never knowing what he was going to say. There's a lot of Hebrew and Yiddish in what Aaron says, and he also uses all these very old-fashioned nautical terms. Putting those two kinds of diction together in one sentence energized the language and totally changed the sound of what I was writing. My daughter used to come home and say, 'Dad, you're laughing at your own jokes again,' because I was surprised and delighted by the things that he would end up saying."
Looking to the past, and to the future
"I was really aware of looking forward and looking back at the same time as I was writing. Talking to my children about some of the ideas and issues in the book was profoundly helpful. My daughter was taking a Grade 11 course on genocide, and I learned a lot from her perspective. Both of my sons have very wicked, black senses of humour, and I stole some of their best lines for the book. It seems like a fair trade — you give me a couple of lines, I clothe and feed you for 20 years!
I was really aware of looking forward and looking back at the same time as I was writing.
"I also thought back to conversations with my father-in-law and grandparents — their language, perspective and approach to jokes all entered into the story. I often think about what it might have been like for my wife's and my grandparents to travel such a long way over the ocean to places which were entirely unknown to them."
Advanced procrastination techniques
"I do see all the different arts I do as the same thing. It's not that I necessarily decide that something will be better as music or as a visual thing — form and content tend to arise together.
I do see all the different arts I do as the same thing.
"I must say, though, that when I try to write and it's difficult, I use that energy of procrastination to create something else. So the processes all work together. It's great justification, because it's like, 'I'm not really procrastinating, I'm actually making something.' As long as I leave an interesting trail I'm happy."
The most touching thing that happens at readings
"Sometimes, at readings, I've had these older Jewish men and women come up to me and tell me stories. I've found that incredibly touching, because clearly they felt that I'd spoken to their experience in some way, that I've used their language. They've told me Yiddish jokes and sayings, and I feel like I'm a little bit of an impostor because, like many Jews, I feel Yiddish deeply though I don't have very much knowledge of it. But yet somehow I'm channelling something that's been important to them. And that's unbelievably moving to me."
Gary Barwin's comments have been edited for length and clarity.