Of Pirates, Parrots, and Persecution: An Interview with Gary Barwin

Ever heard of a talking parrot? I am assuming you have. Now what about the 500-year-old immortal, gay, and Yiddish-speaking parrot, who has set the literary world abuzz? Oh! Did we mention the parrot is also the narrator of a tale brimming with pirates, Italian explorer Christopher Columbus, and the tragic Spanish inquisition from the 12th and 19th centuries?

Yiddish for Pirates

If that just made your head spin, let us direct you to the source—Gary Barwin, a writer, composer, multimedia artist, and the author of twenty books of poetry, fiction, and books. In his first adult fiction, Yiddish for Pirates, the 52-year-old pulled out all the stops in creating a literary piece that’s both hilarious and sombre, intelligent and brave, and was also shortlisted for the Scotiabank Giller Prize and nominated for the Governor General’s Literary Award for fiction.

Now if you haven’t met the author, then be prepared to have your socks knocked off. Like his book, Barwin has the tendency to amaze, impress and envelop his readers in awe. During the reading of his aforementioned book few months ago—organized by BookThug, a publishing house—Barwin hooked the audience with his riveting 10-minute reading or, as one might be tempted to concur, a performance that dove straight into the world of Yiddish puns that had everyone in stitches.

In a candid interview, the author talks about attending the “fancy” Scotiabank Giller Prize gala, the book that took four years to write, and how the world of Judaism and parrots collided.

Giller Prize gala: “It was fun to be treated like a movie star”

“In my career as a writer, it’s not often one is treated nicely,” says Barwin, adding, “Life of a writer is often marked with social and economic instability. But here we were, being driven around in a limo, staying in a fancy hotel, The Ritz-Carlton, and attending a red-carpet event that made us feel like Hollywood celebrities serenading in Beverly Hills.”

Barwin is also immensely excited for Madeline Thien, the author of Do Not Say We Have Nothing. And what was his favourite book? “To say which one book stood out the most would be an erroneous judgement. No book was better or worse than the rest; the subject matter of all six was highly different and to compare it with each other would make no sense whatsoever.”

From Jewish humour to engaging book readings

Flip the book and its summary is as interesting as the author. “Set in the years around 1492, Yiddish for Pirates recounts the 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 companion. But Inquisition Spain is a dangerous time to be Jewish and Moishe joins a band of hidden Jews trying to preserve some forbidden books. Rich with puns, colourful language, post-colonial satire, and Kabbalistic hijinks, Yiddish for Pirates is also a compelling examination of mortality, memory, identity, and persecution.” Penguin Random House

“The book highlights humour amidst darkness, a tool one sometimes uses in the face of abject adversity. And it’s this sentiment one can clearly see in the book. One of the best parts of writing this book has been the interesting people I have met during the readings,” says Barwin. “I have had old Jewish men and women come up to me during book readings and share personal stories from the holocaust period. It was touching and an immense honour to have them open up to me.”

Words that refuse to leave his side

Born in Northern Ireland to South African parents, Barwin moved to Canada as a child. Having taught at McMaster University, Mohawk College, King’s University College, and community centres across the country, Barwin admits that even though writing isn’t his sole profession, it’s one that has been with him since he was a kid. “When studying in a fine arts high school, I used to have a roommate who was into poetry and it was through him I was introduced to contemporary writing,” says Barwin, who’s now working on a book of poetry that will be out this spring.

Background story

Master of discipline: As a writer, one aspect that Barwin emphasizes is the discipline towards one craft. “Yiddish for Pirates took an overall four years to complete. And even though it can be quite a daunting task to not lose focus, I ensured that every day I write down at least 500 words.”

Power of his words: Barwin’s wife is a criminal lawyer and when the author was scheduled to release his book sometime in April, one of his wife’s clients applied for bail just so that she could attend the launch.

Funny side up: “While researching for my book, I used to listen to a lot of audio books when I would go for my walk and they later on got stored in my memory based on certain geographical spots. Later, I would be out walking again and be like, ‘Oh wait! This is where the pirates did this. Or this is where this fight took place.”

Author photo credit: Adela Talbot

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