Sunday, November 20, 2016

Interview about _Yiddish for Pirates_

My friend, Natalee Caple, who teaches at Brock University invited (ok, assigned...) one of her students to interview me. I'm going to ask the student for permission to cite her name, but in the meantime, I'd like to post her interview here. She asked a bunch of intriguing questions to which I was able to drone on in a mind-numbing, soul-deadening way. (N.B. I wrote "numbling" initially and it is perhaps an apt neologism.) Here follows the numblingness, the souldeadinatory blitherings which I blatherationally provided.

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 Weisenthal 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 the 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 receives affect how he sees the world? Is it possible to use this received language in new ways to shape a new vision? 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 as I heard my relatives use them and, I suppose, was 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. I had made many 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 different elements and the book as a whole accrues slowly. And this book 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. It seemed that it was 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 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. And 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), really what is 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.

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 different world…”) 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 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 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 deliberating 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 widely 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 to 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 funding) to write. To be honest, I was not able to accomplish as much work as I’d hoped on the novel. The position took more time and energy than anticipated in order to do it properly. And the pay wasn’t enough to live on. And so I did a lot of other work for pay. I was able to complete a fair amount of other writing—I was able to write shorter texts in the interstitial time between writer-in-residence commitments and other work‑ and so I finished and edited a short story collection, wrote many poems, and completed a variety of criticism.

Friday, November 18, 2016

Questwers and Anstions: the wild and unfathomable always



University of Ottawa Graduate student, Olivia Vanderwal asked me some questions about my visual poetry book the wild and unfathomable always for some coursework. I thought her questions were very interesting and I asked her if I could post her questions and my bloviating blatherations on my blog and she gave me permission.

OV: I was wondering if you could talk about some of the processes behind "the wild and unfathomable always," as both a conceptual and physical work. How did you first conceive of the project -- what thoughts or ideas led you toward visual poetry? What did the method or technique of production look like? 


GB: I tend to imagine the world and its concepts as a metaphor for language. Not only do I imagine “grammar,” but more concretely, I imagine letter-like processes. Eg.: That’s a kind of m-behaviour. That’s w-ish in its relations. I imagine that the letters are the icons of entire ecosystems, systems of physics, or even of beliefs or conceptual systems and that what we see are just projections on the flat screen of our awareness, on the flat surface of the page.

I especially consider punctuation as representing the ineffable or at least the unsayable, the unsaid, or the inexpressible. Language but not language. Punctuation is an energy-field, a fundamental force like gravity or the electromagnetical force. Or being. Punctuation is the other. The strange beauty, the alphabets’s ostranenie. And as if squinting at the infinite, the alphabet can seen to be a multidimensional thing of strange beauty itself. A physical phenomenon but also something noumenal or even numinous (and here, we’re not talking of the divine per se, but rather of the mysterious, the uncanny.)


I have been thinking about written language and its relation to impossible forms as well as constellations for a long time. And when these elements collide, they fracture both visual space, the integrity of the letterforms, as well as challenge the production of meaning. Or perhaps, I should say, produce multiple not easily parsed meanings. A network of signification. Signifiers as broken open and multidimensional and which exist beyond the usual limits of the semantic. Polysemic but also its inverse. A sign which exists in 22-dimensional space. Is it the signifier or the signified which has 22-dimensions?


I began with exploring the collision of these various visual elements. Punctuation, the Hebrew and the Roman alphabet. Constellations. Impossible visual illusions. Using Photoshop, I mashed up the images. I scanned some impossible shapes and constellations. Then I modified the shapes and constellations (often I’d create the constellations star by star, dashed line by dashed line using the star and dash elements that I’d scanned from old images of constellations.) By creating empty space between lines (i.e. erasing the white space), Photoshop allows images to break the visual illusion of their shape or solidity. Visual signification intertwines.


OV: Your title frames the book in terms of time or infinity. What role does time/spacetime play in our understanding of language, or the way we (de)construct meaning from it? 

There is much play in the images themselves with time and infinity. I consider that the 3-D illusion figures/impossible figures play with the perception of space and exist in the perceptual/conceptual interstices between time and space. They are, in their own way, sigils of infinity. They both break the “fourth wall” of visual and language illusion and its suspension of disbelief.

And of course, constellations mark a particular relation between space and time. At the distance that stars are from earth, the relation between space and time becomes apparent as we know that the starlight we see may be a record of something which doesn’t exist anymore.  The Hebrew letters, which appear through the text, also explore some of these ideas. Indeed, the traditional Jewish notion (particular in Jewish mysticism such as the Kaballah) of the Hebrew letters is that they have always existed. There are, in some way, the building blocks of the physical universe and are themselves creative forces (cf. stars.)

Not only do I see letterforms as constellations, I think of them as having traversed time and space. They carry information from different time and space. Also, I feel that language, like constellations, might seem connected and to offer a unified view or pattern are actually from very different time and places and just appear as one since they onto the platen of our consciousness. Language is, like the perceptual trickster figures of the images like a 3-D illusion. Like a Necker cube, we may interpret messages or text different depending on our expectations or perceptual predisposition. But that is also the great creative genius of language: that is can exist in a kind of quantum state between two ideas or ways of seeing. It can convey paradoxical or impossible meanings. Meaning which refuses to resolve into a single state, the rational directional state. (Perhaps the state of technocratic patriarchy?) It is always a mystery and resists having a one-dimensional or simple relation to time and space.

BTW the title is from Thoreau: “We do not associate the idea of antiquity with the ocean, nor wonder how it looked a thousand years ago, as we do of the land, for it was equally wild and unfathomable always. . . The ocean is a wilderness reaching around the globe, wilder than a Bengal jungle, and fuller of monsters, washing the very wharves of our cities and the gardens of our sea-side residences.”

OV: Could you speak toward the relationship between verbal and visual in the work? How, or to what extent, do both of these categories dialogue or "constellate" with one another? 

GB: I’ve probably answered that in the biovating blatherations which appear above.

OV:  I'm just curious, what are those script-like symbols that appear in several of the images (ie. those that aren't punctuation)? 

I think you mean the Hebrew letters. Though letters have powerful associations in Hebrew (particularly in Jewish mysticism) these particular letters were not exactly chosen for those meanings, but rather for their visual and associational resonance. The letter that has three arms (a little W-like) is a shin and is associated with the name of the divine.

BTW here’s a little video based on some of the images.

Questwers and Anstions: the wild and unfathomable always



University of Ottawa Graduate student, Olivia Vanderwal asked me some questions about my visual poetry book the wild and unfathomable always for some coursework. I thought her questions were very interesting and I asked her if I could post her questions and my bloviating blatherations on my blog and she gave me permission.

OV: I was wondering if you could talk about some of the processes behind "the wild and unfathomable always," as both a conceptual and physical work. How did you first conceive of the project -- what thoughts or ideas led you toward visual poetry? What did the method or technique of production look like? 


GB: I tend to imagine the world and its concepts as a metaphor for language. Not only do I imagine “grammar,” but more concretely, I imagine letter-like processes. Eg.: That’s a kind of m-behaviour. That’s w-ish in its relations. I imagine that the letters are the icons of entire ecosystems, systems of physics, or even of beliefs or conceptual systems and that what we see are just projections on the flat screen of our awareness, on the flat surface of the page.

I especially consider punctuation as representing the ineffable or at least the unsayable, the unsaid, or the inexpressible. Language but not language. Punctuation is an energy-field, a fundamental force like gravity or the electromagnetical force. Or being. Punctuation is the other. The strange beauty, the alphabets’s ostranenie. And if squinting at the infinite, the alphabet can seen to be a multidimensional thing of strange beauty itself. A physical phenomenon but also something noumenal or even numinous (and here, we’re not talking of the divine per se, but rather of the mysterious, the uncanny.)


I have been thinking about written language and its relation to impossible forms as well as constellations for a long time. And when these elements collide, they fracture both visual space, the integrity of the letterforms, as well as challenge the production of meaning. Or perhaps, I should say, produce multiple not easily parsed meanings. A network of signification. Signifiers as broken open and multidimensional and which exist beyond the usual limits of the semantic. Polysemic but also its inverse. A sign which exists in 22-dimensional space. Is it the signifier or the signified which has 22-dimensions?


I began with exploring the collision of these various visual elements. Punctuation, the Hebrew and the Roman alphabet. Constellations. Impossible visual illusions. Using Photoshop, I mashed up the images. I scanned some impossible shapes and constellations. Then I modified the shapes and constellations (often I’d create the constellations star by star, dashed line by dashed line using the star and dash elements that I’d scanned from old images of constellations.) By creating empty space between lines (i.e. erasing the white space), Photoshop allows images to break the visual illusion of their shape or solidity. Visual signification intertwines.


OV: Your title frames the book in terms of time or infinity. What role does time/spacetime play in our understanding of language, or the way we (de)construct meaning from it? 

There is much play in the images themselves with time and infinity. I consider that the 3-D illusion figures/impossible figures play with the perception of space and exist in the perceptual/conceptual interstices between time and space. They are, in their own way, sigils of infinity. They both break the “fourth wall” of visual and language illusion and its suspension of disbelief.

And of course, constellations mark a particular relation between space and time. At the distance that stars are from earth, the relation between space and time becomes apparent as we know that the starlight we see may be a record of something which doesn’t exist anymore.  The Hebrew letters, which appear through the text, also explore some of these ideas. Indeed, the traditional Jewish notion (particular in Jewish mysticism such as the Kaballah) of the Hebrew letters is that they have always existed. There are, in some way, the building blocks of the physical universe and are themselves creative forces (cf. stars.)

Not only do I see letterforms as constellations, I think of them as having traversed time and space. They carry information from different time and space. Also, I feel that language, like constellations, might seem connected and to offer a unified view or pattern are actually from very different time and places and just appear as one since they onto the platen of our consciousness. Language is, like the perceptual trickster figures of the images like a 3-D illusion. Like a Necker cube, we may interpret messages or text different depending on our expectations or perceptual predisposition. But that is also the great creative genius of language: that is can exist in a kind of quantum state between two ideas or ways of seeing. It can convey paradoxical or impossible meanings. Meaning which refuses to resolve into a single state, the rational directional state. (Perhaps the state of technocratic patriarchy?) It is always a mystery and resists having a one-dimensional or simple relation to time and space.

BTW the title is from Thoreau: “We do not associate the idea of antiquity with the ocean, nor wonder how it looked a thousand years ago, as we do of the land, for it was equally wild and unfathomable always. . . The ocean is a wilderness reaching around the globe, wilder than a Bengal jungle, and fuller of monsters, washing the very wharves of our cities and the gardens of our sea-side residences.”

OV: Could you speak toward the relationship between verbal and visual in the work? How, or to what extent, do both of these categories dialogue or "constellate" with one another? 

GB: I’ve probably answered that in the biovating blatherations which appear above.

OV:  I'm just curious, what are those script-like symbols that appear in several of the images (ie. those that aren't punctuation)? 

I think you mean the Hebrew letters. Though letters have powerful associations in Hebrew (particularly in Jewish mysticism) these particular letters were not exactly chosen for those meanings, but rather for their visual and associational resonance. The letter that has three arms (a little W-like) is a shin and is associated with the name of the divine.

BTW here’s a little video based on some of the images.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

New Review, publications, Yoda, Guitar Picks, Art Exhibition and....



Naomi MacKinnon of the Shadow Giller has written a lovely and moving review of Yiddish for Pirates. I'm so grateful for such a thoughtful review and one that quotes from the book extensively. (Nothing like seeing your own words quoted back to you...but really, I really like how she explains the book through quotations from the book.)

The Hamilton Review of Books is a new review of books from Hamilton. (Bet that wasn't something that you could have figured out from its name.) It is edited by a bunch of amazing writers, mostly from Hamilton, Ontario where I live. I think it is part of a burgeoning literary scene in Hamilton and I'm delighted. I'm also delighted that they featured my visual work for their first issue. I'm honoured!

My visual work is also in Word For/ Word, a great online publication of text and visuals edited by Jonathan Minton out of West Virginia.

Installing the Subject Object Verb show.

Opening this weekend is Subject. Object. Verb. an interactive installation/response to the work of Susan Kealey that I created for the Art Gallery of Hamilton. Visitors can type on four vintage manual typewriters wired to audio processing and record their memories on paper. They can then illuminated these works and they will form part of an expanding exhibition of these works which will continuously be collected into book form. There will also be a live performance based on the work.

Wednesday, October 05, 2016

I don't want to make this blog all mad raving about good things but...


Here I am (above) at Random House Canada signing an enormous tableful of books. Such a crazy surreal experience. But fun. And I resisted leaping onto the table and rolling around in them, like a frolicking dog.

What does it feel like? Completely surreal, as if I were playing the part of “the author” in a movie. But I also kept thinking about these books flying out into the world like some kind of flock of literary storks delivering stories.

And...Yiddish for Pirates has been shortlisted for the Governor-General's Literary Award for Fiction! Really, I am smobgacked by this and honoured to be there with my four fantastic co-nominees.

My hometown paper, The Hamilton Spectator wrote about this nomination here. Thanks to Graham Rockingham. I also did an interview on CHML Radio. I start at 14'37" Thanks to Scott Radley for the interview.

There's a new review of the book, too. Robert Fulford wrote about it in the National Post. 

Today, I spent an hour and a half with a photographer from Maclean's Magazine.  I spent the hour and a half trying to look like I wasn't trying too hard too look or not too look too authorly. But the photographer was great; she made me feel as comfortable as I could be considering the various parts of my face kept wanting to either escape or do their death mask imitation.

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Yiddish for Pirates on the Scotiabank Giller Prize Shortlist!


This is surprising and delightful news. Yiddish for Pirates is on the shortlist with five other books. Here's the complete list.

When I read the Jury Citation for my book, I'll admit to tearing up. I was so moved that the jury "got" what I was trying to do & that they articulated it with such precision and enthusiasm.

There are lots of events associated with the shortlist—media and readings—and I get to stay in a hotel that has a "glass-enclosed cheese cave." I want to repeat that phrase over and over. It feels better in the mouth than any cheese.

The Hamilton Spectator had a story about my nomination on the front page (the front page!) and interviewed me. That astounded me. And as I was walking on a downtown street, a guy pulled his car over to the curb and jumped out, ran up to me and shook my hand to congratulate me. Really, Dad, that was too much. But actually, I didn't know the guy. Very strange but sweet.

Monday, September 19, 2016

The Count from Sesame Street was a Holocaust Survivor



The writer and scholar, Jennifer Glaser wrote on her Facebook page that, as a child, she thought that Sesame Street's The Count (AKA Count von Count) was a Holocaust survivor. This made sense to me, it resonated. So I wrote a prose poem based on this recollection.

I'm delighted that it was published today on Menachem Matthew Feuer's the Schlemiel in Theory Blog. Here it is. Von beautiful poem. Two beautiful poems...ah ha ha ha ha....


Sunday, September 18, 2016

Crap Orgasm and Owls.




In response to the magazine The Walrus's new "family friendly" fiction rules, and the subsequent resignation of its fiction editor, Nick Mount (see here for the story), A.G. Pasquella created a new lit journal (named after two words which were forbidden in the new rules.)

I'm delighted to have the first piece posted in this new venture.
 I think A.G. missed the fact that I sneakily integrated the forbidden words into this piece along with another element which was the initial cause of the kerfuffle—why else would have let this in?

But really, it's important that significant journals choose quality and not some patronizing and misguided notion of what might be appropriate. Writing is about engagement and sometimes that engagement might be not be silky smooth, indeed might have some grit and resistance. I think we can take it.

Here's my story, Owls.


Saturday, September 17, 2016

India, Books and a Great New Review of Yiddish for Pirates



As you can see from the above picture of a guy (not me, I'm taking the picture) checking his cellphone in a monument, we've just returned from 9 days in India (via New York City.) We were in Agra, Delhi, and Jaipur and points in between.  Truly a remarkable experience and one which I have to write about properly but first, laundry and catching up on responsibilities, including composing/programming a digital interactive typewriter piece for installation at the Art Gallery of Hamilton next month. Now here is a photo snapped from a bicycle rickshaw of a bookseller on a street of booksellers just opening up for the morning.


I did come across this really insightful review/ essay concerning Yiddish for Pirates by Kerry Riley on her fantastic blog which I'm just discovering now. (I know, a blog isn't real until it talks about me...) I'm really grateful for her perceptive examination of the novel from a number of different perspectives, including the motif of books, the repository of past narratives in our culture, and the notion of story which run throughout the novel.








Friday, September 16, 2016

Yiddish for Pirates is on the Giller Longlist!




Very excited that Yiddish for Pirates is on the Giller Prize longlist. It's there with eleven really fantastic books including Susan Perly's Death Valley published by local small press, Wolsak & Wynn.

I'm really happy for the recognition of these great writers and publishers but I'm also thinking about all the others who weren't able to be on the list but who also deserve recognition and excitement. Also all those editors (mine was Amanda Lewis), publishers, and other book support people who make all these books possible.

Also...I just got news that my book will soon appear in paperback. I've posted the cover (front, back, and spine) above It's another beautiful cover designed by Five Seventeen in cahoots with my editor, Amanda Lewis. It does looks a bit like a scrimshaw.

Before I was on the shortlist, the designer stuck in a dummy prize sticker which I really wish was an actual category. Here it is:



Sunday, August 14, 2016

Some of my favourite Star Wars Stormtroopers are Jewish




I remember attending the premiere of Star Wars while in high school And I remember listening to Joseph Campbell talking (from George Lucas’ dazzlingly beautiful library at his ranch) about the mythic structure of the series. The Hero with a Thousand Faces, etc. And I’ve seen remarkable images by West Coast indigenous artist Andy Everson where he appropriates Star Wars’ imagery and patterns them with West Coast Native iconography/decoration, a really brilliant mash-up which speaks to colonialism, power, myth, our expectations and how cultures interact. There is another non-Native artist who has also—though to my eye—less successfully and less interestingly done the same thing.

I wondered what it would mean if I appropriated these images? My background is Jewish. The ‘iconography’ of my people would involve Hebrew calligraphy and perhaps a Hamsa (the hand with protects against the evil eye.) And there would be an extra frisson with the Star Wars imagery given that some of the Empire imagery is itself riffing off Nazi German iconography (as well as Japanese: cf. Darth Vader.)

Nazi Stormtroopers don’t look like Star Wars stormtroopers but the connection is there. So. I covered a Star Wars stormtrooper helmet Hebrew and included a hamsa. Something else to note. The Hebrew is from a font which looks like Hebrew but actually replicates English letters. Another interesting faux syncretism.

And, of course, in the current geopolitical climate, it is hard not to consider this stormtrooper image in relation, not only to past Nazi militarism, but I think it does engage with images of Israeli force.



But I think the goal of art is to raise interesting questions, to problematize….but not to give any answers, particularly simple ones.

Monday, August 08, 2016

Visuals






In Memoriam: Jonathan Borwein



My cousin, Jon Borwein, died unexpectedly yesterday. Though I hadn't seen him in quite a few years, his part of the family though not actually close cousins (there was some arcane mathematical formula by which we could calculate our cousin relationship--I think it involved the square root of a negative number divided by borscht squared) have always felt very close to us and our families have always made a point of connecting over several continents. Somehow as the B*rw*ns (Borwein is the non-Anglicized version of Barwin) moved across the globe, there has always been the sense that we were in this together.

 Jon was a renowned mathematician. Though clearly the specifics of his work were beyond my understanding, his approach to it was very inspiring to me. Through math, he made the wonder, mystery, elegance, delight, and beauty of the world, of the inquiring intellect and of knowledge and discovery itself very apparent. When with him, he had that gift of being "present," of valuing your interaction with him, of connecting to you in his inimitable way. I don't think I've ever met a more inquisitive and penetrating intellect, though I've also never met anyone who would talk about genital crabs when a guest at a passover dinner. ;) Also, though he was able to roam through the very abstract world of experimental mathematics, it was so apparent how much love of family was important to him and fundamentally at the centre of his life. I am feeling so sorry for his family, his parents and brother & sister, and for my parents.

Here is an obituary from a colleague. And here is the public obiturary:

Jonathan Borwein’s obituary

BORWEIN, Jonathan Michael, August 2, 2016 at age 65. Jon Borwein, Laureate Professor at the University of Newcastle, FRSC, FAAAS, FBAS, FAustMS, FAA, FAMS, FRSNSW passed away suddenly at 12:32 a.m. on August 2 during a stint as Distinguished Scholar in Residence at Western University in London, Ontario.
An innovative and prolific mathematician of international renown, he is survived by his parents, Bessie and David Borwein of London; his adoring wife Judith, three daughters Naomi, Rachel, and Tova; five grandchildren Jakob Joseph, Noah Erasmus, Skye, Zoe and Taj; siblings Sarah and Peter; sister-in-law Jennifer Moore.
The funeral will take place at Logan Funeral Home, 371 Dundas Street, London, Ontario at 1:00 pm on Wednesday August 10, 2016 with a visitation period from noon to 1:00 pm. In lieu of flowers, friends and colleagues may wish to donate to a scholarship fund being set up in Jonathan’s name. For information on how to donate contact Judith.Borwein@gmail.com.

Monday, July 18, 2016

John Coltrane was my Bar Mitzvah Teacher

.



When I was a suburban Jewish kid living in Ottawa, studying for my Bar Mitzvah, I began listening to the music of John Coltrane, and perhaps nothing more than “Alabama.

When I went to synagogue and heard the chanting of the cantor, I heard the modal freeform improvisations of Coltrane on soprano (for example, on “India” or “My Favourite Things” or “Impressions,”), and his exploration of modality and, particularly, the non-western scales of Indian music. A solo voice keening, birling, undulation. I heard the expression of another kind of identity, what I imagined was an alternative to the four-square homophonics of the dominant Western culture. A kind of non-tempered heterophony, or a monophonic swirling through different scales and otherness.

And of course, in “Alabama,” I heard the deep grief for the young girls murdered in Alabama, the victims of racial hate. Coltrane standing with his tenor expressing his grief and blessing them with this secular prayer. Sanctifying their experience. What felt like “our” experience, even though, I could, of course, share almost nothing of their experience, or Coltrane’s, and came to it as a middle class white Jewish teenager, fifteen years later in suburban Ottawa. But it revealed something about the world. This was what was important. This was how one responded with courage and a sense of empathy and morality. It did make me consider my grandparents in Eastern Europe, the hateful system of apartheid that my parents left in South Africa, and the religious strife in Northern Ireland where I grew up.

Through this piece and the model of John Coltrane, I understood that music and the arts in general could express profound feelings of empathy, a kind of large-picture view of the world (which might perhaps be termed “spirituality,”) and the powerful sense of consolation and healing through shared experience and expression, and a meditative energized sense of being-in-the-moment as it unfolds. I remember reading somewhere about the recording of “Alabama” which appeared on an album (“Live at Birdland,”) that it was remarkable that this profound and deeply moving piece was recorded live in a nightclub (i.e. Birdland)
 where people were drinking their beers and cocktails.

On the Jewish high holidays, I’d heard the Kol Nidre prayer, which is one of the most serious, intense and emotional sung prayers in the tradition and heard in it the sorrow of persecution and suffering of the Holocaust, and the suffering afflicted on other peoples at other times. Of course, because I was a teenager, I also heard a general cri de coeur for life’s difficulties and fundamental existential dilemma. But through this, I understood that such expression could bring meaning and perhaps consolation.

I also understood the model of Coltrane’s relentless experimentation—his drive to discover and to explore what might be possible, rather than just continuing with the utter mastery that he had achieved. (For example, Kind of Blue or that mind-blowingly perfect album with Cannonball Adderly.) The role of the artist—and by extension, the role of the person—was to explore, was to push through to greater understanding and expression (I saw those as two facets of the same thing.)

I don’t remember what the rabbi taught me for my Bar Mitzvah. Ethical responsibility? Moral choices and culpability for one’s actions? How Jewish text and musical culture could articulate values and identity and form a way of being-in-the-world? I remember nothing of that. I do remember him telling me that I should say “Moses’s” instead of “Moses’” which rankled my Anglo-grammatical sensibilities—and I refused. I do think of the grief and consolation of “Alabama,” of how Coltrane responded with compassion, empathy, moral courage, tenderness and strength.

I do remember John Coltrane and what he taught me for my Bar Mitzvah.

Thursday, June 09, 2016

Canadian Jewish News writes about Yiddish for Pirates



I'm delighted by this review in the Canadian Jewish News. Apparently they believe I must have been paying attention during all those interminable cheder (Hebrew school) lessons. But, really, it is quite moving to have such a review in such a place.

I was thinking tonight about how they would say that the American composer Charles Ives wrote the music that his father would have written, that his music came out of a love and concern for the kinds of things that he saw mattered to his father, filtered (I think) through a kind of nostalgia and affection.

I would say that some significant part of my novel comes from my perception of what mattered to my maternal grandparents.  My grandfather's interest in Jewish learning, in the mystery and value of books, language and knowledge for itself, and a kind of intellectual Yiddishkeit which made me consider that each corner and crook of the world is filled with story, with knowledge, with thought, with words, and with an opinion. He also had an interest in bon mots (frequently his own) and Jewish jokes (frequently his own.) There was a sense that through knowledge the world was larger and had roots.

He was also was a polyglot. (Man, he was hard to clean up after -- ask my grandmother.) He was not a religious man, but was fascinated by religious texts and knew Hebrew, Afrikaans, English, Yiddish, French, Russian, some German, and bits of other languages. I remember arriving one night late and seeing him have about five different bibles open in front of him, comparing the texts. My grandfather and I would go to the local library once a week when I was between ten and thirteen. I remember reading about madrigals and haiku while he read the Israeli newspapers in English and Hebrew.

A characteristic memory of my grandmother. She would be sitting in her green chair or lying on her bed with a book (library-wrapped by her in plastic)—mostly frequently a contemporary or classic literary novel—reading with a dictionary beside her. She was a fastidious reader, always careful to check on unfamiliar words or usages. She also told stories, mostly during those times when my grandfather wasn't there to interrupt or eclipse her. Those quieter times between things. There wasn't the sense of having an audience (in both meanings of the word) that there was with my grandfather or of tagging along on a particular project or enthusiasm that he'd being seized with. She'd talk while baking or while I helped her walk from a chair to the dinner table (which, as her arthritis took told of her bones, could take enough time for a story or anecdote.)

When they moved to Canada, I remember one of the first things they did in their new house was to knock down the wall between two room so that they could install "their library,"—their large book collection with its dark wood shelves and Persian rugs. Each book was carefully catalogued by my grandmother and I would look through the various dictionaries, encylopedias (Jewish, historical and philosophical), the older editions, the collections of many or all the books by a single author gathered together on the shelf (I imagined where my books would go, in their place on the "B" shelf) and the bookcases of Hebrew and Yiddish books, obscure to me, but their unintelligible whispering and humming was a mysterious and affective ghost for me.

All of my grandparents were migrants, immigrants, wandering a varied diaspora of Jews, living in a diaspora of memory. They moved from Lithuania and the Ukraine where they were born to South Africa, where my parents were born, and eventually to Canada, where I was born. In my novel, the boy who eventually becomes a pirate captain, Moishe, is born in Lithuania, travels to Spain and then eventually finds himself in the Caribbean. There is this sense of travelling, of following story, of following the horizon. Following the horizon looking for home, looking for possibility. Often Jews feel like they are a diaspora of themselves, living in the past and in the future, but with a complicated feeling about the present. And so, they live in language, a place that is there and not there. Its palpable sensory reality is present, is here, but yet always refers to something else. A sign of relief, of regret, of hope, expectation, of witness.

I remember when my first son was born, my grandfather spoke to me about how he had known his grandfather and now he had met his great-grandson. That's six generations, he said. And he was in the middle of the past and the future.

But here I am at 3 a.m. in the Calgary airport writing to the sound of the cleaners' vacuums as I nod off with exhaustion. I, too, am between one place and the other. Between being awake and asleep. Between Hamilton, Ontario and Victoria, B.C. Between one flight and the next. Between sense and reverie. Beginning and ending. Guess I'd better find a comfy and quiet bank of airport chairs to steal a quick shloff before it is time for my flight in a few hours, before it is time for me, too, to fly off toward the horizon.

Saturday, June 04, 2016

Welcome to Hamilton: a fundraiser for Syrian refugess



Last night, I was really happy to get to perform at the Welcome to Hamilton event raising money for arts programs for Syrian refugees staged by Supercrawl and hosted by Ralph Benmergui. There were 800 people at Hamilton’s New Vision church (a really beautiful setting) and a brilliant array of fantastic bands and performers. including The National, Hayden, Terra Lightfoot, Max Kerman from The Arkells, Kevin Drew from Broken Social Scene. All the performances were knockouts and it was a complete love-in for the audience. A lovely positive vibe.

I was one of four writers who read at the event. John Terpstra, Steven Brunt, and Sally Cooper also read. I was really so grateful to be invited and so glad that writers were included.  And apparently, over $50,000 were raised. So it was a good thing, yes? 

Of course. But much as it was great, I was concerned that the audience was almost entirely white. Except for Mother Tareka, a local performer of Syrian-descent, the performers were white (and almost entirely male.) I feel that it would have been important to include a greater range of backgrounds, to “decolonize” the event. I would have liked some more people of colour and some indigenous people represented in the performing line-up which might have then attracted a greater range of people in the audience. I know that the opportunity to present The National came up and so a show was built around them and their audience—and both were fantastic. The audience was incredibly warm, attentive, and appreciative of everyone—we writers as well as the phenomenal performers and host Ralph Benmergui. 

I was concerned that the event had a bit of a white liberal middle class “saviourist” feel to it. Us, privileged white people helping these poor Syrians. A one-way street. Ralph Benmergui did make the point, which I greatly appreciated, that Syria is an extremely old culture, vibrant and rich in culture. However, I would have like a greater sense of this being a relation among cultural equals (even if not equal in terms of ecomomic and physical safety—refugees are, after all, coming here because the situation is better in Canada at the moment.) Perhaps some Syrian writers. Or a refugee or immigrant (sure, I’m an immigrant, but I’m thinking one who arrived with less implicit privilege) or a representative from a Syrian organization in Hamilton/Ontario/Canada. Some people to speak to the experience of being a non-white person in Canada. The audience was so welcoming, I think they'd have been open to hearing about this kind of experience, to learning about things outside their experience.

I do love that the money was being raised for music, arts and recreation for refugee youth, acknowledging that refugees need access to the full range of things that we all need, which means not only socks and tins of beans.

I was thinking about reading from my new novel, Yiddish for Pirates, but then I realized that perhaps a book about Jews on boats might not be the most appropriate thing in this context, so I sat down to write something. The organizers had asked for something affirming, open-hearted, something perhaps about Hamilton. I thought about the idea that the refugees (as immigrants and refugees always have) bring something valuable to our community. Their experiences, culture, whatever they are as humans and the potential they and their children bring to this new place. It isn’t a one way street. They get a new place to live, but that means that we do, too.

My poem deliberately plays with the idea of appropriating voice. If it works as I hope, it is ambiguous who exactly is the “we” that is speaking. It changes. And that is part of the point. Sometime it is the voice of the refugee, something it is the voice of the current Hamiltonian.  I hope that it succeeds. I was very concerned not to take on the voice of the refugee. 

Oh, and also, old bad jokes. 

Poem for Welcome to Hamilton.


we have counted each day
we have counted each night
we have counted footsteps

we have counted each river
each ocean
each boat and plane 

we have counted the old
we have counted the new
each minute and mile 
we have counted our friends and family

we have counted the words 
the shouts, the songs, the old jokes
we have counted the air

we have flown for days, we say
your arms must be tired, they say
yes, we say, and before we left
we couldn’t play the violin

and now? they ask
we still can’t play the violin
but we are here

we have counted each breakfast
each lunch
each pair of pants

we have counted each bed
each school
each job and each penny
each new word to say

we have counted each road
each airport
each train

each shoe and each video game
each bike 
and each plate

each brother
sister
each father and son

each mother 
daughter
each grandmother and lover

each grandfather
cousin
each husband and wife

we have counted each city
each town
and each road

we have counted each suitcase
each one left behind
each departure and each road

we have counted each border 
each new country
each new promise, each old regret

we have counted each of these months
waiting
imagining each other

travelling by travelling
or travelling by not travelling
each greeting 
each journey’s end

and we have counted each arrival
each of us 
welcome to the city 
now each other’s home

_____________________________

On my way walking home from the benefit, cutting through the McNab Street transit block, I ran into three young people who I had taught as part of the ArtForms arts education for street-involved youth. Mostly recently, I'd seen them at  creative writing workshops at Notre Dame House, a shelter for homeless youth. One of the youth—I'd first met him before he had begun transitioning—had been at the show (he worked with the church), the other had set up in front to sell his artwork—paintings and buttons. Yeah. Three young toughs at large in the street in Hamilton. What did they want to talk about. Art and poetry. Yeah. Arts education. Part of a complete breakfast. Always.

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Do you already say it in Yiddish: a brief glossary for Yiddish for Pirates:



Do you already say it in Yiddish?

Yiddish is the perfect pirate tongue. It plunders with panache and delights—often with delicious irony—in the rich swash of its own buckle. 

Below are some definitions of many of the Yiddish words that are used in Yiddish for Pirates. But maybe you’re a maven and already know them all, and not some poor shmuck who can’t make head or tail of this farkakteh list.

I didn't include a glossary in the book for a few reasons. I didn't want the reader to get hung up looking up words but rather I wanted to allow the sentences to flow over them and immerse the reader in the sensibility of the novel and its narrator. And for the most part, I cunningly included the corresponding English word or phrase along with the Yiddish in the sentence where it was used, because I'm no fool shlemiel. In any case, the meanings are usually clear given their context.

I love Junot Diaz's The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar WaoOne thing that I especially love is that it is filled with idiomatic Dominican Spanish. For me, as a non-Dominican and non-Spanish speaker it made clear to me that this was a novel narrated by and about a worldview that was very different to mine, and I was an outsider, albeit one who was charmed, moved, entertained, and captivated by the voices and experiences of the novel. Of course, Dominicans would immediately get that it spoke directly to them and reflected something of (at least one part of their culture's) linguistic experience and worldview. I hoped that my novel could do the same thing with its Yiddish and Yiddishkeit, though my novel has its own very different, decolonializing project. I've found it very moving when I've read from Yiddish for Pirates that Yiddish speakers (usually older people) have expressed their appreciation of the Yiddish, often speaking to me in Yiddish and sharing Yiddish jokes, stories, and expressions. One nonagenarian told me that "Yiddish always provides you the words to say at a hospital bed."

There's something really energizing about an admixture of languages in one sentence. It's a vibrant polyphonic or polyrhythmic music. A lively dialogue. Or maybe it is a case of "you can't dance at two weddings with only one tuches."

And now you look at the words below and you say, “This, eppes, is a dictionary?” So, nu, not all of the subtle shades of meaning are included. That would take example stories, jokes, sayings, and …hand-gestures. Also, as Yiddish is normally written in Hebrew script, there is not really one standard way to render it in English letters…except for the wrong way. But, abi gezunt, what does it matter, really. As long as you’re healthy. (P.S. I'm planning on creating a comprehensive glossary of ALL the Yiddish in the novel for those who just need to know, but that's a bigger project for later.)

abi gezunt
as long as you’re healthy

a broch
an expletive, a curse 

brocheh
a blessing

alav ha’shalom
“May he rest in peace”

alter kaker
old fart

azoy
so (appears in many expressions and has many meanings); Azoy geyt es: That’s how it goes!)

balebosteh
impressive housewife (who often runs things)

balmelocheh
an expert (often used sarcastically)

bashert(er)
fated or predestined; often used about one’s soulmate

beytsim
testicles

bialy
a small baked roll

boychik
young boy, a kid (often as a term of endearment for any familiar male)

bubbeleh
like “darling,” a term of endearment

bupkes
nothing, worthless

cheder
elementary school; cheder-bocher: schoolboy

chutzpah
cheek, audacity, guts, temerity

dybbuk
evil possessing spirit

eppes
a little

farkakte, farkakteh
shitty, messed up

farklemt
overcome with emotion; also spelled verklempt

farmisht
mixed up, confused, crazy

feygeleh
lit. “little bird,” but also used pejoratively for homosexual

gevalt
“Oh my God!” “help!” or “good grief!”

gonif
a crook, a scoundrel 

keneynehoreh
Said to ward off the evil eye, a bit like “knock on wood”…but spookier

kishkas
intestines, guts

kvell
to beam with pride and pleasure

l’chaim
a toast, “to life!”

maidel, maideleh
girl, especially shaynah maidel, beautiful girl/young woman

mamaloshen
the mother tongue (i.e. Yiddish)

mamzer
bastard

matzoh
the traditional unleavened bread of Passover

macher
big shot

maven
expert (often used sarcastically)

mechayeh
a feeling of pleasure, delight or relief

megillah
a lengthy, involved story or explanation 

meshugas
craziness, nonsense

mishpocheh
family

nosh
snack

ongeshtopt
stuffed

punim
face

pupiklech
dish of chicken gizzards

sheyneh
beautiful

shikker(ed)
drunk

shlepp
v. to move laboriously; to lug
n. a long or arduous journey, or a slovenly person, a drag 

shlemiel
a fool, often clumsy

shloff
sleep

shlumper
a slob, an ineffectual loser

shmatte
rags, clothes

shmeckel
little penis

shmegegge 
a fool, buffoon, dawdler

shmendrick
a nerdy fool 

shmutzy
dirty

shnorrer
someone who is greedy

shnozz
nose, big nose 

shtarker
tough guy, a thug

shtikl
a small piece

shtup
to stuff; (vulgar slang) to have sex with

tchatchke
trinket, knickknack

tsitske(s)
nipple(s)

tuches
backside

zaftik
buxom


Images from the amazing YiddishWit.com

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

On Names and Naming: How the Jews Sunk the Titanic

New Chiefs on The Land, Lawrence Paul Yuxweluptun, 2006

Several years ago, I had an interesting discussion with my son Ryan about names. We were talking about the Canadian Indigenous artist Lawrence Paul Yuxweluptun. He embraces his traditional last name but notes that his first two names are names from the residential school system. He only signs his paintings with his traditional name. Likewise, many people of African descent, leave their "slave" names, or at least, identify that the names have this origin. Dollar Brand, the South African musician, became Abdullah Ibrahim. Leroi Jones became Amiri Baraka.


Ryan was wondered about our Jewish last name. As I recall from Hebrew school, Jews of Eastern European origin only got last names sometime in the 19th century for census (thus tax) purposes by the non-Jewish government. Different names were given to different families according to status and money. Hence, Goldberg was worth more than Greenberg. Waxman was a occupational name. And Jews made lots of candles.

And there's that ancient joke:
—The Jews sunk the Titanic.
—No, they didn't. That was an iceberg. 
—Greenberg, Goldberg, Iceberg. They're all the same.

The traditional way for Jews to be named is "Someone Son of Someone." Thus, Ryan Ben (son of) Gary, or, with our Hebrew names, Ronen Ben Gershon. Nowdays, it's usual, at least in reform congregations to include the mother's name. So: Ronen Ben Gershon v'Bela. (The v means 'and.') 

Jewish last names, like many non-anglo names were also modified when Jews emigrated. 'Barwin' was "Borwein" or "Borweinis" in Lithuania where my grandfather was born. His family changed it to Barwin when they moved to South Africa. I still have Borwein relations. For example Jon Borwein. My maternal grandfather's last name was Zelikowitz, which became Zelikow when he emigrated to South Africa. Ryan remembered that Stuart Ross's family name was Razovsky which was Anglicized to Ross and then appeared on and in some of Stuart's books.

I have chosen to consider "Barwin" as an invented name, albeit one derived from my family's past. I consider that my grandfather changed it to reflect his new life of opportunity outside of the shettls of Europe. Perhaps I could see it as a concession to the dominant power and language of the time and place, however I'd prefer to consider it as part of a process of shaping a life and a person. (For more on the very interesting topic of Jewish emmigration to South Africa, check out Victor Barwin's — my grand-uncle or cousin, I'm not sure — book about it "Millionaires and Tatterdemalions" )

"Ryan" is obviously not a traditional Jewish name, though he was given it in memory of his great-grandmother whose name began with an "R" --Rita Barwin. It is traditional with Ashkenazi Jews to name children after dead relatives. It would be bad luck to name them after someone alive. (No Moshe Jr.'s for Jews.) My son Aaron Barwin is named after Aaron Barwin, my dad's dad. Once when we were at a funeral, Aaron (age 5) noticed that his great-grandfather's grave was nearby and ran and lay down with his arms crossed in front of the gravestone. It was very freaky for Beth and I to see him lying on a grave with his own name on it. 

I wrote a prose poem (which appeared in my book, I, Dr. Greenblatt, Orthodontist, 251-1457 (Anvil Press) last year. 



STREAMBED 
A cloudless day in the cemetery where we have gone for the funeral of an aunt. Our five-year-old, named after his late grandfather, wanders about the headstones, dragging his fingers along the streambeds of carved-out letters. He stumbles upon his own name inscribed above a small bed of grass. He lies down, crosses his arms, closes his eyes, and waits. In time, he becomes old. The wind carves his features smooth as river rock. Someone lifts him and places him on his grandfather’s headstone. We no longer remember the town where he was born. 


I don't know what Ryan will do about his name. Perhaps he will change his name. Perhaps he will modify or stylize it in order to claim it for his own. bpNichol. e.e. cummings. Geof Huth. mIEKAL aND. Or, like Lawrence Paul Yuxweluptun, keep it as a sign of the complexity of his personal and cultural history. Maybe he'll be "the son formerly known as Ryan" and invent his own sign. (When Prince navigated away from "Prince," Bob Wiseman suggested that he would change his name to Prince, and then the name "Bob Wiseman" would be available for someone else to adopt. Basically, we could all move one name to the right. 

What would it be like with a different name? Would I think differently about myself if I were John King? My late friend Kerry Schooley was a very big man. He wrote under the very funny pen name of "Slim Volumes," as a poet. He also wrote as "John Swan" for detective fiction.

Certainly the exploration of culture, identity, and naming is a powerful and unfolding topic for discovery. 

A few years ago, when my son, Aaron, completely lost his temper, he would call me a "Bitch." This was convenient, since he is my son, and there exists a rather simple and pre-made retort, one with much precedent in popular culture, and available to me should I choose to invoke the fact that he is my male offspring.