a talk given on Thursday, January 24 at Wilfrid Laurier University as part of my Edna Staebler Writer-in-Residency, Winter 2019.
I sit down to write this talk on a snowy Monday, the sun bright, the air cold. I begin writing this talk like I begin most things. Without having any idea what to do. Without having any idea where I’m going. Also, I may have been too ambitious when I said I’d talk about connecting poetry and fiction to everything.
Ok, so I won’t say anything about my dog. Except for just then. But, in truth, beginning with knowing nothing and having only a vague sense of expectation and a willingness to explore is a good place to begin. It’s the state in which I begin most of my writing. And also, how I fill out most of my tax returns. Besides, everything is connected. It doesn’t really matter where you begin. As my son once said, the first five syllables of anything is the beginning of a haiku. And I do want to talk about how everything is connected. How everysome is elsecome thing.
But look how I just started from somewhere, from not knowing, from just beginning anyway, and here I am at the end of the first page, the first minute or two of speaking. And things are beginning to unfold. To suggest possibilities and directions. To paraphrase an old chestnut from Robert Frost:
` Two roads diverged in a yellow wood.
I took one.
It doesn’t matter which.
I’m not giving it back.
I do want to talk about writing from a place of not knowing, from a place of discovery, exploration, and play. But first let’s talk about eyebrows.
During my first years of being a middle school music teacher, students would sit in the back of the class and do this kind of salute thing, dragging single fingers across their eyebrows and then pointing them forward while saying “Connect. Connect.” It took me a while to figure out what they were doing. They were making fun of the fact that I have, what in the technical language of middle school is called “a unibrow.” My eyebrows are one. They connect. Me and Frida Kahlo. After I realized what my students meant by “connect,” I began greeting them with this unibrow salute and they would salute back at me.
This shared and ridiculous act connected us. It was a kind of “knock-knock who’s there” call-and-response. Me and language. Me and my students. Kyrie eleison. Christe eleison.
So now let me say more about starting from nowhere, about trusting the process, trusting the language and your own response to it. When I teach, I often tell my students, “The writing knows more than we do.” What I mean is that language is a vast repository, a great archive, a word hoard, a storehouse of accumulated knowledge and experience. Everyone who has ever used those words is there in the language. Just by virtue of being a speaker of the language, you have access to this knowledge. You have access to something much larger, much deeper than just yourself. You’re a tree connected to the rest of the forest by its roots. Or maybe you’re a leaf on a tree, connected to a twig, connected to a branch, connected to a trunk, connected to a system of roots, which connect you to the entire forest. And as the song goes, the green grass grows all around and around, the green grass grows all around. But you can see the forest because you’re a tree. You’re an antennae upside down in the ground.
I’m saying that language is its own internet. I’m saying that we should trust where our writing is taking us. Listen to the writing. To our own words. To the rhythms, the images, their associations. To how characters speak and what they say. Maybe you can feel it in your body as you write and—especially—as you read what you have written aloud.
I’m also saying that you should trust own language, your own particular place in the language. And maybe ask how it happened, how you became rooted in this particular place. Like a tree, as the poet John Terpstra says, you’re the expert on the place where you stand.
You don’t have to know what you’re doing. Or you don’t have to have a plan. Creative writing is an exploration. You can figure it out as you go along. You can start with a plan or a direction, but it can evolve. “The writing knows more than you do” and by listening to it, you often discover things that you didn’t expect, things that were much more subtle, interesting and complex than your original idea and yet somehow express what you didn't know you were thinking or feeling. It can lead you to greater and more emotionally rich writing. It’s good not to insist on what you thought the writing was going to be. It’s like a parent insisting that their kid be who they want the kid to be rather than allowing the kid to discover who they are. You’re not writing the poem or story that you wanted to write, but the one you are actually writing.
But I also want to make clear that at the same time that language isn’t to be trusted. Or at least, we shouldn’t trust its silvertongued inky-black duplicitous illusions to be more than the delightful play and ploy of signs and wonders. It’s the rope that isn’t there, yet that gives us enough rope to hang ourselves on our hope of being able to pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps, to throw a line between ourselves and our minds, our minds and others. Our othertongue. As much as language is a tool for discovery and empowerment, it can also be a tool of deception, suppression and silencing.
Interesting writing comes from our engagement with how the language pulls us and how we feel language’s pull and go along with it, or resist it, how we negotiate its energy. And by language, I don’t only mean words, grammar, phrases, sentences, paragraphs and so on, but images, stories, tropes, themes and structures as well how we interact with audience through publishing and what assumptions we make in general in our literary culture.
What if a tree falls in the forest and there’s no one around to hear? It’s a forest. There are other trees. Other living things. They hear. They can hear the sound of the trees that have fallen in the past, the anticipation of trees that will fall. And they can hear the sound of the network of trees itself. That’s language.
Writing is connected with everything.
Once I wrote a haiku for the late poet, David McFadden:
Why do we worry?
Every word on earth is
in the perfect place.
There was something about representing both ironically and yet at the same time earnestly this – hoped for, imagined – felicity of words and feeling. In my next poetry collection, I revised the haiku and it became:
Do why worry we?
Word every earth on is
in place perfect the
The play with the hoped for had become more self-referential. It had become a more compromised and contingent dance, something I saw in many of my favourite McFadden poems. I was trusting the language, but interrogating it more intensely.
But before we talk about everything else, let’s stay a while longer with uncertainties, mysteries, and doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason, as John Keats says.
You know that song about the bear going over the mountain to see what he could see? I think that interesting writing often comes from doing what that bear does, what I call “The Bear Method.”
This is how it works. Like a bear, you look to see what you can see, that is, what is the most interesting feature on the fictional landscape. That mountain over there? That’s definitely the most interesting thing around. So you head for it. When you get to the top, you do it again. You look out to see what you can see. What’s that? Oh yeah. It’s the next mountain. And then you head for that. And when you get there, you survey the next valley to see what you can see. I think you get the picture: you write your way towards something interesting and then when you get there, you decide where you should go next. You ask yourself, Hey Bear, which is the most interesting destination now? And so you’re a kind of dowser for mountains. A flâneur in the foothills on an ursine dérive. Head towards the light—as long as the light makes for interesting writing. You can’t plan because you don’t know where you’re going—you don’t know where you expect to get to or how you’re going to get there, but you go, confident that your mind and imagination are always the best tour guides, are always able to connect your writing to the most things. And of course, if it turns out that the mountain isn’t interesting, you can always go back and head towards another one. It isn’t like cutting out the wrong bit when you’re a brain surgeon.
You still can have an idea of what your ultimate destination might be. Here’s an example.
When I wrote my novel, Yiddish for Pirates, because I wanted to write about Jewish pirates, I knew that my protagonist, a Bar Mitzvah boy from Eastern Europe would become a pirate. And because he was a pirate, he would eventually search for treasure. But what that treasure was, I didn’t know. I also knew he’d search for the Fountain of Youth. Because…pirates. Also, it was rumoured to be in Florida. Perfect for a Jewish pirate. I also knew that he’d travel with Columbus to the Caribbean because some Jews actually did. In fact, Jews were expelled from Spain in 1492 exactly when Columbus sailed the Ocean Blue. Coincidence? I think not.
Actually it was a coincidence, but did you know that Columbus brought a translator who spoke Aramaic and Hebrew with him, in case they ran into one of the lost tribes of Israel? “So, how have you been, this last 2000 years?”
When I began writing Yiddish for Pirates, I thought about who might narrate it, who might be there to observe all that piratey stuff. Then I realized. Of course, a parrot would be the perfect narrator. It sits on a pirate’s shoulder and observes everything, like a Go Pro camera. And like a Greek chorus of one, it can comment on the action and make sarcastic asides. As I like to say, there’s a wisecrack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.
And parrots learn the language of whoever they are with, so this Polly was a polyglot. But, parrots (at least ones that speak human language) have to use the limited language they know, the limited language they have received—the words, tropes and stories—to express their reality. To mediate between themselves, their thoughts and the world. And to question whether this language is expressing their reality or is constructing it. This is just like human beings. Or writers.
And then I read about the explorer Humboldt who at the end of the 18th century came across an indigenous village that had been entirely destroyed by war. There was no trace of its people or its language left—it wasn’t a written language. Except, there was one parrot that had flown away from the village and knew about 30 words of their language. The language survived because the parrot was a kind of a dictionary, a book. So Humboldt wrote these words down, and was able to figure out the meaning of many of the words since the parrot used them in context. And then I read about a contemporary artist who had taught modern parrots to speak this language. From parrot to parrot, this language, this way of seeing the world, this world view, was passed down. Like with books.
And like with Yiddish. I wanted my book to be filled with Yiddish because it carried the culture, the humour, and the way of being in the world of Ashkenazi Jews, Jews from Eastern Europe. And so my parrot spoke Yiddish. Maybe the narrator is the original parrot who sailed with my pirate and Columbus, or maybe that parrot passed his story down to another parrot who passed it down to another one and so on. The parrot is like a book.
There’s an old Yiddish saying that I quote in the novel, The tongue is not in exile. It means that even if you have to leave everything behind, even if you are expelled, like the Jews of Spain in the Inquisition, even if you bring nothing but the clothes on your back, you always bring your language with you. Your words, your sayings, your stories, your jokes, your sounds, your world view. Even the ways you move when you speak. When I think about Yiddish, I move my shoulders in a certain way. The world has a certain texture, a certain philosophy and its carried in the language.
By the way, I also read about domestic parrots in Australia that escaped into the rain forest and taught the wild parrots how to swear like suburban Australians, but maybe that’s another thing.
I had called my main character, the boy who becomes a pirate, Moishe, which sounded like a good name. It is the Yiddish for Moses. I knew I could do lots with it regarding exile, the Promised Land, Exodus and so on. Then I thought about what to call his parrot, the narrator of the story. Well, if the protagonist is Moishe—Moses—the narrator could be Aaron. If you remember, in the Bible, it is Aaron who speaks for Moses, so that seemed perfect.
And so Yiddish for Pirates is narrated by Aaron, a pirate’s parrot. Actually he turns out to be a 500-year-old immortal Yiddish speaking parrot. Aaron swaggers around trying to be as macho as the pirates in the story because he’s learned language and culture from the pirates. In the middle of the book, I was writing a scene where Aaron meets another parrot. Actually, it’s a hot parrot sex scene in Yiddish with lots of ach ach ach and oy oy oy’s. And, in the middle of this, Aaron, the parrot, discovers that he is gay. I had no idea that this was going to happen, that my own character would come out to me as I was writing him. But I feel that by listening to my story and its characters, by trusting that the writing knew more than I did, I ended up with a much more interesting character. And a more interesting book. I had to wait until my characters were knee deep in their own made-up life before I knew, and they knew, what they would do next. In retrospect, it seems obvious that the parrot was gay, but I really wasn’t expecting it. Maybe he wasn’t either?
So that was a long way of illustrating trusting the process of writing. How one thing can lead to another. How everything is connected and if one is attuned to the possibilities inherent in what you are writing, the possibilities which you uncover as you research or think about your writing, you can be led to really interesting places. The brain reaches out like a root system and we hear the resonances, echoes of our own place in space and time, in history and in the world. I imagine how we look into space and see constellations. We make imaginary yet powerful connections between stars—we see patterns and stories between things trillions of light years apart yet that hit our eyes at the same time.
And because all of this is our process, this process of discovery will be connected to us and our sensibility, even if we didn’t know it at the time.
I should also say that the process of making a mistake or happenstance can also suggest a new path, if we read it as an unexpected possibility, a serendipitous opportunity.
For me, regardless of whether I’m writing text, or music, or creating visual work, I try to attune myself to the shapes, sounds and patterns, to trust the process, to trust that the materials will speak to me, that the material and I, the process and I will enter into a conversation. It’s always a collaboration. Between me and my process. Between me and the materials—sound, words, movements, shapes. And I think that the not knowing, and the sometimes bewilderment, the feeling uncertain and finding it all difficult and sometimes just hard work, I think of it as ultimately drawing out greater depth and sensitivity from me and my process. When things are less easy, less glib, it draws out more from me, it forces me to go deeper and beyond the oblivious and the obvious.
And I have to remind myself of this 100 times a day when I’m dissolving into a sea of self doubt and distinctly un-Hemmingway-like anti-bravado.
But another thing I want to say. If someone gives you some writing advice (like I am doing now) but you’ve got a better way, or a better idea that works for you, do that.
Now before we really roll up our sleeves and talk more about connection, about other ways in which writing is connected and connects, let me read a few lines from Julianna Spahr’s powerful long poem, This connection of everyone with lungs.
as everyone with lungs breathes the space between the hands
and the space around the hands and the space of the room and
the space of the building that surrounds the room and the space
of the neighborhoods nearby and the space of the cities and the
space of the regions and the space of the nations and the space
of the continents and islands and the space of the oceans and
the space of the troposphere and the space of the stratosphere
and the space of the mesosphere in and out.
In this everything, turning and small being breathed in and out
by everyone with lungs during all the moments.
It’s a beautiful passage. We’re connected by breath. Everyone on earth shares the same air. It does, however, make me think of air mattresses. An air mattress as some kind of a book which holds the exhalations of whoever blew it up. A song or poem of the breath contained within the mattress. At least it’s better than that dream I had where a woman was sleeping in a waterbed and pulled back the sheets and there was her ex-husband in scuba gear watching her from inside the waterbed.
In 1985, when I was a second year student at York University, I took a creative writing class. Our prof told us about an event downtown called "Meet the Presses," a gathering of small presses devised by Stuart Ross and Nicholas Power. He encouraged us to create books and get a table. I did, and ended up attending both Meet the Presses and independent book fairs for the next thirty years publishing a series of broadsides, chapbooks, and various ephemera for each event. Stuart, Nick, plus some others of us, re-formed Meet the Presses a few years ago in order to create the Indie Literary Market so we could continue to have this home for independent publishers. These kinds of community-based writer/publisher events, along with readings and publication in magazines and journals as well as the online world, have been a constant and important part of my writing and cultural life. They’ve really been a significant part of my development as a writer and have been responsible for introducing me to many writers, publishers, friends, acquaintances, colleagues, and readers, and much writing which has been important to me. All of which made years of engagement in the literary scene inspiring, collegial, pleasant, welcoming, intellectually engaging, and fun.
I began my press, serif of nottingham, as a way for me to distribute my work and the work of those I published, but very quickly I realized that that simple act had more complex potential. I also realized that publishing is not a neutral act. It is implicitly political and aesthetic. The publishing is part of the aesthetic of the work, in terms of its look, its distribution, and how the audience interacts with the work, in terms of reading it, engaging with its writers and publishers, and in how it finds its audience.
My publishing made me part of creating and engaging a community of writers, readers, and publishers. Those with whom I was simpatico. Like much publishing, it was old school social media.
Publishing meant that my work entered the discourse, the literary conversation. It put a frame around it. Work could come hot off my typewriter, my 520ST Atari computer, or the photocopier at my wife’s office and out into the world. And it was distributed in a number of ways. Direct contact at readings, through mail networks and through libraries, bookstores, collectors, archives, and at book fairs. Since then, I’ve been doing basically the same thing in various forms over the last 35 years. Writing and publishing. In this way, as my favourite Louis de Bernieres’ line says, I have demonstrated, “Exemplary flexibility in the face of unchanging circumstances.” And how have I managed to continue this activity for all these years? To paraphrase Yeats, “I have an abiding sense of tragedy, which has sustained me through temporary periods of joy.”
Writing and publishing is vital and important in all its forms, but especially how a diversity of voices, how a diversity of publications—from big mainstream publishers to the noncommercial margins—is vital if a society is to sustain the cultural biodiversity needed to have a strong and thoughtful culture of inquiry, engagement, and dialogue. If our society is to continue to develop and to be resistant to threats—threats to meaningful dialogue, inquiry and engagement, threats to inclusion and the inclusive perspectives of a diverse population. Without this diversity of publishing we might become like the banana industry, reliant on a single variety, a top banana which can be wiped out by a single strain of disease as has happened before. We’ll miss out on all those different kinds of bananas. Goodbye Gros Michel. Goodbye Cavendish.
The main point I’d like to make here is that by creating and nourishing, by making things new, by being awake to possibility, by always examining things from different perspectives, by being the antenna of the society, arts and culture is implicitly culture jamming. Arts and culture is inoculating. By having flourishing and varied arts and culture, we are resistant to homogeneity, we are resistant to being reduced to being the passive consumers of what is merely in the interests of the powerful. What is merely in the minds of the powerful. We can be resistant to the gravitational pull of simplifying and reductive tropes and instead have agency in constructing our world. Writing is good. Writing is very good.
I think of that line from the Steve Martin movie, Father of the Bride where they’re talking about getting a videographer, and the daughter says, “Can’t we just pay very close attention?”
Arts and culture enables us to pay close attention. To pay attention to how we pay attention. And to pay attention to who it is we are paying attention to We need to pay close attention. And our attention needs to be our own. That Steve Martin movie recalls the Nordic legend—well except for the banjo— where Woden is attempting to beat back the circle of darkness around the world. He goes to the king of the trolls and asks what is the secret to beating back the darkness. The king of the trolls says, “I’ll tell you, but first you have to give me one of your eyes.” Woden says, “Sure,” and gives him his left eye. Then Woden says, “OK, so tell me.” “The secret is,” the Troll King says, “The secret is: Always watch with both eyes.”
Great. Irony is one of the core operational principles of the world.
I should note that this very old missing eye story is, of course, a metaphor and it’s likely an ableist metaphor. Everyone can learn much from those voices which pay attention in other ways and which often have been unnoticed or silenced. Voices of people of colour, Indigenous voices, dis/abled voices, queer voices.
But I think this story is a kind of metaphor for, well, for the human condition, and for the position of the arts, certainly. We have to watch with both eyes but we often only have one eye. So what do we do? Move quickly? Pay attention to the periphery? I think it has something to do with smoke, mirrors and writing really good arts grants. And also, advocacy and building community. Thoughtful writing in books, chapbooks, blogs, magazines, journals and readings allows us to resist giving away our eye, and if we’re already missing an eye, it allows us to join together to have more eyes to watch with.
I called this talk, “Writing as rhizome,” and it occurs to me (ok, it occurred to me five pages back, but I was busy talking about something else) that I haven’t spoken about rhizomes directly, though I’ve been circling around the idea.
So what’s a rhizome? About 2 1/2 pounds.
Actually, a rhizome is an often unnoticed connection between things, an invisible network. Trees communicate rhizomatically through their roots. Fungus colonizes the roots and passes chemical messages between them. The wood wide web. A rhizome is a network with no centre, and it’s formed of connections between things. As cultural theorists Deleuze and Guattari write, it “has no beginning or end; it is always in the middle.” It’s “a map or wide array of attractions and influences.” (as rhizome.net writes.)
As a writer, imagine being in a circle whose centre is everywhere and whose circumference is also everywhere. You’re like a spider in an infinite web, which, because it’s infinite, has no centre. You feel the trembling of the twilight-coloured filaments. Something is with you on the web, somewhere. Imagine language having no beginning or ending, but being like an endlessly extending, endlessly expanding mind map. The earth is also in the non-centre of an expanding universe. Maybe one of many. An infinite number of particles and waves wash over us and through us. And that’s only counting the first four of the 22-dimensions.
But maybe it makes more sense for you as a writer to imagine being outside every circle at once. Or. to be a pig whose ham is everywhere and whose rind is nowhere.
Everything is backward especially when its backward.
Ok that got a bit abstract.
Writing is a rhizome. Language is a network of connections. Words. Grammar. Stories. Sounds. Rhythms.
Writing and publishing is a network of communications. Wherever you are, you’re both the centre and there is no centre. Or the centre is everywhere. Which means you can start anywhere. And your voice is as much the centre as anyone else’s. Sorry Shakespeare. Though of course, we can learn a few tricks from the old Bard.
This is my call to arms. Or rather, my call to Word. Because there is no centre, we can use writing to explore, represent and construct and we don’t have to accept the gravitational pull of received notions of the world and reality. We can speak our reality. We can make our own reality.
It reminds me of that protest chant:
What do we want? A time machine.
When do we want it? It doesn’t matter.
Writing is a microscope and a telescope, antennae and tentacles but it’s also DNA, but DNA that we can use to create the world as we see it. The texture and sense of being-in-the world, the sense of thinking in the world, of using language in the world, that is ours
Before I’m done, I want to talk about my current project, the main thing that I’ll be writing during this residency and that I’ve been working on for the last year or so. It’s a novel with the working title, Nothing the Same, Everything Haunted.
It’s not the only thing that I’m working on. I find it energizing to work on a few things at once so I’ve always have a few projects on the go. It’s good when you want to procrastinate to have another thing to sneak off and work on. Shh. Don’t tell my novel but I’m going to the coffee shop to write some poetry. And shh, don’t tell my poetry, I’m sneaking off to the library to work on some music. And, shh, don’t tell either of them that I’m sneaking home to watch Netflix. It’s for research. Really. I mean which character on Friends is really into Wittgenstein. Is it Joey?
Right now, I’m working on three books coming out in September: a selected poems, a book of poetry that I wrote with the poet Tom Prime, and a CD and book combination that I created with the poets Lillian Allen and Gregory Betts. I’m also working on a couple chapbooks and a couple other collaborations as well as some musical performances and a proposal for a public art installation in Hamilton. I tell you about these things not because I want you all to think I’m so clever and productive, —but aren’t I just so clever and productive?—but because I want to talk about the messy, rhizomatic organization of creation and a writing life. Sometimes it’s being alone in an undershirt with an old typewriter, a bottle of whiskey in a cold water flat in Brooklyn, nothing but the trash can filling with crumpled pieces of paper and the solitary conviction that your pain will result in great art, but more often, it’s a complicated and vibrant process, weaving your writing into the whole range of emotions from exhilaration to boredom, to doubt and endurance, weaving it into the many other things that you do in your life, work, school, family, life, and other writing and other activities. Like research on Netflix. Maybe it includes the strange compulsions, revulsions and inspiration of social media. Reading. Watching. Listening. The negotiations with who you are and what you want to write, what you can write, what you feel you should write.
Collaboration has been a big part of my writing life. It’s exciting and fun to work with others and I love the experience of getting out of my own head and trying new things. I find it very freeing. Not only do I learn from how the other writers work, but I often discover another way that I can write or to think about writing. And, to be honest, there’s something about the work not being all about me, about not representing “me” alone, but sharing the responsibility for authorship with another. This empowers me to consider things that I might be more hesitant to consider otherwise. I think it focusses me more on the process, on the writing itself and on the dialogue, the interaction.
Last night, Tom Prime and I were working on some new poems. He’s in Victoria and I was in Hamilton so we Skyped and worked together on a Google doc. For these poems, we both are writing and editing the text at the same time. We are very different, but that dialogue results in lots of energy. As well as fun. Tom is actually a writer I met while I was writer-in-residence a few years at Western and he was an undergrad who consulted with me. We ended up writing a book together last year.
But let’s get back to my novel-in-progress, Nothing the Same, Everything Haunted.
I’d like to tell you about it, but also to talk about where it came from. I should say, by way of a content warning, before I begin, that is it about the Holocaust so some of the details are disturbing.
One of the things my last novel touched on was the genocide of Indigenous people in North America. I was really thinking a lot about this and I wanted to explore this further, and to think about how that history impacts contemporary North America and what I, as a non-Indigenous person, should do about it. But I also didn’t want to blunder into territory or subjectivity that I knew nothing about or to speak for Indigenous voices. There are certainly plenty astounding Indigenous writers writing at the moment who I admire and revere and they certainly don’t need me to tell their stories. At the same time I was thinking about my own family’s history in the Holocaust and about intergenerational trauma.
Though my grandparents left Lithuania before the war, most of the rest of my family were killed. My father told me that when he was about 14, his father, my grandfather, once came home from a Bar Mitzvah very upset. This was in South Africa were they’d all emigrated to. Some guy had got drunk and staggered up to him and told him that he’d seen my grandfather’s parents killed by Nazis back in Lithuania during the war.
My other grandfather, on a very cheesy wedding video that was made when I got married thirty years ago, my grandfather who never ever spoke about the Holocaust, though he lost his parents and siblings, his whole village, turned to the camera and spoke about how Lithuanians had betrayed the Jews in doing the Nazi’s dirty work. There was something about how he looked, a powerful expression of pain and sorrow that I’d never seen in his eyes before.
This same grandfather, after many years of searching, had found his nephew, now in Chicago. This nephew had escaped the Holocaust by walking. He was trying to walk out of Lithuania with his aunt when a Russian truck loaded with soldiers retreating from the Germans stopped and one of the soldiers said to his aunt, “We have room for one, pass the boy up to us and we’ll save him.” That was the last he saw of his family until my grandfather found him in Chicago decades later.
The Holocaust in Lithuania killed somewhere upwards of 95% of the Jews there, most of them by being shot into trenches or other horrific means.
So I was thinking about all this and a friend of mine told me about an artist, Steven Loft, who is part Jewish, part Mohawk and who tattooed his status number on his forearm as if a concentration camp number. That blew me away. What to do about this, this sudden connection, inevitable and horrifying? How to remember it, how to speak to it, how to think it through?
I’d read that the Nazis explicitly adapted strategies used against Indigenous people in North America as part of the design of the Final Solution and the concept of Lebensraum.
And I’d found out that Hitler, like many German-speakers—Albert Schweitzer and Einstein for instance—was fascinated by the westerns of the German novelist Karl May. He sent copies to his officers on the Eastern Front. He gave copies to members of the Hitler Youth. He had a set with him in the bunker beneath Berlin.
The hero of these novels was Winnetou, an invented Indigenous guy with an impressive copper-coloured six-pack, an inscrutably courageous brow and the marble-carved reticence of a warrior. In other words, Karl May was using the noble savage trope. Or, because he’s German, maybe it should be called, the noble cabbage trope.
This blew the top of my head off. How Nazis could be inspired by a native guy and aspire to be as brave, nature loving and as noble. But of course he was a story, something made-up to bind with the stereotype receptors in the Nazi brain.
But how were concentration camps like reservations? What did the Germans learn from America? Nazis believed in a kind of manifest destiny, a pushing back of the Eastern frontier to make room for Aryan Germans to live—to make “living room” or Lebensraum, as they called it. And so they invaded Poland, Lithuania and the rest of Eastern Europe and killed and removed Jews and others, or put them into camps. It’s like what happened in North America with Indigenous people and the push west. And in both cases, many people were deliberately starved or died of disease.
Often the Holocaust is considered the paradigmatic genocide. It has a mother, a father, a sister and brother in Indigenous genocide. A friend of mine, the Métis writer, Cherie Dimaline, author of the amazing, The Marrow Thieves, joked that we were “genocide buddies.”
So all of that background is where I began to think about the novel.
This is what I’ve come up with, so far:
It’s 1941 in Lithuania and the Nazis have invaded and the genocide of Jews has begun. My main character is a middle-aged Jewish man called Motl who imagines his experience through the lens of Western novels as a way of coping with the trauma of the present as well as the past. Like Don Quixote he uses a pre-existing literary tradition to deal with his reality. He imagines he’s in a Western and he’s some kind of Jewish cowboy.
Like Quixote, my protagonist Motl decides to embark on a quest. He’s going to escape. In the beginning, he has a sidekick: his nagging mother. She does something that my old undergrad landlords did. They were bakers and during the Holocaust, they baked money into bread so when the Nazi searched, they couldn’t find it since the outside of the bread was unbroken.
A bunch of western-like things happen to Motl and his mother—shoot-outs and so on—but as the novel progresses Motl is going to increasing change from imagining he has a connection with cowboys, to that of the Indigenous people—or Indianers as they are called in Karl May novels. These aren’t real Indigenous people exactly, but hopefully he will began to unpack some of the tropes and make some connections.
This all could be very dark and serious and so I wanted to set up the exploration of real trauma and sorrow by including humorous and satiric elements. And I wanted to play with tropes of masculinity inherent in both the Western and military narratives as well as provides a parody of a quest narrative which leavens the horror of the historical aspects of the novel.
So, twenty years before, Motl is involved in a shoot-out on a Swiss mountain. He gets his testicles accidentally shot off by Tristan Tzara, the dadaist. They roll into a crack in a glacier and freeze. So now Motl’s quest is to escape into Switzerland to retrieve his testicles and use them to have a child — to create new life to counter the death that surrounds him. Will he do this? Well, you’ll have to wait until I write that part. I do know that one of his testicles is going to get away, roll down the mountainside, turn into a huge snowball and destroy a village.
I’m doing lots of historical research and weaving in real stories about the Holocaust from history books and survivor testimonies as well as riffing off westerns and other texts, including Don Quixote. I’m also playing with the language of westerns and their colourful and funny expressions. As I said about my Yiddish-speaking parrot, we use the received language, tropes and narratives of our culture to tell our stories.
I’d like to end by talking a bit about humour because it’s something I’ve been thinking a lot about. And most things I say here about humour could be said about writing in general.
Like writing, humour is one of our great technologies
Though life may be difficult, we can always take heart and watch people slipping on bananas. We may ourselves wipe out on a banana, but there is something satisfying about recognizing how in falling we partake in “the human condition.” Though there are others we may wish would partake in this human condition more than us. Though we may despair, we can always laugh together as the powerful and self-important slide to the ground. It’s hard to worry when you see how ridiculous things can be.
Ultimately, humour is philosophical, metaphysical, spiritual, social.
There must be a version of the story of Adam and Eve where before they ate the Forbidden Fruit, one of them first slipped on its peel.
There’s an old Jewish story that I love:
A man goes to a Rabbi and asks if he can explain Judaism to him while the man stands on one leg. The rabbi sends him away saying, “Don’t insult me with your ridiculous gymnastics.” Next day, the man asks the great sage Reb Hillel to do the same thing. Explain all of Judaism while I stand on one leg.
‘Left or right?’ Hillel asks.
‘Either. Does it matter?’
‘Tell you what, you jump in the air and while you’re there, closer to God, I’ll explain everything,’ the sage says. ‘Ready? Jump!’
And what does Hillel say while the man left the ground?
He says, ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”
‘That’s it?’ the man says as he returns to earth.
‘That’s it,’ Hillel says. ‘The rest is commentary.’
This is both a joke, and a revitalizing reminder. And just like the best humour, it cuts through all the commentary and pretension, and, ultimately, anxiety-producing complexity. And it’s memorable.
Humour gives us distance, and also an opportunity to deal with difficult things. Jewish humour in particular has a kind of optimistic pessimism, or pessimistic optimism, that is an integral part of the culture. Is the glass half full or half empty? Full-shmull. As long as we have a glass.
There’s an old saying “We laugh to keep from crying.”
We laugh because it gives us an alternative to despair. There’s an old joke—
Why don’t Jews like to drink?
Because it dulls the pain.
Life may be difficult and there may be pain, but it is our own pain. We claim our right to define our own experience on our own terms.
We may not always have had land, or power, money, or rights, but we always have had the ability to frame our experience. To claim it as our own. Perhaps to connect it to all others who have experienced adversity in other places and in other times. To look tragedy in the eye.
What’s worse than finding half a worm in your apple?
It’s a terrible joke, but the point of it is that instead of being driven to despair and hopelessness, we can look it in the eye. This isn’t about minimizing life’s struggles, but it is about not allowing them to be in charge of our life, if only for a little while.
Through humour, we are able to stand outside what's happening and look at it philosophically. Through humour, we find a way to engage, to think about what is happening and still have agency. Many times humour addresses things we can’t change and even if we can’t change something, humour always gives us agency, because we are the one telling the jokes. Or we are the one to whom to joke is told. That's a very powerful position from which to address pain, anxiety and tragedy.
Humour is a way to keep going. The narrator of Samuel Beckett’s The Unnamable says, “I can’t go on. I’ll go on.” Through his own awareness of the absurdity of life, and of his own absurd position in this absurd life, he finds a way to go on.
Humour not only helps us to manage our expectations and to take agency, but it also builds relationships and community. If you tell someone a joke, you’re sharing a perspective, you’re in this together somehow. You’re seeing something together. Even if you’re only imagining telling the joke to someone you’re reaching out and making a connection outside yourself. You’re imagining fellowship and community. And again, all of this applies to writing in general as well.
Humour is revitalizing because it allows us to see what isn’t seen because of routine or convention. It calls out what we take for granted – both to critique and to appreciate. It deconstructs assumptions and unexamined tropes. It “makes it strange” as the Russian literary theorist Viktor Shklovsky would say.
Humour also humanizes. Something you can joke about seems less terrible, but also someone you can joke about seems less frightening or perhaps different.
Another aspect of humour is the you-can’t-fire-me-I-quit principle. When I make fun of myself, when I laugh at myself and my people, when I’m being self-deprecating, there’s nothing you can say, because I got there first and have already defined myself.
Finally, humour is about the pleasure of storytelling. The plot twists and delicious surprises. The opportunity to amuse and delight, to draw the reader in and lead them down the dramatic garden path. It enables the writer to confront difficult material, to give the reader a way in, and perhaps while entertaining them, rendering them open to a sneak attack of emotion or meaning. As Victor Coleman wrote of the work of Stuart Ross, “the message in the chuckle is a punch in the gut.”
Which reminds me. There was this sailor, Yankeleh.
He leaves a pair of pants to be repaired baym shnayder—at the tailor’s. After seven years, now covered in scars and tattoos, he returns to pick up his pants.
They weren’t ready.
“Gevalt!” Yankeleh exclaims. “It only took God himself six days to make the world. You’ve had six years!”
“What’s to say, now that the world is done?” the tailor replies. “So, nu, your pants are a tragedy . . . but at least we can talk about them.”
And that’s the point. We can talk together. About pants. About the world. About our lives. We tell our stories and the stories of those we know. We tell stories about the way the world is and the way the world could be. Sometimes we tell easy stories, sometimes difficult stories. But always we can tell them with compassion, intelligence, wit and humour.
To quote Aaron, my parrot narrator: “Ach, it’s a life. A wonder tale. And we try not to notice that—can we help it?—all the time our tucheses are plonked in the sitz-bath of story. You think, genug shoyn, enough already. But nu. Gey plotz. What can you do? You try not to let tsuris—your troubles— make you old.”
Which reminds me: A man goes to the theatre with his son.
“One adult and one child,” he says at the box office.
“That’s no child,” the ticket seller says. “He looks at least thirty.”
“I can help it that he worries?”
I believe that humour along with writing and storytelling, poetry and fiction, are some of humankind’s great technologies, some of our great tools. For investigation. For community. For keeping on keeping on. Our writing tells us that we’re in this together, everything is connected, and together we tell our stories from beginning to our end.
Bits of this talk, guilelessly adapted (um, stolen) from:
Other Happinesses and Stephen Leacock Award Acceptance Speech
Bits of this talk, guilelessly adapted (um, stolen) from:
Other Happinesses and Stephen Leacock Award Acceptance Speech