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Barwin takes home humour award

Mehreen Shahid

By Mehreen Shahid, Special to the Packet & Times

Gary Barwin, a Hamilton-based writer, won the Leacock Medal for Humour for his book, Yiddish for Pirates, Saturday night at the YMCA Geneva Park conference centre in Ramara. MEHREEN SHAHID/THE PACKET & TIMES.

Gary Barwin, a Hamilton-based writer, won the Leacock Medal for Humour for his book, Yiddish for Pirates, Saturday night at the YMCA Geneva Park conference centre in Ramara. MEHREEN SHAHID/THE PACKET & TIMES.

Where there is laughter, there is hope.

And for Gary Barwin, it brought the Leacock Medal for Humour.

“It’s very thrilling. It’s very exciting,” said the Hamilton-based writer, who took home the award Saturday at the 70th annual celebration of humour during a gala dinner at YMCA Geneva Park in Ramara. “I really like this award, recognizing humour in all the ways that it can be manifested in books. It’s not just, sort of, jokes; it’s humour in many ways. And, so, looking at all the different writers, who have won and for the many ways they have used humour and for many reasons in their work, I guess I’m really pleased to have been recognized.”

Barwin’s book, Yiddish for Pirates, uses a particularly Jewish way of dealing with persecution and difficulty, he said: humour.

“It’s kind of its own philosophy and kind of its own life raft,” he said. “So, to be recognized for that is very satisfying to me.”

But his book wasn’t just about laughs coming from what Aaron, a parrot perched on the shoulder of the young protagonist, Moishe, says about the adventures it sees, but it also has a thoughtful note, said Barwin.

“I did have some serious issues that I wanted to look at,” he explained. “Genocide and persecution, both in terms of the Spanish Inquisition, but also the indigenous people when Columbus and the Spanish came to the Caribbean.”

As well, Barwin said, the book uses storytelling to narrate historical stories in general and how we bring culture wherever we go.

“No matter where you go, if you leave your country, you have no possessions, you have no land, you have no clothing, you always bring your language with you,” he said, “which means you bring your culture and you bring your experience.”

Moishe takes his culture from Eastern Europe to Spain and eventually to the Caribbean, said Barwin.

When asked what stood out about Barwin’s book, Nathan Taylor, president of the Orillia-based Leacock Associates, said, “One of the most obvious ways is Gary’s book is written from the perspective of a parrot. That in itself is humorous. But as he said in his speech, humour can be serious and so you have to look beyond the talking parrot.”

This year’s shortlist, which also featured nominees Drew Hayden Taylor (Take Us to Your Chief, and Other Stories) and Amy Jones (We’re All in this Together), was diverse, said Taylor, who is also regional editor at the Packet & Times.

“A number of different perspectives, different kinds of funny,” he said. “They were uniquely funny. It made each book stand out for (its own) reason.”

The three-day weekend festivities started Friday with an evening with the nominees and winners of the Stephen Leacock Student Humorous Short Story Competition. The gala Saturday saw nearly 200 people gather to celebrate the award, followed by a Sunday brunch with authors.

Taylor was also pleased to see nine previous Leacock Medal winners in attendance for the milestone event.

Ian Ferguson was one of them. The 2004 winner served as MC and kept the “hamster wheel of humour” going throughout the evening.

“You get to join a long list of remarkable authors – and me,” he said to shortlisted authors.

As well, Dan Needles reprised his role as “mayor of Mariposa” with his jokes about Donald Trump and the Conservatives in Canada, poking light fun at Simcoe North MP Bruce Stanton, who was also in attendance.

“We’re not sure who the ancient original people of Mariposa were,” said Needles. “But archeologists are pretty sure they were conservatives.”

But he changed direction as he said we should just forget about Trump, incivility and “the problem with the school board” and just be cheerful.

“Real change comes out of Mariposa, where local people have been getting together at the mosquito hatchery on Lake Couchiching and celebrating cheerfulness for 70 years,” said Needles.

A sold-out crowd had not only the usual local supporters but out-of-town visitors enjoying the evening, too.

“We were at the dinner last night, and Gary did a reading of his book and I thought, ‘Well, parrots, pirates ... sounds great; so, I got it,’” said Barb Morris, of Vancouver Island, who was visiting her friend in Orillia and bought Yiddish for Pirates. “It’s going to be interesting reading the history of the Jews. I didn’t realize that (the Spanish) expelled the Jewish people in the same year as the armada came over looking for new land. So, I’m looking forward to some of the history and humour and just reading about pirates.”

Along with the medal, Barwin received a $15,000 cash prize courtesy of TD Bank Financial Group.


The Name Game takes student prize

What’s in a name?

Apparently, a humour award, especially if it’s an unfortunate name.

The story about a character named Harry Bum’s struggles with using the name to get a date with girls and the awkwardness surrounding his identity became Ben Wrixon’s ticket to the Stephen Leacock Student Humorous Short Story Competition win.

“I was runner-up last year, so I felt pretty confident that I could do a good job this year,” he said, adding he didn’t think his story, The Name Game, was going to win. “It was nice, especially after last year. I was super excited last year and I was even more excited this year. I’m very thankful for all that has happened.”

Wrixon’s inspiration from a friend’s unfortunate last name turned into an opportunity to impress judges with his humour-writing chops.

The 17-year-old student at Aldershot School in Burlington – along with second-place winner Lauren Radigan, of Fenelon Falls Secondary School, and third-place winner Narayan V. Subramoniam, of Georges Vanier Secondary School in North York – was in Orillia this weekend for the Leacock Medal gala and other festivities.

“Humour, to me, is a really powerful tool,” said Wrixon. “I think there’s no better icebreaker than a good joke. There’s nothing that can bring people together quite like a funny person.”

The two also attended the gala dinner Saturday, when Wrixon received his $1,000 cash prize and had a chance to interact with past winners, who had gathered to mark the 70th year of the Leacock Associates.

“Those are the kind of people you want to know and look up to, because they’re where you want to be,” Wrixon said of his conversations with Terry Fallis and the Ferguson brothers, Ian and Will. “You want to pick their brain and you want to ask them all kinds of questions.”

He was especially awed by Fallis, not only because of his personality, but also because he won the Leacock Medal for a book that was self-published.

“That is really awesome to show that you don’t have to get this big, huge publishing deal right away,” said Wrixon.

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