A decade is a significant milestone in the life of any cultural institution, and the 10th annual Calabash International Literary Festival held in May this year, a highlight in Jamaica’s cultural calendar, confirmed its place in the premier league of literary festivals. The organizers, Colin Channer, Kwame Dawes and Justine Henzell, have shown what can be achieved with vision, imagination, focus and hard work in a literary back-water of the Americas.
With a unique combination of local, regional and international writers, Calabash strikes a nice balance between ‘high-brow’ and ‘popular’; and the organizers have consistently achieved a high standard of content and presentation. The readings, open mike sessions, seminars, forums, musical entertainment featuring top-notch reggae artists; the bookstore, the variety of food and drink available, the stalls selling art and crafts; the back-drop of the sea all make Calabash a special experience. Held during the last weekend of May at Treasure Beach, Calabash’s audience consists of literary tourists, local people from St Elizabeth, middle class supporters from Kingston and the North coast and other parishes, visiting Jamaicans from the Diaspora and members of the Jamaican intelligentsia. There is always a significant presence of young people and, for many of the locals, the festival provides an opportunity for a family outing.
This year’s Calabash is the fourth I have attended since I was first invited to read alongside the legendary Amiri Baraka in 2005. The reception we received was amazing. Last year I took part in a forum on the significance of the Obama presidency. This year I arrived in Jamaica three days before the festival. A curfew had been declared in Kingston and the military operation to retake Tivoli Gardens and apprehend Christopher ‘Dudus’ Coke started. It rained right up to the first day of the festival and I wondered what effect the rain and security situation in West Kingston would have on the festival. I need not have worried — it was business as usual at Treasure Beach. By the time I arrived the rain had stopped and the 10th annual Calabash International Literary festival was well on its way.
My too leisurely ride from Montego Bay in good company meant that I missed two of the first three Jamaican writers who write for young readers and only heard Helen Williams read. By the start of the next session, fiction and poetry readings by American authors, Russell Banks and Sharon Olds, the huge tent had begun to fill up. Banks had the audience riveted with his deep sonorous voice, and Olds titivated with her subtle body parts poems.
After listening to tributes to the late Trevor Rhone, thespian, playwright and pioneering Jamaican screen-writer, I wandered around the festival site meeting and greeting old friends and acquaintances, ate a plate of curried goad and rice and washed it down with coconut water. I had to give the screening of Rhone’s Smile Orange a miss because I knew I wouldn’t have been able to keep my eyes open. So I browsed around the bookstore and had a drink at Jack Sprat’s bar while I waited for the ‘Midnight Ravers’ live music session featuring the vivacious Etana and veteran reggae crooner, Freddie McGregor. Etana’s spirited performance was flawless. She began with new renditions of old reggae classics followed by her own soulful style of reggae songs of romance and social commentary. She reminded me of a young Marcia Griffiths, the Queen of reggae. By the end of the set the Guinness I was drinking had taken its toll on me. I headed up the hill to the Treasure Beach Hotel. The soothing song of the sea with strains of Freddie McGregor’s voice was the lullaby that sent me into a deep sleep.
Needless to say I woke up late. I had left England with a cold and was not feeling that great. So on the Saturday morning I only reached the festival site in time to hear Bernice McFadden (USA) read from her new book. After that it was Nobel laureate, Wole Soyinka in conversation with Paul Holdengraber, curator of the ‘live programme’ at the New York Public Library. A couple of weeks before, I had heard Soyinka in conversation with publisher Ellah Allfrey at the British Museum. The conversation between Holdengraber and Soyinka covered some of the same ground as the one at the British Museum. However, I felt that, whereas Ellah Allfrey’s questions were probing, Holdengraber opted for entertainment rather than depth. Not that Soyinka needs any prompting! He waxed lyrical about his work in theatre with some urban youth in Jamaica some years before on behalf of UNESCO, his childhood, African complicity in the slave trade and reparations among other topics, and finished with some of his poems.
After lunch I went back to my hotel to unburden myself of books I had just bought and to wait for a telephone call from London. I fell asleep while waiting for the call and, much to my annoyance, missed the poetry session with Christian Campbell (Trinidad/Bahamas), Ishion Hutchinson (Jamaica) and Matthew Shenoda (USA/Egypt). I did enjoy the ‘Memory and Imagination’ readings though. Kaylie Jones, daughter of the author of From Here To Eternity which had been made into the famous movie, read from her memoir. Her reading offered titbits about her parents and a salacious anecdote about Frank Sinatra. British music journalist Chris Salewicz read from a new book about Bob Marley, based on the author’s personal encounters with the reggae icon. Of the three novelists that read next, I listened to two: Nami Mun (South Korea) who was captivating, and Helen Oyeyemi, a promising young British Nigerian writer. The Saturday night ‘Midnight Ravers’ musical offering was the usual fun-filled affair with Mutabaruka and Colin Channer as selectors doing battle.
Another late night meant a late Sunday breakfast. I only caught the last of the four readers who read from Neville Dawes’s recently republished novel, The Last Enchantment. The fourth reader was Christopher Tufton, a JLP Member of Parliament. He read from the last section of the novel where a traditional folk tale was being told and had the audience in stitches of laughter. The poetry reading that followed was the highlight of this year’s Calabash for me; at least one of the two poets was — Billy Collins. A former USA poet laureate, Collins’s poems are subtle, accessible, and witty. The theme that seems to connect his verse is the significance of the quotidian, and he read with the ease and self-assurance of a poet who has mastered his craft having long found his voice. Sudeep Sen from India had a hard act to follow.
Unfortunately for me I had to miss the final event which is always an enjoyable cool coda to the festival, featuring some of Jamaica’s most seasoned musicians. My ride back to Montego Bay was ready and I said my farewells and left. In spite of my cold, I had had an enjoyable time. Someone said to me that this year’s Calabash had not been the most exciting they had attended and I agreed. The military operation in Tivoli Gardens, with its scores of civilian casualties, had cast a pall over the festival. However, after the turbulence which preceded the ninth Calabash, this year the organizers proved that the festival is now in cruise mode, confirming its reputation as a Jamaican national treasure.