Jamaica’s Calabash Literary Festival

In the midst of terrible violence in the streets of Kingston, world-famous writers and poets journeyed to the beach for the 10th annual Calabash Literary Festival to celebrate the spirit of the country. Olivia Cole reports.

Last Thursday night, on the way to the 10th Calabash literary festival in Treasure Beach, West Jamaica, traveling with the young British-Nigerian novelist Helen Oyeyemi, Bob Marley biographer Chris Salewicz, and acclaimed Delhi poet Sudeep Sen in our sturdy Toyota van, we skirted from the airport in Kingston to within a few blocks of Tivoli Gardens. This is the waterside district where local reports suggest more than 130 residents (double the official figure) have now been killed defending local don and community hero/international gun and drug runner Christopher “Dudus” Coke. Districts of Kingston (Trenchtown, Spanish Town, even Kingston Town itself) are known all over the world through the lyrics of Bob Marley—perhaps Jamaica’s most famous export. At this moment though, in newspapers across the world Spanish Town, the Palisades, and the Tivoli Gardens are now bywords for a massacre, and violence of an extremity not seen here since 1997.

Just as reggae developed as a tradition taught and passed on to younger musicians apprenticed to masters of their art, Calabash, with its program of workshops and seminars, has created a culture and a context for emerging voices.

The streets were eerily quiet. The emptiness, combined with the blacked-out windows (a practicality to deal with the sun’s glare), made dusk seem to have come early. Despite it being rush hour there was light traffic and the streets were deserted. All over the capital, people were staying at home and school exams had been canceled. On the outskirts, a market that usually takes place downtown was happening on a scrappy traffic island, safely away from the danger. For the 10th year of Calabash, Jamaica’s first and now largest literary festival, free and open to the public, clearly these are testing times. Treasure Beach on the idyllic west coast is inaccessible at the best of times. It was pitch black at around 11 that first night, when we arrived at Jake's, the hotel started and still run by the Henzell family. Perry Henzell created a piece of Jamaican cultural history with the Jimmy Cliff film, The Harder They Come, and his family, not least his widow Sally, and festival co-director Justine Henzell now run something almost as iconic here. With Sally Henzell’s individually designed beach houses on a rocky outcrop and constant soft reggae coming from speakers hanging with coconut lamps in the trees, it's as Wole Soyinka put it, a place of “wildly imaginative beauty.” Since 2000, the hotel has shut their doors for business for one week a year, to host the festival which attracts crowds of over 1,500 to its free, three-day program.

Its founders and directors, poet Kwame Dawes and novelist Colin Channer (both raised in Jamaica, but now professors of creative writing at USC and Wellesley College, respectively), made a brief double act speech on Thursday night. “We wanted to make Wole feel at home,” joked Channer of the festival’s biggest star, “so we created an insurrection of our own.” In full seriousness though, almost without exception writers had decided, on balance, to come. As Dawes pointed out, whenever anyone had asked of them if they should really be making this trip, the response has been, “We need Calabash, even more now, not less.” As Channer puts it, in its 10 years, for Jamaicans, the festival has become a loud and eloquent expression of “what is best about us.”

It's in this spirit that Calabash surely puts the festival back into the term literary festival. Treasure Beach itself is idyllic: “The kind of Jamaica my grandparents remember,” says Channer. For all the seriousness of the program, in its atmosphere it is more Glastonbury or Woodstock than Hay. Taking to the stage on Friday night to read with novelist Russell Banks, confessional poet Sharon Olds had the crowd in stitches when she purred into the microphone, “mmm... what a lovely perfume there is in the air.”

A no-fee policy gives the programmers total freedom in whom they invite; no publisher can support their big hitters and so the writers are the biggest sponsors. “Without you we are nothing isn’t a joke—it’s totally serious” says Channer. “They are the Deutsche Bank of the festival.” Among poets and novelists used to being herded from green room to signing to hotel room (Olds read her poem about horrible hotels with unforgiving mirrors to uproarious laughter), it’s little wonder that Calabash has become famous as the festival to which everyone wants to be invited. Departing writers are asked to suggest four other authors they think would get it, and should be invited and Calabash has had to invent a rule that writers can only return after three or four years. Otherwise, goes the logic, everyone would want to come every year.

While cynics might say that the tropical paradise setting makes the festival addictive, that’s far from the whole story. From Olds and Jones, to Sen and Billy Collins, who did a joint bill in the afternoon sunshine, Calabash is a festival that has its audience quite literally rolling in the aisles. “Audiences that stay” are always a plus, joked Collins, and yet on the circuit of more straight-laced venues the world over, the level of vocal appreciation and attention in sessions running over an hour is something really special. "Calabashers" as they are known, are a long way from audiences, who as Collins puts it, "feel that laughter is not the appropriate response" to poetry.

The star billing of poets is another key feature of the festival. So Much Things to Say, an anthology of poems read at the festival over its first decade, is a who’s who of international contemporary poetry: Wole Soyinka came this year on the recommendation of his fellow Nobel laureate Derek Walcott. Michael Ondaatje, Elizabeth Alexander, Jackie Kay, and Robert Pinsky have all appeared here over the years. Along with reggae, poetry, says co-founder (and acclaimed poet) Kwame Dawes, is perhaps above all else “the key form of expression to which Jamaicans respond.”

Literary festivals have cropped up all over the world in recent years. Beyond the obvious ones, there are now Colombia, Lagos' Black Culture Festival (started by Soyinka), and Jaipur, Delhi. Beyond the idealistic and idyllic experience of the book-hungry writers, audiences, and media, their positive impact, particularly when they take place against a backdrop of wider poverty and unrest, is sometimes questioned. The timing of Calabash, as everyone here seems to acknowledge, throws that debate into sharp relief.

But idealism about the transformative power of writing is at the heart of the festival. From the first year, when the festival attracted an audience of 300 or so, its founders have been determined that it shouldn’t be either, as Channer puts it, “a tourist attraction, or an excursion for the upper middle classes from Kingston.” Instead, Dawes and Channer wanted to create not just a festival but a literary culture for Jamaica, “translating the spirit of reggae into a literary festival.” Just as reggae developed as a tradition taught and passed on to younger musicians apprenticed to masters of their art, Calabash, with its program of workshops and seminars, has created a culture and a context for emerging voices, in a country with none of the MFA culture of the U.S. or the U.K.

Interviewed by Paul Holdengräber, director of public programs at the New York Public Library, Wole Soyinka conjured a powerful image of governance, describing a bureaucrat's desk with its three trays: “in, and out, and Keep in View.... Sometimes they have pieces of paper in view just to look as though they are doing something. “Art isn’t a magic wand,” he maintained, “but it's in the Keep in View tray." He described how, ideally, art—be it theater, or poetry—can take hold like a “slow poisoning.”

The festival’s final spellbinding concert gathered four icons of reggae music: Wayne Armond, Ibo Cooper, Steve Golding, and Seretse Small, to celebrate the lyrics of Bob Marley’s 1980 final album Uprising. Some of these lyrics could have been written last week.

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Olivia Cole writes for the Spectator and the London Evening Standard. An award-winning poet, her first collection, Restricted View, was published this fall.