Calabash: A Festival in the Most Literary of Spirits

For the ninth consecutive year the largely-unspoiled south coast of Jamaica became the centre of the West Indian cultural world when it hosted a new edition of what must, by now, be counted among the fixed dates in the international calendar of literary events. 


Originally established by Colin Channer, Kwame Dawes and Justine Henzell in 2001, Calabash set out, and still today states as its mission on its website, ‘to transform the literary arts in the Caribbean.’ Some have suggested that appearances by a Nobel laureate and the current Pulitzer Prize winner for fiction in back-to-back editions just about constitute such transformation.


24-05-09_1215Calabash is a full-blown, three-day festival in the truest sense of the word, which consciously partakes of a millenary tradition of marriage between entertainment and (both personal and collective) enhancement. To this end, Calabash provides a platform for a varied repertoire of events, from readings to performances, discussions, workshops and so on, all framed by the wonderfully picturesque surroundings of Treasure Beach, Jamaica, and all available to the general public at absolutely no cost.


Past line-ups for Calabash have included some of the most outstanding luminaries in the Caribbean literary scene, from Caryl Phillips to Kamau Braithwaite, from Andrea Levy to Lorna Goodison. And then, of course, there was last year’s invective reading by Derek Walcott, whose venom reached the world’s press as soon as it left his lips, providing Calabash with a priceless publicity stunt. So, it came as no surprise this year once the programme was released, to find the likes of Junot Díaz, Edwidge Danticat and Robert Pinsky spearheading the festival.


Paul Holdengräber after his conversation with Pico Iyer. Source: wikipedia.

Nevertheless, the headlines prior to the beginning of Calabash 2009 were filled more with uncertainty than with excitement, as the event was briefly cancelled due to a lack of funds. Prior to the beginning, I said. Fortunately, the organisers moved swiftly and efficiently to secure external funding that purportedly will ensure the staging of the festival for at least another three years.


Financial vicissitudes out of the way, everything was ready for literature to take over. Díaz and Danticat read together on Friday night, his incorrigible wit and her sensibility simply dominating the affairs. But the festival still had a lot more to offer: Saturday morning opened with a vigorous reading by Staceyann Chin, whose angry prose was carefully tempered by a clear note of reconciliation with the Jamaican public. Soon thereafter, Anthony Winkler entertained the audience with the kind of humour that we have come to expect from him, before Paul Holdengräber and Pico Iyer engaged on an intense but boundless conversation that might be best described as the disappointment of the weekend. Round about sunset, Patrick French delivered one of the strongest papers of the festival, reading out engaging passages from his recently published biography of V.S. Naipaul, and closing his slot with the most compelling argument I have ever heard to derive some sympathy towards the least likeable of literary figures: ‘I have learned’, he said, ‘that like any great creator, [Naipaul’s] wonderful works came at an extraordinary human cost.’


Bonfire night at Calabash

The traditional Saturday bonfire set the evening ablaze after a conversation between Helon Habila, Melvin Van Peebles and Linton Kwesi Johnson touched upon the impact of Obama’s election as president of the USA; and soon after that the night was handed over to the revelries of a lop-sided musical clash between Colin Channer and Jamaica’s legendary DJ, Mutabaruka. The weekend’s most electric moment, however, arrived on Sunday afternoon, after Robert Pinsky, USA’s poet laureate between 1997 and 2000, captivated the audience with his composed demeanour, his imposing presence, and, indeed, his engaging poetry. As the whole tent gasped in expectation, awaiting the delivery of his every word, it became evident how important it is for a show such as this to count with the support of literary figures of the highest calibre that can produce this kind of reaction.


Nevertheless, while important, this is not the defining characteristic of Calabash. What makes Calabash special, indeed, what makes it unique, is the unlimited, unhindered freedom everyone involved has to do exactly what they want.


Trite as this might sound, Calabash’s greatest asset is the relaxed atmosphere prevalent at the location throughout the weekend: the egalitarian nature of the seating, the rustic elements in the set-up, the muddy ground and simple tent, the lack of a VIP area, the cheer fact that I am at the bar ordering a drink, and the guy waiting next to me is a Pulitzer Prize winner who has just delivered a reading. It is to the credit of the organisers that they recognise this fact, that they cherish it and protect it to the point where, even faced with the prospect of cancellation due to financial problems, they refused to change the nature of the event by charging an entrance fee. Now that the next couple of editions of Calabash seem guaranteed, one can only dream through the year until the time comes to board the plane that will take us there once again. Bon voyage!





Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s