In the backwaters of Jamaica, far away from the chaos of Kingston or the faux exclusivity of the north coast, with the Caribbean Sea for backdrop and the hills of St. Elizabeth—the bread basket of Jamaica—at its feet, the cluster of five small bays (Great Bay, Frenchman’s Bay, Calabash Bay, Billy’s Bay and the larger Fort Charles Bay) known as Treasure Beach is home to one of the most uplifting, genuine and gregarious cultural experiences anywhere in the world: Calabash International Literary Festival, a celebration of books and readers, lyrics, food, artisanship and local customs that since 2001 brings people together in the remotest of venues to share their common interests and to enjoy life.
The area where Calabash takes place is so remote that if you tell the Immigration officer at the airport you’re going to Billy’s Bay or Frenchman’s Bay s/he will have absolutely no idea what you’re talking about. “The key word is Treasure Beach,” the experienced owner of Nuestra Casa, the small guesthouse where I was staying, told me after I had been forced to make a call to confirm the address, “nobody but the local fishermen knows the name of the actual coves—everyone just refers to the area under a single sort of umbrella name.”
Which remains remarkable because for close to 15 years Calabash has been attracting thousands of tourists to an otherwise unexplored part of the island during a time of the year (the month of May) when hotels are hardly prone to be overbooked. It seems to me like the least Immigration could do is figuring out where (and why) in the world all these people are going! Luckily for the festival and for the rest of us mortals, ordinary Jamaicans not involved with the Immigration office have embraced Calabash fully and wholeheartedly, turning it into the blend of local and foreign talent, passion and sensibilities that make it so special.
In 2001 Calabash was the only literary festival in the Caribbean and over the years it has maintained its place as the largest and most highly rated one, despite the fact that similar initiatives have emerged in over a dozen islands in the region, from St. Martin’s own book fair (started in 2003) to Bocas in Trinidad, which was launched in 2011. After grappling with financial constraints and the resulting uncertainty for years, Calabash was briefly cancelled in 2009 only to be reinstated months later when the Government of Jamaica made a U-turn on its decision to cut its funding of the event. Indeed in 2009 it looked as if the Government was prepared to commit long-term to the festival, acknowledging it as an alternative and valuable source of income, media attention and employment in the area.
Alas, such commitment never materialized and indeed the continuity of the festival was put in serious danger by the departure of Colin Channer, the father of the idea to have the event in the first place, from the group of organizers the following year. At the end of 2010 it looked as if Calabash would be no more, and perhaps with that in mind, or perhaps just as a way to celebrate the tremendous milestone that was a full decade of literary ramblings in the southwest of Jamaica, Channer and Kwame Dawes, his partner in crime setting up and running Calabash, edited the book So Much Things to Say, a compilation of 100 poems from writers who had taken part in the festival at some point in the past.
So Much Things to Say embraces the spirit of Calabash fully, from the quaintly beautiful cover to the unorthodox distribution of its poems, which are organized by length. But what might seem awkward or unhelpful in any other collection is wholly appropriate in this one, because the editors “imagine that people wake up in the morning and think, I could use a really short poem today. Or they might be walking home after work and say, Man, I feel like reading an epic when I get home tonight.” And you know what, though I have never caught myself walking home longing to read an epic—that’s just not the way it works with me—Calabash people might, because Calabash people are special, and they prove it every single year.
But So Much Things to Say is not special only in the way it’s organized. Packed from back to front with pieces from some of the most celebrated writers not only in the region but internationally—from Robert Pinsky to Amiri Baraka, from Derek Walcott to Sonia Sanchez, Linton Kwesi Johnson, Michael Ondaatje or Mutabaruka—it is often the voice of the less famous which stands out above the rest and clamors for attention. An so, as you jump from short to long, from medium to epic length poem you are struck by the words of Edward Baugh choosing love ahead of ambition, by the proud tone of George Elliott Clarke’s “Taxi” and Martín Espada’s haunting images, by the playful rhyme with which Joni Jackson extols the “Segue” and the cunning rationale Kei Miller uses to stretch his poem, and perhaps most of all by Mutabaruka’s “Dis Poem” which was recently so exquisitely rendered by Ras Takura in the Anguilla Lit Fest 2014.
Like most anthologies, there is a bit of everything in So Much Things to Say: there is much playfulness about sex and love, a lot of appreciation for the ordinary, a major focus on civil rights and history, and a great deal of introspection about what is right and what is wrong. There is also plenty of respect among the writers involved who quote, wink at and dedicate their poems to other writers included in the collection in a twist that can’t have been other than coincidental. What there is most of all, though, despite constant tributes to all forms of poetry, from haiku to odes, is the sort of undiluted defiance that can only be found among dreamers and non-conformists, the sort of defiance that begets rhymes such as Deanne Soares’:
Unless we change
Calabash has changed the rules and part of it can be sensed in its anthology of 100 poets, but the most important factor in the new equation—the human factor—cannot, by definition, be transported to a book format. A-dZiko Simba’s words are good on the page, but pale in comparison to her rendition in person. The same can be said of Stacyann Chin, and just about every other author in the collection. Perhaps it’s simply the setting, but Calabash seems to bring the best out of everyone involved, be it writer or audience.
The post-Channer era of Calabash has seen it turned into a biannual affair. The remaining founders of the original setup, Dawes and Justine Henzell, got together to organize a literary festival to coincide with the 50th anniversary of Jamaica’s independence in 2012 and the result looked and felt so much like Calabash they were left with no alternative but to use the same old name. In 2014 the festival billed major international figures of the literary world, from Salman Rushdie to Collum McCann, Zadie Smith and Paul Muldoon, and featured the usual segments. The venue remains the same as ever, and other than a few white hairs in Kwame’s temples, even the MC seems unchanged. Peaceful, engaging and above all joyful, the crowds attracted by the event seem, if anything, to have grown (one official speculated that they might reach 3,000 visitors this year), which I suppose follows naturally from the fact that the periodicity of the festival has been extended, and the caliber of writers maintained.
Perhaps inevitably, there were grumblings of discontent among some sections of the patrons in 2014—something about street vendors having been moved, about the open mic session being less spontaneous, about the panels being less local, more international. These, however, were distinctly in the minority, and indeed most people I encountered would have preferred to see the festival go back to its previous yearly format. Despite all the water that has run over the course of these fourteen years, Calabash not only has survived without Colin Channer, but rather it has shown that people in the Caribbean still have so much things to say. May it continue to do so in the future!
Published in the WEEKender supplement of Sint Maarten’s The Daily Herald newspaper on Saturday July 16, 2014.