More than words
The Calabash festival is a slice of literary paradise
Anticipation was running high ahead of the Big Man’s appearance this year at the Calabash Literary Festival in Jamaica. At New York’s JFK airport, a ticket handler approached Colin Channer, the festival’s artistic director. "Ye is de Calabash fellow, nuh?" he asked, in a Trinidadian accent.
"Yeah, man," said Channer.
"I hear dis year all ye have de nobleman," the ticket handler said.
"The who?" said Channer.
"De nobleman," he repeated. "De fellow, he write a book call Humorous."
These are the moments that define the Calabash festival for me: the velvet night sky; the dull roar of the waves; Jamaicans seated under the white tent listening raptly to poem after poem, story after story, as if their very lives depended on it.
Back in Jamaica to prepare for Calabash, which ran May 23-25, Channer received a call from a Red Cap at the Kingston airport. "Yeah man, the big man come, you know, me see him. Yeah de big man, him come."
The "big man" in question was Derek Walcott, the Caribbean’s most illustrious poet. The Nobel Prize-winning author of Omeros (a magnificent Caribbean interpretation of The Odyssey) delivered a poetic diatribe that will surely go down as one of the most memorable episodes in Calabash history.
The 78-year-old St. Lucia native appeared in conversation with programmer Kwame Dawes, himself a gifted poet, who made a valiant effort to circumvent Walcott’s famously malicious inclinations. But in the end, Dawes could not contain the big man, who launched into a long, vitriolic poem disparaging his literary nemesis V.S. Naipaul.
Though the two Nobel laureates have traded snide remarks for years, their feud intensified after the publication of a 2007 essay in which Naipaul praised Walcott’s early work and subtly dismissed his recent writing. "I have been bitten. I must avoid infection. Or else I’ll be as dead as Naipaul’s fiction," begins Walcott’s poem, titled Mongoose, which only grows more bitter, coarse and beautiful from there. It was met with gasps from members of the audience, some of whom seemed to take the attack personally. The poem’s blistering alloy of lyricism and hate produced a nervous energy that lingered all day.
However titillating, Walcott’s outrageous behaviour felt out of step with the generous, somewhat otherworldly atmosphere of Calabash. It was certainly a stark contrast to the previous evening’s signature ticket, which included a reading by poet and novelist Chris Abani. Against a black sky, Abani juxtaposed poems about his brutal incarceration in his native Nigeria with one imagining his mother’s erotic girlhood fantasies, before picking up his saxophone to perform a song of haunting sensuality that sent ribbons of sound floating across Calabash Bay. Such are the moments that define Calabash for me: the velvet night sky; the dull roar of the waves; Jamaicans seated under the white tent listening raptly to poem after poem, story after story, as if their very lives depended on it.
This was the dream of Colin Channer, Kwame Dawes and producer Justine Henzell, who established Calabash in 2001 as a means of raising the profile of literature in Jamaica. Channer, a best-selling novelist, describes the trio as "concerned citizens."
"If Jamaica was a country where there was public funding for the arts," he explains, "a Calabash wouldn’t need to exist. There would have been some public arts series like you find at libraries or Harbourfront in Toronto. We don’t have those things."
By every measure, Calabash has been an overwhelming success, developing into a beloved institution over eight short seasons. Besides Walcott, this year’s version featured Canadian Lawrence Hill, fresh from South Africa, where his sweeping saga The Book of Negroes won the Commonwealth Writers Prize for best overall book. Also on hand: two Pulitzer Prize-winning American poets, and a strong European complement that included Ireland’s Booker-nominated Gerard Donovan and Valzhyna Mort from Belarus. The festival, which takes place over three days in late spring at Treasure Beach in the rural parish of St. Elizabeth, attracts about 4,000 visitors from around the island, a crowd that cuts across Jamaica’s entrenched class and colour lines.
"When people come to Calabash they are identifying with a version of Jamaica they would like to exist," says Channer. "It’s a democracy. A place where there are no VIP sections, a place where audiences get to see Jamaican writers reading with writers from around the world. They get reassured that Jamaica isn’t second tier. And for a country which is not that long out of colonialism, these things count."
This year, Jamaica itself appeared to be a literary preoccupation. Thomas Glave, editor of Our Caribbean: A Gathering of Lesbian and Gay Writing, denounced Jamaican Prime Minister Bruce Golding’s shocking homophobic comments. Beverley Anderson Manley discussed her years as the wife of former PM Michael Manley, while Jamaican-Canadian Lorna Goodison captivated listeners with her gleaming family history set in Hanover parish, From Harvey River, which received this year’s B.C. Award for Canadian Non-Fiction, the province’s richest literary prize.
What delighted me most on this, my third visit to Calabash – that is, apart from Dougie, the bartender who dispenses free advice with every drink, and apart from observing some of the world’s most creative literary minds up close – were the many international, multi-hued stories of blackness.
In her Pulitzer Prize-winning poetry collection Native Guard, Mississippi’s Natasha Trethewey recounts the little-known history of a regiment of black southern soldiers charged with guarding captured Confederate troops during the American Civil War. Trethewey threads together their story with elegies for her murdered mother and her experiences of growing up biracial in the Deep South:
At the cross trussed like a Christmas tree,
A few men gathered, white as angels in their gowns.
We darkened our rooms and lit hurricane lamps,
The wicks trembling in their fonts of oil.
Jackie Kay’s comments about growing up black and Scottish, on the other hand, elicited peals of laughter from the audience. After Kay’s reading, the bookstore erupted into pandemonium. In an effort at crowd control, staff members lined up in front of the shelves, holding out copies of books. Within minutes, several of Kay’s titles were completely sold out, as were those of many other authors. It is like this every year: 50, 100, 200 copies of books snatched up by hungry Jamaican readers.
The festival’s closing event, a spectacular reggae concert, featured singer-songwriter Bob Andy. Dressed elegantly in white, his grey locks swinging, Andy serenaded the crowd with songs of passion and empowerment while everybody sang along. Soon, people were up dancing. Channer, who was sitting in the front row, grabbed the hand of an attractive 60-something woman. Together, they raced onto the stage and performed an island two-step choreographed (or so it seemed) from memory.
Then, in a scene reminiscent of a religious revival, a woman in a wheelchair rolled up to the front and hoisted herself on stage. One of her legs had been amputated, so she stretched her arms to the side to keep her balance and then hopped in time to the music.
"That woman was some kind of Jamaican metaphor," I told Channer later as we headed out to the patio for dinner.
"Yeah, man," Channer replied. "A one-legged woman dancing is a poem."
Donna Bailey Nurse is a writer based in Toronto and the editor of Revival: An Anthology of Black Canadian Writing.