Once upon a time, three friends, Colin, Kwame and Justine, set out looking for treasure. Not quite. They weren’t children playing in the sand. They were adults who understood that treasure isn’t something you just find. It’s what you create. And they certainly knew about creativity: Colin Channer, the novelist; Kwame Dawes, the poet; and Justine Henzell, the producer of events from scratch.
So they conjured up this international literary festival and set it in an improbable location, Treasure Beach, St. Elizabeth, Jamaica. It would add a whole new dimension to Brand Jamaica! They named the festival ‘Calabash’. And they invited the world and his wife to attend. Mateys were welcome too. And admission was free. Whosoever willed could come.
But why this quirky name? Well, the festival was going to be held at Jake’s Hotel in Treasure Beach. But that’s not a single beach. It’s a string of fishing villages: Billy’s Bay, Frenchman’s Bay, Great Pedro Bay and, yes, Calabash Bay. Colin chose the name to honour the location of the festival. And calabash also suggests creativity. As we say, turning our hand to make fashion.
The hardy calabash, from both the tree and the vine, is very versatile. It has several practical and artistic uses. In many cultures of the world, the hollowed-out gourd is a water vessel. And musical instruments are also created with calabash. For both the sitar from India and the kora from West Africa, calabash is used as a resonator. So the multi-functional calabash is a brilliant image for a homegrown literary festival that includes musical performance.
The twelfth staging of the Calabash International Literary Festival, a month ago, was dubbed ‘globalicious’ by Kwame Dawes, the programmer for the event. And it certainly was both global and delicious. The calabash was full to the brim and running over with both literary and musical delicacies.
The writers came from twelve countries: Antigua, Barbados, Belarus, England, India, Ireland, Jamaica, Kenya, Nigeria, Trinidad and Tobago, Scotland and the USA. And the musical performers were from Haiti, Jamaica, the UK and the USA.
For me, the most engaging writer/reader was Jamaica Kincaid. She “shell down di place”, as one of my friends put it. We’re now so attuned to the culture of the gun that excellence in all spheres of life is celebrated with a gun salute – whether verbal or literal. A real pity! Blame it on the military and all those Hollywood movies that big up gun violence.
A very close second was Salman Rushdie who turned out to be quite different from what I expected. He was very cool; not at all stuck up. As another of my wicked friends said, “nothing like a fatwa to keep you real”. After the festival, I stayed on for a few days at Jake’s. And the young man who carried my bags announced with quite a flourish that Salman Rushdie had stayed in that very cottage. I must admit I felt like a groupie.
Then I was so looking forward to hearing Nguigi wa Thiong’o read. He’s one of the stalwarts of the anti-colonial war on the African continent. Unfortunately, his daughter, Wanjiku, stole the show. Literally. She read for forty-five minutes, instead of her allotted twenty. And her brother Mukoma read for thirty minutes. So the Big Man had to be cut off soon after he began. And it was such a powerful story he’d started to tell about coming home from boarding school to find that his village had disappeared.
OPEN MIKE, MAIN STAGE
One of the highlights of the festival always is the Open Mike. There are so many entertaining surprises. Like the farmer and fisherman whose stage name is “The Incredible Steel”! He rode 48 miles on his bicycle from Jerusalem, Santa Cruz to perform his poem, “The Voice”, in tribute to Tessanne Chin. He got a standing ovation. Then there was the cosmetologist, Venise Samuels, who performed a brilliant poem about unconscionable taxation. So much talent!
The only disappointing aspect of Calabash is the lack of comfortable accommodations. Of course, there’s very little the organisers of the festival can do about that. After all, Treasure Beach, is a fishing village. But some of the people in the rental business have rather grand names for very basic lodgings. ‘Villa’ is a most pretentious word for a small four-bedroom house. And there are ‘resorts’ that bear absolutely no resemblance to their upscale namesakes. All you can say in their favour is that they are a last resort if you absolutely can’t find anywhere else to stay.
But all you really need for Calabash is a place to crash. If you try to keep up with the programme, you would go non-stop from 10:00 a.m. to 2:00 a.m. the next day! And even if there are not too many villas and resorts in the fishing village, there is always the sea. It’s a magnificent backdrop for the main stage. I can’t imagine that there’s any literary festival anywhere on Earth that has a better setting. It’s all in the magical calabash.