The biennial Calabash International Literary Festival should have been taking place this weekend in Treasure Beach. But, like so many other events, Calabash has been derailed by the pandemic. It’s now three years since the last staging of the calendar event. And all of us who used to get our literary fix at the festival are suffering from serious withdrawal symptoms.
It may seem far-fetched to compare a literary festival to an addictive substance. It’s not. Once you’ve experienced the high that comes from listening to outstanding writers from Jamaica and all over the world reading on the Calabash stage, you’re hooked. It’s a pleasure that’s both sensual and intellectual. With the sea as a dramatic backdrop, the stage opens up a seductive world of ideas and feelings that inspires imagination. The festival is truly mind-altering.
I certainly don’t want to diminish the seriousness of conventional drug addiction with my playful analogy. The American Addictions website identifies a terrifying range of withdrawal symptoms including insomnia, depression, irritability, restlessness, cravings, bouts of crying, suicidal thoughts and appetite fluctuations. All the same, those of us who are missing Calabash have experienced some of these symptoms.
Take, for instance, cravings! Many of us long to visit Jake’s, the boutique hotel that’s the home of the festival. We deliriously conjure up the huge tent that provides shelter for 2,000 and more pilgrims who journey from far and wide for the communal celebration of literature, music, food and drink. And we do have bouts of restlessness, irritability and angry crying when we think of how COVID-19 mash up wi life, robbing us of so many simple pleasures.
BOCAS LIT FEST
Thank God for the Bocas Lit Fest! It was founded in Trinidad and Tobago in 2011 by the admirable Marina Salandy Brown. The festival is cleverly named after the Bocas del Dragón, (mouths of the dragon), the series of narrow passageways to the north west of the island that connect Trinidad to the Caribbean Sea. The mouth also evokes verbal creativity.
The Bocas Lit Fest is usually held during the last weekend in April. Unlike Calabash, it’s an urban festival. And the city of Port-of-Spain does have its distinctive pleasures. Like the Savannah, which is 260 acres of open land! Jamaican ‘developers’ would swoon at the prospect of filling up the Savannah with apartment buildings. Fortunately, Trinis know better and are committed to preserving this lush green space for generations to come.
Last year, the organisers of the festival confronted the pandemic head-on and refused to cancel their stellar event. It was postponed to September and hosted virtually on YouTube and Facebook. I’ve attended practically every staging of the festival. I have to admit it was wonderful to lounge at home and take in all of the conversations. I did miss my excursion down the legendary Frederick Street to get dhalpuri roti at Ali’s.
Then, all through the pandemic, starting in April 2020, Bocas hosted ‘Bios and Bookmarks’, a series of weekly interview programmes with writers reading and discussing their work. The festival returned to its usual April date this year. Again, it was virtual. Hopefully, next year Bocas will be back to normal and we will be able to lime in person, fearlessly opening our unmasked mouths.
The Bocas Lit Fest has been the most effective therapy for my Calabash withdrawal symptoms. In a conventional medical detox programme, carefully controlled amounts of a drug are administered and gradually reduced. This process eventually releases the addict from dependence. But the preferred cure for my symptoms was a lavish outpouring of more and more literature.
‘LITERATURE LIVE AROUND THE WORLD’
In February this year, LitFestBergen in Norway hosted on YouTube a 12-hour festival billed as ‘Literature Live Around the World’. It featured twelve of the world’s best literary festivals. Starting in Bergen, Norway, the innovative programme travelled to Perth, Australia; Kabul, Afghanistan; Jaipur, India; Dubai, United Arab Emirates; Lagos, Nigeria; Buenos Aires, Argentina; Edinburgh, Scotland; Lyon, France; Berkeley, USA; Toronto, Canada; and, finally, Treasure Beach, Jamaica. You know if is egg wi inna di red.
It was so good to see the familiar Calabash stage in this global context. Here’s the link. The event featured eight writers: Ann Margaret Lim, Opal Palmer Adisa, Diana McCaulay, Earl McKenzie, Millicent Graham, Mutabaruka, Erna Brodber and Olive Senior. In his introduction, Kwame Dawes, co-founder of the Calabash International Literary Festival, affirmed that these writers “tell the story of Jamaica in its complexity, in its range and its immediacy.”
Then, last Monday, Kei Miller, a Calabash featured writer, launched online his book of essays, Things I have Withheld. Poet Tanya Shirley and novelist Marlon James engaged Kei in a revealing conversation about the things he has now chosen to disclose. In the Chat, Calabash came up more than once. Kei’s launch was more therapy for withdrawal symptoms.
In his introduction to the Calabash segment of ‘Literature Live Around the World’, Kwame lyrically asserted that, “The other poem, the other artist that you will see displayed in the most splendid way is Treasure Beach. It’s this venue of Calabash. The sea, the landscape, which is its own poem and its own monument and its own character.”
Treasure Beach is a monumental setting for a Jamaican literary festival that started as a bright idea and has grown into a global brand. In 2001, the founders of the festival – Colin Channer, Justine Henzell and Kwame Dawes – could not possibly have anticipated the grand reach of their vision. The Calabash International Literary Festival thrives on serendipity. It’s like looking for shells on a beach. You never know what treasures you’ll find. But you’re certain to enjoy the process of searching.