A Tale of the Magical Calabash

imagesOnce 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.

photos_1But 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.

res1_07aThe 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.

‘GLOBALICIOUS’
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.

Calabash2014Logo-300x256The 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.

boutique-hotel-Jakes-Hotel-Villas-and-Spa-St.-Eli-1-8-3-2-thumbA 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.

ngugi_wa_thiongoThen 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!

Treasure Beach Sc_bc_TreasureB28The 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.

calabash-2007-stageBut 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.

 

‘Worl-map Fi Stop Draw Jamaica Small!’

In a series of humorous poems written at the height of Independence euphoria in the early1960s, Louise Bennett, affectionately known as Miss Lou, raises some quite serious questions about Jamaica’s readiness for the rigours of independence.  In the opening verse of the poem, “Independance” – yes ‘dance’ – Miss Lou expresses her misgivings about the strains of the nation’s new political status:

Independance wid a vengeance!

Independance raisin Cain!

Jamaica start grow beard, ah hope

We chin can stan de strain!

Miss Lou acknowledges the fact that Independence is much more than the song and dance of Festival celebrations. It requires a capacity for self-sacrifice that some Jamaicans may stubbornly resist:

No easy-come by freeness tings,

Nuff labour, some privation,

Not much of dis an less of dat

An plenty studiration.

In “Independence Dignity” an excited speaker addresses a Jamaican away from home:

Dear Cousin Min, yuh miss sinting,

Yuh should be over yah

Fi see Independence Celebration

Capture Jamaica.

Miss Lou’s choice of the word ‘capture’ suggests that Independence may prove to be a rather restrictive state of affairs.  Like the ‘privation’ and ‘studiration’ that are the price of Independence, the level of discipline that the new nation’s status requires seems far different from the usual unruly conduct of some out of order Jamaicans:

Yuh waan see how Jamaica people

Rise to de occasion

An deestant up demself fi greet

De birt a dem new nation!

Not a stone was fling, not a samfie sting,

Not a soul gwan bad an lowrated;

Not a fight bruck out, not a bad-wud shout

As Independence was celebrated.

This amusing catalogue of all the bad behaviour that is temporarily suspended suggests that after rising to the occasion for one ‘degeh-degeh’ day, a lot of people will soon fall back on their old ‘lowrated’ ways.  The strains and stresses of behaving properly might prove to be very taxing.

The Higher Monkey Climb

Louise Bennett

In “Jamaica Elevate” Miss Lou creates yet another enthusiastic character who also writes to a Jamaican in the Diaspora, singing the praises of the new state of Independence.  But the speed with which the weight of Independence is dropped on Jamaica – biff, buff, baps – leaves the letter-writer dizzy:

So much tings happen so fas an quick

Me head still feel giddy!

Biff Referandum! Buff, Election!

Baps, Independence drop pon we!

Jamaican High Commission, London

At the root of the poem is the cautionary Jamaican proverb, ‘the higher monkey climb, the more him expose himself.’  The presumptuous elevation of Jamaica to a scanty army, an unformed navy, consuls and ambassadors who ‘Dah rub shoulder an dip mouth/ Eena heavy world affairs’, is clear evidence of the pride that goes before the fall.

The make-do armaments of the newly independent nation are remarkably similar to the stones that are not flung in “Independence Dignity.” The more things change, the more they remain the same:

We defence is not defenceless

For we got we half a brick,

We got we broken bottle

An we coocoomacca stick;

But we willin to put down we arms

In Peace and Freedom’s name

An we call upon de nations

Of de worl to do de same.

‘Me Heart Go Boop’

Sir Clifford Campbell,
first native governor-general

In “Jamaica Elevate” Miss Lou also raises the vexing issue of colour and class politics in the newly independent nation.  She highlights an amusing case of mistaken identity, underscoring old antagonisms. The new, native Governor-General, the Queen’s representative, resembles a family member, Bada John.  At Independence, the changing face of authority would seem to confirm the ‘elevation’ of not just the Jamaican state, but, more important, black people.

But with wicked wit Miss Lou reveals the purely superficial nature of what appears to be fundamental social change.  The immediate response to what looks like Bada John’s picture in the newspaper humorously defines the usual circumstances in which a black person would be deemed newsworthy in the media politics of the times – the heralding of misfortune:

Di fus day im picture print, de

Paper drop outa me han;

Me heart go boop, me bawl out

‘Something bad happen to John!

Sir Kenneth Blackburne, last British governor and first
governor-general of independent Jamaica

‘Meck dem draw de picture big so?

Him too ole fi pass exam!

Him no buy no sweepstake ticket?

Someting bad happen to John!’

Of course, nothing bad has happened to John.  But in the eyes of some backward Jamaicans, the resemblance between him and the Governor General would have been a clear sign that something bad had happened to that high office.  The representative of the queen really ought not to look like her subjects.

A Speck of Greatness

In all of the mockery of the grand rhetoric of Independence, Miss Lou does affirm the high self-esteem of so-called ‘ordinary’ Jamaicans. Miss Mattie, for example, has a rather expansive vision of Jamaica’s geopolitical location:

She hope dem caution worl-map

Fi stop draw Jamaica small

For de lickle speck cyaan show

We independantness at all!

Moresomever we must tell map dat

We don’t like we position –

Please kindly tek we out a sea

An draw we in de ocean

What independent-minded Miss Mattie does acknowledge is the fact that map-making is not an exact science.  Territorial borders shift as power dynamics change.  Furthermore her vivid image of repositioning us out of the sea and putting us into the ocean is a recognition of the transatlantic origins of the Jamaican people.

Our history is one of migration.  All of us foreigners who came, willingly or not, and now call this island our own, do have a sense of ancestral homelands. This speck of Jamaica is great because our conception of ourselves is not dependent solely on our present insular location. Beyond the boundaries of this little island, we envision landscapes of greatness that we can also claim as ours.

Independence ‘Pin of Pride’ Made in China

ImageOnce upon a time, the tag ‘Made in China’ was a dead giveaway.  The China brand meant cheap goods of very poor quality.  Over the years, many Chinese products have had to be recalled because of grave safety issues: killer toys, poisonous food, toxic toothpaste, shocking hair dryers, hazardous heaters, flammable baby clothes, deadly lead necklaces, frightfully collapsing stools and recliners, shattering glass, separating tyres and the list goes on and on.

Despite this tainted track record, China is now the largest exporter in the world.  These days, Chinese manufacturers are being held to higher standards, particularly for the export market.  And many U.S. companies, for example, try to get around the ‘Made in China’ stigma by advertising the fact that their products are ‘designed’ at home.  Apple iPhones and iPads, though made in China, loudly proclaim their American pedigree.

China’s appeal as the preferred manufacturing destination for foreign companies is largely based on the low wages and terrible working conditions of poor people.  Top-end ‘cheap’ goods, like electronics, are, arguably, the product of exploited labour.  The social cost is often rather high.  It makes you wonder if some of China’s scandalous manufacturing disasters may not be the result of deliberate acts of sabotage committed by angry workers.

Fake Memories

Image     One of the niche markets in which Chinese manufacturers have long specialised is cheap souvenirs designed for tourist destinations across the globe. The French word ‘souvenir’ means ‘to remember’.  Ironically, the souvenir industry is sustained on the principle that intangible memories are not enough.  Even photographs are not enough.  You need to take home a little piece of something to remind yourself of your trip. Or you might forget just how much fun you had!  I guess.

Most tourists don’t seem to mind if the souvenirs they purchase on vacation aren’t actually made in the places they visit.  Since memories themselves are often manufactured, I suppose it doesn’t really matter if the souvenir of the fake memory is just as fake.

Image      It’s the manufacturers of ‘authentic’ memories that do have a vested interest in protecting tourists (and their own markets) from what they see as rip-off artists.   The screaming headline of a February 3, 2012 article posted on the website of the UK newspaper the Daily Mail warns: “Olympic sell-out!  91% of London 2012 souvenirs made abroad with two thirds coming from China”.

True enough, I went on the website Made-in-China.com and on the very first page there’s an ad for “2012 London Olympic Games Jewellery for Promotion and Accept as a Souvenir”.  The English used in these ads is as ‘authentic’ as the souvenirs.  That’s the trouble with being a global language.  The whole world feels entitled to use you just as they please.  And, in this instance, all that the sellers and buyers really care about is the business deal.  Niceties of grammar are quite irrelevant.

Showcasing nationalism?

Image       Jamaica is in excellent company.  You don’t even need to be a tourist to buy fake memories and even more fake memorabilia.  You can stay right at home.  I suspect that most of our official Independence souvenirs are not made in Jamaica.  I’d be very happy to be proven wrong.  But I do know for sure that the much-advertised ‘Pin of Pride’ is made in China.  I checked with the distributor.

The Jamaica 50 Secretariat gives a grand account of the vision that motivated production of the pin: “The One Million Pins Initiative represents the global movement behind our celebration of fifty years of independence, where all Jamaicans showcase their nationalism by wearing our official commemorative ‘Pin of Pride’ on August 6, 2012.

The OMP Initiative seeks to rally ONE Million Jamaicans to pledge proudly with their Pin of Pride and start a tradition of passing down this trinket of our history from generation to generation”.

It really does sound very good.  Don’t? But couldn’t we have come up with a locally manufactured symbol of national pride?  Did it have to be a pin from China?  And a ‘trinket’ really isn’t so hot.  It’s a rather trifling ornament; certainly not an heirloom.

There are so many world-class artists and artisans in Jamaica!  Couldn’t a collective have designed souvenirs that could actually be mass-produced in Jamaica?  Which would really make us feel proud of what we’ve accomplished as a nation over the last fifty years?  What happened to the sensible economic principle, “Be Jamaican, buy Jamaican”?

‘Might as cheap’

All the same, I have to admit that I do have a ‘Pin of Pride’.  It was a gift I somewhat reluctantly accepted two Fridays ago.  The National Library of Jamaica hosted a brilliant evening of readings of Jamaican literature in Emancipation Park, “From Claude McKay to Olive Senior”.  I was one of the readers and got a trinket of appreciation.

A beautiful exhibition on Jamaican literature was also launched in the park.  Huge display stands tell an edutaining story of our literary journey from colonialism to Independence.  I urge everyone to go and have a look.  It’s something to be really proud of.

To be honest, my ‘Pin of Pride’ does look good.  And since we have a million of them for sale, we ‘might as cheap’ buy them.  At $700, the price is quite modest, considering all the weighty meanings the little pin is supposed to bear.  In any case, I don’t want to be held responsible for any drop in sales of the China pride pins.  I really can’t deal with ‘big foot’.

But, surely, there’s a lesson to be learnt about the cost of pride.  The Chinese manufacturers are likely to be the biggest beneficiaries of Jamaica’s ‘Pins of Pride’.  They will be laughing all the way to the bank.  In our fiftieth year of supposed Independence, we couldn’t manage to produce our own souvenirs that we could be really proud of!  And that’s rather shameful. ,

Apologies to the ‘Penis Poet’

Ralph Thompson

It would be most unfortunate if, at this late stage of his distinguished career, Mr. Ralph Thompson were to be reduced to the ignoble stature of ‘penis poet’.  I could barely forgive myself for any role I might be perceived to have played in bringing such dishonour on the head of a fine poet.

All the same, I’m rather surprised to see that Ralph is carefully distancing himself from the delightfully pungent humour of the earthy poem he performed last month on the open mic at the Calabash International Literary Festival. In a somewhat petulant letter to the editor, published in the Gleaner on Monday, June 18, 2012,  Ralph grimly insisted that I had failed to grasp the depth, if not the length, of his penile poem.

The provocative headline of the letter was “The Full Monty On My ‘Penis’ Poem”. I suspect that Ralph didn’t have a thing to do with that strip-teasing headline; it’s far too suggestive. A mischievous editor appears to have been having a little fun at the poet’s expense.  And the wicked allusion to ‘the full Monty’ also implies that I didn’t quite have a handle on the poet’s meaty meaning.

The letter itself elaborates the point:  “In two of her recent columns, Carolyn Cooper, in commenting on a poem I read at Calabash, has used my name as a springboard for some of her general opinions about sexuality. This has been done in good fun, I am sure, but has inadvertently served to trivialise an otherwise serious poem.

In the interest of civility and protection of my reputation, I would be grateful if you would publish the poem in its entirety so that readers can judge for themselves the theological and poetic integrity of the work”.

Infectious laughter

William Blake illustration of the Book of Job

Mea culpa, mea maxima culpa!  ‘Mi sari, mi sari, mi sari, mi sari, sari’! I’ve exposed the poet’s impeccable reputation to the risk of infectious laughter by drawing undue attention to the opening line: “At 84, I have outlived my penis”.  The poet intended to discharge theology, not sexology.  Like the Old Testament Book of Job, the poem raises a deep question: why do the righteous suffer?

Or, more precisely in this instance, why does the righteous man suffer from sexual impotence? The answer is that one must just learn how to make a deal with God and accept his will, however unpleasant the circumstances. Memory of the itch and scratch of sexual ecstasy will persist. Writing poetry becomes an act of divine sublimation.

At core, Ralph Thompson’s poem is about the perversely pleasurable tension between sexual desire and sexual frustration.     For ease of reference, here’s the ‘non-penis’ poem in its entirety:

It’s a deal

“Grow old along with me!

The best is yet to be.”

– Browning

At 84, I have outlived my penis

and now by His grace there is a peace of sorts.

But how to cope with memory, its walls scrawled

with graffiti of recall, where itch

still lingers dreaming ecstasies of scratch.

But I have learned from Job to bargain with the Lord –

a deal that He, post mortem, will contra

the excruciations of my journey

against the penances assigned to sin,

the divine books balanced.

Before Alzheimer’s dirty sleeve erases all,

quick, write a poem.

A cheap trick?

 Having dutifully made ‘a peace of sorts’ with Ralph, I still have lingering questions about the thrust of that potent opening line.  By focusing on the penis, I seem to have cut short the full extent of the poet’s weighty philosophical meditation. The ‘poetic integrity of the work’ has, apparently, been adulterated.

Ralph would have us believe that the alleged death of the penis wasn’t just a cheap trick to hook the reader/audience.  It was actually meant to signify the mysterious way in which God moves to perform his wonders.  Unfortunately, resuscitating a dead penis does not seem to be high on the list of divine priorities.

Calabash audience 2012

Fair is fair. I could much more easily accept Ralph’s ponderous theological argument with great civility if the opening line of the poem had been “At 84, I have outlived my knees”.  Of course, that decidedly unsexy line would have drawn no irreverent laughter.  Instead, the mature audience at Calabash would have nodded sympathetically. And the poet would have seemed rather lame.

Knee failure is a familiar ailment for many of us who are not quite 84. And well-oiled knees are a pleasure akin to sex that only those who are suffering from arthritis would understand.  Not to mention the delicate fact that certain sexual positions are off-limits to the weak-kneed.

Knee versus penis:  no contest.  I just don’t understand why Ralph can’t concede that a poet who could deliver such a penetrating line with a straight face is a cut above the rest.  This is not an impotent man whose identity is defined by half a foot, more or less, of dangling flesh.

Hans Sebald Beham illustration

In any case, sex is a theological issue.  It’s not a trivial matter.  Some theologians argue that the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden was sex.  That’s why Adam and Eve realised that they were naked only after eating it.  Not each other, of course.

I think Ralph got a little weak-kneed after reading my columns and decided that he had to take a stand against slackness, however feeble. But he’s done himself an injustice.  In his haste to demonstrate “the theological and poetic integrity of the work”, he has deflated the humour that buoyed up a rather depressing subject.

Ralph frames his own poem with a famous quotation from Robert Browning’s “Rabbi Ben Ezra”, a very long and very mournful reflection on ageing. Browning wrote the poem at the age of fifty-two, three years after the death of his wife, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, who had Jamaican roots. I much prefer Ralph’s version.  The dead penis made his poem spring to life:  the real deal.