Treasure Beach tales

by Nicholas Laughlin on June 1, 2010

Main stage, Calabash Literary Festival, 2007

The main stage at the Calabash International Literary Festival, photographed in 2007 by Georgia Popplewell/Caribbean Free Photo

The news from Jamaica this past fortnight has been overwhelmingly grim. But last weekend, as the situation in Kingston began to simmer down, an opportunity for decompression came along in the form of the tenth Calabash International Literary Festival.

Based, as always, in the small village of Treasure Beach on Jamaica’s southwest coast, Calabash brought together dozens of writers and hundreds of audience members for a long weekend of readings, performances, music, and conversation, with the long sweep of Calabash Bay for a backdrop. Some regular attendees worried that the state of emergency in Kingston might derail the festivities in Treasure Beach. But co-founder Colin Channer, in a letter to the Gleaner last week, replied: “Is Calabash still going to go on? My answer is yes.”

I’ve been to four Calabashes myself, but didn’t plan to attend this year. After travelling to Jamaica for the last three in a row, 2007–2009, I felt a little, well, ’bashed out. But I was able to keep an eye on events in Treasure Beach via various friends and others giving brief reports via Twitter and other online media. (It surprises me — considering the festival’s growing international audience — that Calabash itself still doesn’t have a blog or even Twitter stream.) My friend Annie Paul — also my housemate at previous Calabashes — provided occasional commentary on Twitter, even remarking that “Calabash is like a huge lung purifying the putrid air we inhaled in Kingston”. She promises a further wrap-up at her blog.

Meanwhile, I’m very pleased to share the following report, written for Antilles by the Vincentian writer William J. Abbott (who blogs at Lullabies, Fairy Tales, and Other Self-Delusions). Will is no stranger to Jamaica — he studied at the Mona campus of the University of the West Indies, some years back — but this was his first Calabash, and it’s clear from his account that he found it a rich and inspiring experience. (You can find out more about the writers he mentions at the Calabash 2010 authors page.)

I’d never been to Calabash before. I almost didn’t go this year. My friends in Kingston were iffy as to whether or not it would be safe to pick me up from the airport, and some even feared the festival would be canceled (I’m sure I don’t need to say why). The morning I was supposed to leave St Vincent, my alarm clock decided to stop working during the night, and I woke up to sunlight streaming into my bedroom. My flight should’ve been at dawn. Various people thought it was a sign: “you shouldn’t be going to Jamaica!” Anyway, after many re-bookings and a snap decision to fly into Montego Bay rather than Kingston, I finally made it.

The entire festival was, for me, an exercise in immersion. It wasn’t necessarily immersion in literature (I almost used a capital “L” to denote the sort of things I assumed went on at Calabash). It was, instead, an immersion in words, with people whose love of words far exceeds (in my eyes) their love of anything canonical or avant garde or experimental or contemporary or restricted by genre and mode. I’d initially promised Nicholas that I’d try my hand at real-time blogging for this event. Once I sat down under the massive tents on that first evening, however, I found that all I was able to do was allow the words to swim around me, sometimes floating lazily above me, at other times rushing down into my ears (and head and soul) in a torrent. A few were even propelled past me so fast they missed me entirely and, I think, ended up sitting on the bottom of the ocean off Treasure Beach. I hope they’re OK there and not too cold.

That first evening, I listened to Michael Holgate as he took us on a mind-fuck of a ride into one of my favourite literary genres — the speculative and fantastical. I witnessed Diana McCaulay’s investigation into the lives of two people from opposite economic ends of town — not a new concept by any means, but an intriguing mix of voices and experiences. I journeyed into the Kingdom of the Morags with Helen Williams’s pint-size hero, as he became even more pint-size when he metamorphosed into the crown prince of a race of frog-like beings. I bought the novel because I want to discover if he’s ever turned back into a boy again.

After stuffing myself full of escovitch fish with rice and peas, I planted myself closer to the front of the stage and spent roughly an hour alternately clutching my sides in laughter and staring off into literary space as Russell Banks and Sharon Olds exhibited just how involved a writer can get in his or her own work: Banks by reading from his novel, Rule of the Bone, and Olds from several collections of her poetry. There’s nothing like hearing a writer read something she wrote, something he created, something that is part of an obviously intensely personal, Herculean process, something that writer considers to be an extension of his or her very self. These two performers (because this is what they were when up on that stage — performers) were highlights of the entire weekend for me.

Of course there’s much more I can tell about that first night: the smell of the intermittent rain, the squelch of mud underfoot, the clichéd cooling breeze off the ocean, the film screening and the live music, but I fear that if I continue to itemise I’ll over shoot my non-existent (yet possibly implied) word limit. And the experience is in being there, as I now realise, and not in reading about being there.

On the second day I had breakfast on the beach and then listened to Cristina Garcia, one of my favourite writers, as she read snippets from a few novels, including my favourite of hers, Dreaming in Cuban. Her voice was not what I’d expected, but it soothed as she read, and, like the sounds of all the other writers, it drowned me completely.

Unfortunately, because of my lack of an alarm clock and my need to hear Garcia, I hadn’t showered yet for the day, so I had to miss Bernice McFadden and rush back to my “hotel” to make myself less inhuman to be around. But there was nothing that would make me miss the Wole Soyinka “chatterbox” session.

First of all, I need to say that Paul Holdengräber (Soyinka’s “interviewer” for the session) did an excellent job in spurring on Soyinka’s memory, opinions, and thoughts. He became secondary to something that he, in effect, orchestrated. Through him, the rest of us got to hear Soyinka do the thing he does best — tell stories. We heard stories of Soyinka’s childhood, and his solitary confinement in prison; we heard his thoughts on the nature of writing and the place of the writer in society (always a hot topic); we got his opinion on — and his startlingly poignant solutions to — the problem of racial tension. He reminded us that writers exist as “witness[es] to reality,” that the artist “disintegrates and reassembles reality.” He called himself a “closet glutton for peace.”

What struck me most was Soyinka’s presence: his voice, his appearance, his unencumbered manner of speaking. Throughout the entire session all I could think was, “this is the nature of an intellectual; this is what a thinker is; this is why a person wins the Nobel Prize.”

The rest of this second day seemed to bolster and exemplify so many of the things Soyinka had spoken about in terms of a writer’s place in society: the playing around with memory, the presentation and investigation of realities. Everyone who followed, whether readers of prose or poetry or something “other”, seemed to be a live illustration of Soyinka’s words and philosophies. In this sense, the entire underwater atmosphere I’d been feeling was intensified. It made it difficult to breathe, while at the same time infusing me with the peace of submerged, suspended animation. I heard a poet who left me wanting so much more because all he did was regurgitate current trends in what I call pop poetry; I heard another whose use of images and language had me feeling music and tapping my foot, despite the absence of an actual song; I heard women whose voices dipped and rocked and cried out and whispered — if not in actuality, at least inside me.

The culmination of the second day was “Calaclash II: Muta’s Revenge”, in which Colin Channer and Mutabaruka vied for the love of the Calabash audience, through a battle of sounds from the dawn of Jamaican popular music and on. I wasn’t planning to attend this session, since I was so tired after the day’s flood of words. However, I ran into one of my literary heroes/oblivious mentors (oblivious to the fact that I consider him a mentor, I mean), Mervyn Morris, who suggested I check it out. Naturally, I did exactly as told, just as I did when he was my professor at the University of the West Indies. The Calabash crowd was as gripped by the music as they had been by the words earlier in the day. The “clash” itself was almost subordinate to the vibe it created. I remember sitting under a tree with some friends, eating garlic conch, swaying and catching the occasional, pungent whiff of ganja wafting in from the beach. This is where contentment begins.

The final day began with my heart being broken (this happens at least once a month, so isn’t as dramatic or earth-shattering as it sounds). Luckily, I had Winston “Bello” Bell, Leonie Forbes, Adjoa Dawes, and Christopher Tufton to ease my ache by reading from Neville Dawes’s recently reprinted novel The Last Enchantment. I’m not the kind of person who can have an hour and a half’s worth of prose read to him. I usually drift off. This time, the readers held me, along with the novel itself. What really held me, however, were the other people listening to the reading along with me. It’s like I was feeding off the listening energy of what seemed like hundreds of other people, all allowing the words to flow through them.

The booing of Christopher Tufton (who is really the Honourable Christopher Tufton, MP) was not at all well received by the rest of the audience. Kwame Dawes made an excellent point — a point which writer after writer made that weekend in various ways. Calabash is about creative expression and an outpouring of togetherness, birth and inclusion. Booing a parliamentarian with whose party you disagree is more than a little divisive. Of course, several people also made the point that Calabash is about free expression (which reminds me, there wasn’t nearly as much profanity as I expected — I may even be a little disappointed). What’s freer than booing someone who’s unpopular?

Anyway, following this performance (and if you don’t think it was performance, you certainly did not hear Leonie Forbes, or even Tufton’s fleeting political insertions to the text), I heard for the first time my new favourite poet read his work. Billy Collins’s loaded simplicity of language served to ease my heart even more than the day’s earlier reading. I lost my self and my petty drama in his wit, his images, and his uncomplicated words. This made me more than ready to face Sudeep Sen’s brand of simplicity and unfussy, musical words.

Having broken my own promise of not itemising everything, I’ll end by saying that my very first Calabash experience — on this, its tenth anniversary — was the most engaging baptism. It was an immersion in words. It was a reintroduction to a world I left behind thirteen years ago, when I moved back to St Vincent from Jamaica. It reinvigorated me. From the fact that this was a literary festival whose stage backdrop was the actual ocean, to the feeling that literature is alive and well somewhere, the entire weekend made me balanced and settled again. Even the open-mike sessions, where people could do whatever they feel like for two minutes (which were either two minutes too long or definitely not long enough), were solace of a sort.

— William J. Abbott

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