Calabash farewell

by Nicholas Laughlin on January 18, 2011

Calabash Literary Festival 2007

The 2007 Calabash International Literary Festival winds down with a reggae jam session. Photograph by Georgia Popplewell/Caribbean Free Photo

Between its founding in 2000 and its tenth anniversary in 2010, the Calabash International Literary Festival — based in Treasure Beach, on the south coast of Jamaica — grew into one of the major events on the Caribbean’s literary calendar. The Calabash formula was simple and successful: invite first-class writers from around the world to mingle with an avid audience of Jamaicans and others in an idyllic beachfront location, for three days of readings, performances, music, and conversation. The relaxed setting — with a huge tent pitched in a seaside meadow as the main venue, and Calabash Bay for a backdrop — meant that Calabash felt less like a literary festival and more like a giant beach party where everyone was interested in books, and writers were the guests of honour.

The Calabash organisers had already announced the end-of-May dates for the 2011 festival, and regular attendees were speculating, as usual, about the line-up of invited writers. So Calabash fans in Jamaica and elsewhere were taken aback by the announcement yesterday evening, at a press conference in Kingston, that there would be no festival in 2011 after all — and that “the Calabash International Literary Festival is over in its present incarnation.”

“We had a fantastic run, and the festival effectively accomplished what it set out to do ten years ago,” said co-founder Colin Channer in the official press release. The Calabash International Literary Trust is expected to continue its series of writing workshops and seminars. And according to Kwame Dawes, another of the three co-founders, some key members of the Calabash team — minus Channer — plan to regroup in 2012 to launch a new literary event to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of Jamaican independence.

Writer and CRB contributor Annie Paul was at the fateful press conference, and posted a brief report at her blog last night, hinting at speculation about Channer’s “mysterious” departure from the Calabash team. She promises more details, and possibly an interview with Dawes, in the coming days.

Meanwhile, regular Calabash attendees — some of whom had already booked accommodation for the 2011 event — exchanged messages of consternation. By coincidence, the end of Calabash coincides with the launch of a major new literary festival at the other end of the Caribbean. The Bocas Lit Fest, based in Port of Spain, Trinidad, runs from 28 April to 1 May, 2011. (Your Antilles blogger is a member of the planning committee.) Bocas offers a completely different vibe — urban buzz and energy, rather than beachside idyll. But it shares with Calabash a sense of the Caribbean as an important literary nexus, and the goal of bringing extraordinary talent from around the world to home audiences. When Calabash fans recover from their disappointment, they ought to check out what’s going on in Port of Spain.

For a look back at the tenth anniversary of the Calabash International Literary Festival last year, see Vincentian writer William J. Abbott’s Antilles report.

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