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Down in Jamaica: A Journey to the Calabash International Literary Festival

The smell of wet garbage and puke permeates the 3:30 a.m. West Village air. Crossing the street to avoid a tipsy homeless man, I pass by some students jamming on a discarded piano, trying to conjure up the artistic frivolity and earnestness that has long since disappeared from this pocket of Manhattan. A South Asian man scarfing down a slice of pizza shouts, “Hey, need a taxi?” But I head down into the subway. I’m taking the A Train to JFK. The dollars I could sink into cab fare will be better spent on some bottles of Red Stripe and a few shots of rum.

Poet Staceyann Chin shaking hands with former Jamaican Prime Minister Edward Seaga at the Calabash International Literary Festival. Photo by Collin Reid.
Poet Staceyann Chin shaking hands with former Jamaican Prime Minister Edward Seaga at the Calabash International Literary Festival. Photo by Collin Reid.

I’m bound for Jamaica, where I’ll be covering the country’s Calabash International Literary Festival. I had the displeasure of organizing a hellish literary festival a few years ago, and since then, I’ve grown to loathe such events—the relentless self-promotion and insecurity; the cliquishness that conjures up a primary school playground. But I’m never one to say no to a free trip.

A representative from Jamaica’s tourism department welcomes me to Montego Bay’s Sangster International Airport. We can’t clear customs, he explains, until the rest of our party joins us. The rest of our party, it turns out, includes Calabash’s headliners from New Jersey—Robert Pinksy, Poet Laureate to Bill Clinton, and Junot Diaz, whose pyrotechnic Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao bagged last year’s Pulitzer Prize. “I’m Junot,” the latter introduces himself. I tell him my name. “What’s your last name?” he asks. I tell him. “Oh, I’m Diaz,” he responds. It seems best to pretend that this is news to me.

In an air-conditioned minibus, the Jersey boys and I leave behind the KFCs and multiplexes of northern Jamaica. Diaz dozes in the seat behind me, and Pinsky speaks with alacrity about the avant-garde filmmaker Preston Sturges. I jot down the names of some of Sturges’ edgy 1940s movies in my notebook, genuinely committed to adding these titles to my Netflix list.

Soon we’re rolling by fields of orange trees which, ironically, supply fruit to the American juice brand Florida’s Natural. There are egrets, goats, and cows. The hills we begin to ascend are lined with blooming hibiscus bushes. Women and children stand on the side of the road, in their hands dangle bags of freshly picked plums. Occasionally, we pass a shack that is actually a bar. Some of these shacks also seem to be strip clubs, at least that’s what the bawdy murals painted on them suggest.

Four hours after setting out from Montego Bay, twelve hours after boarding the A train at West Fourth Street, we arrive in the parish of Saint Elizabeth, Jamaica’s bread basket. The mini-bus stops in front of a sign that says Jake’s. Jake’s, a hotel located on desolate Treasure Beach, is the paradise where we’ll be spending the next four days.

The owner of Jake’s, Justine Henzell, is the daughter of the late Perry Henzell, who made the iconic Jimmy Cliff-starring Jamaican film The Harder They Come. She’s also one of the Calabash’s main organizers, along with writers Kwame Dawes and Colin Channer. Her staff shows me to my picturesque cottage. It has no phone or television, just mosquito nets and an outdoor shower whose walls are made of glass bottles. Furious waves swell and retreat below my private deck. A pterodactyl-like pelican hovers nearby, occasionally swooping down to hunt.

When the festival kicks off the next evening, several hundred people are in attendance, Jamaicans of varying classes and colors, and also some outsiders. English and Patois are spoken, and so are Spanish and Hindi. Beer flows freely, and skunky smoke perfumes the air. Everyone’s wearing sandals, shorts, and sun dresses. Babies crawl onto strangers’ laps. I might have to rethink my preconceptions about literary festivals.

With waves pounding behind him, Diaz steps up to the podium. He’s always affable but also seems encumbered by his newfound fame, like young Bob Dylan during his 1966 press conferences. “It’s short,” he says of the prose he’s about to read. “I’ll read it, and then you can clap, and then I’ll read again, and then it’s fucking done.” The two ribald selections he reads feel nice and raw but are actually perfectly-honed pieces of writing. They leave the audience in stitches.

The next days are a haze of readings and talks. Notable are “To Sir With Love,” which celebrates the 50th anniversary of Caribbean author E.R. Braithwaite’s legendary London novel-turned-movie, and Love in the Time of Obama, in which pioneering African-American filmmaker Melvin Van Peebles chews on a stogie and talks about why he likes the U.S.’s first black president. But the multitude of smaller conversations which abound in the podium’s shadows are even more compelling.

A local Rastafarian woman named Cherry serves me food from the nearby vegan restaurant she runs. A Jamaican resident of London talks about the winery she and her husband are getting off the ground. Classic, a teenage reggae enthusiast from a nearby parish, says he’s just here to soak up the atmosphere and listen to the writers speak.

Poolside, the esteemed Jamaican novelist Anthony Winkler tells me about the hilarious tidbits that were gutted from his screenplay for the movie Cool Runnings. I run into Chris Merrill, the poet who’s received accolades for his reportage on the conflict in the former Yugoslavia. He shares quirky stories about his profound friendship with the late Kashmiri poet Agha Shahid Ali. Over a plate of jerk chicken, Nigerian novelist Helon Habila tells me about his far-fetched professional trajectory: He self-published his first book in Lagos and is now writing a non-fiction work about the city for Granta.

The variety and intensity of the conversations here is dizzying, so I find some respite in nearby Calabash Bay. Besides some beached fishing vessels, the coast here is empty. I search for a spot that isn’t so rocky and plunge into the warm sea. Clouds gather, then part; gather, then part. On my way back to the festival, dreadlocked men peddle trinkets and other consumables. These people have dark skin, but their eyes are green and their hair is blond.

Jamaica’s European heritage is certainly noticeable in Saint Elizabeth. According to local lore, a ship of Scottish sailors crashed off the country’s southern coast and integrated into the region over the next few generations. Regardless of their origins, these individuals’ physical appearance is representative of an undeniable fact: island life is defined by a mesmerizing amalgamation of cultures, races, and religions.

This exuberant Caribbean cosmopolitanism resounds at the festival the next morning. Staceyann Chin, known for her appearances on Def Poetry Jam, kicks off the morning’s readings. This Jamaica-born New Yorker reads from The Other Side of Paradise, a memoir that chronicles her coming of age as a half-black half-Asian gay person on the notoriously homophobic island. Diversity, her theatrical reading makes clear, isn’t always celebrated in Jamaica—or in the U.S. for that matter.

Chin’s words leave some members of the audience mortified and others delighted, but everyone here is spellbound. Even Edward Seaga, the retired Jamaican Prime Minister known for his rightwing politics and friendship with Ronald Reagan, sits and listens to her story. The leader, whose ancestors are Lebanese Christians, is spotted shaking hands with Chin later the same morning. Individuals from distinct worlds actually interact at this festival. My expectations continue to shatter.

More than twelve hours later, at midnight, hundreds gather to dance as beloved dub poet and reggae artist Mutabaruka spins music. I hang back to cut a rug with 76 year old Melvin Van Peebles, but an additional presence on the stage beckons me towards it. Colin Channer, the Jamaican-born author of novels like Waiting in Vain and one of the festival’s main organizers, has brought his MacBook on stage. He’s going to duel it out with Mutabaruka. As the men sift through dozens of Caribbean classics, from Marley four tracks to Gregory Isaacs, they lovingly taunt each other. The audience turns into a sea of grooving bodies and blissful faces. I even spot Junot Diaz busting a move.

This is a literary festival, I ask myself? Yes, it is, but one that’s devoid of the pretension and insipidness that can stifle the world of books. Calabash is a well-oiled powerhouse of warmth, ideas, and entertainment. I shall return to it.


Hirsh Sawhney


The Brooklyn Rail

JUNE 2009

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