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Jamaica’s Calabash Festival is a Literary Party

Dec 29, 2023

Among the host of literary gatherings that have sprung up in the last 20 years, Calabash in Jamaica brings the party off the page.

Promoting books and encouraging writers is the mission of the Calabash literary festival, which was founded in Jamaica in 2001. Credit...Hiroko Masuike/The New York Times

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By Anderson Tepper

Anderson Tepper is a curator of international literature at City of Asylum in Pittsburgh. He reported from Treasure Beach, Jamaica.

The sun is shining, the waves are lapping against the shore, and the crowds are filing into a giant tent for the first sessions of the day at the Calabash International Literary Festival, on Jamaica's low-key southern coast.

It's Saturday morning, and a wonder that people are awake at all — many, including writers, were up until the wee hours at the reggae concert next door, which capped the opening night's literary programs. Private tents dot the beach behind the stage, where some festivalgoers have slept.

Jamaica's poet laureate, Olive Senior, stops to embrace old friends at the entrance to the grounds, making plans to catch up soon. Meanwhile, busloads arrive from the capital and other points across the island.

By 10 a.m. more than a thousand people have filled the seats, gazing out at what might be the world's most breathtaking stage, framed by ocean and blue sky. Margaret Busby, the trailblazing British publisher, begins with a discussion of her anthology "New Daughters of Africa," followed by a conversation featuring the regal dub poet Linton Kwesi Johnson, who, at 70, has just released "Time Come," collecting a half-century of his commentary on culture and politics.

When Johnson suggests this book might be his swan song and that he's ready to "fade into oblivion," the audience lets out a piercing cry of "Noooooooo" in unison.

At Calabash, the combination of sun, sea and literature proves a heady, intoxicating mix — part literary party and part revival meeting. Founded in 2001, Calabash helped usher in a new wave of international literary festivals, but it spent the pandemic on hiatus — how can you replicate this virtually? — so in late May audiences appeared especially eager to return.

"I’ve been to literary festivals all over the world, and none of them has the allure of Calabash," said Johnson after his appearance. "Something happens here that happens no place else," echoed Paul Holdengräber, a writer and literary podcaster whose conversations with leading authors have been a fixture on the Calabash stage. "And that's due to the incredible soul of the place."

Johnson, who first came to Calabash in 2003, found the experience "addictive" and has been returning ever since. It's been a place to rendezvous with writer-friends such as Amiri Baraka and Ngugi wa Thiong’o, while watching the festival's reach expand. "They’ve nurtured new talent, provided a platform for local and regional artists," he added, "and made a huge contribution to literary tourism."

Over the past two decades, in fact, literary destination festivals have proliferated around the world — from Bali to Brazil, New York to Nigeria — each with its own locally-rooted identity and formula for propelling emerging authors onto the world stage.

Some have been direct responses to historic imperatives. Janet DeNeefe, for example, created the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival after a bombing targeted tourists in Bali in October 2002. It was a way "to provide a boost, both economically and emotionally, and to reflower the creative community," she explained over email.

PEN America's World Voices Festival began in New York in 2004 as an attempt to bridge global divides after 9/11, according to co-founder Salman Rushdie. "There was no international literary festival at all in the U.S.A. as far as I know," he wrote in an email. "Happily, audiences in New York showed that they were and are eager to hear the world's voices. In many cases, foreign writers have arrived at World Voices without a U.S. publisher and left with one."

Lola Shoneyin, who founded the Aké Arts and Book Festival in Nigeria in 2013, saw an opportunity to create an "empowering" environment for African writers on African soil. "I am a firm believer in ‘If you build it, they will come,’" she wrote via email. And they have — for book discussions as well as dance performances, art exhibitions and a popular Palmwine and Poetry night.

There are many more, too, including the Paraty International Literary Festival, founded in 2003 in a historic coastal town in Southeastern Brazil; the Jaipur Literature Festival in India, which, started in 2006, has grown so big that it proclaims itself "the greatest literary show on earth"; and Bocas Lit Fest in Trinidad, founded in 2013, and, along with Calabash, one of the most important festivals in the Caribbean.

Kwame Dawes and Justine Henzell, the co-founders of Calabash (with Colin Channer), said they originally saw the festival as a way to create a "brand" that could encompass the local writing workshops geared to help writers navigate the challenges of publishing. By their second year, the idea had caught fire and word of Calabash spread.

Their aim: To create an authenticating pipeline for Jamaican writers along the lines of what brought local musicians international attention.

"Why is it that reggae achieved global status, but very little else did?" Dawes said. "How does it develop talent? So we looked at the studio system and our workshops were predicated on that."

By now, a generation of writers has emerged from Calabash's workshops and open mic stage. Marlon James, winner of the 2015 Booker Prize for his novel "A Brief History of Seven Killings," was ready to give up on writing when he attended a Calabash workshop for beginners in the early 2000s. An editor at Akashic Books was there and quickly signed up his first novel, "John Crow's Devil." In 2006, he returned to read for the first time, and was back again in the audience this year.

"The festival was for a long time a glimpse at this world I didn't think I could have," James said. "As a burgeoning queer person, the idea that queer writers could go up onstage and not feel like they were going to be burned to death, and being around people who I always wanted to be — looking out at Michael Ondaatje and bell hooks and so on — was for me this sort of three-day escape from myself, from the reality of the Jamaica I was living in."

The Trinidadian writer Kevin Jared Hosein — at Calabash for the first time — is himself a product of the Bocas writing workshops, where he said he felt "galvanized" to pursue a writing career without having to leave his country, as earlier generations had. Moved "to do something different," he chose to read an especially hallucinatory scene from his international debut, "Hungry Ghosts." Inspired by Treasure Beach's magical setting, he threw himself into the event as if possessed.

The weekend went by in a blur of impassioned readings, thumping bass lines, and scents carried on the ocean breeze: a full sensory explosion. Audience members mingled and communed with authors on relatively equal footing, unfazed by a literary celebrity (Padma Lakshmi) or even a celebrity celebrity (Angelina Jolie, who showed up to celebrate her daughter Shiloh's 17th birthday).

Sunday morning, fittingly, brought an almost reverential mood to the final acts.

There was a stirring tribute to Michael Thelwell's 1980 novelization of "The Harder They Come" (Henzell's father, Perry, wrote and directed the classic 1972 film). Then Joyce Carol Oates took the stage to be interviewed by Holdengräber. Oates, in a floppy sun hat, appeared frail but feisty; at 84, her curiosity was as omnivorous as ever. She gently sparred with Holdengräber about the writing life, Mike Tyson, Marilyn Monroe and more. The overflow crowd lapped it up.

"The regional is universal," she declared, stressing the importance of local writers and literature.

She continued, effusively: "This is the most beautiful stage and, even more than that, the most beautiful audience. I know I’m not in New Jersey anymore."