The Calabash runs dry

The festival is no more, but its legacy lives on. Nazma Muller celebrates this Jamaican literary landmark

Calabash is definitely not a sit-down affair – patrons feel free to express themselves. Photograph by Hugh WrightNobel laureate Wole Soyinka (left) with poet Kwame Dawes, Calabash programming director. Photograph by Hugh Wright

The news that the Calabash International Literary Festival in Jamaica will not be happening this May was greeted with disappointment not only at home, but around the world. The thousands of fans who had made the pilgrimage to Treasure Beach, a remote little town on Jamaica’s south coast, over the ten years of Calabash’s existence included writers from as far away as China, Pakistan and India.

Every year since 2001, this literary festival on the beach had grown; word of its cool vibes and gorgeous setting spread so much that it had drawn Derek Walcott, George Lamming, Wole Soyinka, Patrick French, Russell Banks, Edwidge Danticat, Junot Diaz, Caryl Phillips, Maryse Condé and Michael Ondaatje – despite the absence of fees. Indeed, the only literary luminary who had been able to resist the bohemian charms of Jake’s Resort next door, where the writers stayed, was VS Naipaul.

The very informality of Calabash – free admission, white plastic chairs under a tent by the sea, thatched-roof stage, open-mic sessions, sound clashes, and open-air cooking –  enchanted all who came to be part of “the little festival that could”.

By its tenth anniversary, Calabash’s organisers – poet Kwame Dawes, novelist Colin Channer,  and dynamo Justine Henzell (daughter of Perry) – had hit their stride. The Calabash International Literary Trust, through its workshop and seminar series, and collaboration with independent publisher Akashic Books, had drawn high-grade homegrown talent like Marlon James (John Crow’s Devil and The Book of Night Women) and Ishion Hutchinson to the world’s attention.

The festival had brought Jamaican classics like Brother Man (by Roger Mais) back into print; celebrated the lyrics of Peter Tosh and Bob Marley; and hundreds of wannabe poets and writers had had their (precisely) two minutes of fame during the often hilarious, sometimes touching open-mic sessions. ??Though Calabash may have appeared laid-back, it was very serious about the power of the word in all its forms – written, spoken, sung, even argued (there was a highly memorable debate between Perry Henzell and Amiri Baraka about race in 2005). The readings by acclaimed writers were complemented by screenings of Jamaican classics (Smile Orange, The Harder They Come), live music by reggae icons like Freddie McGregor and Wayne Armond, and soul sister Etana, and sound clashes between dub poet Mutabaruka and Channer.

An anthology of 100 poems by 100 poets who have graced the stage at The Bash over the years, So Much Things to Say, is proof enough that it has fulfilled its mission to transform the literary arts in the Caribbean.

Although the festival has ceased to exist in its present incarnation, the Calabash trust will continue to nurture writers and poets through workshops.

And the organisers promise to wheel and come again next year – when Jamaica will mark 50 years of independence – with a celebration of Jamaican writers as only Calabash know how fi do it.