How to be cool at the Calabash

Nicholas Laughlin, a seasoned Calabash participant, gives the low-down on really enjoying this Jamaican literary festival

Colin Channer, left, co-creator of the festival, chats with DY Bechard, winner of the Commonwealth Writers` Prize 2007. Photograph by Georgia PopplewellMichael Ondaatje, best known for his Booker Prize-winning novel, The English Patient, reads to the audience. Photograph by Georgia Popplewell

Here’s how to do the Calabash International Literary Festival, the self-proclaimed “best little festival in the best little village in the best little part of the best little island” —ahem, Jamaica—“in the world.”

First, decide on the trip a year early, and book your hotel room. There’s just a handful of places to stay in Treasure Beach, and Calabash regulars don’t leave one festival without reserving a place for the next, 12 months hence. No, you have no chance at all of staying at the Vogue-worthy rustic-chic Jake’s resort—unless you’re a prizewinning headline-act writer. But the Calabash website lists the other accommodation options within a 15-mile radius, so book yourself into one within walking distance.

Alternatively, you can do as I did last year: have the kind of friends likely to rent an entire seafront villa, which turns out at the last minute to contain an entire extra bedroom. Install yourself in said bedroom, and enjoy the fact that through sheer good luck you’ve ended up in the sirloin of Treasure Beach. The villa wraps itself around a pool, the sea laps gently on the shingle below, the garden is lush with blossoms, the shy villa housekeeper turns out lavish meals, and there is—praise Jah!—free wi-fi. Also Jake’s—Calabash HQ—is five minutes’ walk away.

Arrive at your villa on Thursday night. Calabash opens the following evening, so this gives you a day to work on your tan and do some espionage on the location of your favourite visiting writer’s room. If you’re lucky, you might bump into one of the Calabash triumvirs: the novelist Colin Channer, the poet Kwame Dawes, or the make-it-happen czar Justine Henzell. Opening night is pretty low-key. Eat, drink, take in a performance, keep an eye out for acquaintances to whom you might casually describe the comforts of your villa.

The crowds really start arriving on Saturday—hundreds pouring in from Kingston, their cars and minibuses parked in every cranny along the road, queuing for ital meals at the cookstands or drinks at Jack Sprat, lingering in the temporary bookshop, and filling every chair under the big white tent that is the main Calabash venue. At the far end is a small stage with a podium. The backdrop is the long curve of Calabash Bay. The village mongrels often have the best seats in the house, downstage. In Treasure Beach, even the strays enjoy a good poetry reading.

So do you. That’s why you’re here. But no one has the stamina to take in everything in a programme that runs from 10 am to the wee hours. So grab the schedule. Decide which events you absolutely can’t miss, which you don’t mind wandering into and out of, and which align neatly with potential naptimes. Don’t scorn the open-mike sessions: they’re often the highlights, with aspiring poets young and old from far and wide variously declaiming and chanting, sometimes provoking giggles and occasionally bringing the house down. (In 2007, no Calabash writer made the crowd roar like the young Trinidadian poet Muhammed Muwakil. Channer himself interrupted the proceedings to pay tribute to his lyrical gifts.)

Saturday night is the Calabashment—a big reggae bram with live music and a bonfire on the beach, where you can dance till dawn, then start the day with a bracing sea-bath.

But if you are in possession of a villa, you might consider throwing your own private party. The kind that starts when someone shows up with a bottle of wine and ends, well, whenever. Perhaps your housekeeper has cooked lobsters for dinner. Perhaps two up-and-coming Jamaican novelists will start a raucous discussion of the supernatural coolie duppy, egged on by an art critic, to the scandal of a young American poet. A couple of literary journalists huddle by the pool, exchanging hot gossip. Someone slips down to the beach for a midnight skinny-dip. A hotshot online media producer captures it all on a hidden mike…

Sunday will start—not too early—with an ackee breakfast, and end with Bob Marley’s onetime lover performing on stage while his widow lurks in the audience. Everyone is sunburned, tired, hungover, and blissed-out. Before you put your bags in the trunk for the long drive back to Kingston, remember to reserve your room for next year.

For more information, and a full schedule of events, see www.calabashfestival.org