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There's a stretch of beach in the small Jamaican fishing village of Treasure Beach where booths sell poetry books right alongside jerk chicken, and local villagers mix with international literati. On a weekend in late May, some 2,000 people sit entranced as author and poet Fred D'Aguiar reads them his work from a bamboo lectern.
This is Calabash, a three-day international literary festival that celebrates language with a distinctly Caribbean twist. And while everyone knows Jamaica as a mecca of music, the birthplace of Bob Marley and reggae, this decade-old event is putting the island on the art world's map for something else.
"There's the ocean going; there's wonderful music; and then there are writers reading their work," says festival co-founder and writer Kwame Dawes. "People from all walks of life come to the festival, to a beautiful setting, to a setting in which the word is valued and the book is valued."
Dawes — who was born in Ghana and raised in Jamaica — started the festival a dozen years ago with writer Colin Channer and film producer Justine Henzell. He says the festival has two goals.
"First of all, we intend to make the festival have a Jamaican vibe and spirit — that is ease, comfort, calm, but also innovation," he says. "But secondly to have a spirit that is almost Scandinavian in the sense of meticulous care for detail, proper timing and efficiency, an intense level of professionalism."
That recipe has attracted hundreds of blockbuster writers from around the world. Junot Diaz, Colson Whitehead and Derek Walcott have all forgone their usual fees to read at Calabash, a free event. This year, poet and writer Kevin Young discovered that no other lit fest is quite like it.
"Nothing compares to Calabash," Young says. "Just the setting alone, being outside and reading, there [are] very few places that are like that, and they certainly don't have the sea crashing behind you. But they also don't have that kind of vibe where you see people there all day, eating, there with families — it really has a kind of community vibe and also almost a pilgrimage vibe."
A List Of Ingredients
The first essential Calabash ingredient is location: Treasure Beach is a rural, un-touristy slice of Jamaica where there are no all-inclusive vacation packages or umbrella drinks. The boutique hotel where the event take place, Jake's, is a cluster of whimsical cottages strewn across six rocky acres. It's owned by the family of Calabash co-founder Justine Henzell, whose father, Perry Henzell, directed the 1973 classic Jamaican film The Harder They Come. Justine Henzell says the hotel helps set the tone for the festival.
"You walk in here — the colors, the buildings ... the shells in the wall, the bottles in the wall, the quirky shapes of the buildings and the furniture and the way even the garden is laid out — it just makes you realize that you're in a different head space," she says.
The festival's second essential ingredient is the range of readers it brings in, all hand-picked by Kwame Dawes.
"We want to mix race; we want to mix nationalities; we want to mix gender; we want to mix sexual orientation," Dawes says. "We want to constantly show range and show complexity and show diversity."
Then there's the crowd. Here's how Ethiopian novelist Maaza Mengiste, who read from her novel Beneath the Lion's Gaze, describes it: "The audience here has been a different kind of audience than I've ever read for. They are absolutely engaged. ... They're laughing; they feel with you when you're onstage — you can feel that energy, and it was great."
And last but, in Jamaica, certainly not least, the final critical ingredient is music. Calabash features nightly reggae concerts and DJ sets, and concludes with a world-class acoustic performance. Dawes says any literary event in the birthplace of reggae has to showcase that legacy.
Raising The Bar For Lit Fests
This year's Calabash festival may be over, but it's really a year-round thing. The Calabash International Literary Festival Trust stages writing workshops in Jamaica and also publishes Caribbean literature, mostly via Brooklyn-based Akashic Books. Henzell explains that Calabash's ultimate mission is to cultivate local literary talent.
"There are poets who talk about Calabash and say that what they wrote is either 'B.C.' — before Calabash started — or 'A.C.,' " she says, "because the fact that they were able to hear poets from all over the world reading their work made them understand what incredible poetry is. And it was giving them a chance to say, 'OK, my poem is good, but it's not great yet.' "
And in much the same way, the Jamaican festival has also raised the bar for lit fests in general — attend one Calabash and you may never see those other wine-and-cheese shindigs in the same way again.