The Festival

Soyinka is an incarnation of Shango - the Yoruba God of Lightning

Soyinka is an incarnation of Shango - the Yoruba God of Lightning

For the last decade or so, whenever I have been able, I have made my way to The Calabash International Literary Festival in Jamaica. It takes place in Treasure Beach, a fishing village in the rural parish of St. Elizabeth. Writers and journalists stay together at Jake's, a rustic resort on a bluff overlooking the ocean. They lodge in small cottages made of wood or stone, which have shuttered windows that throw open to the sea. The walls are studded with pieces of coloured bottles, tiny skylights that give the effect of stained glass.

To reach the outdoor stage, which is a quarter of a mile down the beach, you travel a path lined with what look to be giant, pastel sandcastles: These are the larger cottages where the headline authors stay. All about are flowers in dizzying hues of tangerine and lapis lazuli. There are towering, tentacled aloes that look like creatures escaped from the sea. On the way to your room you pass through clouds of yellow butterflies. When I arrive I usually have to have a lie down because my senses feel so assaulted. But I soon jump back up: Time is short and there is literary adventure awaiting me.

Calabash is held annually during the last weekend in May. Founded in 2001 by novelist Colin Channer, poet Kwame Dawes and filmmaker Justine Henzell, in 2010 the festival was suspended indefinitely, partly because of persistent funding challenges but mostly because of the organizers' flourishing careers. But it returned this year for the 50th Anniversary of Jamaican Independence, as determined as ever to elevate the profile of literature in Jamaica. As Channer explained to me in 2005: “Literature was never taught as something to be enjoyed,” he recalls. “The shelves of bookstores were lined with textbooks. We wanted to change the profile of literature on the island from one that is largely academic to one that is more popular.”

Their success can hardly be overstated. At Novelty Books, the island's popular book outlet and primary distributor, Caribbean literature now represents about 60 percent of their sales, up more than 50 percent from a decade ago.

The festival hosts audiences of up to 4,000 people - a wide cross section of Jamaican society that remains stratified according to shade and class. Jamaican culture is first and foremost an oral culture. The great compliment to the festival is not how many academics hike over from the University of the West Indies or how many members of the Jamaica Poetry Society appear; but how many “just plain folks” - higglers and housekeepers; fieldworkers and fishermen - eagerly make the trek. These are people who know story. This year, Chimamanda Adichie read from her upcoming memoir, and the audience clapped enthusiastically.  But when poet Anis Mojgani enticed listeners to “come closer, come closer” they held their collective breath. When he read the poem he wrote for his wife, the women were moved to tears. “I wish him would-a write me a poem,” they whispered to one another. Ditto, absolutely: I wish him would-a write me a poem.

I remember a night some years back, when the wind howled and the rain slammed down and the audience under the tent sat rapt as Michael Ondaatje and Maryse Conde swaddled them in story. Another remarkable evening presented the deceptively mild- mannered Colson Whitehead - reading, riffing, rapping - from his novel Sag Harbor. The crowd went wild.  This year Colin Channer was absent. Kwame Dawes and Justine Henzell divided the honours and duties between them. Both Dawes and Henzell belong to culturally prominent Jamaican families. Dawes is the son of novelist Neville Dawes, the first black to head up the Institute of Jamaica. In the 1970s, Neville brought musicians and dancers from Africa and Cuba to perform on the island. He established the Institute's publishing arm. His son carries on that tradition. 
Henzell is the daughter of filmmaker Perry Henzell, who directed the classic film, The Harder They Come. She too follows in her father's footsteps. “I am absolutely my father's daughter,” Henzell says. “And I guess the legacy he has left me is to be authentic; to tell the world who we are as Jamaicans.”

I am also the daughter of Jamaicans. When I was growing up my family returned regularly. I remember the island smell: The scent of sun on coconut husk; of pimento and spicy soil; of too ripe fruit and salty sea and pungent human life. For a while we shared a villa with relatives in Ocho Rios. Every morning, a herd of wild horses raced past, splashing straight into the ocean.

But Ocho Rios was never home. Home was my mother's father's house on Sheffield Road in Kingston where chickens scratching in the yard might shockingly become dinner. And home was my father's mother's house in Time and Patience. The village had been named for what masters told ex-slaves: “Don't worry. You'll get your land. It just takes time and patience.”

Calabash, then, is where my love of story dovetails with my life story and I share the organizers' sense of mission. My aim too has been to elevate the role of literature, particularly in the lives of black readers. Paradoxically, I suppose, I have wanted to convince people that the bookish life is fun and fascinating; chock-full of interesting people. I have hoped to lure them to books by sharing my encounters with celebrated authors. Many of those writers have touched down at Calabash. In 2010, I interviewed Wole  Soyinka. We met in a small house at the end of a wooded path that travelled away from the shore. He sat opposite me, his back like a ramrod in the high back chair. His white hair shot straight up.  He was an incarnation of Shango - the Yoruba God of Lightning with whom he identifies. I asked Soyinka about the ongoing relevance of ancient myths: “Tradition is not static,” he said. “It adapts all the time.”

One year I interviewed Mississippi poet Natasha Trethewey.  I had been rereading her Pulitzer prize-winning Native Guard, for I have an obsession with black southern writing. We met before dinner at the outdoor bar and talked about the art of poetry, being black and southern, and the murder of her mother at her stepfather's hand. Trethewey has just been named America's poet laureate.

I have cherished these conversations. They have enriched my life and enhanced my career. And yet, I am not sure I will return to Calabash. For one thing, it is up in the air as to whether or not the festival will continue: Kwame Dawes especially is increasingly in demand as a performer and a scholar. For another, it feels as though a phase of my life is coming to an end. I have been passionately engaged in telling other people's stories for decades.  Yet I realize I have been avoiding telling my own.

Calabash concludes with some brief speeches and an elegant dinner. One memorable year I was seated around a table with four or five black women. The others were African Americans; glamorous in the African American way. I was sitting beside author Bernice McFadden, and across from an editor, Malaika Adero. We  were drinking and laughing - thoroughly enjoying ourselves,  though I mostly sat quiet, listening and smiling, and feeling quite content. “Look at Donna's face,” said Bernice. “Yes,” said Malaika, “I wonder what she's thinking.” They began to tease me a little, but I wouldn't say. I did not want them to know I was pinning the moment in my mind; that I was missing them already.

This piece appeared previously in Write: The Magazine of the Writers Union of Canada