Carolyn Cooper | Calabash festival lights up Jamaica
'Lit up’. That was the tag for this year’s Calabash Literary Festival, held last weekend in Treasure Beach, St Elizabeth. It’s a clever play on words. There’s the noun ‘lit’, the shortened form of literature. That’s up. Top a top! The verb ‘lit’ signifies the lighting of the fire of creativity that burns so brilliantly at the festival. It also suggests lightening up; taking a break from the everyday stresses of life in Jamaica.
The adjectives ‘lit’ and ‘up’ mean ‘highly rated’ in Jamaican street talk. Then there’s the sobering slang meaning of ‘lit up’, as in drunk. Though there was lots of food and drink at the festival, I didn’t see any fall-down drunk patrons. But the steady flow of literary spirits over the 14 stagings of the festival since 2001 has certainly been intoxicating.
Wole Soyinka, Jamaica Kincaid, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Linton Kwesi Johnson, Derek Walcott, Salman Rushdie, Mervyn Morris, Edwidge Danticat, Chimamanda Adichie, Zadie Smith, Colum McCann, Junot Diaz, Eleanor Catton, Tishani Doshi, Michael Ondaatje, Caryl Phillips, Marlon James, Kei Miller, Elizabeth Alexander, Russell Banks, Chigozie Obioma, Chris Abani, Geoff Dyer. These are just some of the big names who have appeared at the Calabash International Literary Festival.
When I read the line-up of writers for this year’s festival, I was surprised to see how few names I immediately recognised. I knew Lorna Goodison, Ishion Hutchinson, Malika Booker, Peter Kimani, Safiya Sinclair, Akala and Kevin Young. I’d met Peter and Safiya at the Bocas Lit Fest in Trinidad. Safiya, who is from Jamaica, was the 2017 winner of the OCM Bocas prize for poetry for her collection Cannibal. Peter, who read at this year’s Bocas Lit Fest, is from Kenya. His novel Dance of the Jakaranda was a New York Times Notable Book of 2017.
I certainly knew the stellar work of our distinguished poet laureate Lorna Goodison. And Ishion Hutchinson, a graduate of the University of the
West Indies, Mona, studied in the Department of Literatures in English where I taught for several years. Though I can’t claim Ishion as a former student, I knew from quite early that he was a talented writer who would go far. From his roots in Port Antonio, Ishion has flourished. He is a professor of English at Cornell University and is currently a fellow in literature at the American Academy in Rome.
Malika Booker is a riveting poet from Guyana who lives in the UK. She’s a Cultural Fellow at Leeds University. Kevin Young, the author of 12 books of poetry and prose, is the director of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem, New York. He’s the poetry editor of the New Yorker magazine. Akala is a wicked hip hop artiste and journalist who lives in the UK. Born to a Scottish mother and Jamaican father, Akala writes about the complexities of identity in a supposedly ‘post-racial’ Britain. His memoir, Natives, was launched at Calabash and quickly sold out.
I was quite prepared to be fully engaged by the unfamiliar writers on the programme. And, of course, many of them were probably known by other members of the audience. I thoroughly enjoyed most of the readers. But there were some surprising inclusions. Of course, it would not be polite of me to name them here.
Unfortunately, I didn’t catch all of the exciting readings. I missed Akala’s performance on Saturday night, which was a highlight of the festival by all accounts. I’d rushed into Kingston for my brother Kingsley’s birthday party. Last Sunday, I wrote about his milestone moment.
Then on Sunday morning, I missed the tribute reading of Kamau Brathwaite’s Arrivants. I got back to Treasure Beach at 4:30 a.m. and went straight to bed. I had to be fresh to host the open mic. I heard the tail end of the reasoning between Kwame Dawes and Kevin Young. I was told that it was an intriguing conversation.
One of the popular elements of the festival is the open mic. It democratically gives many writers the opportunity to share their work with a receptive audience. As soon as I got to Treasure Beach, Jason Henzell, chairman of Jakes Hotel, the premier sponsor of the festival, told me that two taxi men wanted to read on the open mic.
While I was on my morning walk the next day, a car pulled up and the driver asked if I was Carolyn Cooper and enthusiastically announced that I was the person he needed to see. He was Glenroy Hudson, one of the taxi men. The next morning he stopped me again and reminded that he wanted to read. His performance was a hit.
Stephen Eichenbaum, writing for SimplyGood Miami about Calabash 2016, beautifully expressed the essence of the open-mic sessions at every staging of the festival: “The crowd, although certainly impressed by the international array of world-class authors, were equally vocal about their support of the open-mic speakers. There was no bigger moment in which it was clear that Calabash was indeed a community than during these sessions.”