For Literary Stars, Life's A Beachside Festival In Jamaica

calabash lit fest

Calabash Festival Moments (L to R): ) Salman Rushdie reads; interacts with audience members; a packed house; music is a key element of the festival. Images by Annie Paul and Georgia Popplewell. Used with permission.

In years to come, the problem of how to top this year’s stellar line-up is likely to be a key problem for the artistic director of the Calabash Literary Festival, whose 2014 edition came to a close on June 1.

Jamaica’s international literary festival has attracted some big names since 2001, when it made its debut at Treasure Beach, on the island’s non-touristy south coast; but this year the event was especially star-studded, featuring the likes of Salman RushdieJamaica KincaidNgugi wa Thiong’oColum McCann and Zadie SmithAdam Mansbach, author of Go the Fuck to Sleep—now available in Jamaican Patois under the title Go the Raas to Sleep—and Paul Holdengräber, of Live from the New York Public Library fame, rounded out the celebrity line-up.

Holdengräber was there to interview the festival’s premier invitee—Rushdie—though the American curator’s flowery trousers and t-shirt may have been a trifle too casual for a Jamaican audience uptight about foreigners behaving as though the country is one big beach, even in the context of Calabash’s laid-back atmosphere (the festival’s main stage is a rustic open-air gazebo overlooking the beach). Holdengräber further alienated the audience by asking self-aggrandising questions that Rushdie barely had a chance to answer before besieging him with the next, but the celebrity interviewer soon recovered favour by drawing Rushdie out on the music in his books—with songs by Elvis Presley, U2 and Velvet Underground’s “Pale Blue Eyes” carefully lined up and waiting to be played.

Lou Reed was a friend of yours, wasn’t he?” Holdengraber asked. Rushdie replied: “In a way it seems ludicrous to say Lou Reed was my friend; it’s like saying I had God’s email address.”

The once-elusive Rushdie, who spent many years undercover to escape the wrath of Muslim extremists offended by his novel The Satanic Verses, spoke on a range of subjects: the fictionality of fiction (“once you’re given that gift—of the fictionality of fiction–it liberates you”); occupying Kafka’s universe; his envy of writers deeply rooted in one place (e.g. William Faulkner and Eudora Welty); his influences, which include James Joyce’s Dubliners and Ulysses and storehouses of Indian stories like the Panchatantra and the Mahabharata that he called “wonder tales of the East”.

The author told a spellbound audience of the problems of being labelled a magical realist—with the stress on the “magic” part—when for him art is about telling the truth. He established a great rapport with his audience, often glancing searchingly around to gauge reactions. Calabashers experienced a friendly and relaxed  Salman Rushdie, standing on no ceremony whatsoever and amiably agreeing to have his picture taken with everyone who approached him.

The only thing to top a lion eating out of your hands is a tiger saying “meow”. The formidable Jamaica Kincaid, whom one might have expected to be quite ferocious, given the often uncompromising tone of her work, was disarmingly genteel and elegant. Her words packed a wicked wallop every now and then, just to remind you why she’s considered the “bad gyal” of Caribbean letters, but by and large she was in a warm and expansive mood. Calabash's artistic director, Kwame Dawes, in the role of interviewer, didn’t make the mistake of trying to compete with Kincaid, instead yielding up the limelight while expertly steering the writer in productive directions.

Among other things, Kincaid told a fascinated audience how much she loved money, gardening and the practice of writing. Children might occasionally be forgotten at school while Kincaid focused on finding the right words. Answering a question regarding the title of her latest novel, See Now Then, Kincaid described her writing as a delicate balancing act:

“I came to understand that the “now” had to be the weight, the balancing weight in the story. I tend to write that way. I tend to weigh how—it takes me a long time to complete a sentence because I have to see how the words. . . balance the sentence.”

Celebrities Rushdie and Kincaid were the standouts at this edition of Calabash, but for Indian writer Rahul Bhattacharya, author of The Sly Company of People Who Care, the music that’s an integral part of this quirky literary festival on Jamaica’s south coast is a great part of its charm. Calabash evenings culminate with beachside concerts and jam sessions by some of Jamaica’s top musicians.

 “I don’t think any other festival I’ve been to has this kind of morning-to-night programming or this kind of venue right by the sea,” said Bhattacharya. “Calabash is more like a concert than a literary festival, which is also slightly intimidating for an author. There’s a tent, there’s a podium, there’s this pretty big sea of people. And at night—which is when I went on—the lights were shining in my eyes, and I felt like a performer—a little anxiety-making. So it has that concert feel and the way that people respond is as if at a concert or rally. They’re very responsive, they’re there from morning till night. It’s a pretty full tent and it’s probably the most vocally supportive audience I’ve ever seen.”

For Jamaica Kincaid, too, the large, enthusiastic, and primarily local audience was a surprise. “I’ve never seen so many black faces at a literary festival,” she exclaimed.

One very noticeable feature of the audience was its age and gender—it’s dominated by women in their 50s, 60s and 70s. The demographics of Calabash’s audience hints at future problems: with a dwindling and fast-aging population of book readers and the decline of the physical book itself as a commodity, are literary festivals now an endangered species? 

Annie Paul is a writer and critic based at the University of the West Indies, Jamaica, who has been published in numerous international journals and magazines. She blogs at Active Voice.


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