Ode to Calabash

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Ode to Calabash


Jamaica's beachside celebration of Caribbean writing is worth preserving. Above, Maryse Condé reads at the festival. © caribbeanfreephoto

My lover-lover, Calabash, she has come back from the dead and my heart glad. I didn’t see her last year after ten, faithful years since 2000 and truth is I thought she gone forever.

Producer Justine Henzell, poet Kwame Dawes and novelist Colin Channer, keep her free but that freeness is expensive. They say that hard cash not easy to find in these hard times for Jamaica, land of wood and water. No mind that for ten years she was royal, reigning as the premier literary festival in the Caribbean and a vital part of the calendar of international literary festivals that include big-ass rivals like the Guardian Hay, Prague Writers’, and the Jaipur Literature Festivals.

But back she come for Jamaica’s 50th independence anniversary—her intellect, grace and humour crashing on the shores of the bay outside the south coast Jake’s Hotel. It’s like she never left sleepy Jake’s. For three heady days and nights I share her with crowds that swell to over a thousand as locals and those from foreign gather to lick up her words and inhale her music.

We Calabashers are every age, every background, every race, our commonality a longing to sink into Calabash’s sea of writings that say the unsayable. This is not Negrill with words a distant background hum. We are serious. Yet it not a quiet, hushed awe of the white-hot voices that take the stage by the sea. Instead we feed off each other, poets and lovers, our collective energy keen, thoughtful and unafraid.

With efficiency and tight organisation Calabash weaves through those that have already made their name—Chimamanda Adichie, Olive Senior, Carolyn Forche and Fred D’Agular, all a privilege to hear. We loved up on rising poets Loretta Collins-Koblah and Shara McCallum whose poems testified to the power of memory and loss. I am high on McCallum’s Psalm for Kingston that begins,

City of Jack Mandora—mi nuh choose none—of Anancy prevailing over Mongoose, Breda Rat, Puss, and Dog, Anancy saved by his wits in the midst of chaos and against all odds.

Calabash also brought us Orlando Patterson, novelist and sociologist in exile as a Harvard professor. He told stories of the poorest “sufferers” first expressed in The Children of Sisyphus with its bleak portrayal of Kingston slums. We laughed when Patterson recalled taking tea with a successful George Lamming in one little, cold bedsit in deepest north London and deciding in that moment he could do this writing thing.

Others are less afraid like the sisters Melissa and Sadie Jones, part of London’s Jamaican diaspora. Melissa read from The Hidden Heart of Emily Hudson, historical fiction based on an imagined life of Henry James’s cousin Minny Temple. Sadie Jones, winner of the Costa First Novel Award, read from her latest book, The Uninvited Guests, inspired in part by bedtime stories her father would tell that always ended with the warning, “the Duppys are coming, the Duppys are coming tonight.” You don’t have to be Jamaican to be properly afraid if something named Duppy going to get you.

Calabash always surprises. From the democratic Open Mic, where for two minutes anyone can own the stage, an older, white gentleman took his turn and quietly stunned us with the opening line, “By his good grace I have outlived my penis” and it just kept getting harder.

We relished Kerry Young’s reading of Pao. Set in the 1940s to 1960s Jamaica, it tells of Pao, a Chinese migrant, blundering through race, class and changing political tides while falling hard for black prostitute Gloria. It is a place where “marriage is not for celebrating; it is to give your children a name.”

As darkness fell on the arid landscape the breeze swirled between hips swaying to bands like Raging Fyah and No Maddz late Friday night. The Admiral from South Africa created vibes deep into Saturday until just before Sunday hit up the sky.

Calabash turned the sadness of goodbye into a goodbye to sadness as we raised our hands in the air and sang the songs of our parents and grandparents. Helped by star cameos the Calabash Ensemble belted out hits including Third World’s “96 Degrees in the Shade,” Sammy Dead by Delroy Wilson to Marley’s “No Woman, No Cry.”

When did Calabash bolt away? Was it while I devoured the tiny onsite bookstore for the new collection, Kingston Noir? Or did she make tracks while I munched jerk chicken, washed downed with cold, coconut water to keep me going during the three hour drive back to Kingston? I keep the faith that Calabash will return next year. Jean Rhys in Wild Sargasso Sea wrote that “only the magic and the dream are true—all the rest’s a lie.” Calabash is that magic and that dream, no lie.


  1. June 6, 2012

    Patrick Cozier

    Art, culture, and the preservation of our civilisation assets, are vital not only in remind us of who we are but also to the journey of rediscovery that needs to be undertaken, in a post colonial world, to ensure that we have neither lost our selves nor are beset with a schizophrenia that prevents us from truly recognizing ourselves. Calabash speaks to us in that special way.

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Ingrid Persaud

Ingrid Persaud is an artist and writer. 

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