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Big Ooman Tings at Calabash 2018

Female writers had strong representation at the Calabash Literary Festival 2018

“All I had were words which are as flimsy as air,” read Tayari Jones, author of An American Marriage. And as the words slipped into the silence hovering above the hushed audience it was evident that these words were not flimsy at all, but were instead as moving and powerful as the rolling waves which could be heard behind them.

Jones read on the second day of the 2018 Calabash International Literary Festival which was another stellar celebration of words and word smiths, bringing authors from India, Liberia, Sudan, the United Kingdom, the United States and, of course, Jamaica.

Calabash co-founders Kwame Dawes and Justine Henzell showcase Calabash-swag to support the festivalThe 2018 edition of the festival, now its 14th staging and 18th year of existence, made another bold statement. It was done without a grand announcement or without fanfare. And that was its own announcement. Calabash 2018 was a hat tip to contemporary woman writers. Having several female writers stepping up to the iconic bamboo podium at Jakes for the biennial festival, isn’t unusual. And to announce that this year, would have been to declare that it was. It was however, the first time there was significantly more female writers than male.

The Calabash 2018 took place under the theme 'Lit Up', and not surprising as several of the writers took on gender and racial politics, the burning fire seemed to be one for change.

Offerings were generally far stronger for poetry than for prose. With the rare exception of Jones and Akala, who explored race politics in England, the prose rarely sparkled, much less live up the theme, but the poetry generally blazed, whether from established writers or emerging voices such as Warsan Shire, Safiya Sinclair and Ishion Hutchinson.

That fire was particularly bright in the Friday night segment dubbed Big Ooman Tings. The poetry sizzled with humor and politics, making the audience yell their delight, amusement or agreement. Patricia Jabbeh delighted the audience with poems of pain, defiance and humor and while Patricia Smith chronicled the black bodies that have fallen beneath the “accidental” bullets from the police, a hush fells audience.'Lady Laureates' Tracy K Smith, Georgette LeBlanc and Lorna Goodison

The pace had been well set by Malika Booker who made the audience gasp with her ‘Pepper Sauce’ as the poem chronicled how a grandmother visited discipline on her granddaughter and how women begget violence on each other. From there she had the audience gasping from excessive laughter as first she told them ‘don’t let no man beat you and sleep’ then went through a reversioning of the Bible from a Caribbean perspective.

The radical revising old texts would continue with Carol Ann Duffy when she took on Aesop and other patriarchal figures with ‘insight from their wives’. Duffy was the first of four poet laureates - from Jamaica, the UK, the US and Canada in the segment dubbed 'Lady Laureates'. The segment featured Laureate Carol Ann Duffy of the UK, Jamaica’s Lorna Goodison, Canada’s Georgette LeBlanc and Tracy K Smith of the US. With the exception of LeBlanc who spent at least a half of her time on preamble, the presentations were stirring. 

Calabash 2018 audienceDuring her segment, Goodison made pointed tribute to both Sister Mary Ignatius and Margarita Mafood, whom she noted have generally received far less credit for their contribution to the development of Jamaican music than they deserved. Her insertion of poems in tribute to these women was particularly noteworthy as the festival was paying tribute to musician Don Drummond. With her work at the Alpha Boys School Sister Mary Ignatius inspired Drummond’s career, while Mafood was his lover and the woman he was accused of murdering.

There was also space for women to talk about what and why they write, which pointedly came to the fore from Laura Lippman as the journalist and author was in conversation with her husband David Simon as the two spoke about their art, politics and how and what to write in the current political climate.

“I don’t want to just write books where women just show up as the girlfriend,” said Lippman, explaining that for her female characters should not merely be incidental to the story. And so it was that female writers were by no means incidental to the Calabash 2018 story, and they never were.

The biennial literary festival took place at Jakes in Treasure Beach, St. Elizabeth, Jamaica from June 1 - 3, 2018.

Books become the metaphor at Calabash 2018