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Calabash 2014 - A Delicious Literary Fest!

Zadie Smith and Colum McCann at Calabash 2014

Last weekend, Treasure Beach, St. Elizabeth, sizzled as the words of some of the world’s most renowned writers contested the sun’s unrelenting heat for supremacy. Under the theme Globalishus, the Calabash International Literary Festival, now a biennial event, provided a feast of words, and while all the dishes were not prepared to the same degree of perfection, the great ones were in the majority. Festival organizers never quite explained the words that had married to create Globalishus, but after the festival, it is evident that delicious must have been one of them.

The 2014 staging of the festival opened with a story of migrants as Beverly East read from her latest book Batmitzvah Girl. It seemed a fitting start for a festival which sees the inbound migration of many of the regions writers, even when they are slated for the stage. The opening session, ‘Patchwork Quilt’, featured readings by Beverly East, A-dZiko Simba Gegele and Roland Watson-Grant providing a delightful opening to the festival. 

(l-r) Beverley East, A-dZiko Simba Gegele and Roland Watson-GrantBeverly East’s reading from Batmitzvah Girl brought a colourfu painting of her family from her adopted Jewish “aunts” in England who protected her from racist bullies to her rifle wielding grandmother. She was followed by Simba Gegele who enthralled the audience with her energetic reading of her coming of age novel All Over Again. Simba Gegele had the audience erupting into gales of laughter. Watson-Grant brought a combination of humour and pathos with two coming of age stories. The first a short story, 'Off the Island', and the second an excerpt of his debut novel Sketcher

And then it was time for ‘Speaking in Tongues’ from which poetic fires blazed. First up was Major Jackson of the USA followed by Belarus’ Valzhayna Mort who peppered the night with vivid poems born on a string of islands: Jamaica, Tobago and Ẑut and then eventually to Belarus which she described as a metaphorical island. Paul Muldoon brought with him poems of Rock and Roll. The Scottish brogue soon took over Rab Wilson who began with poems of whimsy but soon delved into deeper things including the coal miner riots and the Irish famine. Valzhyna Mort among the flaming poetic tongues of Friday night

Saturday morning opened with four Jamaican poets in ‘Yardie Style’ featuring Ann-Margaret Lim, Millicent Graham, Velma Pollard and Mervyn Morris. It was one of the few occasions that the festival organizers switched the alphabetical order of the performers, allowing Morris to close the set. 

When Morris took the podium much of the audience got to its feet, clearly stating that his post as Poet Laureate was a long time coming. He opened with ‘Give Thanks’ an appropriate answer to the applause which greeted him. Morris' reading included ‘Answering a Question for Usain Bolt’, ‘Stripper’, ‘and ‘Peelin Orange’. 

Calabash 2014 also had great moments of fiction and these dominated Saturday’s roster. The aptly titled segment ‘Two The Hard Way’ featured the sparkling prose of Colum McCann and Zadie Smith who provided a wonderfully engaging session, one of the festival’s highlights. Mervyn Morris, Ann Margaret Lim and Millicent Graham three of the voices of Yardie Style

“I spend a lot of time writing about other people because sometimes I wake up and don’t want to be myself” McCann said as he delivered snippets of his writing that conjured up moments of humour and great emotion. He explained that empathy, the ability to fit in another’s shoes was an important part of the human condition, before confessing that one of the few pieces of his writing that was remotely autobiographical involves a stripper from Brooklyn. 

Unlike McCann, Zadie Smith steered away from banter during her time at the podium. She read from the enigmatic short story 'The Embassy of Cambodia'. Her elegant prose, at times humourous, at others poignant held the audience riveted.

Ngugi wa Thiong'o shares the stage with Mukoma wa Ngugi (l) and Wanjiku wa Ngugi (right)Later in the evening, 'Family Affair' brought the potent writing of Ngugi wa Thiong'o and two of his children, Mukoma wa Ngugi and Wanjiku wa Ngugi. wa Thiong'o read from the autobiographical work In the House of the Interpretor. The renowned Kenyan writer explained that he was particularly moved to be sharing a stage with his children, and that it was taking place in Jamaica. 

"That very fact that I'm sharing this platform with my children is really special to me," Ngugi wa Thiongo said. He remarked that the personal value was then heightened by a national one because of the impact of Marcus Garvey.

The diversity of offerings, was one of the strong points of the festival. So a touch of speculative fiction boldly stepped on to the Calabash podium in the segment ‘Out There’ which featured readings by Chris Farley, Karen Lord and Stephanie Saulter, while Go the R__s to Sleep the Jamaican translation of the hit bedtime story for parents (Go the F__k to Sleep) was read by Alywn Scott and had jaws dropping and gales of laughter erupting from the audience. Written by Adam Mansbach and illustrated by Ricardo Cortes, the Jamaican version was translated by Kwame Dawes and Kellie Magnus.(l-r) Adam Mansbach, Ricardo Cortes and Kellie Magnus

Alas, not all the segments were victorious.

The festival’s weakest segments came in the late night sessions. Friday night’s readings ended with three street writers K’Wan, Prodigy and Miasha. Of the three, K’Wan, reading from The Black Lotus was reasonably interesting. Alas Miasha’s Swinger and Prodigy (HNIC) were the rare incursion of bad writing on the festival. 

The Globality segment which closed out Saturday night was more a case of bad timing, especially the decision to close with Andrea Stuart’s reading of Sugar in the Blood, an interesting book, but certainly inappropriate for near midnight on a Saturday.

As bookends of two nights of the festival, these two segments threatened to dull its overall impact. But fortunately, the amazing wit of Jamaica Kincaid was yet to be unleashed. Kwame Dawes’ interview with Kincaid was remarkable, providing the perfect cap for a great festival.

Of course, along with the word, there is also the music. Friday night opened with music from Haiti and Jamaica. BeLo, who performed in Kreol, delivered an interesting set. He was followed by Jah9, who while consistent was a little too laid back for the hour. The few who remained for Nature, then received the surprise of the night. 

Stepping on to the stage with a sprig of leaves, assumably to ensure the audience was reminded of his name, Nature had a lukewarm start. However, armed with a chameleon voice, he quickly won over the audience with his cover of Tracey Chapman’s 'Talkin Bout a Revolution' and earned much applause as he moved across the stage in what appeared to be a cross between dancing and an epileptic fit.Jah9

Music brought the curtains down on the 2014 Calabash International Literary Festival, and again the audience came in for a surprise when Judy Mowatt, who was not slated to appear, although it was a tribute to her music, joined Wayne Armond, Ibo Cooper and Steve Golding on the stage. Many of those who had not yet got to their feet did so then, dancing another great festival to an end.

The Calabash Literary Festival was staged at Jakes, Treasure Beach, St. Elizabeth from Friday, May 30 to Sunday, June 1, 2014.