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Calabash 2016 Brings a Literary Feast to Fruuishaan
Most of the year it’s a tranquil little town. While the waves are often restless taking more and more of the shoreline away with it each day, everything else in Treasure Beach, St. Elizabeth, is an essay in tranquility. However, last weekend this sleepy little town became the epicentre of the literary world, as many of the world’s best writers and thousands of readers consumed copious amounts of steamed, roasted or jerked fish, boiled corn, watermelon ... and yes, the word. And it was good.
The Calabash 2016 unveiled under the slogan fruu-ish-aan (fruition) resulting in food-ish themes across the schedule which served up a literary feast. Time and again, writers declared that the festival had outgrown its original aim of being the biggest little festival in the biggest little town in the biggest little country, and was now simply the world’s best literary festival.
The threat of rain hovered in the air, but only a few light showers came to be. Yet even the sea seemed excited, flinging itself against the shore on Friday night, as though it too wanted to be a part of the event.
“My only weapon today is my fragile, fragile poetry,” declared Nikola Madzirov. But time and again the readers proved that words may be fragile but they hit deep and hard as they spoke of social politics and personal wounds or evoked laughter and often did both.
Calabash 2016 opened with a serving of three Jamaican writers, spread across three generations. Debut author Nicole Dennis-Benn started off the night with her upcoming novel Here Comes the Sun, a novel of sparkling prose that looks on the darker side of life in paradise, making Treasure Beach the perfect backdrop for that kind of exploration. Diana Macaulay’s excerpt from Gone to Drift is also a dark glance at life in Jamaica, while Pam Mordecai brought a lighter side with her novel Red Jacket.
The three Jamaicans were followed by Kaylie Jones and Chigozie Obioma who offered up a visceral and haunting foray into poverty, madness and prophecy from his startling debut novel The Fishermen.
It was a particularly strong outing for poets. Friday night’s quartet of Ilya Kaminsky, Ada Limon, Vladimir Lucien and Jessica Care Moore set a high bar. Limon was striking without being strident as she delivered a smooth reading of hard-hitting poems peppered by images of racehorses and pit bulls as metaphors of female strength. Lucien had the audience laughing along to ‘Declaration’ then quieting down to contemplation with the haunting ‘For Jorel’. Care Moore ended the segment with poems that crackled with kinetic energy.
If Friday night’s poets had indeed thrown down the literary gauntlet, the quartet who started off Saturday morning stepped up to the challenge. The diverse offering started off with the lyricism of Tishani Doshi, declared “Don’t kill me reader/ This neck has been working for years/ To harden itself against the axe”.
But there was no need to cry for mercy from the receptive audience who revelled in the morning’s poetry, especially the socio-political debate housed in Kei Miller’s words which had them erupting in appreciation. Miller offered up his rereading of mapping as a colonial exploitation of land and culture.
The festival also continued to offer up its ‘Reasonings’ with literary minds. This time around it was Robert McCrum in conversation with Kwame Dawes (one of the founders of the festival and its programming director) and Chris Abani in conversation with Paul Holdengraber. While McCrum’s interview was a little disappointing, Abani’s was absolutely riveting and easily one of the most memorable pieces of Calabash 2016.
In the segment dubbed “When good fe eat is good fe talk” the audience was presented with situations that were hard to swallow. Baz Dreisinger took the audience through an enlightening look at prisons which suggests that the majority of the world’s prison system perpetuates violence. While this is certainly no new stance, it is brought through with encounters with prisoners which make it more enlightening, even more so when we see the alternative.
One of the hallmarks of the Calabash audience is that they are vocal in their appreciation. Yet the audience was hushed as Decca Aitkenhead read from All At Sea chronicling a drowning that took place only a few hundred feet away, in Calabash Bay two years ago. The reading was made even more haunting with the sea as the backdrop.
Later in the night the audience would be treated to excerpts of two Man Booker award winning books, Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries and Marlon James' A Brief History of Seven Killings. In James’ last reading at Calabash, there had been some protest at his use of curse words. Now, he was back before his home audience and ready to pick at that scab. James’ vibrant and ‘claat-filled’ reading clanged against Catton’s quiet yet engaging offering. Yet whether or not he had offended anyone, the long line of readers waiting to get their book signed declared he had returned home a conqueror.
Yet Saturday night belonged to Geoff Dyer. His reading from White Sands kept the audience glued to their seats even as they laughed along. And when he ended on a cliffhanger the audience begging for more.
And indeed so did the festival.
The Calabash Literary Festival took place at Jakes in Treasure Beach, Friday, June 3 through to Sunday, June 5.