Thu | Jan 18, 2018

Gleaner Honour Award | Calabash listens to its audience

Published:Sunday | January 29, 2017 | 12:00 AMMel Cooke
Audience members at Calabash 2016.
Sir Salman Rushdie on stage at Calabash 2014.
Lorna Goodison reading at Calabash 2008.
Nigerian Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka (right) being interviewed by Paul Holdengraber at Calabash 2010.
Renowned author and sociologist Professor Orlando Patterson speaking with a lady before signing one of his books at Calabash 2012.
Kwame Dawes at Calabash 2016 in Treasure Beach, St Elizabeth.

The Calabash International Literary Festival is being honoured by The Gleaner in the Arts and Culture category "for its continued support of a strong Jamaican literary culture exposing Jamaicans to top local and international practitioners". The biennial event (which was held annually up to 2010) will be next staged in Treasure Beach, St Elizabeth, in 2018, when lovers of the word will once again gather under (and beside) the big tent set against the sea as the stage's backdrop to see authors.

One good writer leads to another, Calabash co-founder Kwame Dawes telling The Gleaner: "we have an involved and complex approach to programming. At its core are the recommendations of past guests. We seek their input and connections to help us secure the best writers. Writers trust each other. And if one writer says, 'they treat you right at Calabash', others trust that."

"We also welcome interest from agents, publishers, and interested folks who send along recommendations and proposals. The rest is an art guided by a commitment to the core principles of the festival."

And as Calabash is "earthy, inspirational, daring, and diverse", it is not surprising that Dawes makes a connection between the festival and Jamaican popular music, which Calabash embraces especially through its Sunday afternoon sessions with an acoustic ensemble. As he puts it, "our festival finds its core aesthetic in reggae."


symphony of vibes


"We mix it like a dub-organiser so that the three days emerge like a symphony of vibes and experiences ... At the end of the day, this is a book festival. The book is key. Writers have to be current, with books alive and in print, and with a sense of contemporary relevance. And we celebrate the book as best we can," Dawes said.

Last year's Calabash was dubbed fruu-ish-aan and among the authors were Geoff Dyer, Vladimir Lucien, Kei Miller, Chris Abani, Marlon James, Diana McCaulay, and Nicole Dennis-Benn. Anthony Winkler, Derek Walcott, Edwidge Danticat, Sonia Sanchez, Mervyn Morris, Edward Baugh, Mutabaruka, Wole Soyinka, and Amiri Baraka have performed previously. While they speak to the audience, those who attend the free-admission festival speak to its organisers.

Dawes said: "one thing that we can rely on from Jamaicans is candour and clarity about what they like and don't like. There is no shortage of suggestions, criticism, comments, and praise ... But what is most gratifying is that our audience trusts us. We feel extremely well supported and trusted, and it is a joy to bring the audience the best. The best analogy I can think of is that aunt who cooks the most amazing meal every time. We trust that any visit will mean some irie food. Our festival is like a magic calabash full of surprises and nourishment. You are not sure what you will get, but you are always sure it will be delicious."


Enthusiastic consumption


The greatest compliment to a chef is enthusiastic consumption of his fare. The Calabash organisers enjoy watching the audience dine on the authors' content. Dawes said: "to be honest, the star of the festival for me is always the audience. Its generosity, openness, intelligence and humour. These things are what make it all worthwhile. So that watching the audience embrace Robert Pinsky and Jamaica Kincaid, Orlando Patterson and Derek Walcott, Valzhyna Mort and Ilya Kaminsky, Ngugi wa Thiong'o and Chimamanada Adichie with a truth that is unique to those people and yet true to who we are as Jamaicans is what thrills me every time."

Honing Jamaicans' skills is part of Calabash's mandate and Dawes said: "the Calabash Writers Workshop, our film initiatives, our song writing initiative, our writing seminars, our film series, and our constant engagement with the literary careers of so many of our writers all speak for themselves. ... Above all, we have offered a sense of scale, of what can be brilliant and excellent and world-class in Jamaica by planning a festival that is professional, sensitive, and as a result, fully Jamaican in the best ways Jamaican can be.

"That is such a rich lesson for writers. You can run tings with talent and work," he said.