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Gone too soon, 10 years of Calabash, just not enough

Published:Sunday | January 23, 2011 | 12:00 AM
Nigerian Nobel Laureate, 'Wole' Soyinka (right) is interviewed in 'The Chatterbox' by author Paul Holdengraber at Calabash 2010. - Photo by Janet Silvera

Mel Cooke, Gleaner Writer

The Calabash International Literary Festival was first held in 2001 in Treasure Beach, St Elizabeth, and, as announced early last week, had its final staging in 2010. The Sunday Gleaner looks back at each year of what turned out to be a popular event, proving that a significant number of Jamaicans are interested in literature. Even if it did not debunk the myth that 'Jamaicans don't read', then Calabash proved that quite a few will go to a small community in southern St Elizabeth, sit under a tent and be read to.

2001: Calabash opens

Under the headline 'A celebration of the word', on May 24 a press release is published in The Gleaner announcing the first staging of Calabash. It reads in part:

"The Calabash International Literary Festival will take place at Jake's Resort in Treasure Beach, St Elizabeth, this weekend. Nearly 30 confirmed writers and performers and lovers of the word will converge on the attractive beach resort to celebrate Jamaican writing and literature in general. Every single event at this festival will be free and open to the public.

At its core, the Calabash International Literary Festival seeks to celebrate the fact that there is a renaissance of contemporary Jamaican writing being published around the world today. Calabash is also celebrating the quality and energy of that work, with the hope that such celebrations will raise the level of appreciation for Jamaican writing in Jamaica and around the world.

Calabash seeks to celebrate this work, to expose this work, because the organisers of Calabash understand that the passing down of traditions is not a symbiotic process that simply happens naturally. The organisers understand that traditions can be lost, that traditions can be sidetracked by crass materialism, a failure to value what is our own, and by simple inertia and sloth. Calabash is seeking to create a space in which these writers can be honoured for their work, but further, we seek a space in which these writers will be able to dialogue with the future artists from Jamaica, many of whom may not even know as yet that they are going to be the future writers.

None of the writers are being paid to perform at Calabash.

Calabash is not about an academic exercise that is focused on the academic study of literature. That has its place, but here, the celebration is of the written and spoken word."

The festival is officially launched at Redbones Blues Café, New Kingston, with Colin Channer, Joan Andrea Hutchinson, Garfield Ellis and Geofrey Philip slated to read.

In Treasure Beach, the Calabash pattern was established from early, the first staging a miniature of the behemoth that it would become. A tent was set up in the courtyard of Jake's and the readings were done in highly organised fashion, Professor Edward Baugh and Amina Blackwood-Meeks among the authors reading at the festival's debut. The first night ends with music, Farenheit doing the bulk of the singing with an acoustic band. Calabash would soon move out of Jake's front yard to the much larger space by the sea, the stage eventually set up so that the sun sets over the reader's right shoulder.

2002: Calabash is held with the theme 'Babble On'

Among the babblers are Junot Diaz, Earl Lovelace, Dingo, Jan Carew, Olive Senior, Trevor Rhone, Velma Pollard, Sonia Sanchez, Oku Onoura and Willie Pardomo. The 'Tongues of Fire' segment proves especially popular, but it is the rain that refuses to stop babbling and by the final day the readings were moved indoors to the Treasure Beach Hotel. The Poetry Society of Jamaica gets a crack at presenting some of the writers who attend monthly meetings. The famed Calabash T-Shirts are sold from the hotel's lobby.

2003: More readings, more rain

Calabash proclaims 'Love You' and celebrates the work of Bob Marley through Ibo Cooper, Mikey Bennett, Wayne Armond and Ernie Smith. Professor Carolyn Cooper and Charles Hyatt celebrate Miss Lou by reading her work. There is a series of events leading up to the festival, including a trio of publishing seminars, as well as workshops on prose fiction and poetry writing. Films by Palm Pictures are screened at the Bob Marley Museum. Channer's Letter to the Editor, published in The Gleaner, shows the festival's impact outside Jamaica:

"On Tuesday, June 3, The New York Times published an article on Jamaica that didn't make us cringe. Instead it made us proud. Long and well reported, with an eye for all the things whose large proportions make Jamaicans unique -- pride, intelligence, creativity, resilience, complexity, beauty, confidence and charisma - the article was illustrated with three pictures, one of which was almost as wide as the page.

It was a feature on the Calabash International Literary Festival - the greatest little festival in the greatest little district in the greatest little country in the world.

The Calabash story made the front page of the Times' Arts section. It was the longest story in the section and continued from the cover to an inside page. This is a major achievement. Some of the most important cultural institutions in the world are based in New York. The city is also host to some of the world's most important cultural events. It is also the epicentre of some of the world's most powerful cultural industries - including publishing.

Why did the editors of the Times choose to position a story on a young festival in a remote corner of a rural parish on a small island known more for music and sports - and let's be honest, violence - above all other arts-related stories that day? The answer to this is clear - editors of the Times have recognised that Calabash is emerging as a global cultural force. Forces move, they cut new paths and they create momentum in their wake. The Times has put the planet on alert."

2004: Less rain, more reading

There is a patter of rain as Calabash starts, but it is libation rather than omen of more rain to come that night. The festival opens with the fruit of its own labour, Owen 'Blacka' Ellis, Ishion Hutchinson, Veronica Salter and Rudolph Wallace coming out of the workshops. Scheduled authors are Phyllis Yvonne Stickney, Chris Obani, Maryse Conde, Percival Everett, Kaylie Jones, Austin Clarke taking over in the afternoon, Opal Palmer Adisa, Jean Binta Breeze, Mark McMorris and Claudia Rankine. The 50th anniversary edition of Roger Mais' Brother Man as well as the Stepping Razor's work in Tosh - Still Firm @ 60 are the special anniversary events.

2005: The year of Jimmy

Jimmy Cliff's work is celebrated, the Akashic Books segment wraps up the festival. Channer reads at this staging.

2006: The advice is 'Mix But Don't Blend In'

Calabash presents its fiction anthology 'Iron Balloons', with reading by actor Delroy Lindo. Lorna Goodison and Kwame Dawes make a dream opening poetry team, Marlon James reads from his debut novel, Suheir Hammad, Christopher John Farley and Diana Evans are among the presenters. Bunny Wailer's Blackheart Man album gets an acoustic nod.

2007: Dawes and Channer pay homage

Kwame Dawes and Colin Channer pay homage to late filmmaker Perry Henzell with 'Treasure Beach, St Elizabeth' and 'Fade to Black' respectively. Cindy Breakspeare sings Bob Marley's Turn Your Lights Down Low and on No Woman No Cry. Steven Golding pays respects to Rita Marley in the audience. "Rita's feet were her only carriage. She used to walk and sell the records. Just want to thank Rita for being with us," Golding said. Kendel Hippolyte and actor Roger Guenever Smith are among the presenters, the latter doing the one-man 'Who Killed Bob Marley?'. The 30th anniversaries of Third World's 96 Degrees in the Shade and Bob Marley's Exodus are celebrated in acoustic style.

2008: Calabash receives Gleaner Honour Award

Calabash receives The Gleaner's Honour Award for Arts and Culture. Perry Henzell's No Place Like Home is screened, Erna Brodber, Beverly East and Rosie Stone are Ladies First, Derek Walcott delivers a poetic broadside at VS Naipaul, Kei Miller takes the house down, there is a commemorative reading of Claude McKay's Banana Bottom and Bob Andy delivers from his Songbook to close the festival. But there are signs of financial strain at the free event. Programmes, distributed free for the first seven years, are sold for the first time as appeals for voluntary contributions fall on deaf ears. They cost $50.00 and in the early going Dawes says, "wave yu programme. If yu don't have one yu cheap an wutless. Buy a programme. An jus give the $100. Mek de change gwaan."

2009: Calabash is off then on again

Calabash is off because of funding, Calabash is on again as the Jamaica Tourist Board steps up to its support. Millicent Graham opens the festival, Tarrus Riley delivers a sterling performance to close the first night, Staceyann Chin, Edward Seaga and Anthony Winkler wake and shake up the festival the following day, Joseph Boyden, Laura Fish, Marlon James, there is a reading from To Sir With Love on its 50th anniversary and it closes with One Step Ahead, the lyrics of Beres Hammond. Mutabaruka and Colin Channer go head to head in a musical clash.

2010: So much left to say

The theme is 'So Much Things to Say' and it turns out that it is the final thing the Festival has to say - at least, in its current format. It opens with 'Writers in Residence', Michael Holgate, Diana McCaulay and Helen Williams reading in the segment, Ishion Hutchinson, Neville Dawes' The Last Enchantment' gets a reading and reissue on its 50th anniversary. The Calabash International Literary Festival is over.