Mon | Oct 2, 2023

Carolyn Cooper | A taste of the magical Calabash festival

Published:Sunday | April 16, 2023 | 1:19 AM

One of my favourite Anansi stories has a stinging moral about greed. It’s one of the many tales recorded by the American anthropologist Martha Beckwith who did research in Jamaica between 1919 and 1922. Her collection, Jamaica Anansi Stories, was published in 1924 by the American Folk-lore Society. Moses Hendricks from Mandeville told Beckwith the story of “The Handsome Packey”. That Jamaican word comes from the Twi language in which ‘apakyi’ means ‘calabash’.

Here’s Hendricks’ Anansi story: “He went out another day in search of food and he saw a calabash tree with one calabash on it, an’ he look at it an’ said, ‘My! There’s a han’some packey!’ The packey say, ‘I han’some an’ I can do han’some work.’ He said, ‘Do it let I see!’ Packey put a table before him full of nice eatables; when he eat to his satisfaction, packey shut up everything.

“He took the packey home with him an’ he shut it up in his loft over-head. Every day he hide from the family an’ go up there have his good feed an’ whatever little rubbish he bring in, he give it to them. His wife an’ children watch him an’ fin’[d] what he have. After he was gone out, they play the same game – ‘What a han’some packey!’ – ‘I han’some an’ can do han’some work.’ – ‘Do it let we see!’ – They carelessly let the packey drop from them an’ crack. When Anansi go home, go to his feed, say, ‘What a han’some packey!’ packey don’t give him any answer. He find that something was wrong.

“Went out another day an’ saw another packey (which was the same packey), says, ‘There’s a han’some packey!’ Packey said, ‘I han’some an’ can do han’some work.’ He said, ‘Do it let I see!’ Packey took out a cow-whip an’ give him a handsome flogging.” A just reward for the gravalicious trickster!


Unlike Anansi, the founders of the Calabash International Literary Festival – Colin Channer, Justine Henzell and Kwame Dawes – did not selfishly hide the magical packey’s table full of nice eatables. They invited the world to share the literary feast they themselves conjured up. Since 2001, the festival has brought together a stellar cast of writers from the Caribbean and all across the globe to celebrate the power of the word. Both spoken and sung! Nobel Laureates have shared the Calabash stage with aspiring writers on the open mic. It’s an egalitarian festival.

As the emcee of the open mic, I’ve already been getting calls from anxious writers wishing to book their three minutes at centrestage. I remind them that it’s an equal opportunity system. Readers get in line on the spot, right before each open mic session. There’s no advance registration. And no exceptions! I fear that, after a five-year absence, Calabash will simply not be able to accommodate everybody who wants to perform. I’m tempted to ask Supreme Ventures Ltd to set up an open mic lottery!

Kwame Dawes has curated a brilliant programme. One of my picks is “New Daughters of Africa” – Yvonne Bailey-Smith, Taiye Selasi and Namwali Serpell in conversation with Margaret Busby. In 2001, Tony Gambrill, founder of CGR Communications, invited Zadie Smith to celebrate in Jamaica after she won the Commonwealth Writers’ First Book Prize for White Teeth. Her mother, Yvonne, accompanied her. I interviewed them both on what was then Radio Mona. None of us anticipated that two decades later, Yvonne’s own novel, The Day I Fell Off My Island, would be published and shortlisted for several literary prizes!

I’m also looking forward to the “Reasoning” with Jeremy Poynting, Linton Kwesi Johnson and Kwame Dawes. Like his poetry, Linton’s recently published Time Come: Selected Prose, is a dread beat of resistance against systemic racism. From rebel music to praisesongs for the ancestors, LKJ’s fiery prose affirms the capacity of Caribbean migrants in the UK to turn trauma into sustaining art.


Earlier this month, we got a delicious taste of the festival at the Calabash launch. Mateo Askaripour, the featured writer, read from his acclaimed novel, Black Buck. Born in the US to a Jamaican mother and an Iranian father, Mateo claims a complex heritage. The Q&A that followed his reading ended just as I was about to ask my question. I’m so sorry I behaved myself and kept quiet. As Mateo was signing my book, I asked my question. I told him we were happy to claim him as a Jamerican, but what about his father’s side of the family?

Mateo would have readily answered that question in public. He didn’t learn much about Iran from his father except that the country still represents trauma. Jamaica became a home for his father. Mateo happily spent many holidays here. He grew up on Long Island and now lives in Brooklyn. Despite ‘gentrification,’ his Bedford-Stuyvesant neighbourhood remains a vibrant centre of Caribbean culture.

Incidentally, the problem with the fashionable term ‘gentrification’ is that it appears to presume that all long-time residents of predominantly Black neighbourhoods did not keep up their homes. This is simply not true. Catherine McKinley, who read from her memoir, The Book of Sarahs: A Family In Parts, at the 2003 Calabash, is now writing a book on Black housekeeping. It features a wide range of beautifully curated homes.

“For Word” was the branding of both the 2020 and 2022 festivals, which had to be postponed. This year’s regeneration of Calabash again celebrates the propulsive rhythm of the word. For the festival programme, visit the Calabash Literary Festival website. From May 26-28, the Treasure Beach packey will be full to overflowing.

- Carolyn Cooper, PhD, is a teacher of English language and literature and a specialist on culture and development. Email feedback to and