From auspicious beginnings, Jamaica’s Calabash Festival has become THE literary event to attend in the Caribbean, attracting some of the biggest names in literature from around the world and inspiring the development of regional literary festivals in islands such as Trinidad, Barbados and Dominica. Caribbean Bazaar spoke with Calabash co-founder Justine Henzell to find out more about how the “greatest likkle festival” has earned it’s stellar reputation.
There is a tale, often repeated, of how the first Calabash Literary Festival in 2001 was heralded by the arrival of yellow butterflies as the event opened, then disappearing as soon as it was over, as if the spirits of writers gone before were sending their blessings. A labour of love, Calabash has been built purely through the tireless work of volunteers and co-founders into a must-attend event for aspiring and published writers and authors where there are not only readings but seminars and workshops, all free to attend.
The idea for Calabash was sparked by the frustration felt by friends and authors Kwame Dawes and Colin Channer as they embarked on a disastrous book tour in the UK. Recognising that there was a opportunity, their “crazy idea” was to stage their own literary festival in their homeland of Jamaica. Realising they needed someone on the ground, Colin contacted his friend Justine Henzell, a freelance film producer with a predilection for crazy ideas and a family owned hotel called Jake’s. So the journey began……
Held every year for the first decade, Calabash is now a two-day biennial event held on even years, welcoming authors, writers, poets and musicians to the beautiful surroundings of Jake’s Hotel at Treasure Beach, a tiny fishing village in the south of the island. “It’s a heavy workload to put on an event like this every year. Holding it every two years makes it easier on everyone” acknowledges Justine. It was a practical decision, not just for the volunteers but also for sponsors and funding, which they have found to be the most challenging aspect.
“People thought we were crazy and insane – not only for developing a literary festival but also because of it’s location” Justine explains. “We started with 300 people attending and are now getting 3,000.”
One of the attractions of Calabash, she explains, is that “it’s not a staid and stuffy event.” The vibe is relaxed and casual, readings are framed with a gorgeous oceanfront backdrop; the stage is simply decorated with flowers and calabash gourds; the lectern is made from bamboo and uses rocks as paperweights. There is a feeling of authenticity, of genuine appreciation for the work being shared – the ambiance is that of a friendly hangout, where everyone mingles together. It goes without saying that reggae music is an integral part of the whole event, with performances from artists at the end of each day – Justine could not have conceived Calabash without it: “Music is a big part of it organically – every day ends with music” she says.
“We aim to share a good balance of literati [at Calabash]” says Justine, revealing a line up that includes representatives from Asia, India, Kenya as well as the Caribbean. For 2014, Salman Rushdie heads up a delicious roster of names including Jamaica Kincaid, Zadie Smith, Robert Antoni, Karen Lord, Albert “Prodigy” Johnson, Ngugi Wa Thiong’O, Mervyn Morris (Jamaica’s first Poet Laureate inaugurated this year) and K’wan Foye to name just a few of the nearly 30 invited to participate this year.
Indeed, previous participants wax lyrical about their experiences at Calabash. “I can’t tell you how many authors say to us it’s the most responsive/respectful audience they have ever had. [The audience] are sitting there…..they are not silent…….they are responding to what is being read, they are not chatting amongst themselves. Simultaneously responsive and respectful.”
When co-founder Colin Channer made a decision to resign from the board officially in 2012, many speculated on the reasons why. Justine is unfazed by the so-called controversy: “Kwame and Colin are best friends, even when we launched….[the 2014 event] in Kingston, Kwame referred to the ghost of Colin Channer that was hovering with us. Colin is not actively a member of Calabash but he is absolutely there ….if we need to bounce something off him, he is still there. Colin was such a huge force and part of creating the festival….the festival is imbued with him. It is hard to separate Colin from the festival. The three of us worked very, very closely to make this happen.”
The benefits emerging from cultural events held throughout the Caribbean often go unstated – for Calabash, being located so far south in the parish of St Elizabeth has enhanced and generated not only international interest but has also encouraged internal tourism. “It’s not a place you would pass by”, says Justine. “You have to be going to Treasure Beach.”
The influence of Calabash on the literary culture in Jamaica and the Caribbean is undeniable. “Local authors refer to B.C and A.C (Before Calabash and After Calabash). It has exposed our writers to such wide, diverse styles and forms. Many now published writers have emerged from our workshops, such as [award-winning Jamaican writers] Marlon James and Ishion Hutchinson.” In order to keep the event fresh, the Committee, led by Kwame Dawes, are discerning about who is invited and seek to promote a diversity of voice and genre, with 2014 seeing the inclusion of sci-fi and fantasy fiction for the first time. Participants are chosen not only for their brand appeal; other criteria include having a book in print within the last two years and ensuring a roster that includes emerging Caribbean writers alongside internationally acclaimed names. Invitees can only attend once every three events.
From the start the Calabash team have been very particular about the organisation and timing during the event, having been described as a “drum & bass mentality with Swiss precision.” Events start on time, which is sometimes lacking at Caribbean festivals and many would say that’s simply the Caribbean way. Justine disagrees: “[you] can be…..vibesy and rootical and start on time and have a PA system. It is not at odds with our culture to be punctual.” Having firmly established itself as a significant event on not only the literary calendar, but also as one of the major Caribbean cultural festivals, Calabash continues to raise the bar. All costs related to the staging of the event are raised by sponsorship as well as direct support from Jake’s Hotel, which closes down for a week to host the participants and attending press.
“Most challenging – without question – is the money. Everything else is a joy. Raising money for the arts..[is difficult] when people don’t get it. 12 years later they now realise [the opportunity]. We have proven it can work.”
Unlike the US and Europe, voluntary support of the arts is not a culture in Jamaica or indeed the Caribbean as a whole. “It’s another cultural thing that we are trying to champion. We are committed to keeping the festival free – with voluntary support it can work.” Now a registered non-profit in the US, donations can be made directly through the Calabash website or via cheque to Calabash International.
In it’s 12th year, Calabash is going from strength to strength, and has built a legacy with tremendous impact on the Jamaican and Caribbean literary landscape. “I am incredibly proud,” Justine shares, “Calabash is like my 3rd child. No matter how challenging, I feel truly, truly blessed to spend a weekend in one of the most beautiful places – with 30 of the most interesting people in the world.”
Thanks to Justine Henzell for her time.