Exactly 4 weeks have gone since Nicole Dennis-Benn, Diana McCaulay and I kicked off Calabash 2016, reading in the first set, “Cooking with Gas”. Nicole read from her debut novel, Here Comes the Sun; Diana read from her YA novel, Gone to Drift, and I read from my debut novel, Red Jacket. After that came an amazing night and two extraordinary days… I record now, albeit a little late, my big-big thank you to the citizens of Treasure Beach, the fab audience, and especially the team that engineers the Calabash Affair! Kwame Dawes, Justine Henzell & the Calabash Company are first class prestidigitators, controlling weather, music, venue, line-up and the lit-loving massive. Big Ups! Nuff clapping and stamping and cheering and wild carrying on!
On Friday, 2 June, the audience of 2500 folks is gathered under a gigantic complex of tents next to the sea. The mood is warm, expectant, convivial… Not carnival excitement. Not snooty international literary event. It’s a Jamaican family affair, country Jamaican, and more especially Treasure Beach Jamaican, a place that has a kind of stripped down, essential goodness, a bare bones beauty to it. I am sitting beside Diana McCaulay, who tells me that it may well rain, and heavily, for the afternoon has been overcast, the skies gunmetal, broody. This is part of the festival mystery. Treasure Beach is in arid St Elizabeth, but ask anybody and they will tell you – anytime there’s Calabash, there’s rain! Diana recounts an occasion when, as she was waiting to read, a cascade of water plunged from the edge of the tent above her, just as the set was to start. The waters tumbled terribly and then cleared up quick-quick, so things could begin as scheduled.
This is my first Calabash, so I don’t know the runnings. (The organizers have asked me more than once before, and I almost came a couple years ago, and then discovered a prior commitment.) But, as I firmly believe, “Nothing before its time!” and Calabash 2016 is it. Before we go on, Justine teases that I didn’t get the memo about the colours. I blink, stupidly. It makes sense when I see the photos…
Kwame Dawes, Host and Curator of Calabash 2016, wrote afterwards to say that mine was “a homecoming of a reading”. In many ways, it was indeed that. I come back to Jamaica often enough, and have read at home as recently as in 2014, when I launched my fifth collection of poetry, Subversive Sonnets, with the help of friends, Earl St Hope McKenzie and Jean Small. But at Calabash this year, family surround me: my two sisters, Mary Cresser and Betty Wilson, Betty’s husband, Don, both formerly of UWI, Mona, my nephew, Julian Cresser, currently of the History Department at Mona, my niece, Karin Wilson-Edmonds, as well as old friends like Victor Chang, Esther Figueroa, Ifeona Fulani, Lixie Brodber (whose writing we will celebrate on the last day of the Festival), Velma Pollard and Jean Small.
Plus, there are other family and friends, some of whom husband, Martin, and I have not seen in many years. Justine Henzell,Co-Founder and Producer of Calabash, and her mother, Sally, are special people in that group of long-time-mi-neva-see-yu folks, Sally being one of 19 poets in Jamaica Woman, the first ever anthology of poetry by Jamaican women, which Poet Laureate Mervyn Morris – also in Treasure Beach with his wife, Helen – and I co-edited and published in 1980 (Jamaica) and again in 1985 (UK). Sally is effervescent as ever, a joy to hug after so long. And of course, Mr Calabash self, Kwame Dawes, though I am sad to have missed his better half, Lorna. And I am finally going to share the stage with my cousin, Wayne Armond, who has been a part of the Calabash music scene since ever, and to meet his wife, Mitsy, and his now grown-up children after much too long.
A big treat was finally seeing in the flesh virtual friends like young St Lucian poet, Vladimir Lucien, 2015 BOCAS overall prizewinner, and Kei Miller, Jamaican poet, fiction writer, blogger, essayist, and fellow tweep, and Marina Salandy-Brown, BOCAS Lit Fest Founder and Festival Director. (We enjoyed opening night dinner with Marina whom we were meeting for the first time, and who shared tales of Cairo times, as well as old paseros, Prof Carolyn Cooper and Linton Kwesi Johnson. Also got a warm greeting on opening night from Booker Prize winner, Marlon James, who would eventually read three fab excerpts from A Brief History of Seven Killings, and had a long chat with social activist and theatre person, Sheila Graham.)
And so the Bash was off to a super start…