Memorial Day is coming and one of the most exciting places to be for the Memorial Day weekend is at the Calabash International Literary Festival, now in its tenth year. Calabash takes place at Treasure Beach on the southwest coast of Jamaica, drawing writers and readers from around the world to hang out by the beautiful Caribbean Sea and celebrate the written word. Calabash was founded by Jamaican writers Colin Channer and Kwame Dawes to foster writers of the Caribbean; it continues to offer workshop support for writers but it has also become a stage for writers and poets from around the world, and a meeting place for the readers who love them - or will love them, just as soon as they hear the writers speak amidst the laid back, supportive, and celebratory atmosphere that is Calabash. This year's schedule includes Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka, Colson Whitehead, Cristina Garcia, Sharon Olds, Russell Banks, Billy Collins, and Nami Mun, along with workshop writers.
For those unable to fly down to Jamaica for this magical weekend, there is consolation. I am grateful for the publications of Akashic Books that allow me to experience the written words of the workshop writers and Festival participants through the years. Iron Balloons: Hit Fiction from Jamaica's Calabash Writer's Workshop is the first collection put out by Akashic; this year's So Much Things to Say: 100 Calabash Poets is its second, and purchase of the book helps to support the festival itself.
Iron Balloons begins with an introduction by Colin Channer, who explains that for decades music was the huge creative outlet for Jamaicans; creative writing and reading for pleasure were not as popular nor as accessible as the music Jamaica is so famous for. One goal of the Calabash International Literary Festival Trust was to offer support for Caribbean writers and access to their works for readers worldwide. His introduction sounds almost like an apology for the stories that follow but no apology is needed. There are real gems of story telling in this collection, from seasoned writers like Channer (whose stunning "How to Beat A Child the Right and Proper Way" shook me to the core) to Calabash Workshop talents like Konrad Kirlew (whose story "A Little Embarrassment for The Sake of Our Lord" explores religion through the eyes of a trusting child). What all the stories share is the atmosphere they create, a distinctly Jamaican mix of family and church, duty and pleasure, flesh and spirit, and how these strands flourish side by side, sometimes at odds and sometimes in complete harmony and rolling rhythm.
The poems in So Much to Say are self-selected contributions from one hundred poets who have participated in Calabash over the years, including such well-known poets as Derek Walcott, Robert Pinksy, and Kwame Dawes. A theme running through the poems is the issue of "place" in a world of change, the duality of transformation and permanence where the past must count for something:
"I wouldn't say I would never leave,
but if that's what they call ambition,
then right now I sticking with love.
River mullet still running in Grandy water,
and the busu soup simmering, keeping warm till you come.
(from "Choices" by Edward Baugh),
and where the future must promise even more:
"Even when what is always there is changing
now a garden, now the prison walls
now the songs you sing in planting
now the dirge you whistle in reaping\
something always being given
something being taken
(from "From the Terminal Window" by Roger Bonair-Agard)
Hurricane Katrina is touched upon more than once ("a son returns, finds/four-month old bones wearing his/missing mother's dress" from Kalamu ya Salaam's "You Can't Survive on Salt Water") as is the enduring pain of emigration:
"And she did not feel the sea salt stream down her face,
did not feel the steady breeze blow in from parts
of the world she would never know; and when the stars
appeared in the deepening sky, she felt a tug at her arm,
it was Kehinde, come to lead her from that place
which gave life, took life, and she knew with a mother's love
that the sea would not bring her son back."
(from "Zenobia, Apapa Docks, Lagos, 1949" by Bernardine Evaristo)
The sustaining power of identity is strong throughout the poems:
call mi black an bumpyhead ef yuh waan
But meck sure yuh say t loud
Becaw di Creator love mi, an mi feel food fi be
Bumpyhead, black an proud."
(from "Dat Bumpyhead Gyal" by Joan Andrea Hutchinson)
There are tributes to other writers, as in Derek Walcott's poem " XL, In Memoriam to John Hearne":
"to praise how a horse crosses a meadow, un-ridden,
but purposefully, pausing to whinny and snort,
the sweat sheen on it, deep in remembering thought."
And there is a moving tribute to Calabash itself:
"this riff is really about a soft spot of sand
rocks jutting boastful from the water
mannish water and short stories
curry goat and biographies
jerk chicken and a few haiku
what would you do in a place of words
woven idyllic into breezy afternoons"
(from "Ode to Calabash" by Staceyann Chin)
If I were in a place of such words I would consider myself in a paradise. For now, I am content to read the stories and poems of Calabash in my own backyard. Thanks to Colin Channer and Kwame Dawes, and Akashic Books, I can. Calabash Literary Festival is a free festival, and I was reminded of the freedom of words in Cherry Natural's "Send Di Poem Come":
"Most tings in life come wid a price.
Words come to me free.
When norms, rules, and regulations
a pull me inna all different directions, dem as as cushions."
I love that visual: poems and stories as the cushions of life. The Calabash International Literary Festival gives mighty cushioning to all who come and see --and hear -- what all the words are about.