Calling all poets of the Caribbean

Where will you find a Malian writer waxing rhapsodical about Led Zeppelin, or a poet inspired by dancehall? Jamaica's Calabash, based in a small fishing village, is a new sort of literary festival. Kevin Le Gendre investigates
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The Jamaican village of Treasure Beach is aptly named. For the most part it is the shoreline, rugged yet effortlessly enchanting, that defines the character of this tiny locality in the South Western parish of St Elizabeth. It seems an unlikely location for a book festival. And yet, over three days every spring, Treasure Beach, with its population of approximately 1,000, becomes home to Calabash, a not-for-profit literary celebration where attendance peaks at 3,000.

Readings, open mike poetry sessions, concerts, a beach party and a film screening all take place in an enclosed area next door to Jake's, a hotel whose string of homely bungalows with charming names like Seahorse and Jellyfish is the antithesis of the soulless modern day tower-block model.

Occupying a grassy plateau that overlooks a curving bay, the Calabash site is striking. A huge gazebo covers the seating area and the stage, sheltered by a giant straw roof, caresses the coastal path. The backdrop to the readings is the Caribbean sea.

In 2005, 30-odd renowned authors and poets came to cast their words against these historic waters. The opening night's double bill of African-American jazz poet Amiri Baraka and Black British dub poet Linton Kwesi Johnson was pure lyrical fire. Baraka's verbal assault on the "Bush-It" artists on Capitol Hill was based on the blues. Johnson's evocation of the travails of the West Indian in England was rooted in reggae.

Bringing an entirely different tone to the theme of culture clash was the renowned Malian critic and documentary filmmaker Manthia Diawara, who held the audience rapt with a simple but intensely moving epistle about his passion for Led Zeppelin. A dreadlocked figure in an Ozzy Osbourne T-shirt was seen nodding heartily in the second row.

The stylistic palette was further broadened by the Trinidadian spoken word artist Roger Bonnair-Agard, the Indian poet Meena Alexander, and the American novelist Russell Banks. They proved that Calabash is a high-grade international event in which writing from the Americas, Europe, Africa and Asia forms a thought-provoking mosaic of story, history and mythology. This universal dimension was reinforced by a session of readings entitled "the great Non-American novel". Featured authors were Bonnair-Agard's compatriot Robert Antoni, the Guatemalan Francisco Goldman and Britain's Andrea Levy. The extract she read from her multi-award winning Small Island was one of the highlights of the festival.

The chord that Levy struck with the almost exclusively Jamaican audience brought into focus the question of identity for a writer, who, although London-born, has imaginatively broached her Caribbean roots in print.

Colin Channer, the Jamaican author who founded Calabash five years ago, argues that Levy was not perceived as a foreigner at the event. "In Jamaica, Andrea's not black British, she's Jamaican! You have the right to return." He believes that the acclaim Levy has garnered in the west significantly empowers the land of her forebears. "The success of writers like Patricia Powell, Nalo Hopkinson or Levy, who have ties to Jamaica, has had a real impact. In terms of the Jamaican Diaspora, you have more people writing at a higher level in more forms and more points of view and that is largely a result of what has happened for black people in places like Britain, Canada and the US. The progress made by those black populations has carried along to Caribbean people."

Channer tries to sustain this momentum through the Calabash Writers Workshop, an initiative that puts 40-odd new writers and poets "in the lab" over a two-year cycle with renowned Jamaican literary figures like Mervyn Morris, Kaylie Jones, Elizabeth Nunes, Channer himself and his fellow programmer Kwame Dawes, a Forward Poetry Prize winner.

The new voices that have emerged as a result include Andrew Stone, Saffron, Blakka Ellis, Niki Johnson and Mbala. But it is 20-year-old Ishion Hutchinson who has been singled out for special praise for his ability to sculpt original verse from the rich bedrock of dancehall reggae.

According to Dawes, he is "a writer who understands what the aesthetic of dancehall is as it would affect a modernist poet". Other new Jamaican writers creating a healthy buzz right now include Marlon James, who published his debut novel John Crow's Devil last year, and Netto Meeks, a dub poet who has brought a hip-hop slant to the foundation laid down by LKJ, Jean "Binta" Breeze and Mutabaruka (who also read at Calabash, much to the audience's delight).

Yet publishing here is a very difficult business; James follows Channer and Dawes in signing with an American press, the Brooklyn-based independent Akashic, and books remain luxury items in a country where disposable income is extremely low. The average weekly wage for a Treasure Beach fisherman is J $5,000. That's about £45.

Although the core Jamaican book consumer is the middle-class woman, that doesn't mean other demographics aren't interested in literature. One of the most striking aspects of Calabash is the very diverse nature of its audience. At most readings I attended, agricultural workers sat next to Rastafarians and office workers. The brilliant New York poet Carl Hancock Rux, who read at the festival in 2003, described the event as "a days-long party for both post-structuralists and plain folks".

More to the point, the authors themselves are presented as plain folks. There are no seminars, Q &A sessions or conferences that might bring a stilted, academic air to proceedings. Calabash is just people reading stories. The informality fosters spontaneity. Perhaps the most illuminating moment of the festival was the rapturous approval given to the Jamaican lesbian poet Staceyann Chinn when she denounced homophobia in her homeland. She didn't mince her words. And the audience respected her for it.

This was not a first, though. In 2002, Thomas Glave, a New York-based Jamaican author who is also one of the founders of the Jamaican gay rights group, JFLAG, appeared at Calabash. "He read an open letter to the people of Jamaica as a gay man," Channer recalls. "The essence of it was 'I'm your son and you can't deny me.' There was drop-dead silence as he started. There was one little titter, the shock of 'he said what?'

"Then the crowd just settled into silence, and he read. And when he had finished reading, I went on stage and I held his hand and we raised a joint fist and people applauded." It's a shame that incidents such as this didn't come to light in the British media during the firestorm over the homophobic lyrics of certain Jamaican dancehall artists in 2004. Yet the complexity of the island's culture is such that tolerance and intolerance are not the only diametrically opposed entities that can co-exist.

At Calabash this means that the mood of intense concentration that pervades daytime readings coheres with the decidedly party-hearty atmosphere of the late-night concerts featuring top Jamaican musicians such as Lloyd Parks, The Clarendonians and Leroy Sibbles. Calabash is perhaps a unique animal, then; simultaneously a reggae festival and book festival.

This music-literature conjunction is consolidated by a session celebrating the lyric writing of reggae artists on the final day. In 2005 it was the oeuvre of Jimmy Cliff that was consecrated. Bob Marley and Peter Tosh have been honoured in previous years.

"The poetry of these artists is profoundly literary and very sophisticated," argues Dawes, who has always defined himself as a "reggae writer". "If people can understand and love a Bob Marley line it may be very likely that they can understand and love a line by Mervyn Morris or Mark Doty or somebody like that, just given the space to do that."

Popular music as a way into literature? It makes a lot of sense when you think about the literary value of a Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell or Tom Waits. Jamaica's musicians do indeed substantiate Dawes' claim. To convey his absolute poverty Bob Marley found the ingenious figure of speech, "My feet is my only carriage," while his fellow folk-hero Peter Tosh dubbed himself "a stepping razor". Listening to the crowd at Calabash you can hear a rich composite of Standard English and Creole English that explains why Marley, a product of popular not highbrow culture, was able to develop great lyricism in his work.

After a particularly good reading, the master of ceremonies instructs the audience to "mek nuff noise". The people in turn urge the author to read more. But intriguingly, they do not shout "More!". They holler "Forward!". Jamaicans call their island "the rock" because it represents both stability and austerity. A disc jockey doesn't do anything as mundane as spin a record twice ; he has to "wheel and come again". There are many more examples of such metaphorical creativity to be found in the island's everyday vernacular and, somewhat unsurprisingly, the written word lags behind the spoken word in the Jamaican imagination.

The government has thus launched campaigns such as Readers Will Be Leaders in a bid to increase literacy rates and, in some ways, Calabash is an important, democratising adjunct to this. By presenting a very high standard of literature in an accessible, inclusive way to all strands of Jamaican society, the festival challenges the prejudice that the world of books is the sole prerogative of those of a certain class and means.

If England has its chattering classes, then Jamaica has its classes who "like fi chat". We're talking "plain folks" who enjoy storytelling without having the pretension to call themselves raconteurs. And storytelling is the essence of good literature.

Whether a narrative unfolds in dense, opaque poetry or buoyant, accessible prose, its articulation of an essential truth can bind people from all walks of life. This is why the Calabash Book Festival has turned out to be a huge success in as "unlikely" a place as Treasure Beach. "When we started out there were some people who thought that we would never make it," says Colin Channer wryly. "But many of the authors who read this year came away saying it was the best festival they'd ever attended. And when you run a not-for-profit festival in a rural part of a Third World country and important people can say that as well as the ordinary people in the community, who are also important, it means that your work was not in vain."

Calabash 2006 runs from May 26-28. For details, contact