One highlight of the annual Calabash Literary Festival, held at Jake's Resort on Treasure Beach in Jamaica in the rural parish of St. Elizabeth, is the celebration of reggae artists. Last year the festival honoured Peter Tosh, and in 2003, it was Bob Marley.
This year, the event, which was held for three days over the last weekend in May, extolled the gifts of Jimmy Cliff. Picture this: an open-air stage with a thatched palm roof beneath a flawless sky. Picture also the mystical arrangement of conch shells and eucalyptus boughs stage front and the jeweled waters of Calabash Bay rolling out behind.
Occasionally, a stiff gust off the sea snapped the flaps of the vast white tent that sheltered an audience of 2,000 people. Hundreds more lined the fence or settled comfortably on the grass. Three reggae musicians -- Billy Mystic, Wayne Armond and Stevie Golding -- sat centre stage, strumming guitars and sharing anecdotes about the iconoclastic Cliff.
That Sunday afternoon, the audience was comprised of locals from St. Elizabeth and more than one thousand Jamaicans who had travelled from across the island. A few dozen Canadians, Brits and Americans also mingled with visitors from the other Caribbean nations. Wherever people hailed from, they seemed to know the words of I Can See Clearly Now, Wonderful World, Beautiful People and The Harder They Come. The audience sang along with gusto. There was much swaying and waving of arms. It was a spiritual moment when guitar chords announced the emotional ballad, Many Rivers to Cross, a song that moved a number of listeners to tears.
There may not be another literary festival in the world that places such great importance on music. But Calabash's artistic director, Colin Channer, says Jamaican writers must honour the country's reggae musicians. "In the Caribbean, the most important form of storytelling is music," he said. "Music is the literary medium that dominates."
The festival's explosive opening event -- a reading under the stars that featured eloquent activists Amiri Baraka and Linton Kwesi Johnson -- underscored that sentiment. Both Baraka, who is American, and Johnson, who was born in Jamaica, produce profoundly musical species of prose. Baraka's massive oeuvre -- plays, poems, fiction, scholarly writing -- includes Blues People, the seminal history of African-American music.
At 70, Baraka looks querulous and somewhat diminished, but his voice reverberates with surprising force: "The nigger computers/ Are duly reporting/ Ghosts ahead/ Ghosts ahead."
Would Baraka read his controversial 9/11 poem, Somebody Blew Up America, that had him ousted from his position as New Jersey's poet laureate? Apparently, yes, he would.
Next, Johnson recited rhythmic reggae poems from Mi Revalueshanary Fren, a work that dramatizes the struggles of black Britons in the last decades of the 20th century. Poetry headlined the second night as well with a dazzling performance by Jamaica's Stacey Ann Chin, formerly of Broadway's Def Poetry Jam (and back in New York with a solo show Border/Clash: A Litany of Desires).
Striking a balance between Caribbean and international talent, the festival showcased major American novelist Russell Banks ( The Darling), and British star Andrea Levy, whose Small Island, a darkly comic tale of Jamaican immigrants in Britain, swept up a good portion of the year's top literary prizes. Canadians George Elliott Clarke and Dionne Brand were on hand as well.
The festival bookstore, Novelty Books, sold out of several titles; sales were up nearly 25 per cent from the previous year. Cameras were everywhere as documentary teams from Canada, the United States and Britain vied to cover the excitement -- all of which suggests that, after five years, the Calabash Literary Festival has come of age.
Channer, a best-selling novelist who founded the festival in 2001 along with poet Kwame Dawes, agrees the event is fulfilling its mission.
"What Kwame and I originally set out to do was raise the profile of literature in Jamaica and the wider Caribbean," he said. "At the same time, we wanted to change the profile from one that is largely academic to one that is more popular."
Now living in New York, Channer was born in Kingston, Jamaica, in 1963 and grew up there. His memories of studying literature in his homeland are not very pleasant."Literature was not taught as something to be enjoyed. It was something to be analyzed. A lot of books we had to read because they had West Indian content and not because they were well written. The libraries were and still are . . . very under-stocked."
According to Channer, Jamaican bookstores remain equally limited. "It's not like Canada where you can go to Chapters and see lots of books and go to Indigo and see lots of books and go to World's Biggest Bookstore and see a whole heap o' books," he said. "Most bookstores in Jamaica carry textbooks."
It was only after settling in the Bronx in 1982 that Channer began to get excited about the possibilities of Caribbean literature. Ironically, it was an American novel, The Book of Jamaica by Russell Banks, that kindled his passion.
"I said to myself not only does this person understand Jamaica, he can really write," said Channer. "It was actually Banks who made me look at literature a second time. After reading his work I decided to apprentice myself to writing."
Two novels, one story collection and a festival (featuring Banks) later, Channer has become one of the most significant literary figures in the Caribbean, influencing writers in the islands and those living and working abroad.
In fact, Calabash seems to be developing a special relationship with Canadian writers. Since the festival's inception many have been invited to Calabash including Austin Clarke, Olive Senior, Nalo Hopkinson and Tessa McWatt. This year Dionne Brand read from her poetry and earlier fiction, in addition to a jazzy excerpt from her recent novel What We All Long For. George Elliott Clarke was one of four authors on a bill sardonically titled: The Great Non-American Novel.
That just makes sense, says Channer. "A significant portion of the Caribbean diaspora is in Canada," he said. "Canada has produced some important writers."
The connection between the two countries may run even deeper, to a shared sense of values. Like Canada, Jamaica is often referred to as one of the world's most multicultural countries. Indeed, its national motto -- Out of Many, One People -- suits Canada nicely as well. Like Canada, Jamaica has deep international relevance far out of proportion to its population and political clout.
"For one thing, Jamaica has produced Rasta," says Channer, "the most successful religion of the 20th century. Rasta is so popular it has become secular. Jamaica has also produced reggae, which is basically Rasta's music department. We have also given the world signature figures like [pan-Africanist]Marcus Garvey and, of course, powerful musicians like Bob Marley and Jimmy Cliff.
"When writers come to Jamaica it's almost like making a pilgrimage," says Channer, "to a place that has reached out to them through music."