I’m here to talk about Calabash. But what does that mean? It’s a word that’s lent itself to a variety of uses over the years, from tropical resorts to clothing lines to software. I want to talk about it in the context of stories, and I want to start at the beginning; which is close to the beginning of the human story itself.
When I was a child growing up in the Jamaican countryside, calabash was the name of a plant which bore large, globular gourds. Harvested young, it can be cooked and eaten like any squash. But its real magic is revealed when it is allowed to age; hollowed out and dried, it becomes a light, watertight, glossy brown container. Looked down on by wealthier, more educated and more aspirational ‘town people’, it was the crockery of the rural poor. For my family, who had left the town for the country precisely to escape its prejudices and pretensions, calabash bowls were as natural an addition to our kitchen as was the calabash vine on our fence.
I later learned that calabash has been cultivated for many thousands of years in tropical and subtropical regions, possibly even longer than food crops or livestock. Its spread around the globe from source plants in Africa owes as much to the migration patterns of early humans as its own tendency to drift on ocean currents, and germinate on distant shores. Whether driven before a hurricane, or riding on a Neolithic hip, calabash has gotten everywhere. And, as the formerly colonised tropics grow into their independence, develop a unique sense of identity and pride in the arts and crafts of the past, calabash utensils have gone from shameful to chic.
Not unlike our sense of story, the exuberance of our language, our celebration of communal tale-telling and the rhythm that underpins our words as much as our music.
Once these things too were seen as primitive and undesirable, the relics of a past then still described as savage. When I was little, children could still be punished for speaking the native patois language in school. One was meant to aspire to ‘refined’ things, for which read: the language and culture and commercial goods of England and America. And I think this is a big part of why the development of a literary tradition in my home country has been such a slow, painful process.
Almost everything I read as a kid came from somewhere else. The world as understood through and celebrated by the books on my shelves bore little resemblance to the one I was born into. Even more insidious was the sense that these modes of being were intrinsically separate; that if you wanted to read and write and live a life of letters, in the company of like-minded bibliophiles, you’d be hard-pressed to do it at home. It’s a particularly pernicious cultural ghetto, not shared by most other arts. Theatre has thrived for as long as I can remember, there is an internationally recognised visual arts tradition, and the music of Jamaica has circled the world like a rambling calabash vine. But literature – as a conduit of story, a cultural artefact, and a shared experience – stalled.
Fourteen years ago three people decided to change that. They were novelist Colin Channer, poet Kwame Dawes, and producer Justine Henzell (who just happens to be one of my oldest friends). They weren’t a slow, or cautious, or unambitious bunch, oh no. They knew that a high level of literary appreciation, and sophistication, existed in the private sphere; what was lacking was support and a sense of community. But neither they, nor the demographic they wished to attract and nurture, were interested in being insular. The desire was for a local literary culture that would be in dialogue with the words of the wider world, even as it recognised and helped to develop talent at home.
Their aim was nothing less than the creation of ‘a world-class literary festival with roots in Jamaica and branches reaching out.’ They got Justine’s brother Jason to host it at his hotel Jake’s, in the Treasure Beach area of the decidedly un-touristy south coast, and, in 2001, the Calabash International Literary Festival was launched. Since then its guests have included Nobel laureates alongside local lasses and lads, debut authors with Booker Prize winners, poets and journalists and academics, musicians and singers.
The Calabash programme is more concerned with flow and feel than conventional format. There are no panel discussions or formal book signings; it’s all about the words, everybody’s words, spoken and sung and shouted and shared. In between the readings and performance and talks from eminent authors, there are open-mic sessions where anyone can take the floor. And they do, and they are often just as magnetic as the Big Names that, by the way, no one has paid to come listen to. Passion is the only price of entry to Calabash – which makes fundraising an endless worry for the organisers. But it’s worth it, because it is one of the most welcoming, least elitist cultural events I’ve ever been to, anywhere. It’s won phenomenal praise from authors, attendees and the international press. It’s been at the heart of building – finally – a sense of community and pride in the literary arts.
So you’ll understand why I’m so proud to be on the programme for its biennial outing in May, along with fellow JFB author Karen Lord. We join a pretty impressive lineup*, and we’ll be part of Calabash’s first ever focus on science fiction – a genre I fell in love with as a child, reading all those books from England and America, but which felt as remote from my everyday life back then as the Arctic. I get to bring it home, and I get to demonstrate that it is neither alien nor intimidating. I’ll be sharing my imagined community of the future with a community that, not so many years ago, would have seemed just as futuristic.
Which brings us back to the history, the meaning and the magic of the calabash. On the face of it the name of the festival is merely an accident of its location; Jake’s sits on beautiful Calabash Bay. But in that strange way that stories happen, when different bits of imagination and desire and memory travel and merge and morph, the name feels as inevitable as the thing it describes: a humble container, durable, organic and unrefined, holding the world’s stories.
*Yes, I know who the Surprise Guest is. I can’t tell you. How I wish I could tell you! Suffice it to say that being part of the opening act for this person is forever going to be a notch on my literary belt.