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We leave Montego Bay at about one o’clock. I warn novelist Joe Meno and his wife Koren who are in the car with me, my son and Cavell the driver, that this is going to be a long two and a half hour drive. We are going to drive south across the western end of the island, and then make our way from the North Coast down through two parishes and across one, into St Elizabeth where Treasure Beach is tucked away. I ask the driver whether it has been raining a lot. I am worried about another flooded Calabash. We have had two of those early on in the annual cycle. Some who were there that year assured us that those storms were aberrations. Of course they had their use. Calabash was named by a few writers in the media as–“The Woodstock of literary festivals” . Woodstock? Stars. Lots of drugs. Lots of mud. Free love. We had mud. There may have been drugs but I can’t say, though I do know that the haze over the outskirts of the crowd may not have been fog. I can’t speak for free love, but the audiences gave the writers mad love. But there was mud and there were star writers. And from the first year, it was special. But I always ask about rain. He offers that while it has rained steadily in Montego Bay, it has been extremely dry on the south coast. The farmers are understandably unhappy about this, but I am happy at the news.
As we navigate the twisting corners of the mountainous stretch that forms part of an extensive chain of mountains running like a spine down the middle of the country, I am struck, as if on cue, by the terrible range of greens that break out in the valleys and crevices of the island. Derek Walcott, the poet and painter, would complain about how inadequate his tubes of watercolor paints are to meet this raging green, how maddening the business of replicating the chaos of greens around him* *not even words, are there. The Inuit, we are told, have a thousand words for snow, and the Swedish have a million words for blue, this may all be myth, but we should have a billion words for green here on this island, but all we have is green, the lie of green.
After two hours, you can smell the ocean again–this time it is mixed with the scent of turned earth, and I know we are close because the driver has picked up his pace, not because of any need to arrive sooner, but because the car has suddenly remembered every contour of the road. He hurtles into pot-hole traps with a break neck abundance and executes the magic of avoidance as if he has studied this road in his sleep. He waves to people on the side of the road. At a deep corner that twists crazily downhill, we slow for road workers. They stand around as if they are taking a break, dust covered Jamaican people in their work clothes. A woman with her jutting belly printing the line from her breasts down along her navel to the undercroft of her belly through a tight pale blue dusty t-shirt looks blankly at us as she waves the green and red flags. The driver speeds through, beeping his horn, waving.
I am familiar with these twists and turns. This time I have not slept once on the journey down. I have been thinking about the six years of Calabash, of the feeling that someone has given me a gift and has told me that I can place my name beside it and own it as something I have been involved in. As with most of my blessings, I expect to be found out, I expect that someone will rise up and declare me an imposter for being part of this “work” that is so enjoyable and that is so enriching. In a day, the Jakes campus will be crowded with thousands of people, intense people looking for writers, looking for old friends, looking for the smattering of “celebrities” who have no language for their celebrity status at this festival where people are casual as a Sunday morning stroll, and the Open Mike is the big show for the day.
When we arrive the writers have started to come in. My son is excited. He is fourteen and excited about a writer’s festival, which pleases me. This is his third time at Calabash. Today is his birthday and he is tickled that on the last day of his school semester he is heading down to Jamaica to be a part of the festival. By the end of this first night, I will sit with two administrators from the British Arts Council, have a long catch up session with Colin Channer and Justine, my dear friends and accomplices in this venture, have dinner with Patricia Smith and Maryse Conde the witty and brilliant novelist, embrace and shake hands with an array of splendid writers, journalists, musicians and friends; the entire crowd of writers will have sung Happy Birthday to my son as he blows out a cake. Colin Channer, in full black and wild hair, would have welcomed the guests and started to make clear that this is a place for people to find out each other and make new connections; we would all have eaten a wonderful meal; I would have checked e-mail with Delroy Lindo and Caryl Phillips checking their e-mail in the WiFi friendly Jakes lobby, and the pulse of reggae music would have dulled me to sleep at midnight. I would have been up since 3:00 AM, and for some reason, I don’t feel fatigue. I am home. The staff at Jakes laughs with me, full of jokes, reminding me of how self-assured and confident they are about how much this is their festival, and assuring me that this is a homecoming.
So here is the thing: at the core of what we do is love. Now this may sound maudlin, and a tad sentimental, but it is worth saying that what we are about at Calabash is friendship first and foremost. Colin Channer, Justine and I, are people who like to share stories and to laugh and to see the genius of artists working itself out. This spirit spreads to Carleene and John who are crucial to the team that will be running around all day during the next three days to make this happen. Already, the entire festival space has been wired for sound, and every detail has been taken care of by John DaCosta who has taken a week long sabbatical from touring with Sean Paul to do what he has done at Calabash every year since we started: to ensure that the sonic qualities of the event* from the seeming incidental music at eating places to the clean sound of the stage mikes and their monitors are in top form. John, too, is a volunteer.
Watching the mingling, the laughter, the deep conversations of people who seem about to plot a revolution or two I am reminded of Lesson Number One of a good literary festival: make the writers happy, make them feel as if they made the right decision to be at the festival, to take the leap of faith, to accept the word of a friend or an agent that this is a good thing, and to arrive at this deserted outpost to read for what has been promised to be thousands of people. I can tell that some of the folks here are skeptical. I can tell that they are not sure that any of this is going to happen, but they are just happy to be here, which is just as well.