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It is just past midnight. From the seaward end of the tent, just at the edge of the stage with its rustic columns, its thatched roof, its gazebo-like utility when this tented area has been transformed back into a large hall filled with rows and rows of white plastic chairs into a thickly grassed sloping lawn; I am watching people greeting each other as if service has just ended and someone has said, “greet one another with a holy kiss”. Aaron Patrovich has just startled us with a stunning reading of a Beckettian-like stretch of complexly philosophical prose with the intensity and skill of a gifted slam poet–all from memory, no book in hand, just speaking in modulated tones, making characters come alive from his weirdly surreal novel The Session, and nearly a thousand people in the audience have taken the ride with him, laughing at the absurdist jokes, nodding at the twists in ideas, and applauding with force as he leaves them hanging at the end, saying: “And if you want to know who came through the door, buy the book” .It is charming, it is a tour de force, and Calabash2007 has just been launched.
The Akashic reading that Aaron Patrovich closes began at 10:40 PM. Before him, Felicia Lumes would read beautifully from her novel about art, about faces, about history, about how women live with men and women. She is a slight woman who has to stand to the side of the podium to read; but there is nothing slight about her voice, her energy, her confident delivery, robust and intense and laced with wonderful humor* *a west coast imagination, and Jamaicans understand it all. She is followed by Joe Meno, because at Calabash readings are in alphabetical order and we believe that there is a divinity that shapes our ends, and that there is a natural mystic flowing through the air, so that the seeming accidents of reading order become, not accidents, but programming feats that somehow reveal just how randomness can lead to magic. Joe Meno reads from his novel about a child detective, a mystery novel that does not solve the problems* a cliche and stereotype of form that gets overturned, and transformed into a beautiful, witty, strange and endearing study of character and place. Joe’s voice is bright as brass and cuts across the sound system landing on the attentive audience who have been prepared for anything by Roger Guenveur Smith, the extraordinary actor, who opened Calabash during the hour and a half before with a multi-media staging of his one man show, ” Who Killed Bob Marley?” which is a tender homage to his late father, a celebration of Jamaica, and a cleverly shaped, but unsettling poetic narrative about a poet at Calabash who is deeply suicidal. Roger wears full black, he moves his body in Tai Chi like poses, his beautifully trained voice handling the microphone with pure professionalism. When I embrace him at the end of the performance, he is sweating, beaming, and the audience has welcomed this strange, challenging piece of performance art here in Treasure Beach in as rural a part of Jamaica as you will get.
This is how Calabash 2007 opens. This is where one is reenergized in one’s faith in art, in the hunger of people to hear stories and to discover new writers, in the rightness of the business of doing this festival. My people come, Calabash repeaters come. They will say, Yes, once again, once again, Kwame, this is beautiful* long before anyone has read, long before the program has began. They are talking about the energy of anticipation in the air, the high ceilinged tents with rows of neat rows of seats that we have placed in the tent under the supervision and leadership labor of Colin Channer who is beside himself this year about his genius plan of painting whitewashed lines to mark out the seating areas in our cathedral* *a way to impose order, to curtail the Jamaican inclination to improvise with every rule and move chairs around whenever they feel like, wherever they feel like. Colin should be proud. At the end of the first night, all the passages are clear, the rows are still intact, and I am convinced that he is as pleased by this small detail as he is by the size of our opening night audience and the power of the readings.
My high school cricket coach, Hugo Wright is in the bookstore, he has to tell me who he is. I comment on how short he looks, he laughs and tells me I have grown tall. He is fit, handsome, and speaks in that quiet coaxing manner that I remember. He is at Calabash this year because his wife has not stopped her efforts to get him to take a break and come. When your coach says, “I am so proud of you”, you can’t help but feel as if you have played the best innings of the season. School friends embrace me, whisper in my ear what it all means, what Calabash means to them, how proud they are, and I am giddy with the celebration of the thing. Then a young woman who looks about seventeen years old, walks up to me smiling with a bulky black grocery bag in her hand. “My father drove me down here, I told him I had to be at Calabash” she says as if she talking about a high school barbecue event. Then she hands me the heavy bag. “Daddy went to ground today and said I should give you these”. “Ground” is the farmland where country people cultivate provisions, and even when they have moved to the city, they continue to return to “ground”* to harvest. When someone goes to ground and brings back something for you, it is a tender gesture, it is the act of the most profound generosity. I am so moved. She smiles and walks away. This is her gift to the gift of Calabash. I raise the bag to my nose and sniff: mangoes, but not ordinary mangoes, these are the royalty of mangoes, these are the Bombay mangoes that I cherish so much* tart, sweet, meaty.
It is impossible to be tired after a night like this. The sound system on the beach kicks into gear with the great Squeeze at the controls, and the crowd moves down to the beach area and the Jack Sprat Bar to talk, to laugh, to dance and to jam until three o’clock in the morning. The air is still palpable with good vibes. My Jamaican people have done us proud again. They have shown much love for the writers, they have come out to support the festival, and they have brought mangoes. My son is taking it all in again, three years later. He has already decided to buy two books–I know it is going to be an expensive weekend, but it is so good to have him here. The calabash crew meets almost by accident afterwards–Carleene, Justine, John, Colin and myself–we exchange notes, break out with laughter at some funny moments, congratulate Colin on his white lines, and then join the party on the beach.
Somewhere, I can hear Patricia Smith shouting to me as she has done all day, while we are in racing motored fishing canoes skipping across the Caribbean Sea among dolphins, while we are perched on the Pelican Bar built impossibly on a spit of sand over a mile off shore, while we a resting on a jetty on the banks of the crocodile-inhabited Black River with its thick mangroves whose branches hang down to the black slick river like the locks of a graying rastaman, enjoying beverages and loving the sun; as she has done time and time again, her face bright with pure mirth, she shouts: “Where am I, Kwame? I don’t know, Patricia, where are you? I am in Jamaica, damnit, that is where I am!”
Tomorrow, Michael Ondaatje, Caryl Phillips, Maryse Conde, Patricia Smith, Elizabeth Alexander, Terrance Hayes, Susan Linda Jackson, Gabeba Baderoon, Lloyd Jones, Kendel Hippolyte, Mike Ferrell, D,Y, Bechard, Andrew Occonor, Naeem Murr, and so many more will be performing, and I will be eating freshly picked chilled mangoes all day–“I am in Jamaica, damnit!”