DISPATCHES
Saturday Part 3
Very early on in the life of Calabash, we decided that it would be a good idea to partner with organizations and entities that had something to do with authors. We had thought about deeding out some curating and programming to some individuals, but it seemed to make better sense to think of book agencies, publishers, arts organizations and other entities that seemed to have access to writers, and still had a solid sense of style and engagement that worked well with the basic values of Calabash: daring, earthy, diverse and inspirational. It has amazed me how these words, (at least one that seems rather overused--“inspirational”) conjured up by Colin Channer, with a briefing to support and define each of them, have come to represent a splendid litmus test for what happens at the festival—and here I mean EVERYTHING that happens at the festival. Over the years we have sought partnerships with a handful of organizations, and one of the most productive of partnerships has been with the independent publishing house Akashic Books. This year, Akashic joined with us again and helped us program an eclectic and sophisticated readings that took place late afternoon into the night on Saturday, when the cool air off the sea wafted around us, skirts flicking in the breeze, bodies relaxing with the calming of the sea rhythm, and the moon dangling overhead. The audience had spent a few hours resting, eating, taking a swim, showering, and getting dressed for the evening activities. Where the anticipation for the Walcott session created a frenetic kind of energy, the evening mod was more laid back. Three Akashic published authors would read. Juan de Recacoechea, a Bolivian fiction writer; Nina Revoyr, a Japanese American novelist; and Abraham Rodriquez, a Puerto Rican descent American living in Berlin who writes novels. They would then be followed after a short break by three other novelists, Margaret Cezair-Thompson, a Jamaican living in the US; Gerard Donovan, an Irish novelist and poet; and Lawrence Hill, a Canadian essayist and fiction writer.


I met Recacoechea on Friday morning of the festival. He had arrived well after midnight the night before after a long trip by air from Bolivia, via Miami. He was still giddy from the long drive from Montego Bay to Treasure Beach. He was full of wicked jokes about the prospect of death on the roads. He is a tall, lanky man who somehow manages to look small and vulnerable. His English is precise, but he speaks quickly, and so he will allow himself to cheat every so often. Around us were some Spanish speakers, and so he would flirt and joke in Spanish and English while sipping coffee (with lots of sugar—“Is the sugar sweet in Jamaica. I have to have a lot of sweet sugar.” When he found out that one of the writers was a Cuban, and when it was clear that she was not exactly a supporter of the current Cuban regime, he quickly said, “I think I better be quiet now…” Recacoechea was full of stories and he recounted them with relish.
When he hit the stage on Saturday afternoon, he seemed to be in mid-story the moment he opened his mouth. For five or eight minutes his introduction was a series of one-liners that quickly endeared the audience to him. He was talking about Jamaica, about its beauty, about how he just won’t be able to tell his wife how lovely the trip was or she would be extremely jealous and that would make his life miserable. Then he read, and the stories he read flowed seamlessly from his adlib introduction—strange characters, full of strange ideas and strange ways to look at the world, and yet full of a humanity and tenderness that could only move the listener. At the center of his novel is the American Visa (it is also the title of his novel), and the twisted machinations that take place around trying to get a visa. Getting a US Visa, he quips, is even harder than getting a pass to heaven.
Nina Revoyr, who followed him, is a tall woman. I kept thinking that when she was growing up in Japan she must have been an aberration. She leans into the microphone to read. This was Nina’s second time at Calabash. She bantered like a woman who has returned home, to familiar ground. Her fiction has now become essential reading for anyone who wants to understand the western United States, its history and the meaning of being Asian in that space. Revoyr’s voice registers low, sensual without even trying. It is an assured voice that manages to retain its confidence in the writing.
Then came the energetic Abraham Rodriquez. He is a man of crazy long hair, and crazy energy. He speaks with a rapid fire delivery, his voice rising into a high pitch as he shapes his ideas with care, then hurtles into a punch-line. He understood quickly that to read at Calabash, you must engage the idea of Jamaica somehow. Abraham Rodriguez’s most brilliant observation before he began to read was to ask the question: “Is Gregory Isaacs lying down when he is singing? That is what I want to know. How does he do it?” Then he gave a credible version of Isaac’s “Night Nurse” and you realized that it is that laid out voice that makes Isaacs such a sensual singer. Rodriquez read a tough stretch of prose—his characters contending with issues bigger than themselves and finding redemption in the small things.
This reading is one of the secret pleasures of Calabash. When writers hailing from various parts of the world come to share their work, they manage to transport us beyond the spot were are locked to on the edge of the island. This is the magic of language. I hear people telling me that this is their fix—their one chance to enjoy that magical transportation into other worlds in their lives and they relish it, cherish it and protect it fiercely.
Jamaica is not an easy place for people who live there. The day to day is hard going. Crime settles over the cities like a cloud that you can sometimes remove from your immediate consciousness, but that you cannot completely eliminate. You are always aware of those who are suffering to make ends meet and those who are just not succeeding at it. Sometimes you struggle with the realization that things in the public and private sector just don’t work as they are supposed to, and you can’t depend on things to always work for you. So Calabash becomes that reliable place where there is always something that will allow some flight of escape, and yet at the same time, a rooted sense of what is good and right in the world that will make you able to hope for better in your day to day. It makes sense to me. It makes complete sense to me.
After a break, three other novels read from their work. They, too, painted worlds with language. Margaret Cezair Thompson’s reading from her book A Brief History of Paradise, was virtual perfection for the Jamaican audience. At its center is a horse. What amounts to a short story within a novel explores with tenderness and wit, the life of an erstwhile racehorse owner –a man of Chinese origin living in turn of the century Jamaica. Thompson’s writing is beautiful in its insight and care for language.
Donovan, read from a disturbing novel set in northern Maine and that revolves around a man who becomes a serial killer to avenge the killing of his dog in the middle of winter. The challenge dawns on Donovan. “It will be hard for you to imagine this, but please try to.” Maine, winter, ice, a man avenging a dog’s death. As far from Jamaican realities as one can imagine. But the reading is engaging, and soon we are trying to understand this character.
Lawrence Hill’s work is rooted in Canada, and does the job of writing the black experience into the Canadian. He has won many awards for this work and most recently was the winner of the 2008 Commonwealth Writers Best Book for fiction. You can feel the weight of his commitment to research and strong historical support for his work, and yet you can hear in his reading the sheer pleasure of retelling old stories and finding fresh stories in the midst of all of this work.
As I make my way through the audience that evening, I realize that people are buying books from all these writers at significant rates. I am constantly being asked if there will be another signing moment since they missed the first. It is gratifying to see people buying books while lamenting the sacrifices they will have to make in some other area of their lives for this indulgence.
Tomorrow, I will write about the stunning poetry reading by three remarkable poets—Cornelius Eady, Valshyna Mort and Natasha Tretheway.

Originally Published: May 27th, 2008

Born in Ghana in 1962, Kwame Dawes spent most of his childhood in Jamaica. As a poet, he is profoundly influenced by the rhythms and textures of the country, citing in a recent interview his “spiritual, intellectual, and emotional engagement with reggae music.” His book Bob Marley: Lyrical Genius (2007)...