Saturday Part Two
The sky is clean of clouds. Standing on the stage, the sea stretches out towards the horizon, a sheet of turquoise with the interruption of surf a hundred yards out where the reef breaks the waves. Treasure Beach’s coastline is rocky, with the occasional scraggly tree—these biblical structures of gnarled branches and sparse fat leaves—they are made to silhouette artfully against the blue. In the early morning at Calabash people sneak up on you. Jamaicans move with the slow casualness of tropical people who have learned how to conserve their energy in the sun. The empty tent area will slowly fill out—one minute you are looking at the cool insides lined with white plastic chairs and only a spotting of people, and then you look away. When you look inside again, there are a hundred bodies, calmly fanning, sipping drinks, eating fruit. The audience, as Valzhyna Mort, the waif-like Belarusian poet would announce on Saturday night, is so sexy. She is talking about the way the bodies, move, the way clothes flow on these bodies, the complete sensuality of the laughter and the quiet in the audience. It is a spiritual thing, actually, and you watch as these folks, dressed for comfort, dressed for style, and dressed to please the body, walk under the tent that now smells of heated crushed grass, take their seats and speak softly to each other. By 9:45, the hundred or so people, has miraculous multiplied into nearly a thousand bodies and you still have the sense that the place is not crowded, that this is a church picnic, that there is enough space for all these bodies to enjoy their own personal space.


Saturday morning’s reading is a Jamaican affair. It is a woman’s affair, and the audience has come to celebrate the work of these women. These are writers who are bearing witness, and for at least one of them, Rosie Stone, there is a taboo breaking daring in her work. Rosie Stone, the wife of a quite famous Jamaican political scientist and pollster of the 1970s and 1980s, Carl Stone, has written a honest and revealing memoir of how her husband died of AIDS and how he passed the virus on to her—of her life living with this disease as a public figure and of the pain of it all. Rosie Stone smiles beautifully. She has lived with the virus for more than twenty years, and has learned how to share both the sordidness and the grace of survival with so many people. When she has to stop in mid reading to cry, the audience hums, and then a few voices encourage her. It is a moving moment. It is hard for the any reader to miss the act that this Calabash audience does not pay a great deal of attention to the imaginary divide between the stage and the plastic chairs. When Beverley East, a novelist and handwriting expert, begins to read from her book about a infamous train wreck in Jamaica’s history, the Kendal Train Crash, the audience rolls along with her laughter at her deft shifting from patois to cockney and then to standard Jamaican English. And when the brilliant novelist, Erna Brodber, a small woman with a peppered afro, starts to read from her latest novel, you can tell that people are there to feel proud of this woman who has no pretensions as a novelist, she describes herself as a village woman, and she just wants to tell the stories of her village, her community. In the process she has, for years, been the collector of the history of Jamaica and the teller of Jamaican stories that have come to shape how Jamaicans understand themselves. Brodber’s writing takes the magical seriously, and uses language in surprising ways.
By the time Colin Channer takes the stage to thank these writers for their readings, it is clear that people have started to gather to hear Derek Walcott. The outer edges of the festival tent where shade-full acacia trees with their idiosyncratic branch entanglements offer speckled shadow, are crowded with more plastic chairs that have been pulled down from the stack of extra chairs lining the wooden side wall that borders the tent area. The buzz is high. I am still trying to run through the questions I plan to ask Walcott, but I also know that it is going to go well, that in many ways, it is enough that he is here at the Bash.
I have now learned what I suspected would happen after Walcott’s scathing poem about V.S. Naipaul. That it was a headline stealer, that the scurrying around taking place after the reading and interview, and the gathering of folks with their laptops around the almond tree shaded lobby of Jake’s which is one of only two wired areas of the resort compound, meant that reporters were sending dispatches to the Jamaican papers and the international papers about this. Colin, Justine and I smile wryly at this. Calabash will be making headlines this year and this thanks for Walcott’s poems. Not bad. The shame is that few will remember how beautiful the other poems that Walcott read were. But the Calabash folks would remember. The promise of his new book is exciting.
After the Chatterbox sequence, Carol Lawes, an old friend, agrees on short notice to assume the hosting of the open mic sessions. I can hear her invoking Miss Lou (Louise Bennett) and tossing out her laconic sounding, but sharply turned tid bits of wit as the parade of poets and singers and story tellers, and advocates for a cause, continues across the stage for almost an hour and a half. The tent remains quite full, though the chatter is a little louder. The open mic sessions are looser than the regular sessions. Yet many people come to Calabash largely for the open mic.
At 3:00 PM, the breeze off the ocean seems to be more persistent. It is clear that Walcott was not the only show in town this year. Three women, Lorna Goodison, Beverley Manley and Lori Tharps follow each other on stage in one of the most entertaining and engaging readings at this year’s Calabash. Goodison reads from her award winning memoir of a community in the western end of the island where we are. Goodison is a gifted and accomplished poet and she has taught us something about what Walcott spoke about when trying to advise writers in the Caribbean: Voice and rhythm. The rhythm and voice are connected, and the task is to discover one’s own rhythm and language. He states what many would have heard, but what is often forgotten. One’s voice is found in one’s spoken voice, he offers. We may find a poetic expression of it, but the voice should remain as close to the spoken voice. Goodison’s spoken voice and poetic voice is Jamaican, fully Jamaican. And as she reads from her memoir, the mood of the audience turns into a gathering of old friends listening to the familiar. Goodison’s stories are hilarious, her characters familiar and yet wholly unique. Lorna Goodison is completely at ease in front of a Jamaican audience, and when she ends her reading, there is thunderous applause. She is followed by Beverley Manley; a famous Jamaican, certainly.
Manley’s reading has been getting a great deal of buzz because her Manley Memoirs has been serialized in the Jamaican papers, and already the talk is that people think she simply went too far in exposing the secrets of her sometimes sordidly scandalous relationship with one of the most loved and most hated leaders of Jamaica, the late prime minister, Michael Manley. The basic truth is that Beverley left Michael for one of his close party comrades. It is all in the book. I learn of the scandalous nature of the book from people who have not read the book, but who have seen excerpts. I know the book well and I think that the so-called scandalous material is quite tame and actually written with understatement and no effort to create a sensation. Manley picks up on Goodison’s understanding of place, and she is pulled in by the enthusiasm of her friends and supporters. She reads passages full of wit, some sadness, but general good will. She avoids the more sensitive passages, and perhaps this is another truth about Jamaican audiences—their conservative nature. Whenever someone utters a expletive from the stage, there is often a audible intake of breath rippling across the congregation, and someone will say softly, “Uh, Lawd,” almost as if they are about to spit in disgust. I know that someone will file a complaint, but I always say that it is really hard and unwise to try to dictate what writers should read or not read. Manley knows her audience, and she gives them the space not to feel like unwilling voyeurs. It does not mean they don’t want to read her book. They do. I find out from book store the next night that Manley’s memoirs sold out quite quickly despite efforts to provide enough for the wave of interest. They all want to read about the sex and scandal. They just don’t need to hear it spoken.
Lori Tharps, an American writer whose voice has the quality of innocence—carrying something of a quality of amazement and wonder in everything she says. She is also a funny reader. Her humor is filled with ironies. She shares anecdotes about her time in Spain as a black woman. She is amused, appealed and amazed at the casual way in which racist comments and attitudes are tolerated in that country. And having written that last sentence, I realize that it sounds as if Tharps is a broadside against Spain, but it isn’t. She reminds us that she is married to a Spanish man that she met on her trip. She is a splendid storyteller, drawing us into situation after situation that will eventually supply us with a nicely turned punch-line, and above all, some revelation that never seems trite. Following Goodison and Manley is a tall order for any writer. But Tharps leaps into the fray with glee and manages to win the audience to her. Her book, a long memoir about hair, identity, being a woman, race, and much else, goes quickly, as well. These three writers teach us something about how to work with an audience. It is a beautiful thing to see.

Originally Published: May 26th, 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)...