After a five-year hiatus due to the pandemic, the “greatest likkle festival in the greatest likkle district in the greatest likkle country in the world” returned to Jamaica’s southwest shore. For three days, Calabash International Literary Festival livened up the little parish of Treasure Beach with words and music with the theme “For Word,” a play on moving “forward.” Lulling ocean waves served as the backdrop to excerpts read by some of today’s greatest literary minds, including Yvonne Bailey-Smith, Linton Kwesi Johnson, Kwame Dawes, Kei Miller and Olive Senior.
Calabash is not a festival of pomp and who knows who. It’s an experience where you’ll sit next to a Pulitzer Prize-winning author or Oscar-nominated actress, share a rum punch and move into a midnight concert replete with dancehall and Afrobeat tunes. Here it’s art, not titles, that takes center stage.
“The most inspiring element for me was meeting young readers who are hungry for writing about the Jamaican and Caribbean diaspora and who hold the literary arts in such high esteem. These readers make me hopeful for our collective future,” says Jonathon Escoffery, who read from his award-winning debut novel, If I Survive You.
Hosted at Jake’s Hotel, the festival got its start in 2001 thanks to Justine Henzell, poet Kwame Dawes and novelist Colin Channer. Today, the biennial event is just as imaginative and stimulating as ever—a testament to the power of words, as well as the organizers and residents who volunteer and put their heart and soul into the event. Poems and selections from novels were read, call and response moments occurred, and even dance-offs took place around the festival’s seaside wooden stage.
Authors Yvonne Bailey-Smith, Taiye Selasi, and Namwali Serpell kicked off Saturday morning with a themed conversation called Daughters of New Africa. Serpell’s book, The Furrows: An Elegy, was named one of the New York Times’ 10 Best Books and 100 Notable Books of 2022, and was also picked as one of President Barack Obama’s favorite books of the last year. Jamaican-born author Bailey-Smith read from her debut novel, The Day I Fell Off My Island.
Later that evening, poet and novelist Kei Miller’s reading was met with roaring applause from an audience that included actress Angelina Jolie and author and TV host Padma Lakshmi, while Jamaican poet laureate Olive Senior read from her piece titled “meditation on yellow,” a revelatory tale on the experience of both Amerindians and Black people in the wake of colonization and modern day tourism.
In the evening, poet Staceyann Chin set fire to the stage with her powerful poetry, which was received with rousing applause. Afterward, the event was sent off with a party. DJs Anash and Chromatic performed, mixing Afrobeats, soca and dancehall for a crowd of all ages that danced until two in the morning.
Calabash is just as much about honoring community as it is about literature. During the festival, an artisan village selling crafts and food from locals was also made available for attendees. Visitors to the festival checked into Jake’s, designed by Sally Henzell, wife of the late Perry Henzell, who directed Jamaica’s first feature film in 1972’s The Harder They Come. Visited by celebrities like Solange, the collection of seaside cottages and villas include a kaleidoscope of seashell adorned accommodations, pastel splashed patios and ocean views shaded by swaying palms.
After a day full of literary feasting, relaxing back at Jake’s has quickly become one of my favorite pastimes. Overall, there are very few comparable festivals that host with the amount of heart that Calabash does. I am full on words and community, all thanks to this likkle festival. I would gladly return to Treasure Beach’s shores to experience it all again — and hopefully I won’t have to wait another five years to make it happen.