I spent this past weekend at the best Literary Festival in the world – the Calabash International Literary Festival which is held in Treasure Beach, Jamaica. This was not my first time. I have been making this annual then bi-annual pilgrimage since 2007 and every year it still manages to be magical.
Before Calabash I had never been to Treasure Beach. That first year I stayed at accommodation found by my adventure loving friend from Germany who had been to Treasure Beach some weeks prior. Back then I did not have a car or a boyfriend with a car so a friend from work drove us from our office in Cross Roads to New Kingston on that Friday afternoon to board the bus waiting outside the Jamaica Tourist Board building that would take us to Treasure Beach that evening and return on Sunday for the trip back to Kingston.
I cannot remember anyone who read that first year. I only remember taking it all in. There was a sort of reverence; except for bathroom breaks and food, I spent all of my time under the tent and in the bookshop. After the initial awe, in subsequent years I have spent quite a fair number of hours under the tent, but there have been some persons whose readings I have missed due to a nap that turned into the night’s sleep, lunch that turned into a lyme, a late arrival on Friday evening or just not being particularly interested in a particular author or segment. I am never missing at the poetry readings though.
There was one year when I waited too long to acquire accommodation and so did not get any. That was the year my friend Millicent Graham was reading from her first collection of poems The Damp in Things. She was reading on Friday night and I could not miss it so I, along with my boyfriend (I had acquired both a boyfriend with a car as well as my own car by then) and my adventurous German friend (who had actually been back to Germany and had returned to Jamaica for a second stint) drove down to Treasure Beach for Friday night’s activities and then drove back to Kingston after.
I have been privileged to have been at Calabash when the likes of Salman Rushdie and Derek Walcott were a part of the program. Over the years the Calabash stage has been graced by so many great writers, many of them being Jamaican. They serve as an inspiration to others like myself who have dreams of gracing the stage as well and not just for open mic.
If you have been to Calabash a few times, it starts to feel like a family reunion. You see people you know who you may not see at any other time of the year. You also start to notice the same faces and if you do not see someone you saw the last few times you begin to wonder whatever happened to so and so. Over the years some of these faces become acquaintances. People you can wave hello to and say how do you do? And as your circle widens, you find some of your new acquaintances are “Calabashers” as well.
This year’s Calabash came at a particularly exhausting time for me. I arrived late on Friday and missed a good chunk of Friday evening (but not the poetry of course), I was late both mornings and did spend my fair share of time outside of the tent. For me the festival was not the most earthshattering one I have ever been to. I enjoyed some readings but not others. I did a groupie thing and asked (well asked my friend to ask) Ilya Kaminsky if I could take a photo with him and he graciously agreed. I took photos at the photo booth. I bought only one book. If any of my friends are reading this they are probably dialing my number right now to ascertain if I am all right. The truth is, books are expensive in Jamaica and I was broke. While it is nice to have an autographed copy of a book, in many instances the Kindle version is cheaper or it is cheaper to buy it online. So I choose to be loyal to the writer at the expense of the book distributor and purchase the book by some other means.
The most poignant part of the weekend for me was during the interview with Chris Abani when he said that “Talent does not mean anything, it’s how much rejection you can handle.” (I tweeted that and got a few retweets). This is true for writers and the arts but also life in general. As I have gotten older (and I am particularly conscious of my age at this time as I have a birthday coming up), I think my tolerance for rejection has increased because I realize that rejection is just a part of the game and invariably sometimes it will not be about the work but you will just not be someone’s cup of tea.
The Calabash International Literary Festival has never had a fee for admission. I know this is by design but I also know that there can never be a fee because there is no way to put a dollar value on the experience. It is immeasurable. It is life changing. From a personal perspective, before I even went to my first Calabash, I had Colin Channer read one of my poems and he said it was nice but I should do so and so and though I agreed with his suggestions in principle, I tried it and did not like what “my” poem became. That encounter was; however, part of what led me to apply for these writing workshops that were being put on by the Calabash International Literary Festival Trust. I was accepted and attended my first ever writing workshop. There I realized that maybe just maybe I could write and that I could do more than I ever imagined with my writing. I also made friends that are now like family. The writing has been off and on over the years, and I have been engaged in different pursuits (like blogging, which I am not doing a particularly good job at at the moment) but fast forward to the launch of Calabash 2016 and Colin Channer’s Providential, where I told Kwame Dawes that he was going to be my editor (speaking it into being) and an impromptu stop at Megamart when I returned home from the festival this weekend where I bought notepads (because writing on the computer is just not the same) to begin my writing anew.
Many times we write with an idea in mind not knowing where the thought will take us. I started writing this blog post with Chris Abani’s quote in mind, and it has evolved into an act of gratitude – thanks Kwame, Justine and Colin.