Calabash: the reggae aesthetic, in words
The Caribbean literary festival known as Calabash breathes the wondrous tropical salt air of Bob Marley, Derek Walcott and C. L. R. James — an air of lyricism, multiplicity and resistance. It’s the air of a once neglected precinct of empire that has produced by now a powerfully diasporic people and consciousness. Chris Abani, the exiled Nigerian poet now teaching in Los Angeles, observed at the start of his remarks to Calabash ’08 that “there would be no Nigeria without Jamaica. All the freedom movements in Africa,” he said, “began in the Caribbean.”
Calabash, in its 8th year, has made a name along the writers’ tour for edginess, freedom and outspoken talent. It is a monument to what the co-founders Colin Channer and Kwame Dawes honor as the “reggae aesthetic,” by which one learns that they mean a Marley-inspired mix of earthiness, spirituality, social urgency, sensuality, celebration and, of course, great music.
I came to Calabash ’08 to hear perspectives from wildly articulate near neighbors on the United States, at an inflection point on matters like race, power, and globlalism. I brought with me the conceit that Caribbean writers and thinkers cast the intimate, critical backstage eye on America that Irish wits traditionally trained on imperial England. It’s a penetrating but not unloving gaze. One senses among the Calabash writers a rising confidence, maybe a second surge of post-colonial feeling. There’s a pervasive dismay about the American condition, and an inescapable excitement about the Obama possibility. Not all the Calabash crowd is Jamaican: one of the best-received readers is an Irishman who lives in the American Midwest, whose last novel is set in Maine. Among the Jamaicans, many teach in the States and all know us better, for sure, than we know them.
The last time I came to Jamaica, I stumbled on the possibility of local-global radio. This time I gathered a sort of composite conversation. This first section is a ramble on whatever it is we are all “going through.” The second, to follow, reflects on the Obama phenomenon.
Margaret Cezair-Thompson is a novelist, both popular and serious, who teaches creative writing at Wellesley College:
We have a unique perspective. I think it’s true of all the islands, it’s just many many different layers of race and culture and many different histories all mixed together… and it hasn’t caused a weakening in our perspective or any kind of dilution. I think we have very intense feelings about race, about politics, about tradition, cultures, but we have a way of having those things being expressed side by side without great problem. And that’s why these racial issues that have come up with the Obama campaign… for me as a Jamaican, it seems naïve to be so completely shocked or overly fascinated by the idea that he’s of mixed race… People in Jamaica have been thinking along those terms for centuries. Bob Marley has a white father and a black mother. For centuries African American have been dealing with the fact that they are of mixed ancestry, that they are a hybrid people. What I love about Obama is that he’s, in a sense, bringing this into the face of America where it hasn’t been dealt with before…
Margaret Cezair-Thompson, novelist of The Pirate’s Daughter in conversation with Chris Lydon at Calabash 08, Treasure Beach, Jamaica. May 23, 2008.
Gerard Donovan, the Galway-born novelist, picked up the Irish connection that Margaret Cezair Thompson had affirmed:
It’s a simple fact that Ireland did get the English language from the English, and then improved it and gave it back to them. And I have this feeling that Jamaica has an upsurge in music and poetry and song that is finding its own melody as they begin to gain in confidence. It’s all about a nation’s confidence… With it comes the art of being able to tell your story and the story of people who’ve gone before you. I do believe that artists do come from a particular country, they are not individuals. In the end, I think every writer comes from a place and ultimately writes about that place…
Gerard Donovan, novelist of Julius Winsome in conversation with Chris Lydon at Calabash 08, Treasure Beach, Jamaica. May 24, 2008.
Beverly East is a forensic graphologist — a handwriting expert — as well as best-selling novelist. She speaks the many accents of Jamaicans in England and the States and at home:
I like to think I’m tri-cultural. I was born in Jamaica, raised in England and now living in America, I see the world in three dimensions. I consider myself a Jamaican, but when I in America, I am very conscious that I am an immigrant. I am very conscious that I have this Green Card that Homeland Security can take away from me at any moment. I tip-toe gently when I’m in the states. I feel like I don’t even want to get a [traffic] ticket. I never felt that way until 9/11. I felt differently when the Patriot Act came in, and then the D.C. sniper with one of them being Jamaican. You know, you get a little nervous… I always think I’m viewed as the drug mule, the alternative person that would be bringing the weed or the drugs from Jamaica to the United States…
Beverly East, novelist of Reaper of Souls in conversation with Chris Lydon at Calabash 08, Treasure Beach, Jamaica. May 23, 2008.
Yusef Komunyakaa won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1994. Born in Bogalusa, Louisiana in 1947, he is best known as a “jazz poet” and a poet of Vietnam. This was his first trip to Jamaica.
We have extremely poor people completely divorced from the pursuit of happiness in America for the simple reason that they don’t have dreams. That is very devastating especially when this deficit in dreaming is passed on to young people. For some young people, the only thing they inherit is rage and that is deadly and unhealthy. [The Calabsh community] is almost like an extended family, isn’t it? Some of the same challenges some of the same thoughts. Not that there is an immense agreement, but it’s a community of ideas, and that is very important.
Yusef Komunyakaa, poet of “Love in a Time of War” in conversation with Chris Lydon at Calabash 08, Treasure Beach, Jamaica. May 23, 2008.
Chris Abani was imprisoned for his outspokenly political early poetry in Nigeria. He remembers the the music star Fela Kouti in the same lock-up, telling him “truth is a risky business.” He’s himself a very hot American literary star nowadays, based in Los Angeles, and still speaking truth to power.
I think the end of Bush moment, the frenzy in America, is a very disingenuous frenzy. I think Americans voted this man in. When he clearly cheated on this election, they did nothing to stop him. When he started a false war, they did nothing to impeach him. It’s now easy to join the bandwagon of people calling for the end of Bush or distancing themselves from him, but all of America, even those who protested the war, because that is not enough, rode on America’s empire, and this is what happens when empire fails – everyone tries to get off a sinking ship…
Chris Abani, poet and novelist of Graceland in conversation with Chris Lydon at Calabash 08, Treasure Beach, Jamaica. May 24, 2008.