The Calabash International Literary Festival 2014 has been over for going on four days now, and I am not yet quite recovered. From the welcome dinner for authors and press last Thursday night; to the Friday morning boat trip to Pelican Bar; to the opening of the Festival proper that evening with an emotional reading of Maya Angelou’s seminal Still I Rise; to Saturday’s packed programme that featured Zadie Smith, Colum McCann, Salman Rushdie, Karen Lord, and … umm … me; to Sunday’s mellow musical wind-down, followed by another sumptuous farewell meal – it was, in a word, amazing. Calabash accomplishes something that few other literary festivals or genre conventions achieve, or even attempt: a true meeting of creative minds, a bridging of the gap between ‘mainstream’ and ‘genre’, a celebration of the full breadth and depth of literary ambition and experience.
These were just a few of my personal highlights:
- The prominence of poetry: Scottish poet Rab Wilson brought the house down before reading a single verse, when he opened his set by coming to the front of the seaside stage with a camera and taking a picture of the audience. ‘This,’ he said, in the broadest of Scottish brogues, ‘is to prove to the folks at home that more than ten people came to a poetry reading.’ He wasn’t wrong. The marquee held, by my estimate, over a thousand seats and was at least as packed for poetry as for prose. Co-founded by a poet and a novelist, Calabash values both forms equally. So does its audience.
- Meeting Marlon James: Some of you out there already know how much I admire this author. Ann Morgan took up my recommendation of his first novel, John Crow’s Devil, as the Jamaican book for her A Year of Reading the World project, and loved it as much as I did. His second, The Book of Night Women, was visceral, searing, and will stay with me forever. But sometimes the people whose work you admire are less than captivating in person; so I’m happy to report that Marlon is every bit as smart, articulate, keenly observant and ruthlessly down to earth as I could have wished.
- Hanging with Karen Lord: I’d met Karen early in May, for the Women in Science Fiction panel organised by our mutual publisher Jo Fletcher Books. We didn’t manage more than a brief conversation then, followed by another, longer one a week or so later (in the course of recording a podcast on Caribbean science fiction for The Skiffy and Fanty Show) – both of which only made me want to get to know her better. Her award-winning first novel Redemption in Indigo is a genre-bending delight, and The Best of All Possible Worlds one of the more interesting, unusual and thematically ambitious science fiction novels of recent years. She is fiercely intelligent, great fun to be with, and passionate about her work. I’m already looking forward to our next meeting.
- Hearing Zadie Smith: I don’t know quite what I expected; something a bit cerebral and detached, perhaps? Instead Smith’s reading from The Embassy of Cambodia was surprisingly warm, unexpectedly funny, and quietly tragic.
- Science fiction by the sea: Chris John Farley read, and then Karen Lord read, and then I read. For almost half an hour each; my longest reading yet, to by far the largest audience I think any of us had ever had. Who were, in a word, wonderful. I somehow managed not to lose my place, glancing up as one does to check that you’ve got their attention, that they’re not trickling out the exits or looking blankly back at you. Instead they were rapt, listening, concentrating – hundreds and hundreds of people, leaving their world behind to travel with you into yours. ‘You can’t have empathy without imagination,’ festival co-founder and impresario Kwame Dawes pointed out when he introduced us, ‘and this is literature of the imagination.’ They got it. You know how rare it is to see imagination working its way through a sea of faces? Rare. Thank you, Calabash, for that very great gift.
- Listening to Salman Rushdie: Who was warm and witty and wise; who talked about culture and diaspora and conflicting influences; who read a sex scene set, uproariously and appropriately, amid sacks of pepper; who commented on tracks by Elvis Presley and Lou Reed and his own lyrics sung by U2; who described the sea of stories as the Caribbean glinted and shifted behind him; who discussed and dismissed literary pigeonholing; who was, in short, everything you would hope from a literary lion and a speaker of truth.
- Conversations! With the aforementioned Marlon and Karen; Olivia Cole and Paul Holdengraber; Adam Mansbach and Miasha; Paul Muldoon, Kwame Dawes, Chris John Farley. About concerns both tangible and thematic; personal histories and world affairs; adventures in publishing and the challenges of academia; literary experiments, cultural quirks, conceptual leaps. ‘The conversations,’ festival worker Drew Brennan confided to me, ‘are my favourite part.’ No wonder. Calabash fosters a kind of intellectual yoga: a stretching and strengthening and expansion of the faculties. Utterly brilliant.