LargeUp Interview: Kwame Dawes + Justine Henzell on Jamaica’s Calabash Festival

May 30, 2014


LargeUp: How did Calabash get started?

Justine Henzell: Kwame and Colin were on a book tour across England, and it was quite a disorganized tour. People didnโ€™t have their books, sometimes there was no audience, and they kept saying someone needs to do a proper book festival. By the end of the tour they realized that the someones were them and Colin called me because neither lived in Jamaica, so they needed someone on the ground. They called me and said they have this crazy idea. And I said I love crazy ideas, letโ€™s do it. The first festival in 2001 was only a few hundred people, now we have a few thousand people. Itโ€™s been amazing to see the growth.

Kwame Dawes: The idea was to try and enhance the literary world of Jamaica, creating workshops, and have the festival as a kind of high-profile marquee of that effort. When Colin came to Jamaica he met Justine and we put it to her brother [Jason] whether we could use Jakes [the Treasure Beach resort where Calabash takes place, which is owned by the Henzell family] and they agreed with enthusiasm. So we had the first festival at Jakes in 2001. It was a great response. People didnโ€™t think anybody would show up but some people showed up. So thatโ€™s how it started, and weโ€™ve been going strong since then.

LU: How did you decide on the name?

KD: This was Colinโ€™s idea. There’s an area not too far from Treasure Beach called Calabash Bay. The calabash is a traditional fruit used in Africa and the Caribbean as a utensil, usually to collect water or serve fruit. It is a very rustic, downhome instrument from the earth. So we thought it would be a perfect metaphor. You put all of this great food inside the calabash. We used to give out these wonderfully designed calabashes as a takeaway giftโ€”people collected them. But knowing Jamaica, if anything can sound like a bashโ€”you know, you’re going to ‘the bash’… it definitely has a ring to it and people have caught on to it.