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


wole-soyinka-calabash-festival-jamaica
Paul Holdengraber and Wole Soyinka. Photo by Hugh Wright.

LU: This year you have some interesting names, like Salman Rushdie and someone like Prodigy. How do you decide on the programming?

JH: We have very firm brand guardrails. Everything needs to be earthy, inspirational, daring and diverse. Everything we do, we say does it meet this criteria. Then we choose a theme, and we’re very conscious of being an international festival. It’s not a Jamaican festival, it’s not a poetry festival, it’s all genres, all different nationalities. This year we wanted to make sure we had writers from all over the world. Which we have achieved, we have Ngugi Wa Thiong’O from Kenya, Valzhyna Mort from Belarus, Paul Muldoon and Colum McCann, who are Irish, Rahul Bhattacharya from India. As well as Rushdie. It’s an exciting program this year.

KD: Calabash is programmed in a simple, basic way. I [am] looking out for interesting writers who are emerging, new books that are being published. We usually have a long list of writers on our wish list, in fact some of the writers we have this year have been on our wish list for years, and we think about how to find connections to them, other writers who know them. [The] program has to have a number of key elements. It has to have some major marquee name we think will win the attention and interest of our audience. We want writers who have had a book in print within the last two years. if the writer doesn’t, they don’t get invited to the festival. Thirdly we try to make it diverse. It’s an international festival, but it’s also a festival based in the Caribbean, so we like to get some voices from the region. But we also want to make it international in the most broad way possible.

JH: [With] Rushdie, we have mutual friends. He’s known about the festival for a long time and wanted to come, but it was a matter of fitting into his busy schedule. We finally found a year that he could be here.

LU: Does that mutual friend with Salman Rushdie happen to be Jimmy Cliff? Salman and Jimmy are friends. We have this great photo of them together at Miss Lily’s.

JH: [Laughs] No, it was the Jamaican novelist Marlon James. That’s great, though.