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


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What are you doing to bring attention to the literary scene in Jamaica and the broader Caribbean?

JH: Not only does Calabash happen in Jamaica, it happens on the South Coast of Jamaica in a little fishing village that’s one of the most beautiful places in Jamaica, so it can’t help but be Jamaican. We have incredible Jamaican food for three days, reggae every day, it is infused with Jamaica. If we didn’t have one Jamaican writer on the program it would still be completely Jamaican. We have Jamiacan and Caribbean authors on the program not because they are Jamaican or Caribbean, but because they are worthy. We get a lot of requests like “I’m Jamaican and I wrote that book.” Well, that’s great and we applaud you for that but that doesn’t necessarily assure you a place on the Calabash stage.

LU: Is there more attention being paid to Caribbean authors right now?

JH: We have a lot of fantastic Caribbean authors who are doing really well. Two interesting things are happening. One is a lot of authors who identify themselves as Caribbean live outside of the Caribbean, and the other thing is that the writers writing in the Caribbean are not necessarily writing what would be thought of as Caribbean themes anymore. There is a Jamaican writer at Calabash this year, Roland Watson Grant, and his book is set in Louisiana. There is another Jamaican who currently lives in Japan, and his book just won a Commonwealth Writers Prize.

LU: And how does Calabash factor into this?

KD: I think one of the great contributions of Calabash to Jamaica and the Caribbean in general has been to put literature at the forefront in the media, in newspapers, television and so forth. We started a system of book launches that started with Calabash, and book launches are ubiquitous in Jamaica now. We had Novelty Trading, which was then a fledgling distributor, as our key bookseller at the festival and they’ve grown to be the biggest book distributor in the country. We’ve held workshops for writers in fiction and poetry for over 10 years, several of our writers have become quite famous and won major awards. Most importantly, to get 2 to 3,000 people to a festival in St. Elizabeth every year, and these are largely Jamaicans, coming from all walks of life, to just enjoy literature, and have Jamaica be known for its literary festival—those things give a kind of credibility to the literary arts [here]. When a writer from Jamaica gets to read with Junot Diaz, that gives them a sense of belonging in the world of literature. So that is one of our big contributions.