Free literary festival in tiny Jamaica beach town lures some of globe's most famous writers

  • Article by: DAVID MCFADDEN , Associated Press
  • Updated: June 2, 2014 - 11:20 AM
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Acclaimed novelist Zadie Smith is shown signing a book for a fan in Treasure Beach, Jamaica, Saturday, May 31, 2014.

Photo: Dave Macfadden, Associated Press - Ap

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TREASURE BEACH, Jamaica — Best-selling authors take to a seaside stage, bottles of Red Stripe beer in hand. Budding writers line up to read their works to a big, appreciative audience. Book-loving islanders and tourists mingle with literary luminaries as the sun sets over the Caribbean Sea.

It's the Calabash International Literary Festival, Jamaica's unique, spirited take on the world of literary gatherings, and the biennial event held over the weekend has been getting bigger at each staging.

Since 2001, the tiny, laid-back beach town of Treasure Beach in arid southern Jamaica has been home to the festival, attracting Nobel laureates and a slew of other acclaimed writers. From modest beginnings, Calabash has grown into a major international literary event.

One of its three founders, Jamaican novelist Colin Channer, has dubbed the three-day celebration of writing as the "greatest little festival in the greatest little district in the greatest little country in the world."

This year, authors Salman Rushdie, Zadie Smith, Jamaica Kincaid and Colum McCann were among the novelists and poets participating in readings and themed discussions in between reggae- and rap-fueled celebrations and beachside socializing. The festival, free of charge and open to anyone, started Friday and ran through Sunday evening.

Kincaid, an Antigua-born novelist and essayist, said the festival has given the people of the Caribbean a top-flight literary event in a part of the world where storytelling and creativity with language has always been prized.

"Among all the other things we do, black people also make literature. We are very imaginative, literate people. The problem has always been access. That's why this event is so inspiring," she said by the saltwater pool at Jake's, a hotel that's a collection of funky, colorful cottages that hosts the celebration every two years.

Rushdie said it's no wonder that Calabash has steadily earned a name as a festival of choice for some of the world's most gifted authors.

"It is an extraordinary event. The audience is big, extremely appreciative, very focused. And the setting is spectacular," he told The Associated Press on Sunday, a day after he took to the stage to discuss his writings and career in front of an eager, diverse crowd of a few thousand people.

Rushdie's works include the Booker Prize-winning "Midnight's Children" and the best-selling "The Satanic Verses," which some Muslims consider blasphemous. A fatwa, or Islamic edict, was issued against Rushdie in 1989 by Iran's late revolutionary leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, which forced Rushdie into hiding under British police protection for years.

Just two years ago, an Indian literary festival canceled a video conference with Rushdie after threats of violence. But in Jamaica, the author strolled around freely and chatted with people.

It's the easygoing, accessible vibe of Calabash that entices well-known writers to come without their normal speaking fees, said Kwame Dawes, a Jamaican poet who co-founded the festival with Channer and filmmaker Justine Henzell. He said Calabash does not pay participating authors, but provides their airfare and accommodation.

"This is a free festival and it's open to everybody. And I think the writers share that very progressive spirit," Dawes said Sunday.

A staging of the volunteer-led festival costs roughly $150,000. It has attracted various sponsors and donors.

The success of Calabash has fostered a more lively literary scene within the Caribbean, inspiring the creation of literary festivals on other islands, among them Trinidad and Tobago's NGC Bocas Lit Fest and Barbados' annual Bim Literary Festival and Book Fair.

Alison Donnell, an English professor at England's University of Reading who co-edited the 2011 "Companion to Anglophone Caribbean Literature," said many literary gatherings can seem to be the products of a "culturally homogenized repertoire of ticketed good taste," but Calabash and other Caribbean gatherings avoid stuffiness.

"They are also feverishly important to a regional literary culture that has suffered from decades of the familiar idea that Caribbean writing comes to maturity" abroad in such major cities as New York, London and Toronto, Donnell said by email.

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