At Calabash

In 2007, a group of Antiguan writers

Here we are (from left S.E. James, me, Brenda Lee Browne, Akilah Jardine, Marie Elena John) with Kittitian writer Caryl Phillips, author of Commonwealth best book winner A Distant Shore

, with assistance from the Commonwealth Foundation made its way to the Commonwealth Foundation. It was an amazing experience. One blogged about here by Sharon James. And here’s what I wrote back then:

By jhohadli

 

In one of our conversations, Brenda Lee and I marvel at their sureness, at the tender age of teen-something. 

 We’re talking about a young writer we know – me through Wadadli Pen [a youth writing competition I coordinated between 2004 and 2006 coordinate] and Brenda through the various writing workshops she conducts. This young writer would shortly head to Washington for participation in a prestigious writing workshop.

 We’re, also, talking about Akilah, another young Antiguan writer standing a few paces away on this breezy day in this coastal fishing village-cum-literary Mecca. Just two nights earlier, she’d launched her latest book; and before the day is out she’ll face the many expectant faces gathered under the Calabash tent from the podium beneath the thatched stage, her back to the sea, her words hitching a ride on the brisk wind.

I’ll take a turn at mic – Open Mic – as well, reading from my first book The Boy from Willow Bend. It would be a shame, I’d decided, to travel all this way and not leave my footprints in the brown-sugar-brown sand at Treasure Beach. But it is narrower footprints that occupy my mind at this writing, on this night – still, except for the rushing surf and my stirred up thoughts. The prints of one bold enough to step before the same sizable crowd that had South African Writer, Commonwealth Writers-prize-best-first-fiction nominee for All We Have Left Unsaid Maxine Case, remarking, rather nervously, that this was the largest crowd she’d ever read to.

 There she stands, the youngest of our group; gaze unclouded, shoulders square.

Young hearts, run free. Who sang that? Candi Staton? Well, there it is; and it’s a beautiful thing. Like music.

Perhaps this is the definitive sign that we’ve come a long way; back in real time, in Antigua. Sure, we still don’t have a home for our public library – haven’t in my lifetime. Sure, we still have no cultural policy; nor it seems the will to dig one from amidst the talent and dreams and quest for identity, the collective floundering for a hold as waves of change blow unrelentingly in. Sure, the arts still enjoy stepchild status; doesn’t pay. Not really, not as bountifully as the professions I still shy away from as if from a life of certain bondage.

 But these girls – these Antiguan writers not yet out of their teens – are a far cry from the girl with a dream in her heart that she hardly dared believe in. Practicality, security, were the lyrics woven into the music of her world; there, even when the tune had no words. The confidence to dance to her own strange beat, without apology, took time; and she still sometimes loses step.

Perhaps – even with the things still missing; library, cultural policy, nurturing environment for the arts, arts financing – their bold steps are a sign that strides are being made. In some measure, the much more populous field has something to do with it; that once vast field where once a lone warrior stood pen poised before her like a sword cutting through the detritus. But it’s something else, too, something innate.

Of course, we muse – Brenda and I, we’re far from that proverbial There. How many children are still taught that art is trivial, incidental to life not its very heartbeat? How many with this singular talent, to writetodrawtosingtodance, never truly emerge, are never taught how to use God’s gift, how to multiply this talent? How dismissive are we still of the arts? It doesn’t have the currency of politics or sports, or currency? Aren’t we still forced to hedge our bets (yes, even these daring kids that dare give voice to dreams that we, at their age, wrapped in cotton wool)?

But it is progress, of a sort, to have stretched for the high branches, plucked and sucked, like a particularly sweet mango, the various opportunities that have leaked from this pen. To be here at Calabash – the Caribbean’s premier literary festival started in Jamaica by Waiting in Vain author Colin Channer, poet Kwame Dawes, and producer Justine Henzell back in 2001. It is progress that five of us – all literary arts activists and writers – looked at each other and said, “Let’s do this”; and raised the funding (thanks to the Commonwealth Foundation, thanks to Caribbean Airlines) and did.

Marie Elena remarks as we amble back to the Cacona guest house on our last day at Treasure Beach (which I like to think of as Treasure Island) that it feels like we’ve stepped out of time. I must admit – and did – that I was not ready to step back in.

Only an hour earlier, we’d shook hands and posed for a keepsake with Channer, and joked with internationally-renowned Kittitian scribe, Caryl Phillips poolside in the magical glow of twilight.

 Hours earlier, we’d sat with a savvy New York editor as she schooled us on the industry, a lesson tailored to fit Caribbean writers.

Hours earlier we’d allowed Cindy Breakspeare (former Ms. World and, yes, Damien Marley’s mommy) and others to lead us through Ganesh’s tragicomic world with their relay-style reading of V. S. Naipaul’s Mystic Masseur.

For hours upon hours, we’d listened, delightedly, to reading after reading (wondering if an Antiguan crowd would ever give itself over to hours of just this), the listening itself lesson after lesson on shaping character, plotting, creating atmosphere, pacing. Caryl (“I love fiction because I can hide”) Phillips shares his memoirs. American poet Linda Susan (“grab those notes like you own them”) Jackson conjures Etta and Billie in What Yellow Sounds Like. Aussie Andrew O’Connor, a Commonwealth best first fiction nominee effortlessly tickles us with his readings from Tuvalu.

Beautiful. Like music. The wind blows strong and the tent flaps excitedly – its own applause, as the bodies sway forward as though at a Tanya Stephens concert. And we buzz excitedly many a morning after, with ideas on how we could bring even a fraction of this experience home. We hope to find a way to do so, before real life, real time, overrides best intentions. We want to bring the salt of the sea breeze, the music of the words, the vibes that grabbed hold, shaking loose the constraints of life back in real time. We want to bring this flow, this letting go and letting one’s art live, this urge to create and serve the art that was gifted to us. We want to bring the desire to reach for the high notes and to understand (and use well) the tools we use.

The experience clings like fresh dew, and we are refreshed. And that’s the best reason to go to these things after all. To hear Maryse Condé, yes. To meet writers from far flung areas – as far as New Zealand, yes. To learn, to network, to grow, yes. But mostly to stand still and soak it up, feel it infuse and energize. Like music.

It’s a reminder that the journey is the thing. Lloyd Jones, announced at Calabash as best book winner of the Commonwealth Writers Prize, shared with one of our group that it took him 12 drafts to complete the Dickensian inspired Mr. Pip. And in that there is hope that our own daily struggles with the page and with finding our way to the page, aren’t so bleak.

One conversation, with Sharon and Brenda, is about the challenges of being a writer in Antigua; the writing you have to do in order to do the writing you want to do, how little of you it leaves to give to the writing you need to do. You debate about whose grass is greener, whose lawn better manicured.

In the end, you all agree that events like Calabash are like manna in a desert. You want to stretch this moment. Let your muse out to play, at will. Listen – to the surf, to the words. Watch as a young Antiguan literally half your age (and how scary is that; tick tock) steps to the mic. Believe in your thrumming heart that, not only is your rhythm not discordant, it is music to the ears.

This article references the trip of the first ever Antiguan delegation to the Calabash Literary Festival in Jamaica. That delegation consisted of Marie Elena John, author of Unburnable, Sharon James, author of a series of children’s books that begins with Tragedy on Emerald Island, Akilah Jardine, author of a duo of teen books that begins with Living Life the Way I Love It, writer and literary activist Brenda Lee Browne, and Joanne C. Hillhouse, author of The Boy from Willow Bend and Dancing Nude in the Moonlight. It’s been previously published in the Daily Observer newspaper, Antigua – June 1st 2007, on my blog at www.myspace.com/jhohadli, and in the U.S. publication, the Coup.

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