This blog is about my trip to attend the Calabash International Literary Festival. Self-styled ‘greatest likkle festival, in the greatest likkle district, in the greatest likkle country in the world!’
Like my last piece on Statia, it’s a bit of a travelogue combined with a few thoughts on what attending this festival made me feel as a storyteller who lives and works in the Caribbean.
This was my second visit to Jamaica; my first trip took me to Ocho Rios and Montego Bay but I failed to connect with the island (well, apart from meeting a nice man who lived in Philly who became my boyfriend for a few months). This time I stayed somewhere much less touristy, and I liked it much more, so much so, in fact, that if they’d had one in my size, I’d have bought the famous T-shirt: JAMIACA NICE.
Treasure Beach is made up of a string of interconnecting pocket beaches. It’s a fishing and farming community with a small, boutique tourism offer. It has one famous boutique hotel – Jakes – a growing collection of fine villas and a handful of simple beach bars and restaurants. Most guests stay in comfortable rather than fancy guest houses.
As it’s a three-hour-plus drive from both Kingston and Montego Bay where the international airports are located it’s still relatively unknown. Treasure Beach promotes community tourism and is natural, quiet, safe, rural and beautiful. The vibe reminded me of my beloved Island Harbour in Anguilla, mixed up with the more earthy and lush aspects of Nevis. My travelling companion Fiona and I loved it from the get-go.
All the local people I chatted to – our house manager and housekeeper, various bartenders, musicians, shop, bar and restaurant owners and my boat tour operator – told me they were from Treasure Beach. The tourists that I spoke to seemed like Anguilla’s: proud of their discovery and committed to keeping Treasure Beach exactly the way they’d found it. However, after the extensive media attention this year’s festival received (Angelina Jolie was spotted attending and that was widely reported) and the fact that the area featured in a New York Times travel article as an undiscovered gem – it’s probably going to get busier.
All the activities of Calabash International Literary Festival take place in the grounds of Jakes and Jack Spratt’s in capacious tents overlooking the beach and sea. Jakes is a very appealing and cool little hotel, but it gets completely booked out with the writers for the festival, so we couldn’t stay there. Instead, we stayed a few minutes’ walk away – in a quirky, charming and brilliantly located beach front AirBnB Calabash House. Perfect for us.
I attend literary festivals to meet like-minded people and hear about books and writing. In my experience, interesting, intelligent people go to these things. Lots of the attendees don’t write themselves s but they do love to read, learn and debate, and they leave inspired by the events. This is why I will always encourage non-writers to come to our own Anguilla Lit Fest – everyone is guaranteed to make new friends and experience unique and different points of view.
The festival programme blended readings, interviews and discussion with musical entertainment; and because all the events were free there was a huge turnout of locals and visitors. We were comfortable to come and go – join in or not – as we felt.
Eating Mangos in the Sea
I love making new friends and can’t help myself networking – this resulted in some magical meetings of minds during my time at Treasure Beach. At Calabash House we met and made friends with the women who had travelled to come to the festival – all of them were experienced ‘Calabashers’ and were so excited their favourite festival was back after a five-year absence.
Elizabeth, Inansi , Kathy, Barbara and Marianne and came from various countries and backgrounds and were warm, curious, creative and fun loving. They are dance-like-nobody’s-watching type of women who were generous with their advice, can rock a red bikini, make a mean cup of coffee (or joint) and welcomed us to share their precious place. We joined their tribe, enjoying long conversations in the fruit- and flower-filled gardens and balmy navy-blue waters of Calabash Bay.
I will always be grateful to Elizabeth for suggesting I ate my daily mango in the sea where I could suck and slurp gustily, allowing the juice to flow everywhere without fear of orange stains. I particularly enjoyed dipping the sweet fruit in a little salt to make it even more piquantly delicious.
These Calabashers were (overall) a little older than me and they were so vibrant, beautiful, independent, cool and physically brave. They made me feel good about future me – I am determined to do it like them.
On my last day in Treasure Beach, I took a boat trip where I got to race along the coast in a turquoise boat, swim in the sweet waters of the Black River and ride out to see the most famous tourist attraction in the area: Floyd’s Pelican Bar.
By the time we hit the iconic driftwood construction in the middle of the ocean, I was hungry and said so. The lovely Captain Dennis said he would see if it was OK for me to join in with a private lunch party – some people he was hosting at his beach spot – and the group graciously said yes.
I ended up not only eating the best food I’d had all week (thank you amazing Black River crab salad), but also meeting and spending the afternoon with another bunch of fabulous Calabashers. They included a performance artist; an organiser of the Kingston Literary Festival; some movers and shakers from the traditional publishing world; and the generous hostess Victoria: an ex-food critic, owner of Rainbow Tree Villa and all-round Treasure Beach enthusiast with her lovely friends from Miami. All these women were so graciously welcoming, and I enjoyed such cool conversations that I expect and hope to meet them again.
Were You Inspired?
My friend Julie asked this, and the answer is yes. But not in the way I assumed I would be. I took my computer, but I didn’t work on True Blue, in fact, I didn’t use it at all. I was fully immersed in the relaxing beauty of Treasure Beach, the comings and goings at Calabash House and the festival. I didn’t want to drag myself away to visit Greece in my imagination to complete Charlotte’s story. It just felt wrong.
What happened was that as I listened to others read from their books, I thought about my own writing life and journey. I realised I was feeling unsure about where I fitted into the Caribbean literary scene.
I felt like I would never be or should ever be invited to be onto that stage. I felt that way because I wasn’t ‘born here’ and because I didn’t see myself as a real Caribbean writer. And then I thought about that some more, and, in the next moment reminded myself, ‘I’m not from here but I choose to live and work here, and that is something good’.
I love this region for many reasons. And I’m interested in its history and culture. But I came here in my thirties, and I don’t pretend to understand what it feels like to have a family that goes back for generations or to have grown up here with everything that entails. But I do feel at home in the Caribbean, have done from the moment my little golden Birkenstocks hit soil in Tobago many years ago. And now I write stories set in the Caribbean. I write what I know about: the intersection of tourists, locals and expatriates. Could I ever be considered a Caribbean writer, even though I’m not of Caribbean descent?
Most of the writers at Calabash write literary fiction or poetry and are traditionally published. I write page-turning beach reads with a side of social commentary that are independently published. Many of the invited guests wrote their Caribbean novels from the UK or the USA, but I live and write where I set my books (even if I don’t specifically name the country). Could this be my unique voice – and get me an invited to present at Calabash? I hope so. One day.
Here are My Most Important Takeaways from the Calabash Experience
I was lucky enough to meet and chat with someone from the traditional publishing world at Captain Dennis’s beach spot. She asked what I wrote, looked me up on Amazon and downloaded my book! I will reach out and see what she thinks of it.
I got to meet a famous Caribbean book blogger @bookofcinz. I’ve been following her online for some time – but I felt too shy to give her copies of my books I’d brought along to the festival – I need to rectify that.
During the festival there were three open mike sessions where close to 100 spoken word artists got their three minutes of exposure on stage. I didn’t put my name down, but Fiona and I should have. We will know better next time.
So Yes, the Festival Inspired Me – to Set Myself a New Goal and I’m Just Going to Put It Out There
I want to be invited to the Calabash Festival as an artist one day. I want to have my name on the programme of events and to revisit Treasure Beach – staying at Jakes and becoming part of that tribe for a few days.
I know that won’t be with my current books as they like to highlight new work and probably don’t work with self-published authors. The festival happens bi-annually so I’m not putting pressure on myself to succeed immediately. But it’s a long-term goal and you read it here first.
PS: The festival inspired me in plenty of other ways too. I plan to write a new book series about the adventures and lives of a bunch of extraordinary women who accidentally find themselves at a quirky Caribbean guest house – I’ll keep you posted! And I’m going to keep working on my garden, adding fruit trees so one day it’s as beautiful as the one at Calabash House.