Primal grunts in a literary paradise

Award-winning novelist heads to Caribbean festival. Moose calls and madness ensue.

Primal grunts in a literary paradiseThe Caribbean shimmers in sunlight behind me. Another sea, waves of people, 2,500 strong, sits in front, on chairs or on the grass in the shade, staring. I’m surrounded. And my ill-advised idea is to attempt something off-the-cuff that I’ve already told the crowd should be a first in the history of their beautiful country of Jamaica. To pull this off will take participation. I ask if they’re game. A roar of approval. I can’t believe I’m really going to do this.

Justine Henzell, production director of the island’s Calabash International Literary Festival, is the daughter of Perry Henzell, the deceased movie director and producer. Henzell’s baby, The Harder They Come, became a worldwide phenomenon, in large part because it introduced the rhythms of reggae to the rest of the world back when no one outside of Jamaica had much idea who Bob Marley was. Justine, alongside the Jamaican writers Colin Channer and Kwame Dawes, dreamed up the festival eight years ago, the only English-speaking international literary festival in the Caribbean, on Justine’s family’s property on the south shore of the island, a gorgeous stretch in a town called St. Elizabeth.

What started as a free festival of poetry and fiction read by local authors to a crowd of a couple hundred has ballooned into a free festival of international writers reading for audiences of thousands. Lawrence Hill and Michael Ondaatje are just two of the Canadian writers among many more who have been to this little paradise. This year’s lineup includes such heavyweights as Junot Diaz, winner of a 2008 Pulitzer Prize, Edwidge Danticat, 2007’s National Book Critics Circle winner, and Robert Pinsky, three-time poet laureate of the United States.

This year’s festival almost didn’t happen. Just over a month ago it was officially cancelled for lack of funding. Too many private donors had felt the pinch of the global financial meltdown. But popular outcry became so loud that the Jamaican government and new private donors stepped in. The people of this country take Calabash seriously.

“I think a lot of Jamaicans,” founder and artistic director Colin Channer tells me, “publicly looked at the idea of literature as something stuffy, as belonging to academics. But clearly, there’s a secret hunger for reading, for books, that exists on the island.”

The long weekend opens with a lovely breeze and bright stars. Bestselling and award-winning authors from Jamaica, Barbados, the Dominican Republic and Haiti enthrall the crowd. Booths selling jerk chicken, roasted corn, clothing and island art do a brisk business. Jack Sprat’s, the local bar and restaurant, is packed. Happy people walk or stretch out on the beach beside the bar. I realize this is one of the rare times I’ve been to a literary festival where it truly feels like a celebration. The director Melvin Van Peebles, father of actor Mario, screens his new film before the world beat party begins at midnight, a live band rocking the crowd to the wee hours.

The next days, too, are full of readings and music and swimming. While Caribbean literature in all its forms—patois slavery narratives to post-colonial fiction to postmodern poetry—is one focus of the festival, writers from as far-flung places as Austria and Hong Kong take the stage, too. One afternoon, of the close to 40 writers invited (including Edward Seaga, former prime minister of Jamaica and Rachel Manley, Toronto-living daughter of the late Jamaican prime minister Michael Manley), more than half go on a boat excursion up the Black River to view the mangrove swamps and monster crocodiles.

And now I’m onstage. I’ve read before to audiences of two, and to audiences of hundreds, but I can’t remember ever having read to this many. “Okay,” I ask the crowd one more time, “are you ready to do what I am pretty sure will be a first in the history of your beautiful country?” Taking a deep breath and cupping my hands over my mouth, I bellow out my best female moose call. Silence, and then the crowd cheers and claps. “I call that one ‘young cow in estrus,’ ” I tell them. They’re getting my sense of humour. I teach the crowd how to do it and they imitate, a great high-pitched wail. Then I teach them the grunt of the bull moose. Good imitators, these ones. And before you know it, I have the audience doing a call and response, one side calling the cow, the other answering with the bull, a warm wind blowing in off the Caribbean and carrying the most primal of music up and into the ether. It is, like the Calabash festival itself, a stunning thing to witness.

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