An Exemplary Resignation: Colin Channer and Calabash

channer

People are always asking me for details about Calabash, the annual literary festival at Treasure Beach, Jamaica, and why suddenly at the peak of its popularity it seemed to stutter. After 10 glorious years there was suddenly no festival in 2011 and then in 2012 there was a reprise which i missed. It was obvious to me from the beginning that the problem was that Channer, the founder and artistic director of Calabash, wanted out and was no longer part of the core crew. Media reports claimed that funding problems were responsible for the decision to halt Calabash in 2011 but that wasn’t the primary cause. Finally Channer has broken his silence and explained why he decided to resign as he did. The Gleaner carried excerpts from his letter to the board yesterday but here is the full, unexpurgated version, courtesy Channer.

The Calabash threesome in happier times...Kwame Dawes, Justine Henzell and in background--Colin Channer

The Calabash threesome in happier times…Kwame Dawes, Justine Henzell and in background–Colin Channer

There may of course be a back story to all this. But even at face value its a move that ought to set a precedent in how to love something and yet be able to move on and allow others to continue what you started. This is something sorely lacking in Jamaica where I’ve just witnessed the most bloody handover of a public institution by its custodian of 35 plus years who having reached retirement age still wasn’t willing to call it quits and allow younger heads a chance to show what they could do. This is detrimental to our institutions, and no matter how brilliant, motivated and exceptional the principal concerned they would do well to take a leaf out of Colin Channer’s book and shuffle off when their time comes if not before their time as Channer has done. The world can and will run without you. Get over yourselves.

Just for the record I was at the first Calabash where the butterflies came out in their numbers–you see them all over Kingston when the Lignum Vitae is in bloom too…It was a magical, intimate Calabash that grew and grew and grew, pollinated by the butterflies as it were…Below is Channer’s letter to the board. Enjoy!

Good people (and bad asses), here is the full text of my recent hello letter to Calabash. A few lines were excerpted in the press today.

———————————————–

Dear Members of the Board:

In preparing to write this letter, I looked through the diary I kept casually in the early years of the festival, and found a note dated Thursday, May 24, 2001. It read: “In your opening remarks mention Nie.” Why did I make that note? And what did it even mean?

In trying to answer these questions I re-read every page of the small red book. What struck me most of all (in addition to the barbed-wire wildness of my urban scrawl), was that I’d made no mention of the 500 pink and yellow butterflies that had descended on Jakes, the festival venue, in that first year.

Do you remember their arrival? They came in the early afternoon on Friday, May 25th, and played with us for the next three days. When the festival was over they were gone.

I don’t know where they came from, or where they went. But I do know why I felt no need to record their presence in ink. In those early days of our journey, believing in the future of an international literary festival rooted in a rural part of a rural parish on the wrong coast of a country not known for order or an extroverted love of books, was as logical as going to an airport with a passport issued by the prince of an imaginary world.

When Calabash began in 2001, we operated alone in a world of our own making. Today, there are festivals in nearly a dozen neighboring countries, including Trinidad, Antigua, Barbados, Dominica and Montserrat. In addition, there are several new ones here at home.

I am happy that we’ve instigated these historic evolutions, that we’ve become a model of change. At the same time, I’m fully aware that we remain the most welcoming, the most inspirational, the most daring, and the most diverse festival of all.

None of these festivals have come close to matching our success. And this is not a boast. It is a simple truth, a truth as simple as the one on which we were built. Calabash was built as a communal space for people to publicly celebrate their private passions and love affairs with books. We have always made it clear through all our actions—including complimentary admission to all events—that we didn’t build this organization for some people, but for all people. And this difference cannot be overemphasized in a country where too many of the most glaring patterns of an unjust history are still in place, constraining and controlling hundreds of thousands of lives.

As the organization’s Founder, Artistic Director and Board Chairman from its inception until now, I’ve experienced our many successes from close range. In addition to the annual gathering of writers to read before thousands in Treasure Beach each year at the end of May, I’ve experienced what it takes to publish two major anthologies, six chapbooks of poetry, and to return three important classics of Caribbean literature to a life in print.

I’ve also experienced the thrill of establishing a writers workshop that has intensified the talent of over 125 writers, including Marlon James, winner of the 2010 Dayton Peace Prize in Literature, and Ishion Hutchinson, winner of the 2011 PEN/Joyce Osterweil Award.

However, my biggest thrill is of kind few leaders are ever fortunate enough to have: the clarity of conscience that comes with ending active tenure with the ledger in the black.

As you know, I brought my active tenure to a close at the end of 2010. Since then two years have gone by. It is now time for me to end my tenure completely and appreciate your efforts from afar. This letter serves as my resignation from the Calabash International Literary Festival Trust and all its related organizations, in all capacities, with immediate effect.

If you should ask me to express my feelings in a single word, it would be joy. The ultimate goal of leadership must never be its own survival, but to become obsolete. I am glad this time has come.

If you should ask me how I’d like to be remembered, I’d be torn between the many silly names you’ve given me to highlight my obsession with getting every detail right. John called me Master and Commander. Justine called me Festival Dictator. To Kwame I was The Architect.

The “Nie” in that diary entry many years ago is almost certainly a reference to Oscar Niemeyer, who designed many of the most important buildings in Brazil. I must have planned to use a quote from him in my first-ever opening remarks. I am not sure which quote I would have chosen, but now in this time, this quotation just feels right: “… from my perspective, the ultimate task of the architect is to dream. Otherwise nothing happens.”

This is not goodbye from me, dear friends. In truth, it is hello. With the passing of two years I can now greet you with the open gaze of an enchanted stranger. In time we’ll get to know each other once again.

I leave you now with something that the world needs more than even love, and that is gratitude. Thanks for 4,380 days of selfless giving.

Sincerely,

Colin Channer (CC)

An assembly line of festivals…

Seen en route to Treasure Beach...

It’s been over four weeks since I updated this blog. This has never happened before; its not that I’ve lost interest, I just didn’t feel an overwhelming urge to say anything in this space. Part of it is that with two weekly radio programmes to produce in addition to all the things i normally do (The Silo and Double Standards on Newstalk 93FM, Jamaica) I have less spare time than i (n)ever had before.

Also, the time of year when you start the slide into summer came earlier this year. It used to start with going to Calabash Literary Festival in Treasure Beach towards the end of May, followed by the Caribbean Studies Association Conference, wherever it happened to be–this year in Curacao–and then various other conferences, symposia and events at UWI in June, capped by my fave “urban fringe festival” Kingston on the Edge (KOTE), and before you knew it it was July.

Lyric, lovely Lyric...

Instead this year it all started with Bocas Lit Fest in Trinidad which was the stuff of my last two posts and then the first May in ten years without Calabash. Although several pretenders jumped with indecent haste into the void left by the sudden absence of this rollickingly good literary festival none could hold even a tenth of a candle to it. Having made our bookings a year in advance my friend Faith Smith and I spent Calabash week ensconced at Lyric, the cottage i always stay at year after year, and took a proper vacation–nothing like being served breakfast by the seaside–and then doing nothing but read, write and talk. Great break.

Breakfast at Lyric, Faith in background...

Batter fried bacon!

My problem with the replacement festivals was their lack of ambition, which was the very thing about Calabash that was so remarkable. Calabash aimed to bring together a group of GREAT writers, local and foreign, or newsworthy writers at the very least, in a setting that was at once international and local in scope. It was an exemplar of good timing and organization especially after the teething pains of the early years. Oh yes, there were things you could disagree with them on, but Calabash was a case study in successful festival staging year after year, elements permitting.

Its been a blow that on the heels of the retirement of Calabash from the annual calendar another great little festival–KOTE–has also suspended activity for the year. Held in the third week of June for the last 3-4 years KOTE was an exciting addition to Kingston’s cultural life. Organized by a few enterprising thirty-somethings, of whom Enola Williams and Omar Francis stand out, KOTE was for me an innovative intervention by the younger generation into the aging, creaky almost bureaucratic cultural landscape in place these last few decades.

I had always been struck by the mutually exclusive, colour-coded enclaves of aesthetic expression in Kingston where the literary crowd rarely went to art events, artists were rarely seen at literary affairs, musicians remained in their own circle, as did dancers, actors and all the other cultural actors as if there were walls preventing them from moving back and forth. KOTE tore down those walls, mixing dance with art, theatre with music, poetry with song, film with food and bringing the young out in droves. Their Theatre on the Edge evening with its 8 x 10, 8 ten minute plays was something to queue up for, as was their Dance on the Edge where i first came across the incredibly talented Neila Ebanks (having heard about her for years).

This was made entirely from cardboard. EMSVA grad show.

from Edna Manley Graduation Show

KOTE creatively wove the End of the Year graduation show at Edna Manley College each year into the programme, and shows at several of Kingston’s sleepy art galleries. The graduation show this year has a couple of must-sees by the way–I was particularly impressed by the student who produced a really sharp shoe coffin, and a series of ‘death bins’. Deighton Abbott I think his name was. His studies for the project were outstanding as well.

Shoe Coffin

KOTE is a local festival in the best sense of the word…I look forward to its return as and when it decides to reappear. Trying to replace Calabash with the rash of pseudo-festivals that clamoured for our attention was like trying to replace the Havana Biennale with the Liguanea Art Festival, or Reggae Sumfest with the August Town Independence Day Bash…Don’t assume that because i’ll go out of my way to go to Calabash or Bocas or KOTE that i’ll happily accept anything that proclaims itself a literary festival but seems to include everything but exceptional writers.

Finally you may be interested in going to see the documentary “Bad Friday” which chronicles the traumatic Coral Gardens ‘Incident’ of 1963 during and after which Rastas were persecuted in the most violent manner by the State. The premiere is June 23, Thursday at the Bob Marley Museum. See you there!

Junot Diaz at the Jaipur Literary Festival

Junot Diaz in Jaipur being interviewed by Sonia Faleiro. Photo courtesy of Tehelkadotcom

Well, Junot Diaz stole the show on the first day of the Jaipur Literary Festival in an interview with Sonia Faleiro, one of my tweeple (@soniafaleiro) and author of Beautiful Thing: Inside the Secret World of Bombay’s Dance Bars. A flurry of tweets this morning by @tehelkadotcom, one of the best all round news cum arts magazines in India conveyed the excitement of the moment.

But before we go there–for those who want to know more about the JLF, taking place this weekend, chk this tweet:

bookbeast Lucas Wittmann

The coolest literary festival in the world? Jaipur, obvi. William Dalrymple on how it started and who’s coming http://thebea.st/e3ZPjC

In this entertaining video Indian writers discuss Junot Diaz, the huge crowds at the Festival and generally every aspect of the JLF.

 

 
The JLF is not without its fair share of controversy. According to an article titled


The atmosphere is informal and the debates are conducted in a polite and generally consensual manner, often featuring the father of the festival — the British historian and expert on India, William Dalrymple.

But Dalrymple, a ubiquitous presence on the Indian literary scene who co-founded the modern Jaipur event in 2006, has been sucked into a damaging row after coming under attack in the Indian news magazine Open.

In an excoriating piece published on January 1, political editor Hartosh Singh Bal questioned why a white middle-aged Scottish man had established himself as a “pompous arbiter of literary merit in India.”

If Dalrymple is the father of the festival its mother is co-founder Namita Gokhale, whose daughter Meru, is married to Patrick French, VS Naipaul’s biographer. I met Meru and Patrick at the 2008 staging of Calabash where Patrick read from his The World Is What It Is: The Authorized Biography of VS Naipaul. Two years later he’s just published a new book India: A Portrait.

Let’s return to Junot Diaz, who as i said earlier has been wowing crowds in India just as he did here in Jamaica when he first read at Calabash, in 2002. Back then the Gleaner carried an article titled “ New ‘Latino’ author for Calabash festival”:

“Historic” is how Dominican Republic writer, Junot Diaz, views the upcoming 2002 Calabash International Literary Festival, scheduled to open at Jake’s Village in Treasure Beach, St. Elizabeth, on May 24.”It’s so rare to get African and Caribbean writers coming together outside of the United States of America,” he told The Sunday Gleaner in a telephone interview. “Usually, such festivals and gatherings are held within U.S. borders, so I find it rather historic, and am actually looking forward to participating.”

Mr. Diaz will be one of 31 writers in the fields of literature, theatre and music, scheduled to take part in the three-day festival. And, while it will be his first experience in such an event, he’s no stranger to Jamaica.

“I visited once before, and was impressed with the people and the country,” he said.

Mr. Diaz gained fame and acclaim with his first publication ­ a collection of short stories, titled Drowning, which draws on his own emigration experiences from the Dominican Republic to the U.S.

In most of the 10 stories which make up the book, the narrator is a young adolescent who recounts his island childhood to current life in New Jersey.

“The inspiration for the stories came from my own observations and remembrances of my family and growing up, ” Mr. Diaz pointed out. “So portrayed are the struggles for survival, the poverty, cruelty and violence, all within a ‘macho’ context and presented in a humorous fashion.”

The 33-year-old fiction writer is rather candid about his transformation from struggling writer to overnight success: “I was lucky to be liked by one per cent of the reading audience in the U.S., which in itself constitutes about one per cent of the entire population.”

Drowning was published in 1996, and at the Calabash Festival, Mr. Diaz expects to do readings from the collection. But he’s also working on a second publication ­ his first full-length novel.

“It will probably take me a long time to complete,” he warns his fans, “for I work very slowly and need to get my plot together.”

He’s promising no “happy ending”, for a main character “who will be the ‘opposite’ of that in Drowning“.

The Gleaner got the title of Diaz’s book wrong three times, it’s Drown not Drowning. And the character whom he promised would be the opposite of the one in Drown was Oscar Wao, the protagonist of Diaz’s masterful first novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao which was published in 2007. In 2009 Diaz again graced Calabash with his presence, along with Edwidge Danticat.

Today at the Jaipur Literary Festival Junot Diaz talked to an enraptured crowd about how ‘oppressive regimes destroy national character’ and ‘Silence becomes institutionalised in oppressive regimes.’ He was probably referring to the Dominican Republic where he was born. “There’s enormous silence, holes punched thru us, in people of my generation, from my country” he said.

So not only does Junot Diaz write like a dream, he is hot and funny. No, not gay either. #JLF

Also: Diaz insisted New Yorker stop italicizing Spanish words in his stories. They never italicised any foreign language word again #JLF

And: Diaz on removing the n word from a new edn of Huckelberry Finn- Just coz you use a word dsnt mean you endorse wht it stands for. #JLF

Diaz also said: “You assume as artist that what you create will one day in future encounter someone who needs it.”
 

Junot Diaz with Indian author Mridula Koshy #jlf


That Diaz was responsible for changing the venerable New Yorker’s editorial policy regarding foreign words and how they are represented is awesome. We were blessed to hear him twice at different points in his comet-like trajectory. As you can see Calabash belonged to the same family as the Jaipur Literary Festival, both part of a network of such confabs around the world bringing the work of great writers to audiences in distant places. Neither is immune to criticism but to not admit their immense contribution to the societies in which they’re staged is to wilfully succumb to myopia. Long live Calabash and the JLF!

Calabash wheels…and promises to come again…

Wole Soyinka being interviewed by Paul Holdengräber at Calabash International Literary Festival

Well, the news of the moment is that Jamaica’s beloved Calabash International Literary Festival is no more. At a press conference this evening Calabash Programme Director, Kwame Dawes, announced the demise of the festival saying that Calabash, in its ‘present incarnation’ had come to an end and would not be held this year.

The plan is to regroup and return in a new avatar in 2012, Dawes said. 2012 is also the fiftieth anniversary of Jamaica’s independence and the new event will focus on celebrating fifty years of literary production in Jamaica.

Colin Channer, the leonine writer who has been the motive force behind the festival, is also no longer part of the core group. No reasons were given for his departure, with Dawes merely remarking that Channer’s decision was ‘mysterious’. Channer had been the artistic director of Calabash since its inception.

A valued Twitter source sent a message offering Channer’s perspective: Just talk to Channer, Man seh 10 year as the head is enough& anything longer would be a sign that something is wrong that it can’t grow beyond him

Calabash Literary Festival 2007
Colin Channer (l) posing with the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize (First Book) finalists in 2007. Photo: Georgia Popplewell

The constant challenge of raising funding each year and drawing on personal resources has also taken its toll of the three principals behind the festival.

This is a brief post to give you the breaking news…a more detailed post will follow in the next few days. See my posts on earlier Calabashes below:

Calabash Ho! (single entendre please–)

Walcott on Naipaul

‘Bad Words’ at Calabash 09

Post-Calabash Glow: Vintage 10

‘Bad Words’ at Calabash 09


Calabash Vibes: The Underage drinker Drew, The fossil Blinger, Marlon, the proprietor of the world’s coolest name, Johnny Temple, the never far from a camera Annabelle, and some writer named Junot Diaz. Photo: courtesy The Fossil Blinger.

WRITER & WIFE: Anthony Winkler and spouse, Cathy, at Calabash (i enjoyed a brief career as Winkler’s wife courtesy Tallawah Review. The error has now been corrected).

the-torment-of-saint-anthony-michelangelo

The Torment of Saint Anthony, reportedly by Michelangelo

Writers are not the most spectacular looking creatures (except for Terese Svoboda who apparently dazzled the Calabash crowd with her silver-sequined mini dress if not her poetry) so i thought i’d lead into my first brief on the literary festival with some unrelated but compelling images from the artworld.

Japanese artist Takashi Murakami poses on top of one of his art works. EFE/Ym Yik.

I’ll tell you up front. The main draws for me at Calabash 09 were Patrick French, Junot Diaz and Pico Iyer. Many of the other literary stars i’d already heard read or know personally. I’ve heard Stacey Ann Chin at least four or five times but was still eager to hear what she might say or read from her memoir. I heard her being interviewed on radio recently and she struck me as more mature and thoughtful than on previous occasions where her rage outran her rapport with the audience.


Stacey Ann Chin flanked by Mr. Seaga and Anthony Winkler.
captions courtesy Peter Dean Rickards


Chin didn’t disappoint. Her account of her first encounter with a sanitary pad under the gimlet
(if grim) gaze of her aunt played havoc with the Jamaican sensibilities present some of whom shook their heads in disbelief. Stacey Ann proceeded with the frank chronicling of her abused pumpum, followed by Mr. Seaga whose autobiographical account was severe and puritanical in contrast. One of my companions sardonically remarked that he seemed to be reading his resume. Anthony Winkler, who followed, restored the climate of lewdness and profanity that had been set in motion the first night by an ebullient Junot Diaz. Winkler regaled the audience with the story of ‘Greasy Legs’ a prostitute who initiated generations of Cornwall College students into the slippery secrets of her anatomy.

The session between Paul Holdenberger and Pico Iyer took the festival out of the gutter to spiritual heights as travel writer Pico (whose work i used to read in Time magazine) described the peripatetic trajectory of his existence. A citizen of the Global Commons if ever there was one, Iyer (pronounced the way many locals pronounce ‘Higher’ but with a Barbadian ‘I’) personifies the figure of the Nomad, combining contemporary radical chic (he once spent two weeks at LA International Airport as part of the research for his book Global Soul) with a yearning for the timeless, ageless monasticism of ancient Eastern cultures.

The next session of invited readers included Laura Fish from the University of Newcastle whose second novel Strange Music is about Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Fish’s father resides at the Greenwood Great House near Falmouth where the Barrett Brownings lived. Fish struck a clean, light note followed by Marlon James, whose compelling, dark novel The Book of the Night Women has just been published to much critical acclaim. His profanity-laden reading found disfavour with audience members who had brought their children with them. They attempted to intervene without success and were reminded by the organizers that Calabash is, after all, an adult event.

From the album:
“Wall Photos” by Marlon James
Because the kiddies deserve a good story too. I know, please keep your awwws to yourselves


Does shielding young ears from words like pussy, bombaclaat, pumpum and other such words ensure a more sensitive, ethical adult? Especially when they can see for themselves the hypocritical, unjust society we live in? And if we assume that all the outraged adults yesterday had been similarly shielded in their childhood why aren’t we living in a better organized, more just society?

Patrick French was the boomshot for me. He didn’t just read from his superb biography of Naipaul. His comments and reactions to place names in Jamaica, his thoughts on Caribbean and Trinidadian society, his observations on Derek Walcott’s dubbing Naipaul the Mongoose at Calabash O8 engagingly prefaced the reading. His performance was deft and sure-footed. It never fails to impress me that the best writers are careful to leave you wanting more (as did Edwidge Danticat and Junot Diaz on the first night) while the lesser ones have no qualms about abusing your patience. It’s like blogging–you do have the freedom to go and on but is that really the wisest strategy in engaging your readers?

Postscript: Incidentally it is NOT true that Stacy Ann Chin has instructed her publishers not to distribute her memoir in Jamaica. I asked her myself and she said that the UK rights have not yet been negotiated although the US rights have and since Jamaica falls under the former where book distribution rights are concerned we will have to wait for bookshops here to stock it. The book is also being vetted to ensure that Ja’s strict libel laws have not been violated. When are we going to revise these? I mean antiques have their place but not in law surely? In the meantime anyone wanting a copy of Stacy Ann’s book can easily order it from Amazon.

‘Guns, Ganja and Games’ anyone?

Dear Annie Paul,

Anne Walmsley, Nick Gillard and Bill Schwarz all recommended that I contact you.

Faber & Faber have commissioned me to write a book (non-fiction) on Jamaica, which will be a hybrid of history and travel. I am interested in Small Axe, and wonder if we could meet? Do you perhaps have a contact telephone number?

I shall be arriving in Kingston this Monday 4 July for an initial period of two months to research my book.

My last book was a biography of the Italian writer Primo Levi (Picador USA, Vintage UK), but I have written extensively on Haiti, so I’m not entirely new to the West Indies. Indeed I visited Jamaica last October for the first time.

When you have a moment, please do get in touch.

With all good wishes,

Ian Thomson

I received this email from Ian Thomson in 2005. The hybrid book of history and travel he was arriving to research has just been published with the provocative title The Dead Yard: Tales of Modern Jamaica. Four years is a good turnaround for a book like this. Anyone who thinks that they can write a book today, publish it tomorrow and retire on the profits the day after that doesn’t understand the world of publishing. The journey from manuscript to print alone can last almost two years.

If that doesn’t deter the starry-eyed would be writers who publish their effusions in the Sunday papers then perhaps this will. One of the things that struck me about Thomson when I finally met him was his obsession with thrift and economy. He never took a taxi if he could get a bus or walk, and he rarely paid for meals or drinks with his informants. If he had made much money from his earlier books there was no sign of it. And if Faber had allocated him an expense account it was an extremely parsimonious one.


In a country such as Jamaica where walk-foot whites are a rarity Thomson stood out like a sore thumb. I saw quite a bit of him on that first visit he made to Kingston. He had a quirky sense of humour and an analytical eye and of course like all writers he came formatted with his own subjective prejudices and preconceptions. Apparently back in England he had close friends who were first-generation immigrants from Jamaica to the UK and his view of things Jamaican was necessarily coloured by what he had been told by them.

Photo: Peter Dean Rickards

So I’ve been waiting a long time for Ian’s book and my appetite has been further whetted by his punchy, devastating article in the UK Independent last week: “Sun, sand and savagery: Whatever happened to Jamaica, paradise island?” Illustrated with a provocative photograph by Peter Dean Rickards titled ‘Guns, Ganja and Games’ the article has predictably roused the ire of Jamaicans here and abroad (stirring up controversy to promote book sales is a well-known publishing gimmick) although some of what he says is indubitably true and warrants comment:

“Jamaica is now a quasi-American outpost in the Caribbean, yet its legal system is clogged with British Empire-era red tape. The island’s anti-sodomy laws, which carry a jail sentence of up to 10 years, derive from the English Act of 1861, and show to what a dismal extent Jamaica has absorbed values from its imperial masters. Similarly, the death penalty is still on the Jamaican statute books, though most capital punishments are overturned in London by the Privy Council, Jamaica’s Court of Final Appeal. Thus an ancient British institution comprised of mostly white Law Lords has become the unlikely defender of human rights in Jamaica. A majority of Jamaicans – not just conservative, pro-monarchy ones – see hanging as the only effective deterrent against criminality: murderers must face death. Yet the British Law Lords, through the grace of Queen Elizabeth II, use their power to prevent executions. Such paradoxes are part of the Jamaican confusion: Victorian standards that have long disappeared in Britain linger on in Jamaica – to Jamaica’s detriment.”

More on The Dead Yard after I’ve read it. I’ve asked someone arriving from the UK next week to procure me a copy as it may not be available locally for some time to come. Rumours have been swirling about the book being banned locally, censorship and other worse outcomes. As a friend from Trinidad wrote: BTW have you heard that Faber can’t get any bookseller in JA to stock The Dead Yard?

So being the upstanding member of the Book Industry Association of Jamaica that i am i went straight to the source for more information on these rumours. Suzzanne Lee of Novelty Trading Co. the primary importers and distributors of books and magazines in the island was quick to dispel the speculation:

Dear Annie,

To my knowledge, there is NO local ban on Ian Thompson’s “Dead Yard” or any other book in Jamaica for that matter. The Novelty Trading Company does not believe in censorship and has always stood for freedom of the press.

Novelty Trading was asked to invest in a few thousand copies of this book. Due to the significant financial exposure that would be required and given the vast number of persons mentioned and quoted, we requested permission from the publishers to check sources. The first two sources checked said the book had factual inaccuracies. We then forwarded the book to our Company Lawyer who read it and advised that “portions may be legally actionable”. Due to the above, Novelty declined the publisher’s offer to distribute this title. We made the decision that there are no profits worth more than the reputation of our company. This was purely a business decision.

I am not aware of how exactly Jamaica’s libel laws differ from those in the US and UK, but we have recently encountered another case of a memoir which we attempted to purchase and which the publisher refused to sell to Jamaica due to our libel laws.

I hope this email clarifies any rumours you have heard about “Dead Yard” and Novelty Trading.

All best,

Suzzanne

More as i said when i’ve read the book. Meanwhile all roads lead to Treasure Beach next week where the next instalment of Calabash Literary Festival will unfold with the usual stellar cast of writers including Robert Pinsky, Edwidge Danticat, Junot Diaz, Xu Xi, Pico Iyer, Melvin Van Peebles, Terese Svoboda and Patrick French. Calabash ho everyone!

Piracy: the way the books are balanced?

Pirates are intercepted by HMS Cumberland

Image of Somali boats from , November 12, 2008

Recent events in the Gulf of Aden where Somali pirates have been boldly attacking passing ships are a reminder that piracy, like prostitution, is one of the oldest professions in the world. By the late twentieth century pirates on the high seas had become such a rarity that the word ‘piracy’ was hijacked to describe the activities of copyright violators. But by the end of the first decade of the twenty-first century pirates were back, using the latest technology to do the same thing the fabled pirates of yore did–hold down an’ tek weh—from ships that passed in the night.

To have the exploits of the Somali pirates unfold just when I happened to be reading the manuscript of a novel called Heart of a Pirate has been quite extraordinary. I was contacted by the author, Pamela Johnson, a few months ago; she wanted someone competent to read the ms and give their reactions and I had been recommended. I agreed to take a look at it but wouldn’t have time to read it it till mid-March to April, I told her.

Anne Bonny

Heart of a Pirate is a novel about Anne Bonny, the female pirate who once inhabited these shores. Her story has come down to us in song and legend rather than official history. As I wrote in the blurb I sent the author:

A rollicking adventure story starring women instead of men— Heart of a Pirate brings to life the legendary female pirates Anne Bonny and Mary Read and the times and places they inhabited. Set in the early eighteenth-century between Jamaica, Ireland, and the Southern United States Pirate plots the coordinates of the extraordinary life of a woman who unceremoniously spit the silver spoon she was born with out of her mouth, taking to the unpredictable and dangerous high seas rather than abide by the laws of patriarchy. Pirate society itself is presented as a more democratic alternative to the hierarchical social system that ruled Britain and its colonies; the political history of Ireland and plantation slavery are referenced and undergird this bracing tale of female bravery, gallantry and piracy. Heart of a Pirate is a story of the human desire for equality and freedom, social justice and piratical valour—a thought-provoking romp of a read particularly at a time when contemporary piracy is occupying international attention again.

An adept swordswoman, who knew how to use the superior strength of men against them, Bonny was a force to reckon with. Dressed in men’s clothes she took on soldiers and sailors alike, besting them and earning her place on many a pirate ship. Although to the manor born, Bonny abhorred slavery and inequality of any sort, chafing under the bit of her father’s authority. She started leaving her house under cover of night to keep the company of sailors and ‘women of the street’ “real people who lived on the edge of life, one day to the next.”

For she understood their poverty, the small wages, the persecution and social circumstances from which many of them ran—debtor’s prison in England, branding, thumbscrew and boot, whip and cane and cat o’ nine tails, long, arbitrary sentences for petty theft or for being on the losing side in some religious war. Almost all had been born on the wrong side of the blanket, bastards, orphaned or abandoned as children. The men, outlawed, turned to theft as the occasion rose, and protected each other better than any army or police. Together, sword in hand, they would take back from the world what had been taken from them. Piracy was the way the books were balanced.

The pirate’s code, also called the Articles of the Brethren or The Brotherhood of the Coast allowed pirates to vote for their captain who would remain captain till he was voted out. “Every man of us is a freeman and stands for his own self, but a man serves his best interest by standin’ with other free men. We don’t hold to colour or class or wealth. A man’s not born with his rank, but earns it.”

To Anne Bonny, the pirate’s code meant equality, something she had not encountered previously and now defended fiercely against the very pirates she lived with. At one point she turns on her husband demanding: “Have ye not just told me that the Code made all men equal? By what right do ye tell me how to speak…or what to think? I’m here precisely because I will have no one tell me what I can or cannot do.” At another moment she argues: “Do not try to tell me that because I am a woman, I must have a different set of rules, for God knows, I have earned my place as an equal. I am a crew member and entitled to all the privileges of any man here.”

While I was reading Heart of a Pirate the pirates of Somalia were rousing international consternation by capturing a US ship and holding its crew hostage. Though the mainstream media were quick to condemn the so-called pirates other voices disagreed. “You Are Being Lied to About Pirates” went one headline in the Huffington Post. Another account simply called Roman Piracy, was making the email rounds, linking slavery to the prevalence of piracy in Roman times:

The piracy threat which came to a head in the decade of the 60’s BC was in part due to Rome’s complacency about the issue. Rather than stamping out small pockets of pirates early on, they allowed piracy to flourish into a large force of marauders. A poor economy and oppressive social conditions also fed the pirate forces as men who were on the verge of bankruptcy discovered more profit as robbers and pillagers. Rome was unwilling to act conclusively toward the reduction of pirate forces because those forces, along with tax companies, provided slaves for the large luxury markets. The pirates did not attack Rome as an enemy, but treated all targets equally, as opportunities for profit. During the next century Roman senators did not find the political will to suppress the piracy, perhaps in part because it served their interests; pirates supplied tens of thousands of slaves for their Italian estates and disrupted the grain trade, thus raising prices for their produce in Rome.

I emailed Pamela Johnson remarking on the coincidence of her sympathetic portrayal of pirate society and the view that the Somalis were being unjustly demonized and might have good reason to be resorting to piracy in response to the severe social injustice they had suffered: Do you have a comment on the Somali activity? I asked.

Comments? Actually, a lot! replied Pamela.

When I first began to think of writing about this fascinating woman, and why she has been the subject of song and legend, why the story has stuck with us for so many years, I looked for the reasons why. Piracy, clearly, is not a good thing, so how could I justify the heroism of it, other than to look at the romance of Rafael Sabatini (Captain Blood) and Errol Flynn and Paul Henried movies (Paul Heinreid filmed a movie in the 50’s entitled The Spanish Main that features a pirate named Anne Bonny–my first hearing of the woman when I was in my teens).

I found that answer in the scholarly theories of Marcus Rediker of the University of Pittsburg who studies piracy and emerging capitalism in the 18th century. Not until then did I realize the extent of poverty, unemployment, and economic stress on a society facing massive population migrations.

The pirates of Somalia face the same situation as the pirates of ‘the Golden Age of Piracy’, in that they face poverty, lack of education, and hopelessness. Instead, these one-time simple fishermen, men of the sea, decided to take from others who, in their view, have more. The issues in our own times are the same, the pirate’s search for greater weaponry, navel tension in parts of the world, even religion.

The outcome for the men of Somalia, and indeed pirates anywhere, the Amazon region and the south China Sea, among others, is that they face overwhelming odds of retribution in superior armies, navies, and funding. When fifty-two of Bartholomew Roberts’ men were hanged along the African coast, the governments of nations were making a statement, commerce will succeed, capitalism is important, men who invest will have their due. Even Anne knows she will fight anyone who tries to take the product of her own land.

Today we like to think that we are above such barbarity as gibbeting men and leaving their bodies to rot. Yet commerce will not be disrupted. Investors will lose money if the situation is not contained. Ordinary seamen will face threat, torture, and even death to move their vessels from port to port. And searobbers will die if they test themselves against superior power.

We are still faced with questions of social justice and the hard issues of finding solutions to the hopelessness of poverty, overpopulation, and ignorance born of lack of education. Wherever we cannot give to all members of society a fair footing, we will see theft. It happens everyday in all countries, not just on the seas. One man who struggles to eat will look at another who has more than he needs, wonder, and come to certain conclusions. Poverty breeds chemical dependencies for self-medication and escape, whether it be the rum of the pirates of Anne’s time, or those drugs of today, adding another layer of complexity to the situation. It will take some very smart, very compassionate people to begin to unravel the factors that create poverty that continues generation to generation.

I like to think we in the United States are on the right path in electing a President who knows the poverty of communities, who has worked to better the lives of ordinary people, and who is compassionate. He understands the excess of corporate capitalism, and although we all have the right to comfort and the freedom of mobility, the earnings of our hard work and creativity, greed does abound in some areas of business. We will see.”

Heart of a Pirate is at press now and will be available for distribution at Calabash, Treasure Beach, May 23-25 this year.

Calabashing Naipaul?

…in many ways our Nobel laureates hold irreconcilable views of the Caribbean and the world. While Walcott has acknowledged the dark colonial past that begets so much of Naipaul’s pessimism, he has also dared to hope, epically, that we may somehow climb clear of our wrong beginnings. Naipaul, by contrast, has built a career around making our darkness visible. At different times the Caribbean itself seems to take different sides in the matter. Election season in Guyana is pure Naipaul, as is much of Trinidadian politics; but the West Indies team at its best, Marley’s prophetic lyricism or Minshall’s extravagant imagination all fit with Walcott’s vision. Who among us can confidently dismiss Naipaul, or dispense with Walcott’s hopes? And who, having read either man carefully, would wish to?

From the Staebrok News in Georgetown, Guyana, ladies and gentlemen–Brendan de Caires– with a great take on Walcott’s Mongoose. Read the rest of “Calabashing Naipaul” here…

Meanwhile the bashing (as some people see it) continues…The MG Smith conference opened at UWI, Mona, day before yesterday with a no-holds barred address by Professor Orlando Patterson of Harvard University. Stand by for a blow-by-blow account of the conference in a day or two…

Calabash Ho! (single entendre please–)

This is the time of year I like best. One week before Calabash Literary Festival and about 10 days before the Caribbean Studies Association (CSA) conference, which is in San Andres, Colombia, this year. The lineup at this Calabash, though stellar, could have been more exciting as far as I’m concerned; after all living in these parts who hasn’t heard Derek Walcott and Lorna Goodison, live and in living colour, over and over again? Last year’s was a more lustrous list of literary stars, Caryl Phillips, Michael Ondaatje and Maryse Conde amongst them.

But then again I don’t go to Calabash to listen to authors and poets reading aloud so much as for the sheer delight of lingering in the vibe-rant environment created by Colin, Justine and Kwame. I happen to know that singer and poet Dingo has been sharpening his latest poem and who knows if we’re lucky he might perform it there. The open mic segment is bound to have its share of great performances bursting through the thicket of paltry, mediocre rhymesters who will insist on abusing the audience with purported poetry.

Speculation is rife as to whether Walcott will behave himself or be spectacularly rude on stage; whether he will outcuss that indomitable cusser Bounty Killa and be carted off to bad wud jail; or if the balmy St. Bess air will temporarily render him tame and pleasant (incidentally Dingo has a poem, Jamaica Land We Love, that starts like this:

I woulda cuss some claat if it coulda draw attention
to Jamaica land we love

An if dem neva start charge artiste fe it….
I woulda cuss some claat if it coulda draw attention
to Jamaica land we love.

Jamaica land we love hobbling along on three flats and de-spair).

Walcott’s main rival in the race for Curmudgeon of the Year is of course, V.S. Naipaul, about whom the New York Times wrote only today.

A book-lover’s paradise, Calabash is a boutique festival if there ever was one. Hordes of would-be writers rub shoulders with would-be readers and actual writers at different stages of their careers. The main venue was succinctly described in a recent article: “At the far end is a small stage with a podium. The backdrop is the long curve of Calabash Bay. The village mongrels often have the best seat in the house, downstage. In Treasure Beach, even the strays enjoy a good poetry reading.”

Although Dominicano Junot Diaz, the celebrated author of The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, couldn’t make it this year, touring the Far East as he is after winning the Pulitzer and a clutch of other awards, Calabash die-hards will remember him as one of the up and coming authors featured at an earlier Calabash—2003? 2004? See? So you never know, someone you consider a no-name author this year could well turn out to be tomorrow’s literary lion. Incidentally a recent issue of the Caribbean Review of Books (CRB) carried a great interview with Diaz by Marlon James, author of John Crow’s Devil.

Another big draw will be Beverley Manley, whose hot memoirs, briefly serialized in the Gleaner, have set the country on fire. Naturally i have an advance copy, a review copy, which i shall devour over the weekend. Hey being a critic does have its occasional advantages.

But more on Calabash after the event. I will be ensconced at a seafront villa with a small cartel of Caribbean writers and publishing mates for the duration of the festival. A description of this delightful spot is to be found in the current issue of Caribbean Beat where Nicholas Laughlin, editor of CRB, recalls an evening spent there the year before during Calabash:

“…If you are in possession of a villa, you might consider throwing your own private party. The kind that starts when someone shows up with a bottle of wine and ends, well, whenever. Perhaps your housekeeper has cooked lobsters for dinner. Perhaps two up-and-coming Jamaican novelists will start a raucous discussion of the supernatural coolie duppy, egged on by an art critic, to the scandal of a young American poet. A couple of literary journalists huddle by the pool, exchanging hot gossip. Someone slips down to the beach for a midnight skinny-dip A hotshot online media producer captures it all on a hidden mike…”

See you in Treasure Beach!