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.

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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)

Masters of the Universe?

Remember how former Prime Minister Portia Simpson Miller was chided and ridiculed for wanting to hold elections on July 7 last year? 7-7-7 I did try and point out at the time that in countries like India and China it’s quite normal to schedule things on auspicious dates at auspicious times. Numbers are nothing after all if not symbolic!

Like many others I ritualistically seated myself in front of my TV screen at 8.08 pm Chinese time on August 8, 2008 to catch the Opening Ceremonies of the Beijing Olympics. What a stupendous show! To have pulled off such a stunning feat live, with the entire world watching, without a glitch or stutter—hats, tams and solar topees off to the mighty Chinese!

I gushed about it to all and sundry for two whole days till my cousin Susan sent me a tart email from Delhi saying: Dear Annie, I’ve been supporting the Tibet group in India, so the Beijing opening seemed stylistic and opaque, also 95,000 people were evacuated from Eastern China because of flash floods same day as the opening…and I’m not even a political person really, so Tiananmen square is always dedicated in my mind to those students.

Stick a pin.

For me it was the East showing the West what the marriage of technology, art and people can do. A show of power but one far more sophisticated than the nationalistic military parades normally on offer. With this synthesis of China’s penchant for the military, their mastery of technology and ancient flair for the artistic the mightiest nation of the east was signaling that it has reached; it has arrived. China has dramatically proven its prowess, displaying complete mastery over the universe on the very terms that capitalism uses to assess success.

At the same time the spectacular display was premised on teamwork, on large numbers of people working together, not on individual idiosyncracy so highly prized in the West. There were of course cameo concessions to the valued place of the modern individual for instance when two singers stood on top of a globe, looking like for all the world like one of those plastic couples used to decorate wedding cakes; dressed in Western clothes they theatrically lip-synched the haunting theme song You and Me, ingeniously combining Western pop and Chinese song (someone I read somewhere dismissed this as kitschy tripe).

Is this the same China that impassively stood by and allowed Tiananman Square to happen? I’m not sure but this Olympics also signals China’s opening up to the values of the West, including the notion of individual human rights I would imagine. Yet in this opening ceremony it was showing the splendour and vastness of imagination its people are capable of; the achievements of its civilization from the invention of paper and gunpowder to outer space exploration; its ability to command the heights of tradition as well as the most contemporary technology. There was something extraordinary in that display ( It’s cyberfeudalism growled Melinda Brown as we watched thousands of elegantly begowned, bewigged Mandarins juggling neon laserbeams).

Having so memorably flexed its creative muscles will China now be more willing to negotiate with the rest of the world? Will it feel more gracious toward the demands made on it by Tibet- and Darfur-watchers? We’ll find out in the sweet by and by, won’t we?

Meanwhile back home the excitement is building as Jamaica’s cassava-fed athletes get ready to hit their stride when the Olympic Track and Field events kick off tomorrow. Will Asafa finally deliver? Or will there be a repeat of the World Championships some years back when both Asafa and Usain Bolt were pipped by Tyson Gay; the best excuse I heard after that debacle was a radio announcer claiming that this was because “Jamaican men nah like Gay running after dem so dem just a let him pass”.

Some of the funniest commentary on the impending Olympic events is to be heard on my all-time favourite radio programme, Left, Right and Centre (LRC), part of the Nationwide Radio network here (Digital AM 770). For weeks now they’ve been carrying spoof ads on The Farcical News Network for products such as ‘ANDRALONE’. Here’s an example–

Intro: Bob Marley’s song “You’re running and you’re running and you’re running away…” Music fades.

Brooks: “Are you coming last in every race you run? Do you have dreams of placing 6th or 7th but can’t afford the high end drugs your friends are using? Well boost your performance with ANDRALONE, the fast-acting, low-end, generic drug designed especially for athletes who can’t seem to dig themselves out of obscurity. Build those muscles! Grow that chest hair! Get out of the blocks faster than you ever have before with ANDRALONE!

Last night the show lampooned Jamaican athletes in Beijing, imagining them upsetting Olympic Village officials by nonchalantly (Ja-style) calling all of them Mr. Chin. Missa Chin beg yu two slice a bread! Missa Chin which part di pattyshop deh? I tell you the hosts of LRC, Messrs Dennis Brooks and Damion Blake, rank right up there with Bill Maher and Stephen Colbert. Unfortunately Damion is leaving to do his PhD at Virginia Tech; he’ll be badly missed . Virginia’s gain, Ja’s loss.

Well, it’s been an intense few weeks for me lurching from deadline to deadline and trying to find a moment in between to blog when not being terrorized by my good friend Peter Dean Rickards. PD has been assaulting me at regular intervals with outtakes from his maiden music video, The System, featuring an amazing new female singer called Terry Lyn. I’m still traumatized by the first cut (trust me this is the most appropriate metaphor to use here) he sent me which involved a gory sequence of a pig being slaughtered to an unbearably cheery rendition of Fire of Eternal Glory (in her song, The System, Terry Lyn rhymes Waterhouse with Slaughterhouse).

“But I identify with the pig!” I squealed via sms.

“Pig nah die in vain! Him get videolight!” PD texted back callously.

Obviously all of this is a little premature considering that what PD refers to as the Pig Opera has yet to be released. But when it is trust me it’s going to create a sensation. Remember you heard o’ it here first!

Jamaica’s most successful products: Athletes and music. Both occupied the mainstream media in New York this past week first with Baz Dreisinger’s thought-provoking article in the Village Voice How Jamaica’s Volatile Dancehall Scene Can Avoid a Biggie vs. Tupac Tragedy; featured in this sharp critique which should be required reading for all the pontificating pundits in Jamaica who love to chant down dancehall is an in-depth profile of and interview with top DJ Mavado. With epigrammatic precision Mavado sums up the situation: “They are trying to blame a problem that they put we in on us. They are turning dancehall into a scapegoat.”

And weighing in on Jamaica’s runners, in the Wall Street Journal no less, was Colin Channer with the memorable line “Jamaica’s love of speed seems at odds with its hard-nosed commitment to nonchalance”: See ‘Cool Runnings’ Are Heating Up.

Meanwhile fingers crossed that both Asafa and Bolt prove on the global stage once and for all that they ARE, like the Chinese, masters of the universe.

Walcott on Naipaul

“A mongoose charges dry grass and fades through a fence faster than an afterthought”. A beautiful line from pre-Calabash Walcott– Calabash 2008 will always be remembered for Walcott’s stunning denouement: the reading in public for the first time of his poem, The Mongoose, written specifically with V.S. Naipaul in mind.

The audience was left waiting to exhale, an inaudible gasp hovering under the tent as the Poet laureate dissed and dismissed his fellow laureate and literary giant, V.S. Naipaul in a series of the most poetically crafted insults. Aspiring DJs might want to take note–this is the stuff of great clashes—

As Channer said at Jack Sprat afterwards “A Beenie and Bounti u know”. Then who’s Kamau Brathwaite, I asked. “Capleton” said Colin without missing a beat.

“The anti-hero is a prick named Willy” intoned the Laureate, going on to describe Naipaul’s “exhausted works” as “predictable, unfunny”.

I wrote as furiously as I could, managing to capture a line here and a line there, all of them memorable if somewhat random. “The mongoose keeps its class act as a clown”; “…just as if a corpse took pride in its decay”; “small, grey and beady-eyed”; “the mongoose takes its orders from the Raj”; “the mutter from a maniacal, bitter mongoose”; “reward them with the spit of benediction”; “he told me once sex was just friction”; “now it was time to bite whatever hands had helped him.”

Coming in the wake of an interview of Walcott by Kwame Dawes, a founding director of Calabash and a poet himself, “The Mongoose” was payback for a recent Naipaul essay called “Caribbean Odyssey” in which he casts aspersions on Walcott’s talent. You can read more about this at Geoffrey Philp’s blog: Moral vs. Ethical Writing: Naipaul and Walcott

Meanwhile down here at Treasure Beach we give thanks for sunny skies and prickly poets. Willing conscripts in the enactment of a first-class literary feud we await the unfolding of Day 3 at Calabash with some relish. A mongoose will never just be a mongoose again. More anon.