Thirty years ago, I left Jamaica with a promise. Although I had only published one poem in The Daily Gleaner and a short story in the Creative Arts Review, I listed my profession as “writer” on the immigration form. Since then, I’ve published nine books of poetry and fiction which have met with mixed reviews in Jamaica and the Caribbean. So when I was invited by the organizers of the 2009 Calabash International Literary Festival in St. Elizabeth, Jamaica, I was filled with the exhilaration of fulfilling a promise.
This is not to say that I had not read in Jamaica before. I had. But it was never on this scale. And the last time I read at Jamaica College, I was cursed out by a member in the audience for using “bad words.” I tried to explain that whenever I use “bad words” in a story, it is never gratuitous and it is usually a signal that a character in under extreme duress. The person didn’t want to hear any of it and she demanded an apology for “the sake of the children” in the audience. I hadn’t seen any children, but then, I was excited about reading at my alma mater, so for “the sake of the children,” I apologized. But it left a bitter aftertaste in my mouth.
Needless to say, however, when I received the official letter from the organizers that I would be a part of one of the most exciting literary festivals in the world, I was thrilled. And that it was happening in Jamaica where some people still behave as if I don’t exist, we’re now talking about ecstatic. Yes, I know, I know, according to Covey we should only focus on those things over which we have control. Still, it felt good.
It was even better that my wife, Nadia, was coming with me. And from the minute she and I settled into our seats on Air Jamaica, we sensed that big changes were on the way. As we thumbed through Skywritings, the in-flight magazine of our national carrier, on page 12 alongside other participants in Calabash such as Junot Diaz, Staceyann Chin, Joseph Boyden, and Selwyn Cudjoe, was my photograph and a brief caption. I had done the interview and sent the journalist all the material she had requested, but I never expected to be included in the magazine. When you’ve been writing for as long as I have, you learn to develop a thick skin and expect rejection as part of the journey. But there I was. I put a copy in my bag and as we were leaving, my wife picked up a few extra copies for her mother and our children.
As soon as we disembarked, we were ushered through customs by a member of the Jamaica Tourist Board. He introduced to our driver and our fellow passenger, Stephanie Black, who made the three hour drive to Treasure Beach seem like thirty minutes as I asked and she answered questions about her film, Life and Debt. We also struck up a conversation about Jamaica Kincaid, a writer whose work we have been following for a very long time, and discussed the new direction her work seems to be taking.
Once we arrived at the Treasure Beach Hotel, we unpacked everything, took a short nap, and then we were whisked away to Jake’s, where I made it a point of duty to thank Robert Pinsky for allowing me to use a quotation from his translation of The Inferno in my novel, Benjamin, my son. We talked briefly until Justine Henzell announced that our meal was ready. My wife and I chose one of the more secluded tables at Jake’s, but to our surprise, we were soon joined by the Hon. Edward Seaga, Anthony Winkler and their respective families.
If someone had told me thirty years ago that in the future I would have broken bread with Mr. Seaga and a few years earlier with the Hon. Michael Manley, I would have asked them if they had been partaking of Jamaica’s unofficial national plant. But then, politicians come and go. I was more keen on talking with, Anthony Winkler, the author of one of my favorite novels, The Duppy.
I floated through the rest of the evening as I met other writers whose work I respected and I was surprised that some of them had read and admired my work. Slowly, I began to feel myself as a part of that stellar group of writers who had been invited to the festival.
Later that night, as my wife and I walked along the beach gazing at the galaxies of star and listening to the clamor of the Caribbean Sea resounding off the seawalls, I could feel some of the self-doubt that has plagued me for so much of my career rising off my shoulders, drifting over sand, and disappearing into the surf.
And that was just the first day.
This post has been included in Middle Zone Musings: What I Learned from a Mountaintop Experience.