via Happenings | A Literary Festival in Paradise.
Jamaica’s rocky, arid south coast is refreshingly low on tourist traffic compared with the bustling north — which is just how fans of the beloved bohemian hideaway Jake’s Hotel like it. This weekend, 27 modern literary legends will descend upon the rural seaside town of Treasure Beach for the annual Calabash International Literary Festival, a three-day conference consisting of readings and themed discussions with Salman Rushdie, Zadie Smith, Colum McCann, Jamaica Kincaid, Paul Muldoon and other luminaries. It began in 2001, when the novelist Colin Channer joined forces with the poet Kwame Dawes and the producer Justine Henzell, whose mother built Jake’s, to bring a world-class cultural event to their favorite place on the planet.
In keeping with the town’s anything-goes vibe, Calabash is free and open to the public. At each event, as many as 3,000 people ranging from local fishermen to New York literati gather at Jake’s, on a lawn by the sea, to listen and learn. Between the readings and deeper into the night, guests can participate in open-mic sessions, catch reggae shows, shop booths of handcrafted wares from Caribbean artisans and dine on spicy Jamaican fare. Musical happenings this year include a sound clash between the Mobb Deep member Prodigy and the British rapper Akala, along with a host of emerging Jamaican talent ranging from dancehall to acoustic rock.
For a small rural town, Treasure Beach has surprising artistic bona fides. Alex Haley wrote “Roots” there in a modest cottage built by Henzell’s grandparents. Henzell’s father, Perry Henzell, directed and co-wrote “The Harder They Come,” Jamaica’s first cinematic hit, which featured an iconic reggae soundtrack. Her mother, Sally Henzell, is a self-taught artist, architect and poet who founded Jake’s and designed its distinctive stucco structures, which incorporate colorful glass bottles and tree branches. Artists, fashion designers and photographers check in regularly.
Treasure Beach is also unique among Jamaican getaways for its inclusiveness — not in the drinks-are-free sense, but in the way locals and vacationers intermingle. Jake’s is the town’s social hub for residents as well as visitors, and through a 16-year-old nonprofit called Breds, the hotel has helped to give back to the community via a sprawling sports park, a fish sanctuary, literacy programs and other initiatives.
It all makes for an inspiring way to experience the spoken word. “Jamaica itself is an island of poetry,” Justine Henzell says. “The rhythm of our speech and the way we move is lyrical; there are wordsmiths and storytellers all around us.”
For more information, visit calabashfestival.org and treasurebeach.tumblr.com.