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Sunday, 27 May 2007

Saturday evening at Calabash

Calabash Literary Festival 2007

Trinidadian poet Muhammad Muwakil performing at the evening open mike session

Last evening's tripartite reading by Maryse Condé, Michael Ondaatje, and Caryl Phillips--billed by the Calabash organisers as "Supersize me!"--was the festival's most popular event thus far. The main tent was crammed with people who seemed undaunted by the torrents of rain lashing outside. Sitting near the right-hand side of the tent, I had to use an umbrella to shield me from horizontal gusts.

I barely noticed the discomfort. All three writers were in top form. Condé spoke for a few minutes in a powerful, heavily accented voice before her husband and translator, Richard Philcox, read two selections from her work. Then Ondaatje jogged up to the stage, protected by a raincoat. He read "The Cinnamon Peeler's Wife", perhaps his best-known poem, and excerpts from Running in the Family, Anil's Ghost, and his new novel, Divisadero. (It struck me that his accent, though it contains South Asian and Canadian twangs, could pass for Trinidadian.) Finally, Caryl Phillips, dressed all in black, read the opening pages of his last novel, Dancing in the Dark, and his essay "Growing Pains", which I found unexpectedly affecting.

By the time Phillips had finished the rain had stopped, and the blank grey sky had turned a lovely shade of deep, dark blue--just in time for the day's second open mike session, moderated once again by Marlon James. I thought the performers were better and sharper, on the whole, than the ones at the earlier session, but I was utterly bewildered by the young man who recited, in a monotone, a poem called "Antidepressants for Life". The bravest performer was the Trinidadian poet Colin Robinson, who delivered an impassioned, moving poem about resistance to anti-gay prejudice.

And it was another Trinidadian who provided the evening's highlight. Young Muhammad Muwakil, a star of Trinidad's performance poetry scene, brought the house down with his witty, lyrically tricksy ode to an unnamed crush. When he went slightly over his three minutes and poor Marlon tried to cut him short, there were cries of "Leave him alone!", and Muhammad left the stage to thundering applause. Colin Channer actually interrupted the session to come on stage and give a loud and very Jamaican endorsement: "Bullet! bullet! bullet!" Muhammad was a very tough act to follow, and fortunately not many tried.

I'm sorry to say, dear readers, that I skipped out on the evening's final reading, by the four Commonwealth nominees for best book. I was starving. Back at our villa, a sort of informal after-party developed as my housemates drifted back, bringing various friends and acquaintances with them. Muhammad was there--he gave a private performance of his championship-winning Midnight Robber speech from last Carnival--as well as two of Jamaica's best younger writers, Marlon James and Kei Miller, and the very nice Carlin Romano of the Philadelphia Inquirer, who grilled me about the state of Caribbean literature (I had drunk three glasses of wine by then, and I hope I gave relatively coherent answers to his questions). By midnight I was almost asleep on my feet. And so to bed.

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