Every two years, Jamaicans young and young-at-heart flock to Jake’s in Treasure Beach for the Calabash International Literary Festival. There’s always something for everyone, no matter their ages or taste, but this year’s staging—from June 1-3—promises to be one of the most exciting for the millennial and Gen Z crowd, especially those who consider themselves ‘woke’ or socially conscious. The Calabash 2018 lineup is peppered with writers from the younger generations whose names will be immediately recognisable by their peers, as well as more seasoned creatives whose work dissects or reflects on hot-button issues like race, gender, injustice, inequality and cultural appropriation. It is fitting that this year’s theme is “Lit Up”, an acknowledgment of the power of words to ignite passions and spur action.
One of the most buzzed-about writers in the line-up this year is Akala, a UK-based BAFTA and MOBO award-winning hip-hop artist, writer and social entrepreneur. His moniker might have been derived from a Buddhist term for ‘immovable’, but Akala, born Kingslee Daley to a Scottish mother and Jamaican father, is a kinetic force behind a mic and in his country’s black community. Known to spit lyrical fire on his albums, EPs and mixtapes and in his epic freestyles, his four ‘Fire in the Booth’ sessions with BBC 1Xtra host Charlie Sloth totals 40-plus minutes of scathing commentary on and deep observations about issues such as racial and social injustice, history and even hip hop culture itself. Co-founder of The Hip-Hop Shakespeare Company and founder of creative production hub, he has also led innovative projects in the arts, education and music across South East Asia, Africa, India, Australia and New Zealand. Akala’s articles and lectures—written for the Guardian, Huffington Post and the Independent, and spoken for the Oxford Union and TEDx—are just as fiery and compelling as his music. His much-anticipated memoir Natives will be launched during ‘Urban(e) Revelators’ on Saturday night.
Also stoking the fire is Somali-British wordsmith Warsan Shire, who was propelled to global pop culture stardom in 2016 when poetry from her debut pamphlet, Teaching My Mother How to Give Birth (2011), was featured on Beyonce’s visual album Lemonade. Shire, a first-generation immigrant in the UK, writes from her own personal experiences and those of other people to whom she is close, giving voice to those who are generally marginalised, such as refugees. Her poem Home, featuring lines such as “no one leaves home unless/home is the mouth of a shark” and “you have to understand/no one puts their children in a boat/unless the water is safer than the land”, has been hailed as “a rallying call for refugees and their advocates.”
Shire will join forces with two other ‘Fierce Flowers’, Safia Elhillo and Safiya Sinclair, to set fire to the stage with their poetry on Saturday night. Elhillo, who is Sudanese by way of Washington, DC, is well known for both her written and spoken word poetry. She was a founding member of Slam NYU, the 2012 and 2013 national collegiate championship team, and a three-time member and former coach of the DC Youth Slam Poetry team. Her written work, including The January Children (2017), has been translated into Arabic, Japanese, Estonian, Portuguese, and Greek. Her upcoming anthology, co-edited with Fatimah Asghar, is titled Halal If You Hear Me. Montego Bay native Sinclair is the award-winning author of Catacombs (2011) and Cannibal (2016). Her work, noted for its vivid, rebellious, sometimes “strange” and “disturbing” imagery, explores themes such as womanhood, otherness, and exile, as well as scenes and memories from her Jamaican childhood, history and race relations in America, where she currently resides and studies.
Fans of The Wire will also get to hear from the man behind the phenomenon, David Simon. The show may have ended 10 years ago, but it is still a cultural classic and often regarded as one of the best in TV history. Simon is a former Baltimore-based crime reporter and his knowledge gleaned from the beat and his time spent with detectives makes his books and television shows authentic. His most recent project, The Deuce, follows the legalization and subsequent rise of the porn industry in New York from the early 1970s through the mid-1980s. He will be in conversation with his wife, fellow crime fiction star Laura Lippman, during ‘Power Partners’ on Saturday afternoon. Lippman is one of the most acclaimed writers in crime fiction today, with 23 books and more than 20 awards to her name. Her Tess Monaghan series continues to be one of the most endearing works of crime fiction produced in the United States. Her latest novel, Sunburn, was published to rave reviews earlier this year in the United States and the UK.
Aspiring writers will also get the chance to share their work with the public during two open mic sessions on Saturday.
The fire blazes long into the night on Friday with Midnight Ravers Live Concert and on Saturday with Cala-Clash. On Friday night, Protoje’s protégé Lila Iké and Naomi Cowan, daughter of reggae and gospel legends Carlene Davis and Tommy Cowan (OD) will open for international reggae star Etana and things get really ‘lit’ on Saturday night as ZJ Nova faces off against Bad Gyal Marie in ‘Cala-Clash’.
Join the conversation online by using the hashtags #calabash2018 and #calabashLitUp