Woman Power at Calabash 2018

The 2018 Calabash International Literary Festival returns with a stellar line-up of women’s voices rich in wisdom, passion and brilliant intellectual prowess. Eighteen female authors, essayists, critics and poets will light up the stage over the festival’s June 1-3 run, representing different countries, backgrounds, identities and perspectives.

A roll call of the names constitutes one of the most formidable line-up of women writing today: Crosley, Lippman, Umrigar, Sital, Shire, Sinclair, Elhillo, LeBlanc, Duffy, Smith (Tracy K), Duffy, Booker, Goodison, Wesley, Smith (Patricia) and Booker.

Top left to bottom right: Safia Elhillo , Sloane Crosley, Patricia Wesley, Warsan Shire

“We are living in a charged socio-political climate where women around the world are standing up and demanding that their voices be heard. It wasn’t a deliberate move on our part to align with any of the current women’s movements, but we are pleased to have these powerful women take the stage to share their diverse stories and points of view,” said Calabash co-founder Justine Henzell.

This year, there is a particular focus on offerings by women of colour—particularly black women—who dominate the lineup. “One thing clearly demonstrated in the breadth of themes, ideas and issues examined by these women is that Black women are not monolithic,” added co-founder of Calabash, Kwame Dawes. “Even when they come from similar backgrounds or the same country, they have experienced life differently, which reminds us of the complexity and necessity of showcasing a wide range of women’s voices.”

On Friday night, ‘Big Woman Tings’ kick off with Malika Booker (Guyana/UK), Patricia Smith (USA) and Patricia Jabbeh Wesley (Liberia). Booker was an early pioneer of the spoken word poetry movement in the UK and has gone onto establish herself as a highly praised and respected lyric poet in the UK. Her debut poetry collection, Pepper Seed (2013), was longlisted for the OCM Bocas prize and shortlisted for the Seamus Heaney Centre prize for first full poetry collection in 2014. Smith, also a poet who entered the literary scene through a stellar career as a highly decorated slam champion, has since published eight poetry collections and has won some of the most prestigious poetry awards in the US, including, most recently, the $100,000 Kingsley Tufts Award. Incendiary Art, published earlier this year, has been described as “a book of violence, outrage, grief, despair, a book about racism…a book of terrible beauty, opulent brutality, immersed in the contradictions that kindle in and around and in reaction to black lives and deaths.” Liberian poet, Wesley, author of five books of poetry and a children’s book, deals with family, community and war in her work. She has said, “What I try to do in my poetry is to show that the artist does not exist in isolation from his surroundings.”

Malika Booker

The programme continues on Saturday morning with ‘Lady Laureates’ which feature four women who are Poets Laureate of their respective countries, including Jamaica’s own Lorna Goodison, and Tracy K Smith from the USA, who was recently confirmed for her second term. Goodison, is one of the Caribbean’s greatest and most accomplished poets.  Her monumental poetry and short stories have effectively mapped the culture and history of Jamaica in a manner not unlike what Kamau Brathwaite has done for Barbados or Derek Walcott for St. Lucia. Goodison is no stranger to the Calabash stage, having captivated the audience in 2008 reading from her joyful, award-winning family memoir, From Harvey River. Smith is the author of four collections of poetry, including The Body’s Question (2003), which won the Cave Canem prize for the best first book by an African-American poet and Wade in the Water, which was published in April. Smith has won most of the most prestigious awards for her poetry including a Pulitzer Prize for her remarkable collection, Life on Mars.

Left to right: Lorna Goodison, Tracy K Smith

Goodison and Smith will be joined by the UK’s Carol Ann Duffy and Canada’s Georgette LeBlanc. Duffy was appointed the UK’s Poet Laureate in 2009, becoming the first woman, first Scot and first openly LGBT person to be so honoured. Her protean lyric poetry explores with humour and intellectual dexterity, everyday experiences even as she engages with boldness and insight contemporary events in Britain, and has garnered for her an impressive list of awards in the UK including the prestigious Forward Poetry Prize, the Whitbread Prize  and the T.S. Eliot Prize. LeBlanc’s style of narrative poetry is widely recognized for highlighting the richness of written and spoken Acadian French. The Quebec native’s published works include Alma (2007), Amédé (2010), Prudent (2013)—a finalist for the 2014 Governor General’s Literary Award, and Le Grand Feu (2016), published by Éditions Perce-Neige, where she edits the poetry collection, Acadie tropicale.

Left to right: Carol Ann Duffy, Georgette LeBlanc

In the afternoon, the audience will be treated to the prose stylings of Tayari Jones (USA) and RIvers Solomon (USA) in ‘Make it New’. Jones’ wildly successful latest novel, An American Marriage (2018), was chosen as Oprah’s Book Club Selection in March 2018. The gender nonconforming Solomon, who now calls the UK home, writes about life in the margins of society. Their debut novel, An Unkindness of Ghosts (2017), was selected as a Stonewall Honour Book of the Year and has been nominated for a Lambda, a Locus, and a Firecracker Award.

‘Fierce Flowers’ will bloom in the night when Safia Elhillo (Sudan), Safiya Sinclair (Jamaica) and Warsan Shire (Somalia/UK) set fire to the stage with their poetry. Elhillo’s work, including The January Children (2017) has been translated into Arabic, Japanese, Estonian, Portuguese, and Greek. With Fatimah Asghar, she is co-editor of the upcoming anthology, Halal If You Hear Me. Sinclair is the award-winning author of Cannibal (2016), which explores Jamaican childhood and history, race relations in America, womanhood, otherness, and exile. Shire’s name will immediately be familiar to fans of international superstar Beyonce as poetry from her debut pamphlet, Teaching My Mother How to Give Birth (2011), was featured on her 2016 album Lemonade.

Safiya Sinclair

The other women of colour in the lineup, Krystal Sital (Trinidad and Tobago) and Thrity Umrigar (India/USA), will start the festival off on Friday night in ‘World Travellers’. Sital is an eloquent new Caribbean literary voice whose debut memoir, Secrets We Kept: Three Women of Trinidad (2018), reveals the hidden trauma and fierce resilience of one Trinidadian family. Umrigar has published eight novels which have been translated into 15 languages. Her upcoming book, The Secrets Between Us, sequel to the beloved national bestseller The Space Between Us, evokes the harsh realities faced by women born without privilege as they struggle to survive in modern India.

Left to right: Krystal Sital, Thrity Umrigar

Rounding out the assemblage of ‘woman power’ are crime fiction queen Laura Lippman, who is one of the most acclaimed writers in the genre today, and humorist Sloane Crosley, whose debut collection of literary essays I Was Told There’d Be Cake (2008), was a finalist for the Thurber Prize for American Humor.

Laura Lippman

The Calabash Literary Festival will be held at Jakes in Treasure Beach, St Elizabeth, from June 1-3, 2018, under the theme ‘Lit Up.’ The event is free and open to the public.

Join the conversation online by using the hashtags #calabash2018 and #calabashLitUp