Jamaican Women Write!

A week ago, I left hot, windy Kingston early with a bus full of book fans, heading for the Calabash International Literary Festival (themed “Jubilation 50” in recognition of Jamaica’s fiftieth anniversary) in Treasure Beach, St. Elizabeth.  Jamaica’s south coast is warm and red-earthed; scented with watermelon and scallion grown under windows; yellow sand beaches and driftwood; and buildings painted dark red and brick and cream and blue.  Founded in 2001 by Artistic Director and novelist Colin Channer, with support from poet Kwame Dawes and producer Justine Henzell, Calabash did not take place last year due to funding issues.  The festival still needs financial support.  It is determinedly free (no entrance fee), although the local community benefit greatly from the influx of Kingston’s privileged classes, assorted foreign visitors and genuine book-lovers.

St. Elizabeth
A St. Elizabeth building from the bus on the way down.

Whether or not the Calabash tradition continues, this year was remarkable for the conspicuously absent, always ebullient Channer.  I missed my former tutor from the Calabash Writers’ Workshops, which I participated in several years ago.  Otherwise, the Memorial Day weekend festival followed the regular, much-loved pattern of lively local music with a rootsy feel, “book-ending” a decent spread of book talk and readings by writers – this year mostly of Jamaican descent.  There was tasty but over-priced food, some nice crafty stalls and a good selection of books for sale, all thrown into the mix.  There was paddling in the sea, some fairly intense networking, huge waves of socializing and photo-opping, and a great deal of consumption of cold beer (it actually seemed hotter than Kingston).

It was a three-hour journey from Kingston, in a bus crowded with middle-class women wearing long dresses, floppy hats and strappy sandals.  This attire is one of the major Calabash “uniforms” (the other being what I like to call the “modern roots” look – thousands of bangles, dreadlocks, a sprinkling of piercings and tattoos – among the younger set).  Then there were some people like me – I felt like a pale Kingston person, wearing mostly black, and I did not take my shoes off.

Women always outnumber men by three or four to one at Calabash.  And speaking of women: two names I did not hear that day were those of two Jamaican writers – Diana McCaulay and Alecia McKenzie.  So, I am now trumpeting them – the two regional winners of the Commonwealth Writers Prize for the Caribbean, no less.  Kingston-born Ms. McKenzie won the regional prize for her first novel, “Sweetheart,” published by Peepal Tree Press.  Put it on your Amazon wish list, or purchase from your local Jamaican bookstore, now!  Ms. McCaulay had her first work published at age six, and has never looked back.  Diana is a committed environmental activist.  Her second novel, “Huracan” (also Peepal Tree) will be published at the end of June; her winning short story is “The Dolphin Catcher.”  The overall winner of the Commonwealth Book Prize will be announced at the Hay Festival on June 8.

On our bus trip, I kept company with young poet Ann-Margaret Lim, whose first book of poetry, “The Festival of Wild Orchid,” was launched recently.  One of Ms. Lim’s major influences was a leading light at the festival: Ms. Olive Senior, who has lived in Canada for some years and who writes fiction, non-fiction and poetry.  She has just published her first children’s book.  Ms. Senior read a short story in her melodious voice, and we chatted with her later; she has a kind and sweet personality, like everyone’s favorite aunt.

Olive Senior
Olive Senior

A number of other vibrant Jamaican women trooped up on the Calabash stage, standing at a windy podium made of bamboo, against a backdrop of glittering sea and twisted acacia trees and sea grapes.  The Jones sisters – Sadie and Melissa – are the novelist daughters of Jamaican writer Evan Jones, author of a fascinating historical novel called “Stone Haven.”  They read from their work in almost identical, husky English voices.  Gifted poets Loretta Collins, Christine Craig and Shara McCallum (who now live in Puerto Rico, Fort Lauderdale and Pennsylvania, respectively) read on Friday night.  Along with the Joneses and Ms. Senior, we thoroughly enjoyed a reading by Kingston-born, UK-based Kerry Young, who read a very witty and perceptive piece from her first novel “Pao.”  Ms. Young is UK-based and her energetic reading was a delight.  “Pao” is published by Bloomsbury.  Other wonderful locally-based Jamaican women – Carolyn Cooper, Laura Henzell, Sonjah Stanley Niaah, among others – kept things going, with Dr. Cooper keeping a strict eye on the Open Mic – three minutes each, and not a second more!

Of course, there are other terrific creative women in Jamaica – including the Rastafarian film-maker Barbara Blake Hannah, who has written four books: “Rastafari: The New Creation,” the first book on the Rastafari religion written by a member of the faith. Her biographical memoir “Growing Out: Black Hair and Black Pride” recounts her early years and life in England. As Jamaica’s homeschooling pioneer, her book “Home: The First School”  is a guide based on her experiences raising her son Makonnen. She is also author of the novel “Joseph: A Rasta Reggae Fable,” inspired by the life of her friend Bob Marley.

Barbara Blake Hannah
Barbara Blake Hannah

And I cannot – and must not – omit the group of Jamaican women who write for younger audiences.  My former colleague at Heinemann Publishers, Diane Browne, won a Special Prize in the 2011 Commonwealth Short Story Competition for her story “The Happiness Dress.”  She recently launched a novel for young adults, “Island Princess in Brooklyn,” the story of a migrating Jamaican teenager who must adjust to life in the “Big Apple.”  Diane is among a group of dedicated writers for children in Jamaica that includes Heather Campbell, Tanya Savage, Kellie Magnus and others.  There is a great need for more Jamaican/Caribbean children’s literature, and local bookstore Bookophilia confirmed this recently.

Island Princess in Brooklyn by Diane Browne
Island Princess in Brooklyn by Diane Browne
Jamaican writer Kerry Young
Jamaican writer Kerry Young is working on her second novel.
Diana McCaulay
Writer Diana McCaulay is also founder/CEO of the Jamaica Environment Trust, an energetic non-governmental organization.
Sweetheart by Alecia McKenzie
Sweetheart by Alecia McKenzie

Let us raise a glass of Red Stripe, Appleton rum or whatever your tipple is to these creative Jamaican women.  Their extraordinarily diverse voices are ringing out across the literary landscape with more conviction and greater fervor than ever before, it seems to me.  Let’s sit up and listen, and buy their books!

P.S.  As an aspiring-to-be-published writer following in these great ladies’ footsteps, I took the plunge and read from one of my short stories at Calabash’s Open Mic.  The audience were very nice, and clapped.  I overcame my nerves, and felt encouraged.

Me hanging out with glamorous poet Sharon Chambers (left) at Calabash
Me hanging out with glamorous poet Sharon Chambers (left) at Calabash (Photo: Mark Thompson)
Me reading on the Calabash stage
Me reading on the Calabash stage (Photo: eMedia Interactive)


Love Jamaica at Jubilation! 50 (repeatingislands.com)

Kwame Dawes Awarded Guggenheim Fellowship (nadineunscripted.wordpress.com)







The Joy (and the Business of) Writing (petchary.wordpress.com)



Granta goes global and shows a way forward (guardian.co.uk)

17 thoughts on “Jamaican Women Write!

  1. Greetings
    I love your blog and especially like the recent blog abou Calabash! I have always wanted to attend but am usually out of the country when it takes place. I am a retired grant writer and would like to offer my service to Calabash. I will be back in Jamaica in early September but if you can provide me with contact information regarding this event, I will do my best to locate some funding streams that may support this amazing project!
    Let me know if, how and when I can help! Thanks for the work you do and keep on blogging.
    Jeannie Harden


    1. Thank you so much for your kind words, Jeannie! It is so lovely to hear from you. It’s funny – I am a retired grant writer too (or at least that was part of my work at the U.S. Embassy in Kingston). How wonderful of you to offer your service to Calabash! Your contact person should be Justine Henzell, who is the Director. She can be reached at oz@cwjamaica.com or by phone at 382-6777. Perhaps drop her an email and introduce yourself first… It would be fantastic if you could find some funding sources for them… All the very best, Emma


  2. Hi,
    May I say that I am very impressed and have learned so many new things. It was refreshing reading your blog posting and learning about the Jamaican Market. You have opened my eyes to many things in another part of the world and for that I am very happy. I wish you great success in your writing and look forward to reading more by you.


    1. Dear Pat: Thank you so very much for your kind comments, and I am glad you have learned something. Jamaica, and the Caribbean, are about so much more than sun and beaches! I also post a daily African news story, which I hope you will also enjoy… Thanks, again and great to be in touch!


    1. You are welcome, Diana! When I thought about it, I realized that there is a growing band of Jamaican women writers of all ages, backgrounds and perspectives, all writing very interesting stuff. I may have made a mistake though…I said your book would be out at the end of June (as noted on Amazon’s page). But I think it is already out? When will your launch be?


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