MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
Jamaica is known for its music. It's the birthplace of Bob Marley and reggae. An event held each summer for the past decade has also put the island on the map for another art form, literature.
Baz Dreisinger reports on an unusual festival that celebrates language with a distinctly Caribbean twist.
BAZ DREISINGER, BYLINE: Picture a small fishing village - the beach, the rum, the Rastas, the tourists and the international literati. Now, imagine everything coming to a standstill at the sound of this.
FRED D'AGUIAR: Coins in the sea pressed by light. This morning sky, white of stars, chalk off my shirt climbing sun.
DREISINGER: Fred D'Aguiar's spare verses about cricket fields in Guyana shared the stage with Victor LaValle's comedic oh-so-detailed musings on an American men's room.
VICTOR LAVALLE: I open my mouth to breathe, but the faint whiff of filth and its corrupted soul haunted me.
DREISINGER: Welcome to Calabash, a three-day international literary festival with a vibe all its own.
(SOUNDBITE OF SINGING)
DREISINGER: Calabash was founded a dozen years ago by writer Colin Channer, producer Justine Henzell and Ghana-born, Jamaica-bred author Kwame Dawes.
KWAME DAWES: Calabash focuses on two things. First of all, we intend to make the festival have a Jamaican vibe and spirit - that is ease, comfort, calm, but also innovation. But, secondly, to have a spirit that is almost Scandinavian in the sense of meticulous care for detail and intense level of professionalism.
DREISINGER: No so-called island time at this fest. Things begin and end according to schedule. But this year, poet and writer Kevin Young discovered that no amount of professionalism can tamper with the - OK, I'll say it - laid-back "Irie, mon" feel of Calabash.
KEVIN YOUNG: You see people there all day, eating. They're with families. It really has a kind of community vibe and also almost a pilgrimage vibe.
DREISINGER: They make that pilgrimage to Treasure Beach, a rural, untouristy slice of Jamaica's south coast. The event is staged at Jake's, a boutique hotel owned by the family of Calabash producer Justine Henzell, whose father Perry directed the 1973 classic Jamaican film, "The Harder They Come."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE HARDER THEY COME")
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Singing) So as sure as the sun will shine, I'm going to get my share now of what's mine.
DREISINGER: Justine Henzell points to the hotel, actually a cluster of whimsical cottages strewn across six rocky acres.
JUSTINE HENZELL: You walk in here. The colors the buildings are painted, the shells in the wall. It just makes you realize that you're in a different head space.
DREISINGER: Authors jump at the chance to share in that head space every year. In exchange for hotel and airfare, the likes of Junot Diaz, Colson Whitehead and Sonia Sanchez forgo their usual fees to read at Calabash. In turn, the event is free and open to the public, but writers, don't bother sending your resumes. Kwame Dawes handpicks the lineup and there's a waiting list.
DAWES: Sometimes you want to mix race, we want to mix nationalities, we want to mix gender, we want to mix sexual orientation. We want to constantly show range and show complexity and show diversity.
ANIS MOJGANI: There is the biggest parade moving through my street. The skies explode with ticker tape. Strangers kiss on every corner. Their kisses are what make me live forever. This is how she makes me feel, like honey, like honey and trombones.
DREISINGER: Then there's the crowd.
DREISINGER: Ethiopian novelist Maaza Mengiste read from her debut, "Beneath the Lion's Gaze," for some 2,000 listeners.
MAAZA MENGISTE: The audience here has been a different kind of audience than I've ever read for. They are absolutely engaged and they're laughing. They feel with you when you're on stage. You can feel that energy and it was great.
DREISINGER: And last, but in Jamaica, certainly not least, is the final crucial ingredient, music.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
DREISINGER: Calabash features reggae concerts and DJ sets and concludes with a world-class acoustic performance.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
DREISINGER: Calabash only just concluded, but it's really a year-round thing. The Calabash International Literary Festival Trust stages writing workshops in Jamaica and also publishes, mostly via Brooklyn-based Akashic Press, Caribbean literature.
Justine Henzell explains that Calabash's mission is to cultivate literary talent from across the islands.
HENZELL: There are poets who talk about Calabash and say that what they wrote is either BC, before Calabash started, or AC because the fact that they were able to hear poets from all over the world reading their work made them understand what incredible poetry is and it was giving them a chance to say, OK. That - my poem is good, but it's not great yet.
DREISINGER: And, in the same way, the Jamaican festival has ultimately raised the bar for lit fests everywhere. After all, wouldn't you prefer a Red Stripe on the beach with Derek Walcott to wine and cheese with the tweed and ascot set?
For NPR News, I'm Baz Dreisinger.