Wednesday, 8 June 2016

CALABASH 2016: Kwame Dawes gives us the behind-the-scenes scoop on the year’s biggest literary event

WELCOME BACK: Dawes addressing the massive audience at Jake's in Treasure Beach.

How much does it cost to stage an event like the Calabash International Literary Festival? How do the organizers decide which authors will appear? To get the answers to these and other questions, we sought out the perfect source, Programme Director Kwame Dawes, who happily filled us in:

1. So many authors to choose from…
“We use a number of approaches to selecting our authors. We pay attention to what is happening in the literary world, particularly the writers that strike us as interesting. And over the years we’ve put together a list of what we call Our Wish List of Writers. As Calabash becomes more well-known, writers also send us information about themselves, expressing an interest in reading at Calabash, and we put that information in the pool. And, finally, at the end of every Calabash, we write to all the authors who have read at Calabash and ask them to recommend three good writers who they think would be interested in coming to the festival, and we put that in the pool as well. It’s a very systematic way, but that’s how we do it.”

2. How come Providential author Colin Channer wasn’t in the mix this year?
“He read at the launch; that’s all he was doing. He wasn’t supposed to read at the festival this year. [As a co-founder], he’s not involved in Calabash any more. He’s not been involved for the last three [stagings].

3. The Wish List of Writers up close…
“It’s a long list. I can tell you who we’ve always asked. We’ve always asked Orhan Pamuk from Turkey; Toni Morrison from the US; J.M. Coetzee from South Africa. These are three people we’ve asked, and so far they haven’t come yet. I’m not sure they’ll come because they’re aging. Most of them [who don’t come] it’s because of age.”

4. Finding the funding: A tall order
“We have managed to get funding regularly from CHASE, good support and sponsorship from Jake’s. Wisynco has supported us in the past. The US Embassy has supported us, and sometimes some of the embassies and high commissions of other countries have supported us. But, for the most part, we have to struggle to find funding and find support. But we keep at it. And that’s one of the reasons we’re now doing [Calabash] every two years. It costs us about US$120-150,000 to run this festival each time. I’m waiting for the great benefactor to give us a nice endowment (Laughs). That would be lovely.

5. The (media) world comes to Treasure Beach…
“They come in great numbers. People know this festival around the world, and it’s one of the events in Jamaica that every time it happens there are news stories about it in all the major press in the English-speaking world. All of them. There is nothing else in Jamaica that gets that kind of attention. Unless the Prime Minister says something dangerous (Laughs).

6. Will there be another compilation project like So Much Things to Say?
“Nothing is in the work, but we probably will at some point.”

7. Calabash 2016: One word to sum up the event… 
“Fantastic. It’s run smoothly. The quality of the writers has been incredible, and I’ve been struck by the size of the audience. It’s been pretty large, and I’m very happy about that.”

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