As I sat in the heat of a Jamaican afternoon within touching distance of the Caribbean sea listening to Zadie Smith, Salman Rushdie, Ngugi Wa Thiong’o and Jamaica Kincaid read from their respective works, my mind kept returning to the phrase coined by Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, “the single story”.
Adichie’s phrase describes the process by which entire nations, even continents, have their reality excised and a single, usually misguided or at the very least limited, image is allowed to become the dominant picture of a place and its people.
I was in Jamaica to record a BBC Radio 4 documentary about Rastafari and to perform alongside the above names at the Calabash International Literature Festival. Founded in 2001 and located in the grounds of Jake’s Treasure Beach hotel, St Elizabeth, this three-day festival is the brainchild of the writers Colin Channer and Kwame Dawes, and the producer/film-maker Justine Henzell. Witnessing the audience of more than 4,000 people, and with homegrown artists such as Jah9 and Jesse Royal, it was one of the most inspiring events I’ve ever attended.
I am someone whose worldview was born of the African-Caribbean radical tradition. Yet I was surprised at just how well managed and well attended the festival was. Why? Could I have internalised a single story about the Caribbean, that still sees it more as a place of carnival than cognition? Or could it be that thousands of people intently listening to writers read for six hours a day, in that heat, is just genuinely a unique phenomena?
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