Notes from a small island

Daniel Trilling discovers a thriving literary scene between the mountains and the Caribbean

Reading his poem "The Cinnamon Peeler" at the 2007 Calabash International Literary Festival in Jamaica, the novelist Michael Ondaatje has to compete not only with a gathering tropical storm, but also with a stray dog that is insistent on taking over the podium. The slight chaos sums up Calabash's relaxed, irreverent approach to literature. Now in its eighth year, the festival is organised by three Jamaicans: the novelist Colin Channer, poet Kwame Dawes and Justine Henzell, daughter of the acclaimed film director Perry Henzell. Over three days, writers from around the globe read and debate between a backdrop of mountains on one side and the Caribbean Sea on the other.

This year, the 4,000-strong audience hear readings from Ondaatje, Caryl Phillips and Maryse Condé, a showcase of authors from the independent New York publisher Akashic Books (company motto: "reverse gentrification of the literary world"), poetry from a range of Caribbean and American writers and a tribute to V S Naipaul's comic novel The Mystic Masseur. Channer holds a provocative discussion with Mike Farrell, the former M*A*S*H star-turned-political activist, who broaches two of Jamaica's touchiest subjects: the death penalty and homophobia. Farrell's condemnation of the latter meets with enthusiastic applause from the audience.

Channer tells me that he and his co-organisers are attempting to inspire a young, fertile literary culture in Jamaica. Currently, he says, music is "the most highly evolved form of storytelling" in Jamaica and Calabash takes its ethos from the island's legendary reggae industry of the 1970s. Aside from the festival (which also features live reggae performances from Lloyd Parks, Pam Hall and Ibo Cooper), Calabash runs writers' workshops throughout the year, designed to evoke the atmosphere of creative hothouses such as the 1970s record labels Tuff Gong and Studio One. The results of the workshops are displayed in last year's excellent collection of short stories, Iron Balloons (Akashic Books).

Though there are no Jamaican writers on the bill this year (Channer says that writers only get a chance to appear "when they're ready"), there is a buzz of enthusiasm among the mainly Jamaican audience. People come from a range of age groups and social backgrounds - from teens in baggy skate jeans to rastas to smartly dressed elderly couples. This creates a lively ambience; indeed, it'll be a strange day when the audience at the Hay festival is told: "If you're going to smoke spliff, please do so outside the tent."

This year, the Calabash festival also hosts the 21st Commonwealth Writers' Prize. The winner of the Best First Book award is the Canadian writer D Y Béchard, whose novel Vandal Love follows generations of a French-Canadian family through the 20th century, as they move around Canada and the US trying to find a home. The New Zealand author Lloyd Jones wins the Overall Best Book award for his novel Mister Pip (reviewed in the NS of 4 June), whose 13-year-old narrator finds solace in Charles Dickens's Great Expectations during the bloody independence struggle on the tiny Pacific island of Bougainville. Among the runners-up are South African novels that deal with the effects of Apartheid on both the oppressed and the oppressors (All We Have Left Unsaid by Maxine Case and The Native Commissioner by Shaun Johnson) and Andrew O'Connor's Tuvalu, a bleakly comic tale of an Australian twentysomething loser.

Despite the wide scope of the Commonwealth Writers' Prize - writers from 52 countries are eligible - the literature it promotes receives little attention in Britain. It's a shame, especially given our national obsession with the search for "true" Britishness. Caryl Phillips, a former Commonwealth Writers' Prizewinner, provides the highlight of the weekend with an autobiographical essay that recounts his loneliness after emigrating from St Kitts to Leeds as a child, the solace he finds reading 19th-century novels as a teenager and the eventual "sense of purpose" as a writer that comes from reading Richard Wright's Native Son. Like many of the authors at the festival, his struggle with the psychological effects of colonialism displays a sense of identity far too fluid to fit neatly with any government-sponsored citizenship test. It's a theme that perfectly matches the cosmopolitan spirit of Calabash.

Daniel Trilling is the Editor of New Humanist magazine. He was formerly an Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 18 June 2007 issue of the New Statesman, New Britain - The country Brown inherits