Wordsmiths mingle work and play at a world away

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By Patricia Borns
Globe Correspondent / December 5, 2010

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TREASURE BEACH, Jamaica — Imagine being lifted in a bubble and gently set on a headland by the sea. Famous people casually introduce themselves: “Hi, my name is Cristina [‘Dreaming in Cuban’ novelist Cristina García], and this is Russell [‘Affliction’ author Russell Banks].’’

Far from Negril and Montego Bay, I was in the Jamaican breadbasket of St. Elizabeth parish, among tawny beaches and funky guest houses with names like Irie Rest. Crumpled in my backpack was the paper that brought me here. Once a year in May, sleepy Treasure Beach gathers a world of authors to the Calabash International Literary Festival. I had come to be immersed in their company — and maybe read my work at the famous Calabash open mic.

David Carpenter, an aspiring writer from Boston, had brought his work, too. “Rain a fall, breeze a blow, chicken batty out da door,’’ he quoted a Jamaican proverb as, scrunched under umbrellas, we strolled. It was not his first visit, but it was mine. “I love walking here, the way people greet you. There’s so much love,’’ he said. When he added, “There’s nothing to do in Treasure Beach,’’ he meant it in a good way.

The main streets go by in an eye blink of shops and simple hangouts. They range from a domino players’ shade tree to Fisherman’s Nightclub, with a pool table, the area’s liveliest spot. Overlooking Frenchman’s Bay, the Treasure Beach Hotel for which the town was named served early-20th-century colonial types from the near mountain town of Mandeville. It still functions, a laid-back version of its former self with a great mahogany bar. Footpaths lead to more small bays notched into the coast: Billy’s, Calabash, and Great Pedro Bay, where Shirley Genus prepares an herbal steam bath in her sweat studio that Peter Martin, who visited from the Berkshires, remembers longingly three years later.

As words run through the festival, food runs through the countryside. Fishermen rule, their bright boats feeding the community and whisking visitors to Floyd’s Pelican Bar located a mile offshore, where the best seats are in the water. In the northern distance, the Pedro Plains rise to the Santa Cruz Mountains, Jamaica’s driest yet most fertile earth.

A longtime Jamaican family, the Henzells, run Jake’s, a resort small in size but large in community outreach, its gate open to neighbors and passers-through as well as guests. The writers hang out here; Calabash is held on the grounds. As Carpenter and I sat at an outdoor table whittling our stories for the two-minute open mic, their conversations hummed.

Poet Kwame Dawes, novelist Colin Channer (Newhouse visiting professor at Wellesley College), and Justine Henzell founded the literary festival in 2001, branding it with the vibe of a reggae-inspired salon. In an open field, a billowing tent is pitched. Farmers truck in enough food for three days of readings, live concerts, and late-night happenings. When writers come together with the mostly Jamaican audience, anything can happen. It’s all good, and free.

Throughout the day, 3,000 people trickled in to Treasure Beach, many from a Kingston under siege. Troops had chosen Calabash’s 10th anniversary to seize drug lord Dudus Coke. Finally the sky eked out a sunset, a beauty. The sea calmed, a pale blue-green. Dawes stepped to the mic, the event’s MC, a man who towers in every sense. So it began.

“You know, the theme of all poetry is death,’’ said Billy Collins, a former US poet laureate, who read “On Turning Ten.’’

Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka described writing poems on pieces of toilet paper in prison during Nigeria’s civil war. When he raised a bottle of Jamaican Red Stripe beer, the crowd roared.

With the waves rustling like a soundtrack, Bernice McFadden delivered a passage from her novel “Glorious’’ about a woman coming of age in the Harlem Renaissance. It described a trip to the Bronx Zoo where a Mbuti pygmy from the Congo region of Africa was displayed along with the monkeys in their cages.

By night, the lectern became a movie theater for Trevor Rhone’s riff on Jamaican tourism, “Smile Orange,’’ then a concert stage for Etana, a young reggae star who touches Bob Marley’s themes in a surprising, woman’s way. Between the acts, people relaxed into states of dreaminess.

A prodigious amount of eating was going on.

“When Jamaicans return to Jamaica, they cut back on American food beforehand to make room to eat more,’’ Channer explained over a plate of greens. After signing my copy of his novel “The Girl With the Golden Shoes,’’ he opened it to Page 91, and read aloud of “stalls where old negritas sold small fritters made from black-eyed peas’’; “the iron pots that had been used by their grandmothers’’; and “happy voices crackling like a splash of water dripping in hot oil.’’ “When I was trying to re-create the food of 1940s Jamaica, my mind went to Treasure Beach,’’ he said.

Everyone has a favorite place for certain meals: Pardy’s for ackee, curried goat at Diner’s Delite, Jack Sprat for conch stew and fish tea, Oliver’s Dutch Pot for steamed fish.

Thirty-five minutes away, the Black River descends to a low-lying landscape called the morass, with cultural and physical affinities to Lagos and Nigeria. Pontoon boats bear tourists upstream to see the rookeries and crocodiles. At the river’s mouth, the town with its aging Georgian buildings is a shadow of the wealthy trade center that it was, but the market stalls overflow with fresh produce on Sundays. Locals swarm the decks of the big fishing boats as snapper, grouper, and jack are hauled from the holds. Channer’s Page 91 leaps to life here.

Opposite the NCD Bank, a cook ladles turtle, oxtail, octopus, and conch soup from simmering pots. Sometimes he has goat head — “must smell right,’’ a local advised — and cow cod, made from a bull’s penis. “The best soup in the whole world,’’ Channer had promised, giggling only a little. Ask around for the peanut man, scooping roasted nuts into cone-shaped paper bags as it’s done in Ghana.

As the ribbon road enters Middle Quarters, hagglers wave packets of spicy pepper crayfish and shrimp from their outdoor stands. Look for Sharon in the village center cooking them fresh over a Pimento wood fire. Her recipe could not be simpler or more delicious: boil water, add salt, flavor with two big handfuls of crushed Scotch bonnet peppers, and add fresh Black River shellfish. The street food even came with a bar of soap and water to wash our hands.

Many Jamaicans remember a parish where they visited their grandparents, picked mangoes, and skinned their knees. The fruits are memory food, their sweetness one part juice and nine parts longing-love. Carpenter knows this from Angela, his Jamaican-born wife. Stepping to the open mic, he belted out a lusty love poem for her that brought cheers from the crowd.

When Dool McClean, an organic grower who supplies Jake’s farm-to-table menu, clambered up a sweetsop tree, plucked the last fruit and handed it to me, I understood that I had not come to read, after all.

After days of ripening, I took the sweetsop to the beach, where a fisherman was carving lignum vitae and a Rasta sat in a fabulously whorled acacia tree. Carefully removing the fruit’s outer layer and black eyelet seeds, I tasted the flesh, creamy and sweet, like vanilla custard.

“Where are you from? Every time I see you, you’re smiling,’’ a woman in a flowered wrap, one of the festival attendees, addressed me.

Like many of the people at Calabash, I was hungry for simple things. Treasure Beach gave us food.

If You Go

Where to stay
Calabash Bay, Treasure Beach
Rustic-chic villas, from $115.
Golden Sands Guest House
Frenchman’s Bay
Basic fan-cooled digs on the beach, from $40.
Where to eat
Pardy’s Coffee Shop
Calabash Bay
Saltfish and more, $6-$11.
Oliver’s Dutch Pot
May Len Plaza, Treasure Beach
1-876-375-5217, 965-3362
Steamed fish and other Jamaican meals, $4.50-$18.
Jack Sprat
Calabash Bay
Jake’s beachside spot for pizza and curried conch. Sunday sunset fish fry, $4-$16.