Calabash 2009: A View of Us in the Age of Obama

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Jamaican wisdom:

“When a black man becomes President of the USA, pigs will fly. And then what happened? Swine flu.”

In Philip Womack’s dispatch from Calabash in the London Telegraph, June 2, 2009.

This last roundup of memorable voices at the Calabash literary festival in Jamaica is about us — the second of the big reasons I come. The first is to hear Caribbean writers at home – even the ones who’ve become famous in America like Junot Diaz and Edwidge Danticat, sounding off in the islands of Bob Marley and Derek Walcott.

The second mission, for me, is to see the States from a penetrating gaze just offshore — something like the old Irish wisdom on the world of the British empire. So as the Calabash gab winds down, I’m gathering up conversations with Jamaicans and visitors from all over about the US and the world early in the age of Obama. The impressions here are from the breakthrough filmmaker Melvin Van Peebles, the Hong Kong novelist Xu Xi, the repeat poet laureate of the United States Robert Pinsky, and the world citizen and poet Kwame Dawes.

Melvin Van Peebles came to Calabash to show his new movie Confessions of an Ex-Doofus Itchy-Footed Mutha, nearly 40 years after he inaugurated the “blaxploitation” movie tradition with Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasss Song. With me Melvin Van Peebles is just short of exultant about the direction of things at home:

I think the States is on the right track, oddly enough. Things are coming to fruition. On election night, I went to a swank party on Central Park West. The cab driver who took me home wouldn’t take any money. He says: “we won, man, we won. He was from Sri Lanka. When a New York cab driver won’t take money from you, maybe things are changing. It was a seminal moment in my life… It can never go back. The guy is not messing up. He sure doesn’t give fodder to the stereotype of how a person of African descent can’t find his way out of the cotton patch. That’s changed. Over. Out. Can’t be discussed anymore. That’s an immense change. You can’t go back there.

Melvin Van Peebles in conversation with Chris Lydon, at the Calabash International Literary Festival, Treasure Beach, Jamaica, May 24, 2009.

Xu Xi is a literary light of a changing Hong Kong view. She’s both novelist and essayist – minding the gap between Hong Kong, the British colony for a century, and now China’s booming gateway for all kinds of commerce and cultural traffic East and West. This is a woman who grew up, as she writes, between Confucius and Catcher in the Rye.

The thing that is interesting since Obama’s taken office is the shift I’ve seen, especially in Hong Kong among friends who were always dissing America — you know, British friends, Australian friends, Chinese friends, who are suddenly so much more sympathetic towards America. It’s like: Oh, the U. S. of A. is not all that bad… I’m thinking of a British friend of mine in Hong Kong, a very smart man who’s never been to the States and never had much desire to go until Obama got elected. He’s the sort of person who should be coming to take a look, you know?

Xu Xi in conversation with Chris Lydon, at the Calabash International Literary Festival, Treasure Beach, Jamaica, May 24, 2009.

Robert Pinsky writes poems of place, starting in New Jersey, melodic poems with palpable images that travel easily. He read his signature piece, Shirt, beginning “The back, the yoke, the yardage…” and the Calabash crowd would have listened all afternoon. Pinsky was the poet laureate who got many thousands of Americans reading their favorite poems aloud; at Calabash he heard scores of Jamaicans reading their own strong verses in Open Mike sessions.

I am seeing in the island rather a promising vision of the next steps for American culture, and what we think of as the American project of becoming a people…

One of the most moving passages in Dreams from My Father deals with the part in that boy’s life when he has assimilated himself to Indonesian society–he is flying kites, he knows the language. His mother is seeing her husband diminished, frustrated and ossified. He is a good man but something is very wrong for him because he is living in a totalitarian country. So she gets the boy up at four thirty in the morning because she has realized that she needs him to get an American education. He must be an American in effect. And the kid complains because he is sleepy, and she tells him that this is no picnic for her either…

There is a great model here for American art and for American life. She wants him to be like Odysseus, the most interesting of the heroes. In the first lines of the Odyssey, it says that Odysseus, though he failed to get his men home, he traveled to many places and learned the manners of many people. She made sure that the compass, or the core, or the guiding vision, had to do with this project of being an American people.

Robert Pinsky in conversation with Chris Lydon, at the Calabash International Literary Festival, Treasure Beach, Jamaica, May 24, 2009.

Finally, Kwame Dawes, a prime mover at Calabash, had a big question on his mind. If the Age of Obama really is what it feels like, a new time, a watershed for black, brown and white people in the world, what is the opportunity, the invitation, for artists and writers, like himself. Kwame Dawes was born in Ghana, schooled in Jamaica and Canada. He now teaches at the University of South Carolina, and writes an astonishing variety of poems, essays and oral histories.

I became an American citizen last year, after Obama won the election… so as a Ghanaian-American, I am starting a journey along with this Obama guy, who for all of his African-Americanness is a kind of immigrant in America… and I think he understands the immigrant experience and that narrative.

For Americans choosing to be led by an African American, it means that America, particularly White America, has to be engaged imaginatively with the idea of who this man is…

I become a beneficiary of that because they have to engage with me and who I am. We have to find a point of connection and possibility. It is a moment. And it is a moment that we do not completely understand but it is significant because the equations have began to change.

Kwame Dawes in conversation with Chris Lydon, at the Calabash International Literary Festival, Treasure Beach, Jamaica, May 24, 2009.