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Calabash 2018: Akashic Books’ Johnny Temple Tells All

Calabash introduces some of the very best of today’s writers, both popular ones and emerging voices.

Author Tayari Jones (left) and fan

ohnny Temple is the publisher and editor in chief of akashicbooks.com, an award-winning Brooklyn-based independent company dedicated to publishing … the coolest literary fiction and political nonfiction. We could tell you all about his killer awards cred. We riff about his rock star days as the bass player in Girls Against Boys, or how he got the Brooklyn Book Festival off the ground. But, what you really need to know about Johnny? He’s a Calabash guy — a big presence at the last eleven festivals who’s either cheering on his authors or inspiring those hoping to publish. That’s why we asked Johnny to describe for us: What’s it like to attend a Calabash? What can you share about 2018? Below, what Johnny had to say:


JOHNNY TEMPLE: “In my twenty-one years as a book publisher who travels to festivals and conferences around the world, I have never been to a better celebration of authors and their books than Calabash. Time after time, Calabash brings to the Jamaican public (and many visitors) some of the very best of today’s writers, both popular ones and emerging voices. The authors invited reflect the festival’s internationalist humanitarian orientation, and the focus is not at all limited to Caribbean authors. In 2018, for example, the festival hosted authors such as acclaimed Kenyan novelist Peter Kimani, alongside Tayari Jones, whose outstanding novel An American Marriage was recently selected by Oprah for her book club.

Anytime you mention Calabash to someone who has been there, they smile with a wistful look in their eyes and say, “I love Calabash.” It’s not simply exposure to world-class writing, it’s also the highly inspirational setting and overall vibe. One leaves Calabash recharged. Jakes and Calabash are blood relatives, and the gorgeous setting holds the festival perfectly. Many writers return to Calabash even when they aren’t part of the formal proceedings. For festivalgoers, Calabash offers the opportunity to meet these writers in a relaxed, informal, and energized setting.

Another lovely aspect of Calabash is that for the authors who appear, the audience is second to none, in terms of the attention it pays to the words flowing from the stage. In New York City, where I live, one can see heralded authors read from their work any day of the week. For Jamaicans who love books, however, visits from Patricia Smith, Laura Lippman, David Simon, Chimamanda Adichie, Salman Rushdie, Michael Ondaatje, Billy Collins, Sonia Sanchez, Russell Banks, and so many authors—not to mention groundbreaking Caribbean writers like Linton Kwesi Johnson, Lorna Goodison, Marlon James, Kei Miller, and Edwidge Danticat—are a true gift. This is why so many people drive across Jamaica from Kingston to Treasure Beach. I’d estimate that the massive audience is three-quarters Jamaican, with the rest comprising a mix of Americans, British, Canadians, Europeans, other West Indians, and many more. It’s rare for authors, even the best-selling ones, to read their work before an audience this large. It’s also the quietest and most appreciative audience you are likely to find.

The author readings and discussions at Calabash all happen on a single stage. There is also a side stage for late-night music, which in 2018 featured a DJ “clash” between two young women: BadGyal Marie (Japan) and ZJ Nova (Jamaica). The nighttime audience was loving it, as were the two DJs. This year I had the opportunity to lead a publishing discussion as part of Calabash’s “Café Series” held on the verandah at Jakes. It was a lively session, and was boosted by spontaneous remarks from Booker Prize–winning author Marlon James and British publisher Sharmaine Lovegrove (Dialogue Books/Little Brown).

I attended my first Calabash in 2004 (its fourth year) and have not missed a festival since. Akashic is fortunate that many of our authors have appeared on the Calabash stage over these years. In 2018 Akashic brought a knockout lineup of Michael Imperioli, Peter Kimani, and Rivers Solomon. When the dust had settled after this year’s festival, I asked myself a question I have asked myself many times before: “Was this the best Calabash ever?”

Linton Kwesi Johnson

Kwame Dawes, Lorna Goodison, Tracy K Smith, Georgette LeBlanc, Carol Ann Duffy

Marlon James and Calabashers

Paul Holdengraber and Jonathan Galassi

Malika Booker

Hari Kunzru, Akala, Sloane Crosley

Winsome Hudson, Isis Semaj-Hall, Alwyn Scott, Linton Kwesi Johnson

Kwame Dawes, Ishion Hutchinson, Michael Imperioli

Songstress Lila Ike

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