I was invited to read at the Calabash Literary Festival in Jamaica over Memorial Day weekend. Then the riots erupted in Kingston and the roads to the airport were blocked. Terribly worried, I called my friend Johnny Temple, publisher of Akashic Books, who goes every year. He reassured me that the problems in Kingston were not going to affect the Calabash festival, which takes place under a huge tent in Calabash Cove, on the south coast of the island, three hours away from the capital.
My husband and daughter were planning to come along, even though Eyrna would miss two days of school in the all-important year of 7th grade. How well a child does in 7th grade, we’d been told, determines her future in the public high school application system. But Calabash is not any occasion. First of all, writers are only eligible to participate every four years. We’d all gone as a family once before, in 2004, when Eyrna was too little to sit through the readings. She spent the weekend swimming in Jake’s salt-water pool with Bob Marley’s granddaughter.
This time, at 12, I wasn’t sure she would be interested, what with the all-consuming issues of things that begin with i-; of boys who flirt one day and are cruel the next; of what clothes to wear so you won’t stand out; and of the ever-present pecking order of middle-school popularity.
Sometimes Eyrna questions our life choices, as in, “Why couldn’t we live in a really big apartment?” Or, “How come you’re a writer, Mommy?” I tell her it was not a choice, really, but a calling, which is hard for her to comprehend. To our extreme surprise, Eyrna’s strongest subjects in school are math and social studies, not English and writing. Kevin and I laugh, relieved that we won’t have another writer in the family.
We arrived at Jake’s, a rustic, beautiful beach resort on Jamaica’s rocky south coast, owned by the Henzell family — who close Jake’s down every year for the festival, and house the participating writers for free — in a veritable deluge. It rained for two days straight and then on Friday night, just in time for Sharon Olds’ reading, the rain stopped.
A thin, pale woman with silver hair, Sharon Olds stood on the podium under a thatched roof and greeted the audience sitting quietly in white plastic chairs under the tent, by pointing out how small she felt with 2,000 people before her and the entire, roiling sea and black sky at her back. She stood like a portal between the two worlds, magnificent in her modesty but also in her strength, which seemed to emanate from her like a force field. She read for close to an hour. A poem about seeing her aging ass in a hotel mirror for the first time. She read a poem about her breasts, those silly twins who were still waiting for her husband to return to her; she read “Ode to the Hymen,” about losing her virginity; she read a poem about trying to catch a flight to reach her dying father across the continent, before his final breaths. As tears stung my eyes, I reached out for my daughter’s hand. I turned to look at her face as she sat between her father and me, and saw that her eyes were riveted to the stage. She was absorbing every word. She was hearing the message. As women, we do not have to feel ashamed of who we are. We do not have to hide our fears and our sexuality, or our failures and desires. Sharon Olds seemed to me suddenly a sea goddess, risen from the very waves crashing at her back, and I felt the hairs standing up on my arms, electrified. I turned to my daughter and whispered, “This is why we write.”