Rooted in Time and Place

Hazel D. Campbell, Jamaica on My Mind: New and Collected Stories (Leeds: Peepal Tree, 2019); 346 pages; ISBN 978-1845234409 (paperback)

• June 2022

Jamaica on My Mind is an anthology of Hazel Campbell’s previously published short-story collections—The Rag Doll, and Other Stories (1978), Woman’s Tongue (1985), and her best-known collection Singerman (1991)—and a selection of new fiction titled simply “New Stories.” Jeremy Poynting recounts the genesis of Jamaica on My Mind in his obituary for Campbell, published on the Peepal Tree website, recalling that Peepal Tree had contacted Campbell to let her know of a planned “collected edition” of her short stories that would also include any new material that was ready for publication.1 In the process of putting together this work Poynting learned that Campbell was in very poor health. Despite efforts to speed up the process, Jamaica on My Mind was published shortly after Campbell’s death in Kingston, Jamaica, in 2018.

Campbell began her professional life as a teacher at Ardenne High School, Kingston, and later became a feature writer and editor at Jamaica Information Service and a book editor and consultant for several Jamaican educational publishing houses. She is perhaps best known in the Caribbean as an author of children’s and young-adult fiction, and her many publications in this genre include Tillie Bummie, and Other Stories (1993); A Goat Boy Never Cries (2008); Drog: A Dreggen Story (2014); Ramgoat Dashalong (1997), for which she was awarded the Vic Reid Award for Children’s Literature; and Juice Box and Scandal (2005), a collection of three cautionary tales for children about Jamaica’s precarious island ecology that serve as a plea to control and reduce waste, especially juice boxes and plastic bags (the “scandal” of the title). Campbell’s literary vision and her cultural work, as these titles indicate, is grounded in Jamaica. Indeed, she has described her commitment to Jamaica in the following way:

I was a child of the 1940s when nationalism was raising its head in Jamaica; I attended schools where patriotism and the budding political movements were regarded as extremely important. In spite of the pervasive use of foreign texts, we were encouraged to think Jamaican. This consciousness has remained with me to the extent that I get physically uncomfortable if I am away from Jamaica for too long a time. Perhaps that’s why I never migrated.2

Her rootedness in Jamaica and her decision to not migrate have, perhaps, been factors in the critical neglect of her work. There are very few available contemporary reviews of her fiction, and in scholarly studies of Caribbean fiction she is mentioned only in passing or as a bibliographical note.3

Campbell’s first two story collections were released by Savacou, a publishing enterprise established by the Caribbean Artists Movement, the cultural organization based in London in the 1960s that was founded by the London-based Trinidadian political and cultural activist John LaRose, along with Andrew Salkey and Kamau Brathwaite. In fact, Campbell’s Rag Doll was Savacou’s first release. And Singerman was one of the first releases from Peepal Tree, the Leeds-based Caribbean and Black British publisher. As Peepal Tree’s founding editor Poynting acknowledges, for marketing and publicity at that time, the publisher, much like Savacou, had had no distribution networks or systems other than word of mouth. Campbell’s choice of the short-story form, until recently the orphan of literary studies, further served to consign her works to the margins of literary criticism and scholarship.

Jamaica on My Mind reflects the stylistic range and the diverse and varied content of a much-neglected Jamaican author, and its publication comes at a time when, owing in part to the popularity of literary festivals and other literary-performative events, there has been a resurgence of interest in the writing and publication of Caribbean short fiction, as well as increased critical attention to its transformation over the decades of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Much of this criticism and scholarship has focused on the use of short fiction by Caribbean women writers to articulate a woman-centered consciousness, one that registers the region’s social, political, and environmental ecologies while also privileging considerations of sex, gender, and sexuality. 

In Campbell’s short fiction, the voice and point of view are distinctively Jamaican. The stories focus on issues that are particular to Jamaica, such as, in the short story “Singerman” (Singerman), the tension between the church and the emergence in the early 1990s of a Trinidadian-style carnival in Jamaica, or, in “Supermarket Blues” (Woman’s Tongue), the specific ways the shortages experienced during the 1970s affected women and various classes differently. Her fiction also explores the ways the desperate desire to migrate to the United States, particularly during the 1970s and 1980s, disrupted lives, held families and individuals in limbo, and created a kind of stasis and a culture of dependency in rural and urban communities. “Emancipation Park,” one of the new stories, centers on the controversy surrounding the two “much larger than life” and “explicitly naked” figures at the park’s center (301), and Campbell uses the powerful significance of this work of art to explore her characters’ sexual awakening. In the stories across all four collections, there is a focus on criminality, and on violence and sexual abuse, but throughout the work, and more markedly in the final story collection, there is a thread of optimism and more than a possibility of redemption.

Reading Campbell’s earliest stories three and four decades later, one is astonished at the prescient ways sexuality, gender relations, and the nuanced forms of the women characters’ resistance are represented. “The Thursday Wife” (Woman’s Tongue), for example, tells the story of the young married couple Bertie and Mary, who, though in love and full of sexual energy and attraction, do not really know each other. Lack of employment forces them to separate after six months, and during the time apart Mary realizes that she did not know that Bertie could not read or write, nor did she, it seems, know his family. The title refers to the pattern that develops in their relationship when he gets a job with “some white people on top of a hill” (89)—he is free to be a “husband” only on Thursdays. Mary creates a fulfilling life for herself during the rest of the week, but the pleasurable balance of this routine is interrupted when, to Mary’s disappointment, Bertie becomes a waiter and returns home every evening. Inevitably, Bertie’s infidelities and absences follow, accompanied by a lack of discretion and his loss of respect for Mary. However, while Bertie mistakes her indifference and detachment for patience and fidelity, and assumes that, despite his infidelities and carelessness, she still loves him, Mary has used Bertie’s absence to create an identity that is independent of her husband, both financially and emotionally. Although she remains married and still lives in their one-room home, she has in fact left Bertie and the marriage and found herself.

Like the story “First Love” in the collection Rag Doll, “The Thursday Wife” addresses issues of male sexual jealousy and possession, and as with many of Campbell’s stories, it is concerned with the class and color hierarchies that define Jamaican society. These women-centered stories also present female characters whose agency is achieved in unexpected ways, and in stories such as “The Rag Doll” (Rag Doll), where the violence meted out by the husband destroys the wife, the narrative itself intervenes to exact punishment.

The novella-length “Jacob Bubbles” (Singerman) is epic in its reach, blending the mythical, the real, and the everyday. Foreshadowing more recent historical, anthropological, and sociological approaches to the contemporary period in Jamaica, the story connects the violence of slavery and complex strategies of resistance, the betrayals of the postemancipation period, and the hardship and violence experienced during migration to the political violence and brutality of the contemporary period. Other stories, such as “Version,” “I-Calypso,” and “Lying Lips” from Singerman or “Devil Star” in the new stories, use aspects of magical realism and religious parable. All of Campbell’s stories exploit the poetic resonances of Jamaican Creole, using its long continuum to dramatize class hierarchy and difference and to create vividly realized characters in the small spaces of the short story. Religion, religious beliefs, and the church are recurring themes in this collection, and although the stories interrogate the role of the church in sexual repression and the subjugation of women, in “A District Called Fellowship” from Rag Doll and “Devil Star,” the characters’ Christian faith serves to avert tragedy.

Forty years after the publication of Campbell’s first collection of short stories, Peepal Tree’s timely anthology will surely stimulate readerly interest and prompt a long-overdue critical appraisal of her work.   

 

 

Suzanne Scafe is Visiting Professor of Caribbean and Postcolonial Literatures at the University of Brighton (UK). Her recent work includes essays and book chapters on Black British women’s autobiographical writing; Black British fiction and drama, including experimental women’s fiction; and Caribbean writing. She is coauthor, with Beverley Bryan and Stella Dadzie, of Heart of the Race: Black Women’s Lives in Britain (Virago, 1985 / Verso, 2018); author of Teaching Black Literature (1989); and coeditor of several collections of essays, including, with Leith Dunn, African-Caribbean Women Interrogating Diaspora/Post-diaspora (Routledge, 2022).

 


[1] See Jeremy Poynting, “Hazel D Campbell, 1940–2018, RIP,” “Wha’ppen?,” Peepal Tree Press blog, 13 December 2018, www.peepaltreepress.com/blog/whappen/hazel-d-campbell-1940-2018-rip.

[2] Hazel D. Campbell, “Author’s Note,” in Singerman (Leeds: Peepal Tree, 1991), n.p.

[3] See Kenneth Ramchand, “The West Indian Short Story,” Journal of Caribbean Literatures 1, no. 1 (1997): 21–33. Campbell is also mentioned in two essays by Hyacinth Simpson; see “Patterns and Periods: Oral Aesthetics and a Century of Jamaican Short Story Writing,” Journal of West Indian Literature 12, nos. 1–2 (2004): 1–30, and “The Jamaican Short Story: Oral and Related Influences,” Journal of Caribbean Literatures 4, no. 1 (2005): 11–30.