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Hazel D. Campbell 1940-2018, R.I.P.

13 December 2018

We were deeply saddened by the news of Hazel Campbell’s death. We were on the point of sending the files of her new book to the printers when we received a heartbroken phone call from her friend Jacqueline Bishop. We knew that Hazel was seriously ill, but I had really hoped that we would be able to put a copy of her new book, Jamaica on My Mind: New and Collected Stories into her hands before Christmas. We were hurrying it through the publishing process. But this was not to be. It is only a small comfort to know that in her last weeks Hazel was really pleased that the book was coming out.

Back in 1991, when Peepal Tree was only six years old, I published Hazel’s collection Singerman, which I have always thought was one of the very best collections of short stories we have ever done. It is a matter of regret that at that stage in Peepal Tree’s life it was not possible to do much more than publish the book. I was not able to provide the kind of promotion the book deserved. I was still working as a lecturer in FE, there was as yet no Hannah Bannister handling marketing, no website, no social media, and reviews only came from sources that were specifically friendly to what we were doing. The reviews were very enthusiastic but appeared only in places such as small specialist postcolonial journals and The Morning Star, and were not sufficient to give Hazel the kind of attention outside Jamaica that she had within her country.

A couple of months ago, we noted we were down to the last handfuls of copies of the original print run of Singerman. I had no doubts that this was a title we should republish, even though it did not exist in any electronic format (another consequence of publishing in 1991) and the book had to be scanned and OCR’d to restore it to publishability. I had been disappointed that the new collection of stories Hazel had once told me (in an email) that she was working on had never materialised. She was concentrating on the essential business of writing books for children.

I had read many years ago the two collections of stories published by Kamau Brathwaite’s Savacou Co-operative, The Rag Doll and Other Stories (1978) and Woman’s Tongue (1985) – which was why I’d been so excited when the manuscript of Singerman arrived through the post. I found my copies of these books and began rereading with some trepidation – were they as good as I remembered? By this stage the idea of putting together a collected edition of all Hazel’s short stories was forming in my mind. The stories from those Savacou collections were good – with one exception. I emailed Hazel to ask whether there were stories written after Singerman and what she thought of the idea of a book of collected stories. There were new stories, though not enough for a book to themselves, and Hazel was clearly delighted with the proposal, though she mentioned that she wasn’t in such good health. She sent the eight new stories – all good ones – that very nicely brought the collection into the twenty-first century. I was particularly drawn to those that dealt with some of the issues of ageing in contemporary Jamaica in a disturbingly comic way. I mentioned to her that I thought one of the earliest stories might be left out, and Hazel wholeheartedly agreed – it was too sentimental – which it was, in a quite uncharacteristic way.

It was when I mentioned to Jacqueline Bishop, currently in London pursuing further studies, that I was working on this book that I learnt that Hazel’s not such good health was, at 78, much more serious than I’d supposed. I knew Jacqueline had interviewed Hazel for the Jamaica Observer in the excellent series of interviews she conducted (which will be published by Peepal Tree later next year) and I asked her if she’d like to write an introduction to the collection. She did. And at this point the project took on a sense of urgency. We had already experienced deaths that changed the nature of the publishing process. It saddens us still that Abdur-Rahman Slade Hopkinson never saw his collected poems, Snowscape with Signature, and that Archie Markham died unexpectedly in Paris when we were expecting him back to launch his memoir, Against the Grain, which again he’d never seen in print. We didn’t want this to happen with Hazel.

But the stories are there, collected together in a fat 345-page volume, called Jamaica On My Mind (a title Hazel came up with only a week or so ago), written between the early 1970s and within the last few years. Hazel was also very much involved in the choice of images for the cover. It perhaps gives some indication of her state of mind that a couple of ideas were turned down because, to her, they looked “too anguished”.

The stories give an unrivalled portrayal of Jamaica over those years and they demonstrate what a serious and achieved writer Hazel was. I never met her in person, but formed the view, from her address, the emails and from the range of occupations she’d had that she was very much a member of the Jamaican professional middle class. There are several stories that give a quite unsparing view of what she evidently regarded as narrow social and cultural prejudices of some members of that class. Read “See Me in Me Benz and Ting”, for example. What also struck me as so admirable in the stories was their portrayal of members of the poor urban underclass. They combined real sympathy, a refusal to sentimentalise and clearsighted realism about the extent to which her characters had some responsibility for their plight, though her work is overwhelmingly clear in portraying Jamaica as a society that has not yet escaped the malign heritage of slavery in its class and racial structure. Take her story “Mama Pala”. You know as the reader that Mama Pala – fourteen children “and no father supporting any of them” – will never make a success of the chicken farm for which she is trying to borrow money, that her rich cousin Gloria is quite right in thinking that Mama Pala is an improvident maker of short-sighted decisions who can’t be trusted to use the loan effectively. Yet you feel for Mama Pala’s humiliation, delight in her subversion of Cousin Gloria’s intentions and understand just why her daughter should value the new pair of mid-calf boots so much – despite them being such a symbol of colonial imitativeness.

As Jacqueline Bishop writes of Hazel Campbell in her introduction, “I get the sense that she is the all-seeing eye and the all-listening ear, roving over the island, stopping here and there to listen to our conversations” – and what a brilliant recorder and shaper of the poetry of Jamaica’s patwa she was. The stories, indeed, rove over the island, to rural villages, upper middle-class mansions, respectable lower middle-class housing schemes and the garrison ghettos of political tribalism. They deal with the fragile hopes of the young, the prematurely defeated, those who are locked-up in racial self-contempt, the violently rebellious, those filled with religious certainties and those who are struggling to find a way of living that is both true to their inner selves and the difficult world they live in. About none of these people does Hazel Campbell ever tell us what to think. As Jacqueline Bishop writes, “She is the kind of writer who says, Here are the characters, and here is the situation, and this is what unfolded. Reader, I wash my hands, I have done my job, now it’s your turn to do the work.”

But if Hazel Campbell’s individual stories never tell us what to think, as a collective whole they offer a vision both of Jamaica and the Caribbean as it is, with hints of what it ought to be. Her story “Singerman”, for instance, drawing on David Rudder’s song “Haiti”, makes it clear that Hazel’s vision was pan-Caribbean, radical and committed to the kind of fundamental decolonisation that the generally neo-colonial governments of the region were failing to achieve in the face of neo-liberal freemarket globalisation – imperialism by another name.

Many of the Facebook posts expressing sorrow over Hazel’s death refer to her stalwart Christian faith, and she spoke in her interview with Jacqueline Bishop of her upbringing in the Pentecostalist Church of God (though suggesting that it was the music that was for her the best part of the service). As a deeply-rooted Jamaican writer Hazel was very clear that so much Jamaican life focused around the church, and at least half-a-dozen of the stories are set in churches and church communities. But here Hazel Campbell is too much of a writer who sees the comedy in the gap between intention and actuality, and too much of a writer to tell her readers what to think. Her stories focused around church life are no less free-thinking and questioning about that life than her stories about secular Jamaican society. For example, she can be both comedic and serious about the problems the pious have with sexuality. In an early story, “A District Called Fellowship”, Granny and Aunty Missis are truly good and caring people, but their piety and fear of the world of the flesh makes it more likely that Stella, their naïve, day-dreaming granddaughter and niece will fall for the seductive charms of the faithless Randy. A more recent story, “Devil Star”, comically juxtaposes Jamaica at its most pious and most secular when the denizens of church and dancehall meet on a day-trip to the coast. The story sets up a situation where even the visiting Lucifer is bested, not by virtue but by Jamaican political madness.

It’s worth mentioning here, how sane and humane is the treatment of sexualities of all kinds in these stories, and how utterly frank they sometimes are, when they need to be. I loved the comic/tragic story “Mr Fargo and Mr Lawson” about the love between two old men, roisterers in their youth, who grow ever more formal with each other in their old age, and we realise this formality is hiding great passion. Or in “The Buggu Yaggas”, a recent story, but set in the immediate post-independence period of the rapid growth of middle-income settlements in Kingston, where a new community, which is trying to establish its respectability, is confronted by the rowdy presence of displaced gay and trangressively transvestite youths. How the story handles this confrontation, with respect to the perspectives and feelings of both sides, is exemplary in its generosity. It also displays Hazel Campbell’s sense of history. She reminds us that sometimes what we take to be new has a much longer history, and in the very title of the story, with its origins in a West African, Ewe word, its use by the family to describe the outcast youths is a sign both of their ambivalence about their cultural origins, but also of their connections to those origins.

If there is one story on which I’d insist that Hazel Campbell’s reputation should rest, it is “Jacob Bubbles”. In this story, almost a novella, two narratives are interwoven, the story of an 18th century Jacob who is an enslaved youth on a sugar plantation, who gains a modicum of personal and social space because he becomes one of the estate’s skilled workers as a stone mason (reminding us of C.L.R. James’ perception that in reality it was the enslaved who actually ran the whole enterprise of sugar production), and a 20th century Jacob Bubbles, who rises from childhood abandonment to become the much feared don whose devasting two-handed skill with guns makes him the unchallenged leader of the Suckdust posse in the political warfare of the 1970s. It is a story told with unwavering skill, sardonic humour and a quite devastating vision. As ever, there is no telling the reader what to think. She tells a story and leaves you to ponder. Which of the two Jacob’s is in truth most free? In what respects have the lives of Jamaica’s poorest black people really been emancipated?

Let me finish with Hazel’s words about how she saw herself as a Jamaican writer, written for the author bio for Singerman:

“Child of the 1940s when nationalism was raising its head in Jamaica, I attended schools where patriotism and 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 and why my work reflects almost a ‘romantic’ view of Jamaica – its people, landscape and the very peculiar aura which makes it difficult to understand; difficult to live in; but, nevertheless, such an enchanting country.”

Thank you, Hazel, for the enchantment of your writing.

Jeremy Poynting

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