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Singerman

Written by Kate Deller Johnson for CRNLE Reviews Journal on no date provided

This is the third collection of short stories published by Campbell following The Rag Doll and other stories and Woman’s Tongue. Her inclusion in a number of anthologies of Caribbean and contemporary writing marks her as an author who should not be overlooked. Her prose is sharp and witty with vignettes of West Indian life told at a cracking pace. The stories are characterised by their exploration of human relationships. Some of them are yard stories; tales of the complex family units which comprise the ‘yard’, a configuration of a number of houses which are bounded by one large wall and share a common enclosure. Witness the tale of Mama Pala, who lives with her fourteen children, endeavouring to ensure her family’s financial security by chicken farming. Olive Senior’s sociological text, Working Miracles, delineates such societal structures and family dynamics; the non-fiction a useful adjunct to the fiction. Hazel Campbell’s tales vibrate with good-natured humour despite their sometimes desperate plights and so Mama Pala is thwarted in her efforts by a daughter buying boots to mimic London fashion and a son’s disruptive girlfriend, with the remainder of the family’s project money spent buying a television.

Campbell’s use of abundant allegory and magic realism marks her as a writer whose work runs the counter-discursive course of New Literatures in English. Her strength lies in her confrontation not only of the Caribbean present, but its future. Yet the crippling of the past is not forgotten and in the longest story of the collection, ‘Jacob Bubbles’, Campbell weaves the dual stories of runaway slave and ghetto gang leader. It is the darkest and most powerful tale, one that questions whether any hope exists when modern lives of poverty are so fraught with violence. The modern tale is tragic but it is its dual tale from the time of slavery, so harsh in its own sense, which paradoxically rescues the efforts of the forebears. The slim hope of grace is that of striving for life - as a family.

This author has a strong commitment to affirming Caribbean identity. Her stories establish a connection between the roots of the past and its complex present, highlighting the need for the repulsion of religious imperialism from the United States, and cultural and economic imperialism from Britain. Campbell foretells West Indian spiritualism and pragmatism as able to conquer the invaders - essentially through song (calypso) which can be taken so far for the purpose of self-identity but perhaps not make that vital push for the liberation, and through the community of cooperation and relation. The sense is that something must happen to change but perhaps the time is not right just yet. Campbell’s stories suggest that despite threats from outside of the region the greatest danger for Caribbean society is the lack of communication. The reward of greater understanding is true insight (and the promise of intimate touch). Hazel Campbell charts a Jamaica struggling to find answers for its complex and confusing condition where imperfect resolutions highlight a redemption in waiting. This is an author capable of constructing strong, provoking narratives. To anticipate with relish the prospect of a novella?

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