A panoramic view of Ja through the decades
After reading the 29 short stories written by Hazel D. Campbell and collected in the 2019-published Jamaica on My Mind, you appreciate the contribution the author made to the island’s creative writing and her role in chronicling and documenting Jamaican life throughout her 50 years of writing.
Indeed, there was a Caribbean-wide response to her death, and having read the stories in Jamaica on My Mind, it is obvious to me that Campbell felt the pulse of her fellow Jamaicans.
Eight new stories join select ones from her three previously published books – The Rag Doll (1978), W oman’s Tongue (1985) and Singerman (1991) – to create a collection of stories that gives a panoramic view of Jamaica through the decades, primarily the 1960s to 2000s.
While many of the stories bring you right back to the decade in which they are set, the page-turning ‘Jacob Bubbles’, found in the Singerman Collection, traverses time as it is set in both slavery days in Jamaica and the time when it was believed that the garrisons were first formed.
In this riveting story that features the oppression of slavery the transformation of Back-a-Wall, inner-city poverty and barrier politics, garrison and gang warfare, passion, and heartbreak of all kinds, Campbell tells the story of an area leader named ‘Bubbles’ who descends from runaway slaves Jacob and Miriam.
There are many scandalously tantalising sections in this story, including the would-be love scene that becomes a crime scene instead. As Bubbles is shot in the heart, he hits his head on the bedpost, and as the book details:
“… the crack on his head opened a memory path leading back through his life and the lives of all the ancestors … The blood leaking from him belonged to all of them – to Johnson, Papa Tee’s father … to Cris-Cris, digging earth and coughing blood in a strange Spanish Speaking country; to Maas Sam, the obeah man … to William … to all of them passing swiftly back in time; back to Jacob, the runaway slave pausing under a tree to rearrange his human burdens (wife and child) so that he could make a faster escape into the forest, up into the mountains of freedom”.
In this story, Campbell reminds one very much of another great Jamaican storyteller, novelist John Hearne, who, in the 1956-published Stranger at the Gate, also gives insight into the beginning of Jamaica’s garrison culture.
Feel and Energy
The stories in Jamaica on My Mind capture the feel and energy of the times in which they are set. For example, for those born after the ’70s, or who were too young then to grasp what was happening, ‘Supermarket Blues’, found in the Woman’s Tongue collection, brings the reader right to the days of scarcity and goods being ‘married off’ on the shelves; back to the days, when Supermarket shopping did not only include worry about ‘money stretching’, but whether or not food were on the shelves. Through Campbell’s story- telling, both readers who lived through those days and those who have no recollection of same, are able to revisit, or grasp the almost absurd surrealistic atmosphere that such shortages created.
Even as she reflects on the downtimes in Jamaica’s recent history, Campbell captures the vibrant Jamaican spirit in its full as during the starvation days of food shortages, the Jamaican ‘run joke’ and flirtatious vibe was ever present in the supermarket.
In See Me In Me Benz and T’ing, which is found in The Rag Doll section of the collection and which is no doubt named after, or inspired by, Althea & Donna’s 1978 song Uptown Top Ranking, Campbell not only captures the feel of an era but also the social separation wall that still exists in Jamaica and that replaces the colour wall of other countries.
In this story, the main character’s husband’s sleek black Benz represents that ‘wall’, and the ‘mashing up’ of the Benz by the angry crowd gathered in the vicinity around and on Spanish Town Road, can easily be read as the pent up-and seething frustration of the poor, reaching eruption stage.
In the other stories too, Campbell captures the dynamics of Jamaican man-and women relations, handling the heart pains of these entanglements with the light hand of a skilled writer.
In The ‘Rag Doll’, taken from the collection of that name, the author depicts an unhealthy relationship, where the husband, Johnson, abuses his wife, Dessie, on the mornings after her midweek church going.
The main reason for this abuse is that the dinner Dessie prepares and leaves for her husband is cold when he reaches home. At one point, the pregnant Dessie is beaten so badly, she later has a miscarriage. Her abuse and childless marriage continue to the point where she is institutionalised for strange behaviour, which includes treating a rag doll as a real-life infant.
Aspiring writers can learn much from Campbell’s non-intrusion policy when writing stories that can be easily spoilt by heavy-handed treatment that comes when the author starts preaching.
Quite a number of the stories on relationships may leave the female reader feeling very cautious, but they really are reflectors and mirrors. At the same time, however, Campbell delves into the Caribbean version of magic realism in the Ebony Desk and Carnival and tells a Caribbean Fairy Tale in Princess Carla and the Southern Prince. The Jamaican relationship with religion, Christianity, good and evil is also ever-present in the collection, taking starring roles in Easter Sunday Morning, Singerman, Missionary Week and Devil Star. In the latter story, the devil is a human character seeking unsuccessfully to damn 99 more Jamaican souls to hell, in an attempt to receive the devil of the year award. In ‘Miss Girlie’, Campbell covers the shadow industry associated with tourism. As she does that in the story, she also introduces an Indecent Proposal (1993 film) twist to Jamaican male-female relations.
Jamaica on My Mind highlights the changes Jamaica has gone through from the first set of stories to the last. In ‘The Buggu Yaggas’, which appears in the New Stories section of the collection, we see Campbell chronicling the experiences of the urban townhouse residents battling the takeover of their community park by buggu yaggas, who are actually displaced homosexuals. This, we know, has become a feature of today’s urban Jamaican life.
Published after her death but set in train during her life, Jamaica on My Mind confirms Campbell’s status as an excellent chronicler of Jamaica who writes of her country with accuracy, sensitivity, love, and respect.
Jamaica on My Mind
Hazel D. Campbell
Peepal Tree Press Ltd.: 2019
ISBN 13: 9781845234405
Rating: Must Read
Availability: Peepal Tree Press
-Ann-Margaret Lim’s ‘Kingston Buttercup’ was among the Bocas Prize 2017 poetry shortlist. Her books, which include the critically acclaimed ‘The Festival of Wild Orchid’, are available mainly at Bookophilia, amazon.com and peepaltreepress.com. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.