Hazel D. Campbell’s collected short stories opens in a cramped office with a young woman frustrated at her older colleagues’ gossip, daydreaming about her imminent move to America. The dialogue and free indirect narration are crisp and lively, instantly dropping the reader into the rhythm of island life.
Jamaica On My Mind was published posthumously by Peepal Tree Press in 2019 and gathers together stories from three previously published collections: The Rag Doll, Woman’s Tongue and Singerman, and concluding with eight unpublished stories.
Campbell crafts her stories directly from the minds of her protagonists, creating an immersive experience even in the shortest of stories. Many are narrated from a third person omniscient narrator deftly revealing the daily conflicts, connections and complexities of life to sometimes funny, sometimes tragic effect. With this technique, Campbell troubles any easy judgement of her characters and, by extension, her country. As Jacqueline Bishop writes in the introduction to the collection, ‘If, as a reader, you are looking for easy answers about Jamaican society, this is not the place to stop.’
Many of Campbell’s stories are realist, depicting the twists and turns of everyday life in Jamaica, but in amongst these are magical folk tales, ghost stories, and an imaginative retelling of the Christian creation story. This is an author not afraid to play with or complicate her own narrative, not just that of her characters.
There are important themes at work here: class, love and sex, family, violence, a country grappling with its post-colonial identity. But these topics play out within the tight focus of individual lives, surfacing from the mundane business of living amongst others, rather than the desire to drive home a particular point. There is no moralising or didacticism here; we must decide for ourselves what lessons we take from Campbell’s stories.
With this generous, knowing attitude we are swept across the island, learning about life in Jamaica through the eyes of those who call it home. Teenagers grapple with first loves; parents struggle to pass their morals to the next generation; a missionary struggles with the country diet; a privileged housewife is forced to drive through the wrong side of town; the devil himself interrupts a church outing armed with dancehall tunes blasting from his boombox.
It is not just the devil who carries a tune through these stories. The music of Jamaica is threaded through the collection; gospel songs catch the attention a fidgeting girl in her pew in ‘Why Not Tonight?’
Sometimes the congregation clapped as they sang and the organist would run a couple of trills up and down the instrument and the church would hum with happiness.
And the lives of three women named Erma are thrown into turmoil after a mysterious personal ad is submitted to the local paper, all set to a chuckling refrain in ‘I-Calypso’
Erma, honey! Is what you do?
Mek the whole town laughing at you.
Erma what you doing wrong?
Calypsonian soon put you in song.
As in most collected works, Jamaica on My Mind shows shifts in the writer’s perspective across her career. The earlier stories tend to focus on young love and ambition while the newer stories contain deeply moving insights into old age. The middle-career stories suggest an experimental confidence, bringing in historical context and myth to imaginatively layer complex themes as in ‘Jacob Bubbles’, a dual narrative reflection on freedom and slavery. But what is equally remarkable is the consistency of Campbell’s vision. From the first story to the last she tells gripping, vivid tales that strike to the heart of universal emotions by way of specific and surprising moments.