Friday, September 27, 2013

An Interview With Writer Hazel Campbell by Jacqueline Bishop

This interview was carried in the Sunday Observer's Bookends, September 8,2013

The Gift of Music & Song: An Interview With Writer Hazel Campbell.

Jacqueline Bishop

I remember the exact moment I (re)discovered Caribbean literature and Jamaican women’s voices in particular. I was a junior in college in the United States. It so happens that my junior year in college was spent in Paris, France; and that turned out to be a pretty pivotal year for me. At that time televisions were not, and probably still are not, de rigeur in French households. In any case I had found myself in a pretty special French household, because I was what was called a demi-au pair to the three children of a publisher who was all for reading and writing. Prior to going to Paris to study I was pretty set on becoming a medical doctor, a very noble profession; but the truth is I had always struggled in the sciences. That year, in the absence of a television set, I started reading and reading in Paris, and my desires of being a writer and an artist emerged in full force from the dark corner within myself where I had hidden them.

It is still significant to me that my reading trajectory started with the classics, then it went to women writers, meaning, of course, white women writers, before I ended up at African American writers, until one day, sitting crossed-legged on the floor of a record shop and music store I reached up and took down The Faber Book of Contemporary Caribbean Stories edited by Mervyn Morris. The first story in that book was about a character “Dry Bones” which I read in the store and and which made me use some of my hard to come by demi au-pair money to purchase the book. When I read the Olive Senior story in that book I was floored! I developed a voracious appetite that day for Jamaican women’s writing which eventually led me to Hazel Campbell’s Singerman published by Peepal Tree Press. “Mr. Fargo and Mr. Lawson” and “Jacob Bubbles” are stories from that collection that are always with me wherever I go. In time, in various anthologies, I would read “See Me in Me Benz and Ting”, perhaps my favourite story from Hazel Campbell so far.

Hazel Campbell, a 2011 Silver Musgrave medalist, is a marvellous writer. Her characters literally jump off the pages and you get fully immersed in their worlds. Perhaps best known as a writer of young adult and children’s books, I was delighted to see her return to writing for adults in the publication of not one but two collections of short stories this year: My Darling You (love stories-- sort of); and When Times are Strange. With the publication of these two books I seized upon the opportunity to interview a writer I have always admired and thought exceptional, in a country that have produced serious writing geniuses. My hope is that with the publication of these two new works for adults, we will see even more stories for adults from Hazel Campbell and even a novel or two.


Hazel, I want to start off by thanking you for agreeing to this interview; but more specifically I want to thank you for the work that you do. It was immensely important to me to have your work, your voice, as an example of how to approach writing from a Jamaican female perspective. I literally devoured your work as a beginning writer. So I guess my first question to you is, How exactly did you decide to become a writer? What told you it was possible for you?

Thanks Jacqui. I treasure that statement. It's great to know that my writing helped your vision.

I really don’t know some of the reasons why I chose to become a writer. I had great language teachers. I wanted to write from early teen years. It's probably really, sort of, I write because I must.

 In your statement “Why I Write” you have said that, “In a way, the adventures of the people” in the books in Britain that you were reading, “Were more real than my own existence.”  Can you explain what you mean by this and the impact that this had on you? As well, further on in your statement, you talk about discovering the first generation of West Indian writers while in high school: Can you explain how the works that you started reading in Sixth form of high school were different and what impact these works had on you?

You have to remember that books were extremely important. Anything in print was treated with great reverence (moreso when they originated in the 'mother' country). So books and the people in them - their lives and adventures were far more important than my mundane existence.(Even the squalor in some of Charles Dickens' books)  They stretched my imagination. I think the writing in the books I read must also have been good enough to effortlessly transport me into their world and that is the essence of good writing, wherever it originates.

The West Indian books were exciting because, now, the people I knew, things I knew which I might have thought of as 'ordinary' were now in books. They had become LITERATURE. I could look at life around me in a different light. Roger Mais – Wow! I think perhaps that one can only understand that if one grew up in the colonial era.

 You have said your mother was a great storyteller. Can you take some time and tell me more about this woman and what made her such a great storyteller?

My mother was from rural Jamaica and she had a fount of stories. Especially Anansi stories which, following the rural tradition, she would tell the children in the yard at night. At first, there was no radio or television, so this was entertainment, especially during the holidays after a day spent playing, storytelling was very welcome. I regret that I can't remember some of her stories, which I think must have been unique as I haven't heard any like those. Probably that's where the desire to write started. I celebrated some of her stories in my children's book TillyBummie. I think she must have thought me quite strange to want to be a writer, but she was supportive, so she forked out the first payment on a correspondence writing course I took, which I didn't complete. That story is on my blog at

Here in the US having a child or children is often seen to be detrimental to the career of women artists, in particular. I notice from your dedications in your books that you take great pride in being a mother and even a grandmother. So I wonder: What impact did being a mother and even being a grandmother have on your writing?

I got married at an early age.  Being married and having children was something one did as a woman. That I juggled teaching, having  3 babies (in quick succession) university and starting a writing career, is a tribute to my late husband who was only 23 when we got married.  Now, I think we were quite crazy and if my mother  had not helped us with the babies I don’t know what we would have done! I advised my girls to finish their education before getting into all that, because it was very difficult.

I actually started writing for children because I was so busy I had no time to tell my children about my childhood, and my mother's stories. My children are my mainstay at this point of my life, and my grands my joy. I would not choose a successful writing career over them. I write stories for my granddaughter, using her name. She recently warned me NOT to write anymore stories about her. But we are good friends.She illustrated the cover of my new YA ebook, Mr. King's Daughter

You recently published two collections of stories for adults, When Times Are Strange and My Darling You. What prompted you to publish these books in the e-format that you did? In these collections you revisited some of the stories from older collections, how, if at all, did you change those older stories?

I guess, by this, I have enough experience to know when the stories are 'ready' to be published and epublishing is quick and easy. The stories in When Times are Strange,  with one exception, were published by Savacou and have been out of print for a long time. When I looked at them again I thought they were still relevant and indeed that  some of them recorded an important part of the Jamaican experience in the 1970's. I made only very minor changes to these stories and since it was an ebook, I was able to add some introductory comments, which I am sure a traditional publisher would not allow.

 Your two new collections bring to five the total number of collections of stories for adults that you have published. Why specifically the short story format for you, in regards to writing for adults? Any possibility of a novel for adults? Is there any possibility of you putting out a collection incorporating all your stories for adults so far? 

I like the short story form. It is versatile, allows for experimentation and gets to the point quickly. I have three half written novels which I keep promising to settle down to complete. But although I know where I want to go with them, I keep putting off writing. I haven't  thought about a comprehensive collection.

There is a poem by you at the beginning of My Darling You and it prompted me to wonder how much poetry have you written and is there any chance of seeing more poems from you?

I don't really write poetry. For some reason a poem will come to me whole,and fit into something else that I am writing, then I will write it down, but I don’t think I am very good at this.

There are some overarching themes in the two new collections --- color, class, gender issues --- do you think these are still pervasive problems in Jamaican society? I am thinking now of the story “See Me in Me Benz an Tings” and the fact that over 40 years later that story still seems as relevant to me today as perhaps when it was first written?

I don’t think one can truthfully write about a Jamaican situation without being conscious of these touchy issues. I didn't consciously pick these as themes. They arise from the characters and their interaction with one another. Our prejudices come out in all sorts of ways. I like to think that I merely record I don’t judge. The 'Lady' in 'See Me in Me Benz...' and  Mrs. Telfer in 'Supermarket Blues' had serious lessons to learn from their confrontation with those from a lower socio-economic group, but it is suggested rather than laboured. A lot has changed, women are far more visible in business, public life, etc. But we are still struggling with our image by skin bleaching, for example.

Another overarching theme in your works is the sense that women are acted upon, instead of being actors in their own right. Whether it is Miss Girlie or Melissa or most of the other characters in both collections. There are significant societal pressures placed on women in almost all of these stories. So my question is, in what ways, if any, have you seen the position of women in Jamaican society change, if at all, in the years since you have started writing and publishing your works?

Many of our women, mainly through education and upward mobility, now have much greater recognition and control over their lives, I think, nationally; but we still have the Miss Girlie's and Melissa's. The thing is that Miss Girlie wasn't weak. She chose to stay with the man even though he was pushing her into prostitution. She had worked out a way to satisfy his need for more money and keep her integrity. What I like about that story is that in the end, when she is watching him walk away, she sees him for what he is - literally 'a little man'.

 " She watched him walking away and the strangest thing happened. He seemed to get smaller and smaller, so that by the time he turned the corner he looked like a very little man she had once seen in a reading book. It must be the light she thought through her unshed tears."

I liked that. Also, 'The Thursday Wife' seems meek, but she also had worked out how to survive her cheating husband. Walking away is probably not the only strength a woman has.

I know the focus of the interview is on your two recent collections of stories for adults, but I also read and loved Mr.King’s Daughter, which is a young adult novella. And here, the woman actually was able to break out of the strict pressures imposed on her by class and by her father. But I could not help wondering, without giving away too much about the story, why the father did not pursue the daughter when she left with the helper? That question has nagged at me for several days now and I just need an answer!!!!!

That story kept threatening to become much longer, and to move away from being a folktale. I had to keep pulling it back. It could have had a scene in which she told off the father before she left, perhaps, but he was a foolish man and he was no longer important to the story, so I dropped him.

Finally, song lyrics are incredibly important to you. Not only the often hilarious lyrics you make up in your stories, but also church songs and so many lyrics and songs running through your work. Indeed one book is dedicated to the late singer Whitney Houston. Why are songs in particular so important to you?

I am a seriously thwarted musician / song writer/ singer. I can't sing more than an octave, (lower g to g). I can't remember the words of songs even those I like. (I often make up my own.) There's a story behind all that. I just recently worked out what happened in my early life to create some of this confusion. I grew up in the Church of God, and for me the music was the best part of the service - always. I don’t really listen to much of today's pop. I like gospel but not much of the modern styles. I love our folk music.

After Whitney Houston died, I found her story so riveting that I immersed myself in her music.  Thanks to YouTube, I listened to her recorded songs and followed  her concert tours and really I am in awe at her talent. When the stories in My Darling You were ready, I still had no title, and then Whitney died and every body was playing 'I Will Always Love You’ and her many different ways of singing "My darling you" caught my attention. But notice I added the subtitle 'love stories, sort of' because the stories are about love relationships but there is no physical touching in most of them - that's the "sort of" part.

I don't know if I believe in re-incarnation, but I have asked the Lord that if I am coming back  please, please,please  give me the gift of music and song.

Hazel Campbell's books include:(for children) Tilly Bmmie & Other Stories,Ramgoat Dashalong, A Goatboy Never Cries, Juicebox and Scandal (LMH)
Miss Bettina's House,The Captain's Ghost (Carlong) 
(for adults)
Singerman (Peepal Tree)
My Darling You, When Times are Strange, Mr. King's Daughter (ebooks on Amazon) 

Jacqueline Bishop, master teacher of liberal studies at NYU, is a visual artist and author. Her books include: Snapshots form Istanbul,Writers Who Paint /Painters who Write, Three Jamaican Artists,The River's Song,My Mother Who is Me.Visit her website at

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