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”.
We here at Wadadli Pen wish that Hazel was still among the living, are glad that she left her words to enchant us (to borrow a descriptor from Peepal Tree’s Jeremy Poynting) in death, and pray that her soul rests in peace…as we do the souls of others who have fallen from the Caribbean literary community in 2018:
Rest in Power to them all.