Bessie Head, 1937–86, South African writer. Born in South Africa to a white mother and black father, she was placed in foster homes and orphanages as a child. After 1964, she lived in exile in Botswana. Her candid writing voiced her strong concerns about racism, economic stagnation, and the status of women in her adopted country. Her novels include A Question of Power (1973), Maru (1971), and A Bewitched Crossroad: An African Saga (1984); a collection of stories, The Collector of Treasures (1977), and the acclaimed oral histories Serowe: The Village of the Rain Wind (1981).
"Head, Bessie." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Encyclopedia.com. (December 13, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/head-bessie
"Head, Bessie." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Retrieved December 13, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/head-bessie
Head, Bessie 1937–1986
Bessie Head 1937–1986
Bessie Head wrote about black life in South Africa during some of the harshest years of apartheid. She lived much of her life as a writer in exile in Botswana, a nation that bordered on South Africa, to which she had fled in 1964. Her novels, historical chronicles, short stories, and memoirs provide a harsh view of life for black South Africans, but also a more hopeful glimpse into the future from an independent black republic like Botswana. “Head’s longing for the beauty of precolonial southern Africa, her experience of exile, and the attempt to understand the causes and injustices of racism, created a compelling set of forces in her writing,” noted Feminist Writers.
Head was given the name of her mother, Bessie Amelia Emery, when she was born in 1937 in a mental hospital in Pietermaritzburg, South Africa. Her mother was the daughter of a wealthy white family, and had become pregnant after a liaison with a black stableman who worked at their estate. South Africa’s Immorality Act of 1927 barred sexual relations between members of different races, and her family was able to incarcerate Head’s mother in the mental hospital because of her transgression. “I was then removed from her….She was never let out of the mental hospital and committed suicide when I was six years old,” Head recalled in letters she later wrote to Randolph Vigne, who published them in 1990 as A Gesture of Belonging: Letters from Bessie Head, 1965-1979. “She asked that I be given her exact same name—Bessie Amelia Emery and that attention and care be paid to my education and that some of her money be set aside for my education,” Head recalled.
After several years in foster care, Head was sent to an Anglican orphanage in the coastal city of Durban at age of thirteen. From there she went on to Umbilo Road High School, and trained to be a primary teacher in South African schools, which were strictly segregated at the time. She earned a Natal Teachers’ Senior Certificate, and bec;an teaching in black township schools in 1956. She quit after three years, feeling herself direly unsuited for the job, and found work as a journalist instead. Shs worked at the Golden City Post in Capetown, and then found a position with Drum Publications in Johannesburg. During this time, her first attempts at fiction were published in New African,
At a Glance…
Born Bessie Amelia Emery, July 6, 1937, in Pieter-maritzburg, South Africa; died of hepatitis April 17, 1986, in Botswana; daughter of Bessie Amelia Emery; married Harold Head (a journalist), September 1, 1961 (divorced); children: Howard. Education: Studied at Umbilo Road High School; trained to be a primary teacher in South African schools.
Career: Writer. Teacher in primary schools in South Africa, 1956-59; Golden City Post Capetown, South Africa, journalist; Drum Publications, Johannesburg, South Africa, journalist, 1960-62; represented Botswana at international writers conference at Uni-versity of Iowa, 1977-78, and in Denmark, 1980; contributor to periodicals, including Presence Africane, New African, London Times, and Transition.
Awards: New Statesman Jock Campbell award nomination, for The Collector of Treasures and Other Botswana Village Tales, 1978.
a left-wing journal. She also married a fellow journalist, Harold Head, with whom she soon had a son.
Head, unhappy with her marriage and with life in a Capetown slum, where she was compelled to live because of her “colored” (mixed-race) status, decided to move to Botswana, which was then called the Bechuanaland Protectorate. She made plans to leave with her infant son after receiving an offer of a teaching job there, but was unable to obtain a visa to leave because of her left-wing political affiliations. She left with an exit visa instead, which meant she might never be able to return to South Africa. But Head found no job when she arrived, and authorities summarily declared her a political refugee. She was ordered to report to them daily, and had no passport, which meant she could not obtain work. “Botswana was a traumatic experience to me,” she wrote later in an essay that appeared in A Woman Alone: Autobiographical Writings, “and I found the people, initially, extremely brutal and harsh, only in the sense that I had never encountered human ambition and greed before in a black form.”
Head had already began her first longer work while still living in South Africa, and left the manuscript with Patrick Cullinan, a publisher and influential literary figure in the country. He could not find a taker for what would later become The Cardinals, published posthumously, but on the strength of that work Head was offered a contract with New York publishing house Simon and Schuster to write a novel about Botswana, which had recently been granted independence from Britain. With it came a much needed-advance, and When Rain Clouds Gather, her first novel, was published in 1968. The work is set in an arid part of northern Botswana, to which Makhaya Maseko, a Zulu and refugee from South Africa, has journeyed to find a more peaceful world. The first person he meets when he crosses the border is an old woman, who offers to sell him her granddaughter. “[T]he description of Botswana in the first part of the novel reflects the ambivalence of Head’s response to the country,” observed Craig MacKenzie in a Dictionary of Literary Biography essay. “The idyllic setting of the old woman’s hut is undercut by her shrill voice and manipulative ways. The rhythmic tinkling of cowbells that Makhaya hears may herald a new life of harmony after so much discord, or it may be ominously evocative of witch-doctoring and of what Makhaya fears are ‘ghoulish rites by night.’” Makhaya settles in the village of Golema Mmidi, and works with Gilbert Balfour, a wealthy British man who has been cast out of his own society, to establish cooperative farm for the villagers. This radical move is the target of sabotage by both a local tribal chief and a Pan-African activist.
Botswanians are also depicted in an unflattering light in Head’s second novel, Maru, published in 1971. The country was originally inhabited by the Bushmen, who were supplanted by the Tswana in the eighteenth century. The Tswana then made the Bush people their slaves. The title character in the novel is the son of a powerful Tswana chief. Both Maru and his rival for the chieftaincy, Moleka, fall in love with Margaret Cad-more, a teacher of Bush origins. The Tswana vehemently oppose such relationships, but Maru perseveres. “When people of the Masarwa tribe heard about Maru’s marriage to one of their own, a door silently opened on the small, dark airless room in which their souls had been shut for a long time,” the novel reads. “The wind of freedom, which was blowing throughout the world for all people, turned and flowed into the room. As they breathed in the fresh, clear air their humanity awakened.”
Head’s third novel, A Question of Power, was largely autobiographical. It recounts the hardships of a young woman, Elizabeth, who was born in a South African mental hospital. When she arrives at an orphanage as a young teen, she is warned that her mother was “insane,” and that she must be diligent and avoid a similar fate. As a young woman, Elizabeth becomes involved in politics, marries, and has a child. She then moves to Botswana, where she suffers a nervous breakdown—as Head herself likely experienced around 1969. It is the work Elizabeth does at the communal garden that restores her, and she is also helped by Eugene Grahame, a kindly Afrikaner who dedicated himself to establishing educational opportunities in Botswana.
Head did much of her writing in a small home in a refugee community without electricity, and sold homemade guava jam for extra money during the early years of her life in Botswana. She came to love her adopted country, and was fascinated by its history. She began writing both fiction and nonfiction works that explored its past and celebrated its folklore. The Collector of Treasures and Other Botswana Village Tales, a collection of short stories, appeared in 1977, followed by the oral history Serowe: Village of the Rain Wind. In both this work and in her 1986 historical novel A Bewitched Crossroad: An African Saga, “Head attempts a revisioning of Africans in this region against the accounts written by foreign historians, interpreting their migrations as efforts more to prevent war than to indulge in savage blood-baths,” observed Feminist Writers.
Head gained further renown as a writer in the 1970s. She was invited to speak at a 1976 workshop at the University of Botswana alongside other notable South African writers, and was invited to international writers conferences, to which she traveled after being granted a special United Nations refugee travel document. Finally in 1979 she was granted Botswanian citizenship, and visited Europe for the first time when she took part in Berlin’s Horizons ’79 Africa Festival. In 1984, she traveled to Australia. Though she was hailed as one of the most important African women writers in English, Head had endured a difficult life, and began to drink in her later years. Her health declined, and she contracted hepatitis. After sinking into a coma, she died in April of 1986 at the age of 48.
Three works by Head were published posthumously. These begin with A Woman Alone, a collection of essays, short stories and personal notes which span the years of her life, 1937 to 1986. Here she writes about South Africa’s race classification system, in which “people…are not people but complexions and hair textures—whites, Coloureds, Indians and Africans.” In its final piece, “Epilogue: An African Story,” Head condemns the apartheid system. “If one is a part of it,” she wrote, “through being born there, how does one communicate with the horrible? That is why South Africa has no great writer: no one can create harmony out of cheap discord.”
The fictional pieces in a second posthumously published work, Tales of Tenderness and Power, span the period of Head’s exile. The Cardinals, with Meditations and Short Stories, published in 1996, was the manuscript she had le:t with publisher Patrick Cullinan in the early 1960s. Aside from the title novella, it contains seven other pieces also set in South Africa. The novella centers upon a young woman, Mouse, who was born of a well-to-do woman who then sold her in Cape Town’s colored slum. Despite her early beginnings, Mouse becomes a journalist, but finds life in the male-dominated world a difficult one. “The novella repeatedly suggests that Mouse’s desire to write will lead to the ultimate discovery of an unknown self and the power to write her own identity,” noted World Literature Today critic Desiree Lewis.
Head never lived to see the end of apartheid, nor even the release of African National Congress leader Nelson Mandela from prison. Her 1986 death, remarked Carole Boyce Davies in Research in African Literatures, “left a void in the African literary world.”
When Rain Clouds Gather (novel), Simon & Schuster, 1969.
Maru (novel), McCall, 1971.
A Question of Power (novel), Davis Poynter, 1973, Pantheon, 1974.
The Collector of Treasures and Other Botswana Village Tales (short stories), Heinemann, 1977.
Serowe: Village of the Rain Wind (historical chronicle), Heinemann (Portsmouth, NH), 1981.
A Bewitched Crossroad: An African Saga (historical chronicle), Donker (Craighall), 1984, Paragon House, 1986.
A Gesture of Belonging: Letters from Bessie Head, 1965-1979, edited by Randolph Vigne, Heinemann, 1990.
A Woman Alone: Autobiographical Writings, edited by Craig MacKenzie, Heinemann, 1990.
Tales of Tenderness and Power, Heinemann, 1990.
The Cardinals, with Meditations and Short Stories, David Philip (Cape Town), 1993, Heinemann, 1996.
Contemporary Authors New Revisions, Volume 82, Gale, 2000.
Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 25: South African Writers, Gale, 2000.
Feminist Writers, 1st edition, St. James Press, 1996.
Publishers Weekly, October 12, 1990, p. 56, p. 57; January 1, 1996, p. 68.
Research in African Literatures, spring 1992, p. 210; winter 1994, p. 69; fall 1998, p. 70; summer 1999, p. 122.
World Literature Today, autumn 1994, p. 869; winter 1996, p. 73.
"Head, Bessie 1937–1986." Contemporary Black Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. (December 13, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/head-bessie-1937-1986
"Head, Bessie 1937–1986." Contemporary Black Biography. . Retrieved December 13, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/head-bessie-1937-1986