Head, Bessie 1937-1986

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Bessie Head 1937-1986

(Full name Bessie Amelia Emery) South African-born Botswanian novelist, short story writer, and nonfiction writer.

For additional information on Head's career, see Black Literature Criticism, Ed. 1.


Regarded as one of the most notable female African writers, Head used her work as a means of exploring the effects of the racism and social oppression with which she was so familiar. She experienced discrimination firsthand, both in South Africa, where she was born, and in her adopted home of Botswana. Themes of exile and alienation figure prominently in her works, and her short stories and novels emphasize the impact of oppression and injustice on women in particular, although she resisted being labeled a feminist. Her third novel, A Question of Power (1973) is considered her most complex work and exemplifies themes prominent in her writings—particularly the search for personal wholeness, which parallels the struggle against intolerance and oppression in South Africa.


Born in 1937 to an upper-class white woman who had had a relationship with a black stableman, Head entered the world in an asylum into which her mother had been admitted after her pregnancy was revealed. For a time she lived with foster parents, but was eventually sent to be raised by white missionaries. Her mother committed suicide when Head was a young child. Educated and trained as a teacher, Head taught at a South African elementary school for a time. She married a journalist in 1961, but they soon divorced. When she was twenty-seven years old, Head fled South Africa with her young son, unable to endure life under apartheid any longer. Botswana was not much of an improvement, however; she lived as a refugee for fifteen years at the Bamangwato Development Farm. Despite the impoverished conditions, she describes having felt a sense of community there, surrounded by 30,000 others in similar situations. These were difficult years for Head, who had no means of earning an income except for a small allowance she received from a charitable organization. In the mid-1960s, Head obtained an advance from an American publishing firm to write a book about Botswana—the result was her first novel, When Rain Clouds Gather, published in 1968. She issued her second novel, Maru, in 1971. Head had begun work on her autobiography when she died in 1986 from hepatitis.


During her career, Head wrote three novels: When Rain Clouds Gather, Maru, and A Question of Power—all of which share the thematic concerns of exile and oppression. Yet she often focuses on the personal aspects of the characters' lives rather than on overt political struggles. When Rain Clouds Gather parallels aspects of Head's own life and features a black South African man, a victim of apartheid, who flees to Botswana. Maru studies the racism within a black society through the relationships of a woman and the two friends who are in love with her. Head's third novel, A Question of Power is often described as her most intensely personal and introspective work. The main character's internal struggle for wholeness is often seen as a metaphor for the struggle against apartheid in Africa.

Head is also well known for her short stories. The Collector of Treasures and Other Botswana Village Tales (1977) features depictions of African life and explores, in particular, the experiences of women. The tales combine oral storytelling techniques with village folklore. The posthumously published Tales of Tenderness and Power (1989) offers insights into African history, culture, and women's experience. The Cardinals, with Meditations and Short Stories was also published posthumously in 1993. The novella The Cardinals is set in South Africa and is concerned with the protagonist's escaping a childhood of abuse and struggling to find her own identity. Although the piece was published after Head's death, it is believed to be the first long piece of fiction she composed. She also wrote two works of historical nonfiction that combine true accounts in the form of interviews with regional folklore.


Head's highly regarded fiction is praised for its ability to relate personal struggles to larger, political issues. Head is also commended for the insightful manner with which she explores the lives of her characters and their emotional journeys. Recent criticism investigates Head's connecting of the personal and the political in her work. Desiree Lewis focuses on Head's exploration of the incest taboo in The Cardinals, maintaining that incest in the novella functions as a trope for the South African law banning interracial sex. Lewis faults the craftsmanship of the work, however, citing its wandering plot and awkward use of point of view. Tiffany Magnolia (see Further Reading) centers her study on Head's A Question of Power, asserting that the novel is more political than is typically assumed. The mental breakdown of the character Elizabeth, Magnolia notes, can be viewed as an allegorical account of the history of South Africa, and her struggles parallel the struggles of a nation with an oppressive political ideology. Like other critics, Alan Ramón Ward links the personal with the political in another of Head's novels, Maru. In this work, Ward explains, Head explores the causes of racism by focusing on the lives of several individuals in a particular village. Ward maintains that through the relationships between two friends and the woman they both love, Head demonstrates the possibility of the self-emancipation for the Masarwa people and for humanity as a whole.


When Rain Clouds Gather (novel) 1968

Maru (novel) 1971

A Question of Power (novel) 1973

The Collector of Treasures and Other Botswana Village Tales (short stories) 1977

Serowe: Village of the Rain Wind (nonfiction) 1981

A Bewitched Crossroad: An African Saga (nonfiction) 1984

Tales of Tenderness and Power (short stories) 1989

The Cardinals, with Meditations and Short Stories (novella and short stories) 1993


Desiree Lewis (essay date winter 1996)

SOURCE: Lewis, Desiree. "The Cardinals and Bessie Head's Allegories of Self." World Literature Today 70, no. 1 (winter 1996): 73-7.

[In this essay, Lewis explores the racial and gender issues in Head's posthumously published novella The Cardinals, focusing on the way in which Head uses the incest taboo as a trope for the South African law against interracial sex.]


The taboo against interracial sex—officially expressed in the Immorality Act of 1927 and its amendment in 19501—has roused the fictional imagination of a range of South African writers. In God's Stepchildren (1924) Sarah Gertrude Millin explores interracial unions to prophesy against "miscegenation" while affirming the ideal of racial purity. Novels like William Plomer's Turbott Wolfe (1926) and Alan Paton's Too Late the Phalarope (1953) deal with aborted relationships between white and black South Africans, their protest against race laws revolving around the deviant acts of individuals and deriving from a South African liberal tradition. Two years after the repeal of the infamous Act, the theme is revisited in Lewis Nkosi's Mating Birds (1987) and explores the enduring pathology of racism.

Among the many responses to interracial sex and the Immorality Act, Bessie Head contributes a singular voice by disavowing realism and protest, fusing autobiography with fiction, and exploiting circuitous narrative strategies. Revealing her ongoing concern with liberating identities for marginalized subjects, these strategies are illustrated in lesser-known fictions: her letters2 and her posthumously published novella The Cardinals.

First issued together with previously unpublished meditations and stories in 1993, The Cardinals was given to Patrick Cullinan shortly before Head left South Africa for Botswana in 1964. It is not surprising that the manuscript was rejected by several publishers and was retained for a long time by Cullinan, a publisher and prominent literary figure in South Africa. With its abrupt shifts in emphasis, its meandering plot, and its uncertain use of point of view, The Cardinals is not what is conventionally thought of as a "well-wrought" novel. And because the sixties were a time when few publishers or readers of South African fiction were interested in "open-ended meanings" or "writerly texts," the fact that Head's first novel was published posthumously is as revealing about transforming interests in South African literature as it is about her recently elevated status in literary studies.

Head's Mythologies of Selfhood.

In both her fiction and the autobiographical accounts within her letters, Head returns again and again to a narrative about the illicit union between a socially superior mother and a subordinate father, the mother's trauma after being made to relinquish her child, and the daughter's rejection by her mother's family and stigmatization by society. Usually, as in her autobiographical stories and A Question of Power, the child of a union between an upper-class white woman and a black stablehand is placed in foster care while her mother is incarcerated in a mental institution. The mother commits suicide after spending several years there, her family disowns the child, and the child bears the scars of being an outcast, an orphan, and an heir to her mother's "insanity."

Usually, too, the father is given little direct reference. Head has alluded to her own father to speculate that he was probably killed after the discovery that he was a white woman's lover (B:KMM27 BHP119)3 and to claim about her mother: "I feel more for her than for my father because she died a terrible death, in a loony bin while he is most probably still alive somewhere" (Vigne, 65). Dismissing the father, Head forges a determined orientation toward a mother figure silenced by master narratives of apartheid, psychiatric reports, and the prejudice of her family: "I still say she belongs to me in a special way and that there is no world as yet for what she has done. She has left me to figure it out" (Vigne, 65). Rejecting official versions of her mother's identity, the daughter inscribes her subjectivity and policed desires.

She sought some warmth and love from a black man…. When the family found out they succeeded in classifying my mother as insane, sped her down away from the family home in Johannesburg to a small town, Pietermaritzburg and locked her up in the Pietermaritzburg Mental hospital where she gave birth to me. I was then removed from her…. She was never let out of the mental hospital and committed suicide when I was six years old.

          (B:KMM27 BHP119).

She stresses her mother's defiance of race laws and social policing of female sexuality, the punitive reprisal for her rebellion, and her enforced separation from her daughter.4 She also claims her mother as the source of her own identity and the provider of resources for her entry into public life and the world of writing: "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" (B:KMM27 BHP119).

By turning to the mother as the point of origin, Head identifies her own cultural inscription and that of Elizabeth, the central character of A Question of Power, locating parallel processes of subjugation in mothers and daughters. The principal of the mission school which Elizabeth attends as a child warns her of the dangers of this affiliation when she says: "We have a full docket on you. You must be very careful. Your mother was insane. If you're not careful you'll get insane just like your mother" (16).5 Head's autobiographical story in her letters registers a similar affiliation and redefines the mother's legacy of madness: "A birth such as I had links me to her in a very deep way and makes her belong to that unending wail of the human heart…. She must have been as mad and impulsive as I" (Vigne, 65).

The maternal narrative consequently locates an identity for a marginalized subject in a space silenced by dominant narratives: there is "no world as yet for what she has done" (Vigne, 65). Explaining the implication of the terrain of the mother in her own "question of power," Julia Kristeva defines the narrative space that Head also inhabits: "Territory of the mother. What I am saying to you is that if this heterogeneous body, this risky text provide meaning, identity and jouissance, they do so in a completely different way than a ‘Name-of-the-father’" (Kristeva, 16). By interrogating the Immorality Act, Head dislodges the "Name-of-the-father," creates for her mother a textual space and subject position, and constructs for the daughter a fiction of selfhood which refuses the sovereign writing subject and makes visible and powerful its muted other.

The Paternal Narrative and Retold Stories.

What immediately distinguishes The Cardinals from Head's other narratives is a preoccupation with the father, who initiates and constantly supervises the writing of his daughter Mouse. The child of a union between a woman of the upper social strata and a poor fisherman, Mouse is handed over to a woman living in one of Cape Town's slums. After spurning her fisherman lover and giving up her child, her real mother commits suicide, and Mouse's father never learns of her birth. Mouse prefigures the later character Elizabeth, as well as the autobiographically represented Head, by being black, female, and, as her successive renaming in the novel illustrates, constantly spoken for or about—denied the authority to speak her own identity.

As "Charlotte," Mouse finds work with the tabloid African Beat, where she meets up with her father Johnny, by then a cynical journalist who eventually persuades her to share his home and oversees her development as a writer. The characters never discover that Johnny is really Mouse's father, and the novella ends at a point when "the cardinals" are about to make love. In- forming us in her epigraph that the cardinals "are those who serve as the base or foundation of change," Head signals the triumphant meanings of her novella. The Cardinals, however, fitfully unravels its surface optimism and constantly hints at qualified and contesting meanings.

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. As "Miriam," her first encounter with the written word occurs at the age of ten, when an old man enters the slum as a letter-writer with his manual "The Art of Letter Writing." Miriam is captivated by his activity and intuitively identifies the potential for her deliverance through writing.

Given the letter-writer's source, however, his activity is a reminder that writing can be no more than the repetition of learned codes and transmitted texts. The notion of writing as repetition persists in the description of how Mouse first learns to write. Her own name, ostensibly an immediate mark of her textual self-authorization, is "an almost perfect reproduction of her name the way he had printed it."6

The progress of Mouse's venture into the world of writing continues, rather than qualifies, the act of writing as acquisition of a prior text. When she starts working in the office of the tabloid, she becomes firmly oriented toward a masculine writing domain. Johnny refers twice to her masculine literary interests and comments: "But, it pleases me somehow…. The scientist in his laboratory is the recluse and mystic of this age. He can be a true benefactor to mankind without risk because he has created an aura of awe and respect to protect him" (107-8).

From Mouse's childhood to her adult life in the newspaper office, then, the texts which offer models for her writing are the proving ground of male authority and the products of masculine self-definition, the most important source of her anticipated growth to creativity and personhood being Johnny as her teacher. What fascinates him about Mouse is what he interprets as an uncharacteristic masculinity.

Because she has guts and has achieved on her own what others can only achieve with the best education a university or college can give. It just happens that I feel strongly about this because I had to educate myself too, and I can't allow the enterprise she has shown to go to waste in a loony-bin.


These statements are revealing not only about Mouse's quest, but also about Johnny's own, since he interprets her desires as his own determined will. Offering masculine interpretation and control of her desire as the greatest gift that can be bestowed on Mouse as a woman, he is anxious that what he defines as commendable masculinity not be wasted by her banishment to a "loony-bin" (29). His gift is therefore also a threat: the shadow of the institutionalized mother figure in Head's other narratives intrudes here, her fate being an ominous warning of the consequences of female defiance and independence. Mouse can discover an authoritative "self" only by speaking his word and constructing herself in his image.

Mouse's induction into the gendered textual space over which Johnny presides occurs in the context of strongly connoted gendered meanings. The masculine world is normative and superior, the exemplar of sovereign masculinity being Johnny: cynical and perceptive, although often abrasive and violent, he proves to be the character whose views about his society and other characters are most reliable.

Another authoritative male character is the nameless man who helps Mouse find a wheelchair for her story about an old woman who needs one. Although commissioned by the editor, the story promises to be one independently constructed and told by Mouse. When she sets out to create this narrative, the nameless hero intervenes. In an appropriative process echoing Johnny's control over her writing, this character ultimately authors her story by assuming a pivotal role in shaping it.

The world marked as "feminine" is contrastively emotional, hollow, and inferior. Johnny frequently reminds us of the binary gender system, while his girlfriends are stereotyped as fickle, conniving, and superficial. Mouse's mother Ruby appears to defy stereotypes of womanhood when she pursues a passionate relationship with Johnny by defying social taboos, yet she treacherously capitulates when she publicly rebuffs her lover and gives up her baby daughter.

With her reconstruction of an autobiographical story in The Cardinals, then, Head has the mother choose to reject her lover and child. Despite her eventual grief and suicide, Ruby's guilt is established at the start of the novella, where an omniscient narrator denies the reader access to her subjectivity. Relinquishing her baby together with five shillings, Ruby is seen to leave the slum with guilty haste. Condemned by the narrator in the opening pages, she is introduced as a subject who bears the marks of weakness and deceit, which are connoted as feminine.

The Cardinals repeatedly affirms a masculine world whose authority is persuasively inscribed in the texts that Mouse confronts and imbibed through the act of writing. Accepting the fictions of female inferiority and of masculinity as a desired model, the central woman character will therefore acquire an identity that silences her unknown self. But the text also hints at the limited path of Mouse's entry into writing with its insistent delineation of the power hierarchies of her world, covertly warning of her ongoing entrapment at the same time that it seems to celebrate her progress: while Johnny will allow Mouse to escape culturally ascribed silence for a public domain of self-defining authority, her freedom will be achieved at the cost of discovering an independent textual space and identity that cannot be discovered in dominant narratives. She will have to continue the word of her father at the same time that he "engenders" her and penetrates her sexually. With the anticipation of this ambiguous birth in chapter 4, Mouse becomes the author of Johnny's paternal story; after he gives her a brief autobiographical outline, she writes his story and submits it for his approval.

The Immorality Act and Untold Stories.

Margaret Daymond, in her introduction to the 1993 edition of The Cardinals, explains the incest taboo in Head's novella by comparing the social prohibition against incest with the Nationalist government's legislation against interracial sex, suggesting that the unwittingly incestuous love in The Cardinals dramatizes Head's political anger. From this perspective, incest serves as a trope for the South African "act of immorality," and the deviant act of Head's characters indicts race laws in a similar way to those of writers of liberal protest.7 Yet this interpretation underplays the connection between incest and a gender hierarchy delineated with remarkable clarity in The Cardinals.

Reading the incest theme only as an index of defiance and regenerating love also cannot explain why the Immorality Act remains so disconnected a theme, since it is by no means clear or even likely that Ruby in The Cardinals is white. Her betrayal of father and daughter and her separation from her daughter are not dictated by race laws. The omission of the racial sex taboo from the relationship between father and mother consequently allows the author to ascribe freedom of choice to the mother. By erasing the repressive role of the Immorality Act, Head denies the authority of the mother as one who tells a heroic story of defiance and repression. Ruby's story is discredited further by the way her father, another of the novella's impressive male characters, encourages her to pursue her relationship with Johnny and to defy social taboos.

While The Cardinals suppresses the Immorality Act as the key to a powerful maternal narrative, Head does not unequivocally invalidate the mother's voice and world. In the same way that the text elsewhere registers unease with and unravels its surface meaning, so does the representation of Ruby covertly subvert the authority of Johnny's paternal text. It is significant that chapter 5, although it starts off as Johnny's memory about his past as a fisherman and his relationship with Ruby, ends up with Ruby as focalizer. Where Johnny usually interprets Mouse's thoughts and constructs her identity, chapter 5 describes a contrasting process as the male character is gradually consigned to the margins while the female character becomes a central subject.

As Driver observes, the chapter is stylistically different from the rest of the text; the suggestion is that it emanates from a different voice-consciousness. The predominant style in The Cardinals is characterized by the journalists' speech, a style suited to realistic treatment of a corrupt, urban, and racialist context. In chapter 5, however, Johnny's recollection, which slips into Ruby's point of view, differs markedly from the realism, the tough register, and the urban atmosphere of the rest of the chapters. The tone of this chapter is romantic, and its register is marked by frequent descriptive sections, references to verbs of perception, descriptions of characters' physical responses and behaviour, and a formality suggesting deliberate myth-making rather than mimetic social realism.

The singularity of this section is reinforced by its setting. In contrast to the worlds of the slum, the newspaper office, and city life, the sea setting of chapter 5 helps create an idyllic mood, seeming to affect the fishermen who are habitually silent and wholly absorbed in their world. Johnny—as Ruby realizes—does not like the sea, which he believes "kills us" (51). The independent and languid Ruby of chapter 5 seems to be nurtured by the sea in some way and responds: "You mean … it's killing you. Those men love the sea. They are here because they want to be" (51). In a subsequent chapter, Mouse, after arguing with Johnny about her failure to love, says, "I just want to be alone" (88), and impulsively plunges into the sea. She is rescued by a shocked but also mocking and unsympathetic Johnny. In this abrupt incident, Mouse's struggle for identity is cryptically linked to a source associated with an unknown mother and her unacknowledged narrative.

While the Immorality Act is not connected to the relationship between Mouse's parents, the taboo against interracial sex does surface in relation to Mouse's point of view and emerging identity. Assigned to cover a story on Immorality Act cases, she witnesses the trial of a young Norwegian sailor. The narrative relays the event through a filtering narrator who hints at Mouse's thoughts and notes. Johnny's point of view then intrudes as he offers her a sensationalist summary which suits the tone of the tabloid they work for.

A cop peeped through a key-hole and a young man and woman found themselves in the Magistrate's Court charged with contravening the Immorality Act.

‘I was only looking for a bit of fun,’ the man said.

He was a sailor from a foreign port and said he did not know about the country's race laws….


In this reference to the racial sex taboo, the juxtaposition of points of view and the abrupt curtailing of the Immorality Act as a theme reveal a developing subject's ambiguous acquisition of identity from the fictions she encounters. On one level the section describes Mouse's attempt to interrogate the taboo and conveys the victimization of the transgressive lovers. That Mouse's notes are replaced by authorial narration indicates the extent to which the narrative, even when it appears to capture her point of view, hints at its muting. On another level the interruption of Mouse's already-mediated thoughts by Johnny, and his recasting of a story which the narrator represents as a human tragedy, consigns the story to insignificance, a "dirty lead for a dirty paper" (70). Mouse's independent discovery of a story written into the Immorality Act is curtailed by the dismissive and authoritative voice of Johnny.

We can speculate here that Head registers her own tentative affiliation with an elusive narrative discovered by interpreting the Immorality Act, but yields to a paternal voice by suppressing the act and establishing the mother's silence, the father's authority. What is more clearly conveyed, however, is the tension between Mouse's acquisition of a voice from the authoritative fiction of a father and her interrupted quest to interpret the law which in her other narratives aims to suppress a rebellious mother's story.

The second reference to the law against interracial sex in The Cardinals is Mouse's exploration of why there are so many Immorality Act offences. This reference directly conveys the character's point of view through her detailed written notes. But the contrast between this fluent, detached, and descriptive response (which Mouse develops once she has begun living with Johnny) and the previous one suggesting her stifled but autonomous interpretive engagement is a striking indication of her tutelage, a sign of her transformation by her instructor-father and an index of her growing alienation from a narrative accessed by independently interrogating the Immorality Act; Mouse, having imbibed the lessons of her father, abandons an emotional entanglement with her subject and aspires to Johnny's rationalism and clinical detachment from the law which obscures an untold story.


At the end of The Cardinals the central woman character does seem poised to break out of her socially designated condition of silence. But she will transcend her silence only by being elevated to the symbolic status of her father and accepting his fiction of selfhood which denies her authority to construct her own. At the same time that the text celebrates Mouse's anticipated entry into writing through the inadvertently incestuous cardinals, it seems unable to ignore that her progress toward writing is embedded in power relations and narratives that inhibit the discovery of an independent desire.

The Cardinals discloses the covert and contradictory paths which Head pursued in her representation of marginalized subjects and her celebration of creativity. While much of her fiction explores her characters' circuitous defiance of the identities imposed on them, The Cardinals ambiguously confronts the dominant texts that speak for and about a central female character.

Head has claimed that the central male character of her first long piece of fiction offered a prototype of the mythical man she exalted in her later fiction: "He gets better and better with each story."8 That her subsequent writing shows a continuing fixation with powerful father figures and authoritative masculine codes is not because she was unaware of their relation to hegemonic narratives. The Cardinals illuminates her alertness to the way master narratives shape the public domain of writing and the fictions available to marginal subjects. It also reveals the way she both subverts and reproduces dominant meanings and codes, struggling with a vision which available codes are not able to sustain. The recuperation of paternal meanings in the novella identifies one direction in her writing as the quest for discursive empowerment through the instrumentality of available languages, strategies, and forms. While her search for meanings beyond dominant narratives develops into the construction of a maternal narrative, this narrative was but one inconsistent strand within a much broader and ambivalent process of writing. Head's restless struggles both against and with available narratives, forms, and discourses were rarely univocal, linear, or intentional ones. Her lesser-known fiction encodes traces of her complex battle to construct identities beyond dominant fictions and to discover the conditions for her own creativity.


1. The amendment of the Act after the Nationalist Party came into power consolidated legislation that entrenched apartheid.

2. Much of Head's correspondence, which includes approximately 2,000 letters, has been catalogued by the Khama III Museum in Serowe, Botswana. Her letters have been collected in Randolph Vigne's book A Gesture of Belonging: Letters from Bessie Head, 1965-1979 (1991) and a pending publication by Patrick Cullinan.

3. References are to the Bessie Head Papers (BHP), Khama III Museum, Serowe, Botswana.

4. Some critics have discredited Head's autobiographical accounts as unreliable stories of her past. See Teresa Dovey for a defense of Head's textual interpretation of her past and a critique of critics' preoccupation with her "true" story. Kenneth Birch, Head's natural uncle, intervenes in the critics' debate and contests Head's version by claiming to offer "further understanding of the complexities within my niece's nature, and those of her antecedents" (18).

5. Page reference is to Bessie Head, A Question of Power, London, Heinemann, 1974.

6. Page references are to Bessie Head, The Cardinals, Cape Town, David Philip, 1993.

7. Dorothy Driver observes that this interpretation is borne out by the allusion to Johnny's incestuous relationship with his sister—a relationship which offers consolation in a world of deprivation, although Driver also draws attention to the ambiguities of Mouse's relationship with her father and birth as a writer.

8. Quoted in Daymond's introduction to The Cardinals, p. xvii.

Works Cited

Birch, Kenneth Stanley. "The Birch Family: An Introduction to the White Antecedents of the Late Bessie Amelia Head." English in Africa, 22 (1995), p. 1.

Bessie Head Papers. Khama III Museum. Serowe, Botswana.

Head, Bessie. The Cardinals. Cape Town. David Philip. 1993.

———. A Question of Power. London. Heinemann. 1974.

Daymond, Margaret. "Introduction" to The Cardinals. Cape Town. David Philip. 1993. Pp. vii-xviii.

Dovey, Teresa. "A Question of Power: Susan Gardner's Biography versus Bessie Head's Autobiography." English in Africa, 16 (1989), p. 1.

Driver, Dorothy. "Gestures of Expatriation and Belonging." Southern African Review of Books, September/October 1993.

Kristeva, Julia. "The Novel as Polylogue." In Desire in Language. Oxford, Eng. Oxford University Press. 1980.

Millin, Sarah Gertrude. God's Stepchildren. London. Constable. 1924.

Nkosi, Lewis. Mating Birds. Johannesburg. Ravan. 1987.

Paton, Alan. Too Late the Phalarope. New York. Scribner. 1953.

Plomer, William. Turbott Wolfe. London. Hogarth. 1926.

Vigne, Randolph. A Gesture of Belonging: Letters from Bessie Head, 1965-1979. London. Heinemann. 1991.

Alan Ramón Ward (essay date 2004)

SOURCE: Ward, Alan Ramón. "Using the Heart: The Symbolism of Individual Change in Bessie Head's Maru." International Fiction Review 31 (2004): 19-25.

[In the essay that follows, Ward analyzes Head's development of the main characters in her novel Maru, claiming that they represent two fragmented parts of one individual, and that both men are eventually made whole through their relationships with the women Dikeledi and Margaret.]

Bessie Head's commentary in Maru (1971) is delivered at the personal level, though it purports a solution to the racism suffered by the Masarwa people. The novel traces the symbolic change of Dilepe village (Botswana) and, by extension, that of Africa, effected by a single Masarwa woman who can read and write. The young Margaret Cadmore enters the scene with the expectation of "one day" helping her "people."1 She is shy. She has an awkward manner. She is not personable. This has led some critics to misunderstand Head's vision and call it a failed one. Huma Ibrahim, for instance, believes "that Margaret Cadmore remains the perfect victim of racism and sexism throughout th[e] novel."2 For Ibrahim, Margaret is only the passive recipient of good will: "surely the nexus of Masarwa struggle is not to accept charity but to enter consciously into the new definition of a nation."3 It is true that Margaret never enters the national discourse of racism as a political leader or even makes her purpose known. But Head has the unassuming Margaret single-handedly change the course of that community's history.

Head realizes that racism, no matter what its origin, is perpetuated by individuals, and individuals can decide to reject any measure that runs counter to what they consider right. There is many a travesty, after all, to which the human race could subscribe for its economic viability (feeding our bad students to the better ones, for instance) but that our humanity prevents us from considering. In Dilepe village, where wealth is hoarded and resources distributed inefficiently, racism has created a subordinate caste, the Masarwa, to carry the burden of this inefficiency. But this is not humane. Head seems to suggest in Maru that human beings are capable of racism because over time their hearts have come to live separately from themselves. Just as Moleka, a main character, has "taken his heart out of his body and hidden it in some secret place" (26), these people, without hearts to guide them, can believe ideas without considering their inhuman implications. If one could reunite head with heart in these people, perhaps promoting racism would seem as unreasonable as eating students. Maru is the story of racism being overcome in this way, at an individual level, related symbolically by a quartet of characters: the men, Moleka and Maru, and the women, Margaret and Dikeledi.

I shall show that before Margaret appears in Dilepe, Moleka and Maru represent two parts of a single individual. Moleka represents the self without the heart and Maru represents the missing heart. Through a well-developed metaphor in the text, we come to think of Moleka as a sun, powerful on its own, and as a thunderstorm, but one that needs a cloud from which to draw rain. The cloud is Maru, who represents the heart that Moleka lacks. If Moleka had a cloud, a heart, of his own, he would be complete—he could combine sunshine with rainfall and produce a rainbow.

Early in the story, during Moleka's first interaction with Margaret, Moleka gains a heart for the first time by falling in love with her. Maru, noticing himself displaced in Moleka's life, acts as a jealous lover and does all he can to ruin Moleka's new connection to Margaret. But as Maru finds out, Margaret has not replaced Maru as Moleka's heart, but given Moleka a heart of his own. Finding himself tragically useless, Maru begins to dream of escaping from the society for which he has always felt contempt. He recognizes Margaret, who despite falling in love with Moleka keeps herself away from him, as a soul mate. Margaret and Maru, not in love but both suffering because of their love for Moleka, escape together, to a setting rife with imagery alluding to Moleka. Moleka's love for Margaret is, in the end, transferred to Dikeledi, or at least the text gives us every hope that it will be: after he marries Dikeledi, and after Maru marries and disappears with Margaret, Moleka "laughed and laughed. Everything else went smoothly for Dikeledi" (125). Moleka and Dikeledi become the unprejudiced chiefs of the Dilepe Tribal Administration. Institutionalized racism will no longer be tolerated.

The situation of the Masarwa is improved, and it is Margaret who becomes the impetus for change in two decisive ways: first, by symbolically reuniting Moleka with his heart; second, by withholding herself from him so that he can unite with the efficient, unprejudiced, and leader-bound Dikeledi. That Margaret is not forceful in her methods, even that she is unaware of them, does not diminish the symbolism of her being the catalyst for change. That she is unconscious of her role perhaps even speaks to the inevitability of the effected change. By her efforts, "the wind of freedom" (126) enters the space of the Masarwa tribe, the "dark airless room in which their souls had been shut for a long time" (126).

Before going any further, Maru's representation as cloud must be considered as it relates to the possibility that Maru and Moleka represent two parts of the same character before Margaret's appearance: Maru representing the heart, Moleka representing the self without the heart.

By associating Maru with the cloud that needs a force to produce water, and Moleka with the force that needs a substance, the cloud, a relationship of dependence is emphasized between the two characters. V. S. Menager-Everson notes that "in Setswana maru means ‘cloud’,"4 and that in the story, Maru is "indeed that banking of clouds" that is unable to "release its beneficial downpour."5 Johnson also sees Maru as a cloud, and that "a comparison is implied between the cloud that fails to produce rain and the chief who fails to relieve the distress of his people," namely, Maru.6 Moleka is representative of water from torrential rains. According to Johnson, Moleka is explicitly linked with the vitality of a thunderstorm.7 When Moleka spoke, "his voice had such projection and power that the room vibrated" (27). Moleka's vitality is also suggested in a strong association with the sun. "Comparisons of Moleka with the sun are explicit,"8 says Johnson, and Menager-Everson agrees that "Moleka is ‘sun’."9 Head's narrator tells us explicitly about Moleka's "body that felt like a living pulsating sun" (31); that "Moleka was a sun around which spun a billion satellites" (58); that his eyes were "two yellow orbs of light" (57); that he "felt the sun in his own heart" (76). But Moleka is incomplete. From the first page, "bright cloudless skies hold no promise,"10 notes Joyce Johnson, and it is a "soft steady rain"11 that people long for. Moleka has the ability to draw it as from a well, but the source of water lies with the cloud. Maru is the source with whom Moleka must negotiate to combine his sun with water.

Other aspects of the text confirm that, before Margaret arrives, Moleka is incomplete without Maru. Moleka is "split in two" (58) and "only half the statement of his kingdom" (58). He has grown "accustomed to having a shadow next to him" (33). This "shadow" is introduced as another part of him that keeps "shyly" silent while Moleka maneuvers his way into a woman's bed (33). It is only upon hearing Moleka address this shadow that we learn what he calls this part of himself: "of course Maru" (33).

Before Margaret appears, Maru's and Moleka's relations with women follow divergent patterns. Moleka's behavior is consistent with him having no heart. He is interested in the physical only. He intellectualizes sex, knows everything "about the female anatomy" (35), and needs to find more and more "horrible sensations" (35) in order to keep his affairs interesting. He uses women, gives them no love, ruins them emotionally, and dumps them, all the while remaining "unhurt, smiling" (35). Juxtaposed with this behavior is Maru's love life. He gives too much love, so much so that "the weakest" of his women "went insane, and walked about the village muttering to themselves" (35). This love is described as a "nameless terror" (35), indicating that Moleka and Maru belong to "opposing kingdoms" (34). Maru "always fell in love" (76). He loves all his women and is himself broken by each one, "taking to bed" with a "deep sorrow" (35).

While Moleka is "a living dynamo" (70), future king "of the African continent" (70), this way of being is unfathomable to Maru, "as though shut behind a heavy iron door" (34). Maru is shy and quiet and has only five friends, that is, two "shadows" (37), one spy (59), a sister, and Moleka, "in a village of over fifty thousand people" (37). Maru is "not the kind of personality to rule the masses" (50) but one whose sole purpose is to "love" (35), and be loved intensely, like a heart. Yet Maru is the greatest manipulator in the novel, acting rashly, selfishly, and even cruelly. How does one explain this paradox in Head's description?

To understand Maru's character, I think, we must understand the novel's symbolism. The pivotal moment in the novel's symbolic movement, the unification of self and heart in Moleka, comes directly after Moleka and Margaret meet for the first time, at the old library where Moleka has arranged for Margaret to stay.

"It was a long single room" which was "covered in layers of dust and cobwebs" (29): the place they are entering has remained unused for some time. We notice an immediate change in the rhythm of the narrative as they enter the library, from the preceding scene of "goats and people" jumping and vans swooping up hills (28) to Moleka's strange brooding. Margaret does not understand what he is doing, all of a sudden "deep in thought" (29), and decides he must be "retrieving his breath" (29), though he has not exerted himself. He is "slowly" pacing "up and down" (29), his movement paralleled by "a big black scorpion" which scuttles "across the room" (29). Moleka's "head [is] bent" (29) toward the ground and the scorpion, as though he were in consultation with the animal. The scorpion seems to be placed as a metaphor for the unwitting Maru, who is being replaced as the heart of Moleka. The scorpion is "disturbed at their entry" (29).

In this part of the scene, Margaret wants Moleka to leave the table where it is, and Maru as the scorpion shows us by angry reactions that he wants Moleka to do the opposite, that is, to remove the table. We later see this chain of events repeated when Maru wants Moleka to retrieve a bed lent to Margaret, and Margaret, of course, wants to keep the bed to sleep on (64).

Moleka's body language leads us to believe that he converses symbolically with the scorpion upon first entering the room. Whatever is exchanged between them, Head states that the scorpion becomes "angry" (29), a strange description for a small creature ostensibly interested in self-protection, and threatening, "his tail alertly poised to strike" (29). The scorpion wants Moleka to remove the table similar to Maru, who later wants him to remove the bed. Moleka moves to raise the table "as though to fold its supports and remove it" (29). Margaret "hear[s]" (29) him and "bursts out nervously: ‘please don't remove the table’" (29).

He keeps "his hands touching the table" (29), but refrains from lifting it. He stops to absorb the moment, using the table to steady himself. At that moment, Moleka feels compelled to do as Margaret asks, against Maru's wishes. "Why?" (29), he asks, but his tone, "deepened in a strange way," like "something sweet," like "a note of music," reveals that he already feels the answer (29). Something has changed his voice so dramatically that from one moment to the next, Margaret can "hardly recognize" it (29); something has changed him so dramatically that she suspects "magic" (29) is at play. "A moment ago he had been a hateful, arrogant man. Now, he had another face which made him seem the most beautiful person on earth" (30).

As mentioned earlier, Maru is associated with both cloud and heart, neither of which Moleka possesses before the scene in the library. Margaret is the first to notice the "cloud" around Moleka's eyes (27), as well as his sun, which "lit up" (26) the faces of people who looked at him. When Moleka chooses not to remove the table, Margaret sees this sun produce its first rainfall. What results is a "rainbow of dazzling light" (30). He no longer needs Maru's cloud to be complete. She overhears him thinking aloud: "first there was one of you. Now there are two of you" (30). She seems to think he is referring to being in love with her. But the statement could also refer to his realization of the change Margaret has effected in him: first there was only one, Maru, providing him with a heart. Now there are two, both Margaret and Maru. But unlike Maru, Margaret is not completing Moleka but giving Moleka his own heart. Moleka no longer needs Maru as his shadow. "The scorpion crossed his path and he quietly crushed it with his foot" (30). "Oh" (30), she says, and indicates what has changed in him by raising "her hand towards her heart" (30).

Moleka is in love for the first time, with Margaret, and Margaret is in love with him. Moleka changes his disposition toward everyone, and everyone notices Moleka's changed state of mind. He is the talk of the town when he invites Seth, the prejudiced education supervisor, to dinner and feeds a Masarwa "with the same fork" with which he feeds himself (53). Even Ranko notes that "Moleka is a changed man." Usually Moleka says: "hey, Ranko, you damn fool, come here." But later, it is: "Ranko, please fetch me a packet of cigarettes out of the shop" (54-55). Indeed, from his experience with Margaret, Moleka gains not just love but the ability to love at various levels.

But as the story would have it, Margaret, the Masarwa, does not marry Moleka, soon to be chief of the Batswana. Moleka marries the princess of the tribe, Dikeledi, while Margaret marries Maru, a social hermit, albeit one of royal descent, who disappears with her so that rumors of his death start up immediately (126).

Why does Maru marry Margaret? From the time Maru first hears of Margaret, his language when speaking of her is the language of possession. She is "gold" and he will "steal" it because he has "grown tired of the straw" (84). She is the prize to a contest for which he is ready to cheat in order to win: "report the minute she mentions the name of anyone who has taken her fancy and I shall mess everything up" (72). His plan is not to fall in love with her or even to convince her to fall in love with him. Instead he intends to threaten her: "if you do not agree to marry me, you will stare at the moon for the rest of your days" (72). When Maru first expresses interest in Margaret, he is not curious about who she is. There is no description of his being conflicted or impassioned as he is for Moleka. Never once do we see a personal connection between him and Margaret. He sets up her pictures not for what they are of her but for what they are of him: when a painting is sent to him to which he cannot relate, he sends it back: "you keep it. I don't like it" (116). Others he hangs up like mirrors about his room (105). Even when Maru says he loves Margaret, the context reduces his professed love to covetousness: "what will I do if she does not love me as much as I love her?… Kill her" (111).

Maru wants Margaret out of jealousy over Moleka. Before seeing Margaret for the first time, "something was violently agitating his heart" (55) when Ranko tells him how changed Moleka is by Margaret. Immediately Maru feels the ramifications of Moleka's new love: "I am so lonely" (56). "Moleka … has a heart of gold" (56), Maru remembers, his heart growing "cold with fear" (57). He confronts Moleka, starting an argument smacking of a lovers' quarrel.

As the novel progresses, we see a change in Maru's relationship to Margaret. Symbolically, seeing that he has been replaced as the heart of Moleka, he begins to notice the connection he has with Margaret. Like Maru, Margaret has been an outcast. Maru is often de- scribed as a "God" (66) and Margaret has made Moleka into a god: "who else made a god overnight but a goddess?" (67), Maru reasons. Furthermore, they have both given to Moleka and are no longer needed: Maru, as the heart that has been replaced; Margaret, as the lover who will never be the wife. Because they both love Moleka, yet cannot be with him, they both have the same need and only each other to fill the void. Together they are more whole than they would be apart. Margaret warms to Maru's "torrential expressions of love" (8), a description reminiscent of Moleka, who has become the "thundercloud" (27) that carries with it the rain. They situate themselves where they can find comfort from the "low horizon where the storm brooded" (7), symbolic of Moleka as sun and thundercloud. They surround their house with "yellow daisies" (7), flowers of the sun and translated directly from Maru's dreams (7). We are told that Maru nurtures them so carefully because they "resembled the face of his wife and the sun of his love" (5), Moleka.

According to Menager-Everson, characters are "moisture deficient" when sad and absorb "fluid" as they grow happier.12 Without Moleka, Maru lives in perpetual drought. "Didn't I tell you not to break up the clods?" he yells at Ranko, "they are for conserving moisture" (6). The "white grass" around the house is "parched" (7). Maru can produce no moisture himself. The rains have not come, it is a "hot, dry summer" (5), and Maru, like "those black storm clouds," must live "in thick folds of brooding darkness" (5). He is in darkness because he has lost his sun, Moleka. He is dry because he has lost his thundershower, Moleka. In many ways the story is beautiful for its tragedy: Maru the heart sacrificed to the sun, the sun united with Maru's sister.

The dynamic of this last relationship between Moleka and Dikeledi unfolds as follows. In the scene in which Maru sees Margaret for the first time, Moleka sees her for the last time. From then on, the novel tells the story of Moleka privately understanding his new awareness of love, and the story of Maru maneuvering to steal away with Margaret. Maru, through Ranko, leads Moleka directly into Dikeledi's arms. Moleka, though in love with Margaret up to the end, and though understanding that "a pre-arranged trap had been set for him" (83), begins to feel love for Dikeledi. In Moleka's own words, "one woman set his heart aflame and he had turned around and put all that fire into another woman's keeping" (83). Dikeledi is a "living dynamo" (70), among the natural "queens of the African continent" (70). Once Moleka understands that he is no longer the old Moleka since meeting Margaret, but "Moleka, with something added" (80), as he puts it, he is able to put this "something," his heart, to use. As chief of the Tribal Administration, and with Dikeledi, he will change Dilepe and better the conditions of the Masarwa.

Head's response to the problem of institutionalized racism is not a battle call for the self-emancipation of the Masarwa. But it would be wrong to dismiss Head without understanding that, in effect, she is calling for the self-emancipation of humanity, which includes Masarwa emancipation. If everybody united head with heart as Moleka does, racism would dissolve as the people who believe in it would stop believing. Racism would simply cease. Although this vision is unrealistic, it is beautiful nonetheless. Individuals, together, would lead Africa out of its dark place and into the swelling sunlight, where temperate rains fall, and there are rainbows.


1. Bessie Head, Maru (Reading: Heinemann, 1995) 17. Subsequent references are to this edition and will appear parenthetically in the text.

2. Huma Ibrahim, Bessie Head: Subversive Identities in Exile (London: University of Virginia Press, 1996) 100.

3. Ibrahim 101.

4. V. S. Menager-Everson, "Maru by Bessie Head: The Dilepe Quartet from Drought to Beer," Obsidian II 3.3 (1988): 44.

5. Menager-Everson 44.

6. Joyce Johnson, "Structures of Meaning in the Novels of Bessie Head," Kunapipi 8.1 (1986): 61.

7. Johnson 63.

8. Johnson 63.

9. Menager-Everson 45.

10. Johnson 56.

11. Johnson 56.

12. Menager-Everson 45.


Castrillón, Gloria. "Whose History Is This?: Plagiarism in Bessie Head's A Bewitched Crossroad." English in Africa 31, no. 1 (May 2004): 77-89.

Studies the critical response to Head's A Bewitched Crossroad, asserting that the work is typically assessed as one that fails to merge the historical and fictional elements Head employs in her earlier writings.

Magnolia, Tiffany. "A Method to Her Madness: Bessie Head's A Question of Power as South African National Allegory." Journal of Literary Studies 18, nos. 1/2 (June 2002): 154-67.

Argues that while Head's novel A Question of Power is usually regarded as personal rather than political, the work in fact emphasizes the relationship between the individual struggle against political oppression and the striving of a nation to free itself from an oppressive political ideology.

Nazareth, Peter. "Path of Thunder: Meeting Bessie Head." Research in African Literatures 37, no. 4 (winter 2006): 211-29.

Contains biographical anecdotes and discussions of the circumstances surrounding the publication of Head's various manuscripts.

Ogwude, Sophia Obiajulu. "Protest and Commitment in Bessie Head's Utopia." Research in African Literatures 29, no. 3 (fall 1998): 70-81.

Contends that alongside the autobiographical elements in Head's novels and the grim themes she often explores, the author also incorporates utopian relationships and discourses.

Additional coverage of Head's life and career is contained in the following sources published by Gale: African Writers; Black Literature Criticism, Ed. 1:2; Black Writers, Eds. 2, 3; Concise Dictionary of World Literary Biography, Vol. 3; Concise Major 21st-Century Writers, Ed. 1; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 29-32R; Contemporary Authors—Obituary, Vol. 119; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 25, 82; Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vols. 25, 67; Contemporary Novelists, Eds. 1, 2, 3, 4; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 117, 225; DISCovering Authors 3.0; DISCovering Authors Modules, Ed. MULT; Encyclopedia of World Literature in the 20th Century, Ed. 3; Feminism in Literature: A Gale Critical Companion, Ed. 1:6; Feminist Writers; Literature Resource Center; Major 20th-Century Writers, Eds. 1, 2; Major 21st-Century Writers (eBook), Ed. 2005; Reference Guide to Short Fiction, Ed. 2; Short Stories for Students Vols. 5, 13; Short Story Criticism, Vol. 52; World Literature and Its Times, Ed. 2; and World Writers in English, Vol. 1.