Head, Bessie 1937–1986
Bessie Head 1937–1986
Miraculous Opportunity from New York
Wrote Wrenching Fictional Memoir
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.
Became Township Teacher
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.”
Miraculous Opportunity from New York
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.”
Wrote Wrenching Fictional Memoir
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.
Died of Hepatitis
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
Head, Bessie 1937–1986
PERSONAL: Born Bessie Amelia Emery, July 6, 1937, in Pietermaritzburg, South Africa; died of hepatitis April 17, 1986, in Botswana; married Harold Head (a journalist), September 1, 1961 (divorced); children: Howard. Education: Educated in South Africa as a primary teacher.
CAREER: Teacher in primary schools in South Africa and Botswana for four years; journalist at Drum Publications, Johannesburg, South Africa, for two years; writer. Represented Botswana at international writers conference at University of Iowa, 1977–78, and in Denmark, 1980.
AWARDS, HONORS: The Collector of Treasures and Other Botswana Village Tales was nominated for Jock Campbell Award for literature by new or unregarded talent from Africa or the Caribbean, New Statesman, 1978.
When Rain Clouds Gather (novel), Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 1969.
Maru (novel), McCall, 1971.
A Question of Power (novel), Davis Poynter, 1973, Pantheon (New York, NY), 1974.
The Collector of Treasures and Other Botswana Village Tales (short stories), Heinemann (Portsmouth, NH), 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 (Portsmouth, NH), 1990.
A Woman Alone: Autobiographical Writings, edited by Craig MacKenzie, Heinemann (Portsmouth, NH), 1990.
Tales of Tenderness and Power, Heinemann (Portsmouth, NH), 1990.
Life, adapted by Ivan Vladislaviac, illustrated by Renee Koch, Viva (Johannesburg, South Africa), 1993.
The Cardinals, with Meditations and Short Stories, David Philip (Cape Town, South Africa), 1993, Heinemann (Portsmouth, NH), 1996.
The Lovers, adapted by Ina Lawson, illustrated by Renee Koch, Viva (Johannesburg, South Africa), 1994.
Contributor to Deep Cuts: Graphic Adaptations of Stories, Maskew Miller Longman (Cape Town, South Africa), 1993; contributor to periodicals, including London Times, Presence Africaine, New African, and Transition.
SIDELIGHTS: "Unlike many exiled South African writers," wrote a London Times contributor, author Bessie Head "was able to root her life and her work anew in a country close to her tormented motherland." Born of racially mixed parentage in South Africa, Head lived and died in her adopted Botswana, the subject of much of her writing; in 1979, after fifteen years as part of a refugee community located at Bamangwato Development Farm, she was granted Botswanan citizenship. In World Literature Written in English, Betty McGinnis Fradkin described Head's meager existence after a particularly lean year: "There is no electricity yet. At night Bessie types by the light of six candles. Fruit trees and vegetables surround the house. Bessie makes guava jam to sell, and will sell vegetables when the garden is enlarged." Despite her impoverished circumstances, Head acknowledged to Fradkin that the regularity of her life in the refugee community brought her the peace of mind she sought: "In South Africa, all my life I lived in shattered little bits. All those shattered bits began to grow together here…. I have a peace against which all the turmoil is worked out!" "Her novels strike a special chord for the South African diaspora, though this does not imply that it is the only level at which they work or produce an impact as novels," observed Arthur Ravenscroft in Aspects of South African Literature. "They are strange, ambiguous, deeply personal books which initially do not seem to be 'political' in any ordinary sense of the word."
Head's racially mixed heritage profoundly influenced both her work and her life, for an element of exile as well as an abiding concern with discrimination, whatever its guise, permeate her writing. Noting in Black Scholar that Head "probably received more acclaim than any other black African woman novelist writing in English," Nancy Topping Bazin added that the author's works "reveal a great deal about the lives of African women and about the development of feminist perspectives." According to Bazin, Head's analysis of Africa's "patriarchal system and attitudes" enabled her to make connections between the discrimination she experienced personally from racism and sexism, and the root of oppression generally in the insecurity that compels one to feel superior to another. Head was "especially moving on the position of women, emerging painfully from the chrysalis of tribalist attitudes into a new evaluation of their relationship to men and their position in society," stated Mary Borg in a New Statesman review of Head's first novel, When Rain Clouds Gather. Considered "intelligent and moving" by a Times Literary Supplement contributor, the 1969 work was described by another as combining "a vivid account of village life in Botswana with the relationship between an Englishman and an embittered black South African who try to change the traditional farming methods of the community."
The black male flees South African apartheid only to experience discrimination from other blacks as a refugee in Botswana. For this novel, Head drew upon her own experience as part of a refugee community, which, as she once indicated in World Literature Written in English, had been "initially, extremely brutal and harsh." Head explained that she had not experienced oppression by the Botswanan government itself in any way, but because South African blacks had been "stripped bare of every human right," she was unaccustomed to witnessing "human ambition and greed … in a black form." Calling When Rain Clouds Gather "a tale of innocence and experience," Ravenscroft acknowledged that "there are moments of melodrama and excessive romanticism, but the real life of the novel is of creativity, resilience, reconstruction, fulfillment." Most of the major characters "are in one sense or another handicapped exiles, learning how to mend their lives," explained Ravenscroft, adding that "it is the vision behind their effortful embracing of exile that gives Bessie Head's first novel an unusual maturity." Ravenscroft found that in addition to the collective, cooperative enterprise that the village itself represents in When Rain Clouds Gather, it speaks to an essential concern of Head's writing by offering a solution for personal fulfillment: "Against a political background of self-indulgent, self-owning traditional chiefs and self-seeking, new politicians more interested in power than people, the village of Golema Mmidi is offered as a difficult alternative: not so much a rural utopia for the Africa of the future to aim at, as a means of personal and economic independence and interdependence, where the qualities that count are benign austerity, reverence for the lives of ordinary people (whether university-educated experts or illiterate villagers), and, above all, the ability to break out of the prison of selfhood without destroying individual privacy and integrity."
Head's second novel, Maru, is also set in a Botswanan village. According to Ravenscroft, though, in this book "workaday affairs form the framework for the real novel, which is a drama about inner conflict and peace of mind and soul." Maru is about the problems that accompany the arrival of the well-educated new teacher with whom two young chiefs fall in love. It is "about interior experience, about thinking, feeling, sensing, about control over rebellious lusts of the spirit," said Ravenscroft, who questioned whether or not "the two chief male characters … who are close, intimate friends until they become bitter antagonists, are indeed two separate fictional characters, or … symbolic extensions of contending character-traits within the same man?" Although the new teacher has been raised and educated by a missionary's wife, she belongs to the "lowliest and most despised group in Botswana, the bushmen," explained a London Times contributor. "Problems of caste and identity among black Africans are explored with sensitivity," remarked Martin Levin in the New York Times Book Review. Ravenscroft suggested that while Maru is more personal than Head's first novel, it is also more political, and he was "much impressed and moved by the power … in the vitality of the enterprise, which projects the personal and the political implications in such vivid, authentic parallels that one feels they are being closely held together."
Head's critically well-received third novel, A Question of Power, relates the story of a young woman who experiences a mental breakdown. In a Listener review, Elaine Feinstein observed that "the girl moves through a world dominated by strange figures of supernatural good and evil, in which she suffers torment and enchantment in turn: at last she reaches the point where she can reject the clamorous visions which beset her and assert that there is 'only one God and his name is Man.'" According to Bazin, Head once acknowledged in an interview with Lee Nichols in her Conversations with African Writers: Interviews with Twenty-six African Authors that A Question of Power is largely autobiographical. "Like Elizabeth, the protagonist in A Question of Power, Bessie Head was born in a South African mental hospital," explained Bazin. "Her mother, a wealthy, upper-class, white woman, was to spend the rest of her life there, because in an apartheid society, she had allowed herself to be made pregnant by a black stableman. Until age thirteen, Bessie Head, like Elizabeth, was raised by foster parents and then put in a mission orphanage." Paddy Kitchen pointed out in the New Statesman, though, that the novel merely "contains parallels and winnowings from life, not journalist records," adding that "the incredible part is the clarity of the terror that has been rescued from such private, muddled nightmares." Similarly, Ravenscroft discerned no "confusion of identity" between the character and her creator: "Head makes one realize often how close is the similarity between the most fevered creations of a deranged mind and the insanities of deranged societies." Lauded for the skill with which she recreats the hellish world of madness, Head was also credited by critics such as Jean Marquard in London Magazine with having written "the first metaphysical novel on the subject of nation and a national identity to come out of southern Africa." In his The Novel in the Third World, Charles R. Larson credited the importance of A Question of Power not just to the introspection of its author, but to her exploration of subjects hitherto "foreign to African fiction as a sub-division of the novel in the Third World: madness, sexuality, guilt." Noting that the protagonist's "Coloured classification, her orphan status at the mission, and her short-lived marriage" represent the origin of most of her guilt, Larson attributed these factors directly to "the South African policy of apartheid which treats people as something other than human beings." Further, Larson felt that Head intended the reader to consider all the "variations of power as the evils that thwart each individual's desire to be part of the human race, part of the brotherhood of man." A Question of Power, wrote Roberta Rubenstein in the New Republic,"succeeds as an intense, even mythic, dramatization of the mind's struggle for autonomy and as a symbolic protest against the political realities of South Africa." And in Books Abroad, Robert L. Berner considered it "a remarkable attempt to escape from the limitations of mere 'protest' literature in which Black South African writers so often find themselves." Berner recognized that Head could have "written an attack on the indignities of apartheid which have driven her into exile in Botswana," but instead chose to write a novel about the "response to injustice—first in madness and finally in a heroic struggle out of that madness into wholeness and wisdom." Ravenscroft perceived in A Question of Power "an intimate relationship between an individual character's private odyssey of the soul and public convulsions that range across the world and from one civilization to another," and deemed the novel "a work of striking virtuosity—an artistically shaped descent into the linked hells of madness and oppression, and a resolution that provides the hope of both internal and external reconciliation."
Critics have analyzed Head's first three novels, When Rain Clouds Gather, Maru, and A Question of Power, collectively in terms of their thematic concerns and progression. Suggesting that these three novels "deal in different ways with exile and oppression," Marquard noted that Head's "protagonists are outsiders, new arrivals who try to forge a life for themselves in a poor, under-populated third world country, where traditional and modern attitudes to soil and society are in conflict." Unlike other twentieth-century African writers who were also concerned with such familiar themes, said Marquard, Head "does not idealize the African past and … she resists facile polarities, emphasizing personal rather than political motives for tensions between victim and oppressor." Ravenscroft recognized "a steady progression from the first novel to the third into ever murkier depths of alienation from the currents of South African, and African, matters of politics and power." Similarly, Marquard detected an inward movement "from a social to a metaphysical treatment of human insecurities and in the last novel the problem of adaptation to a new world, or new schemes of values, is located in the mind of a single character." Ravenscroft posited that "it is precisely this journeying into the various characters' most secret interior recesses of mind and (we must not fight shy of the word) of soul, that gives the three novels a quite remarkable cohesion and makes them a sort of trilogy."
Considering When Rain Clouds Gather, Maru, and A Question of Power to be "progressive in their philosophical conclusion about the nature and source of racism," Cecil A. Abrahams suggested in World Literature Written in English that "ultimately, Head examines … sources of evil and, conversely, of potential goodness. The most obvious source is the sphere of political power and authority; it is clear that if the political institutions which decree and regulate the lives of the society are reformed or abolished a better or new society can be established." According to Ravenscroft, the elements of imprisonment and control provide thematic unity among the novels. Pointing to the "loneliness and despair of exile" in each of them, Ravenscroft found the resilience of their characters "even more remarkable," and concluded that "what the three novels do say very clearly is that whoever exercises political power, however laudable his aims, will trample upon the faces and limbs of ordinary people, and will lust in that trampling. That horrible obscenity mankind must recognize in its collective interior soul." And Head, said Ravenscroft, "refuses to look for the deceiving gleam that draws one to expect the dawn of liberation in the South, but accepts what the meagre, even parched, present offers."
Head's collection of short stories, The Collector of Treasures and Other Botswana Village Tales, which was considered for the New Statesman's Jock Campbell Award, explores several aspects of African life, especially the position of women. Linking Head to the "village storyteller of the oral tradition," Michael Thorpe noted in World Literature Today that her stories are "rooted, folkloristic tales woven from the fabric of village life and intended to entertain and enlighten, not to engage the modern close critic." In the Listener, John Mellors related Head's statement that "she has 'romanticised and fictionalized' data provided by old men of the tribe whose memories are unreliable." In its yoking of present to past, the collection also reveals the inevitable friction between old ways and new. The world of Head's work "is not a simply modernizing world but one that seeks, come what may, to keep women in traditionally imprisoning holes and corners," said Valerie Cunningham in the New Statesman. "It's a world where whites not only force all blacks into an exile apart from humanity but where women are pushed further still into sexist exile." In The Collector of Treasures and Other Botswana Village Tales, added Cunningham, "Head puts a woman's as well as a black case in tales that both reach back into tribal legend and cut deep into modern Africa."
Head's The Cardinals, with Meditations and Short Stories contains a novella written prior to her exile, as well as seven short pieces set in South Africa. A Publishers Weekly reviewer remarked that the stories "read … like scattershot historical information mixed with outdated ideas" and that the introduction is "far more interesting than the work itself." The central novella concerns a woman named Mouse who was sold by her mother for five shillings when she was a child. Later, she perseveres to become a newspaper reporter, struggling in a male-dominated world and becoming involved with a man who, unbeknownst to either of them, is her father. Adele S. Newson remarked in World Literature Today that, "Drawing from the experiences of her South African existence, Head provides something of a poetic rendering of what it means to be a woman and a writer in the male-dominated, racist, and sexist South Africa of her formative years as a writer." In the New York Times Book Review, Scott Martelle noted that the book "bears the unpolished marks of an immature writer, particularly in long stretches of improbable dialogue. But the work overcomes these weaknesses to stand as a clearsighted snapshot of people trying to pursue their lives within a system that seeks to deny their existence."
Two books by Head—Serowe: Village of the Rain Wind and A Bewitched Crossroad: An African Saga—are cat-egorized as historical chronicles and combine historical accounts with the folklore of the region. The collected interviews in Serowe focus on a time frame that spans the eras of Khama the Great (1875–1923) and Tshekedi Khama (1926–1959) through the Swaneng Project beginning in 1963 under Patrick Van Rensburg, a South African exile who worked to right the wrongs done by whites in that country. Larson, who considered "reading any book by Bessie Head … always a pleasure," added that Serowe "falls in a special category." Calling it a "quasi-sociological account," Larson described it as "part history, part anthology and folklore." "Its citizens give their testimonies, both personal and practical, in an unselfconscious way," added Paddy Kitchen in the Listener, "and Bessie Head—in true African style—orders the information so that, above all, it tells a story." Serowe is "a vivid portrait of a remarkable place … one wishes there were many more studies of its kind," remarked a British Book News contributor. Kitchen believed it to be "a story which readers will find themselves using as a text from which to meditate on many aspects of society." And discussing her book, A Bewitched Crossroad, which examines on a broader scope the African tribal wars in the early nineteenth century, Thorpe found that "in her moral history humane ideals displace ancestor-worship, and peace-loving strength displaces naked force." Questioned by Fradkin about the manner in which she worked, Head explained: "Every story or book starts with something just for myself. Then from that small me it becomes a panorama—the big view that has something for everyone."
Published posthumously, Tales of Tenderness and Power and A Woman Alone: Autobiographical Writings are companion collections of short pieces. The stories in Tales of Tenderness and Power date from the early 1960s, when Head lived in South Africa, to the 1980s, where she lived in Serowe. "Her stories are small descriptions of how traditions change over time, of how colonialism appears to the colonized, of chiefly justice and political corruption, of neighbors helping each other through famines and of villagers attacking deviants, of lovers and families," summarized Gay W. Seraman in the Women's Review of Books, while a Publishers Weekly reviewer found that the stories in Tales of Tenderness and Power "offer a rare insight into African history, culture and lore from a black perspective."
In the Times Literary Supplement Maya Jaggi declared that both collections "testify to Head's subtlety, versatility and prowess as a story-teller" and "are enriched by Head's distinctive vision, whether in their scornful exposure of corruption and abuses of power, or their epiphanic moments of generosity and tenderness." According to Charles Larson in the Washington Post Book World, the stories collected in Tales of Tenderness are "not only humane but genuinely hopeful about the human condition." But, he added, Head's memoir in A Woman Alone "reads like a horror tale, filled not only with the most appalling acts of inhumanity but also with one of the most agonizing accounts of loneliness one is likely to encounter." Jaggi characterized A Woman Alone as "brief, fragmentary and sometimes repetitive," yet called it a work that "builds a surprisingly coherent portrait of a sensitive, compassionate and talented writer transcending an onerous legacy…. These notes and sketches yield valuable insights into Head's views on politics, literature and feminism."
A Gesture of Belonging: Letters from Bessie Head, 1965–1979 provides further insight into Head and her works. The letters were addressed to editor Randolph Vigne, who puts them into a context by contributing explanatory notes regarding the author's circumstances and clarifying her references. Vigne shared Head's interests in political activism and journalism in Cape Town; she refers to him as "my papa" in many of the letters. "Of significant literary interest is the light the letters shed on the composition and reception of her works. Present also, however, is a disquieting strain of paranoia and contradictory responses," remarked A.A. Elder in Choice. Despite her concerns about the extent to which Vigne bowdlerized the letters, Arlene A. Elder maintained in Callaloo that A Gesture of Belonging "will help satisfy those clamoring for more biographical information about the writer as well as those hoping to put her works within the contexts of her own assessment of them and their relationship to the political and personal issues with which she was struggling as she composed them." Desiree Lewis concluded in World Literature Today: "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."
Through her writing, Head reinforced "the ideals of humility, love, truthfulness, freedom, and, of course, equality," wrote Bazin. By the time of her death she had achieved an international reputation and had begun to write her autobiography. Head endured much difficulty during her life; despite her rejection of South Africa as well as the hardships of her exiled existence, however, she emerged from the racist and sexist discrimination she both witnessed and experienced, to the affirmation she once explained to Fradkin represented the only two themes present in her writing—"that love is really good … and … that it is important to be an ordinary person." She added, "More than anything I want to be noble." According to Kitchen, "a great deal has been written about black writers, but Bessie Head is surely one of the pioneers of brown literature—a literature that includes everybody."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Abrahams, Cecil, editor, The Tragic Life: Bessie Head and Literature in Southern Africa, Africa World Press (Trenton, NJ), 1990.
Black Literature Criticism, Thomson Gale (Detroit, MI), 1992.
Contemporary Literary Criticism, Thomson Gale (Detroit, MI), Volume 25, 1983, Volume 67, 1992.
Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 117: Twentieth-Century Caribbean and Black African Writers, First Series, Thomson Gale (Detroit, MI), 1992.
Eilersen, Gilliam Stead, Bessie Head: Thunder behind Her Ears: Her Life and Writing, Heinemann (Portsmouth, NH), 1996.
Heywood, Christopher, editor, Aspects of South African Literature, Heinemann (Portsmouth, NH), 1976.
Ibrahim, Humam, Bessie Head: Subversive Identities in Exile, University Press of Virginia (Charlottesville, VA), 1996.
Larson, Charles R., The Novel in the Third World, Inscape Publishers, 1976.
MacKenzie, Craig, and Cherry Clayton, editors, Between the Lines: Interviews with Bessie Head, Sheila Roberts, Ellen Kuzwayo, Miriam Tlali, National English Library Museum (Grahamstown, South Africa), 1989.
Nichols, Lee, editor, Conversations with African Writers: Interviews with Twenty-six African Writers, Voice of America (Washington, DC), 1981.
Olaussen, Maria, Forceful Creation in Harsh Terrain: Place and Identity in Three Novels by Bessie Head, Peter Lang (New York, NY), 1997.
Ola, Virginia, The Life and Works of Bessie Head, E. Mellen Press (Lewiston, NY), 1994.
Zell, Hans M., and others, A New Reader's Guide to African Literature, Holmes & Meier, 2nd edition, 1983.
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Callaloo, winter, 1993, p. 277.
Choice, July-August, 1991, p. 1788; December, 1991, p. 592.
Journal of Commonwealth Literature, Volume 21, number 1, 1986.
Kola, winter, 2000, Horace I. Goddard, "Liberation and Self-Understanding: A Study of Bessie Head's Female Characters," p. 53.
Listener, February 4, 1971; November 22, 1973; April 20, 1978; July 2, 1981.
London Magazine, December-January, 1978–1979.
Ms., January, 1987.
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New York Times Book Review, September 26, 1971; March 31, 1996.
Publishers Weekly, October 12, 1990, p. 56; January 1, 1996, p. 68.
Research in African Literatures, summer 1999, James M. Garrett, "Writing Community: Bessie Head and the Politics of Narrative," p. 122.
Times (London, England), May 1, 1986.
Times Literary Supplement, May 2, 1969; February 5, 1971; December 7, 1990, p. 1326.
Washington Post Book World, February 17, 1991, p. 4.
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World Literature Written in English, Volume 17, number 1, 1978; Volume 17, number 2, 1978; Volume 18, number 1, 1979.
BORN: 1937, Pietermaritzburg, Natal, South Africa
DIED: 1986, Botswana
GENRE: Fiction, nonfiction
When Rain Clouds Gather (1968)
A Question of Power (1973)
Bessie Head explored the effects of racial and social oppression and used the theme of exile in her novels and short stories. She was of mixed race, and she experienced discrimination both in her birthplace of South Africa and in her adopted land of Botswana. Her novels, unlike many other works of protest literature, cast a distinctly female perspective on social injustice and the psychological costs of alienation. Head, however, refused to be called a feminist, insisting instead that she abhorred all oppression—racial, sexual, and political.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
An African Childhood Bessie Amelia Emery was born on July 6, 1937, in a mental hospital in Pietermaritzburg, South Africa. Her white mother, Bessie Amilia Emery, had been committed there because the father of her child was a black stable hand, whose name is now unknown. Their relationship was forbidden under South Africa's Immorality Act of 1927, which barred sexual relations between people of different races. This was one of many such rules found under the government-sponsored system of rule later known as apartheid, which is Afrikaans for “separateness.” Apartheid also designated certain buildings, areas, and services for use only by certain races and led to the segregation of living areas within South Africa, with black citizens of different cultural groups separated from each other as well as separated from whites.
Bessie was handed over to “Coloured,” or mixed-race, foster parents, who cared for her until she was thirteen. Because her natural mother had provided money for Bessie's education, she was placed in a mission orphanage, where she earned a high school diploma and was trained to be a teacher. She taught elementary school and then wrote for the African magazine Drum.
Marriage and Divorce In September 1961, she married Harold Head, a journalist with whom she later had a son, Howard. Around this time she also entered the world of literature, publishing a poem and several autobiographical pieces in the New African, a left-wing journal that followed most of its contributors into exile later in the decade.
The Head family lived in a slum in Cape Town because apartheid laws dictated that people of different races had to live in specific districts. While living there, Head worked on a novel, The Cardinals (published post-humously in 1993). Her marriage broke up after a few years, and she accepted a teaching job in the British Bechuanaland Protectorate (later Botswana), because, in her words, she could no longer tolerate apartheid in South Africa. Head left South Africa with her infant son in March 1964. Because of her political affiliations and friendships with left-wing activists, however, she was denied a passport and instead was given a canceled exit visa, depriving her of South African citizenship.
Life in Exile When the teaching job did not materialize, Head was declared a political refugee in the Bechuanaland Protectorate and was required to report to the police daily. She had no income other than a small allowance provided by the World Council of Churches and without a passport she was unable to seek employment opportunities elsewhere. Head did much of her writing in a small home without electricity and sold homemade guava jam for extra money during the early years of her life in Botswana. For fifteen years, she lived as a refugee at Bamangwato Development Farm.
The Novels On the strength of The Cardinals, which was still unpublished, Head was offered a contract with New York publishing house Simon and Schuster to write a novel about Botswana, which became independent from Britain in 1966. The result was When Rain Clouds Gather (1968). Head's first published novel is the story of Makhaya Maseko, a political refugee from South Africa who escapes to Botswana after serving a prison term for sabotage. When Rain Clouds Gather was widely acclaimed as a surprisingly mature first novel.
Head was less concerned with political or economic ideology than with moral principles, such as generosity, courtesy, and respect for the common person. For her, both white neocolonial oppression and the black nationalist backlash were impediments to African progress. With what she called in When Rain Clouds Gather the “hate-making political ideologies” of newly independent Africa came a new set of reactionary ideas, and she regarded people who promoted those ideologies as “pompous, bombastic fools.”
During 1969–1970 Head suffered sporadic attacks of mental illness. Nevertheless, in 1971 she published her second novel, Maru. The theme of this novel is racism, not of whites against blacks as might be expected, but the prejudice of the Tswana people, the Botswana majority, against the Masarwas, the Bushmen or indigenous people of the Kalahari Desert. As in When Rain Clouds Gather, Head cannot unite the sphere of public life and social commitment with that of the inner life and individual fulfillment.
A Question of Power (1973) is Head's most perplexing novel and the one that has received the most attention from critics. Openly autobiographical, the novel charts the terrifying course of her mental breakdown, her recovery, and her ultimate affirmation of the values—humility, decency, generosity, and compassion—that provide the basis for Head's moral perspective in all three novels.
Head did come to love her adopted country and was fascinated by its history. In the early 1970s, Head became interested in the history of the Bamangwato people, one of Botswana's main tribes. Her oral history of the tribe, Serowe: Village of the Rain Wind, was commissioned but
then rejected by Penguin. The book was virtually complete by 1976 but did not appear in print for another five years. Meanwhile, a collection of stories that Head was inspired to write by her interviews with the Serowe villagers was published in 1977 as The Collector of Treasures, and Other Botswana Village Tales. This collection was considered for the New Statesman's Jock Campbell Award. The stories vividly and richly evoke the sense of a living, bustling village struggling to cope with the intrusion of new forces into the traditional social fabric and explores the social condition of women.
Global Recognition and Later Life 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 female African 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 forty-eight.
Two volumes of Head's writings have been published posthumously: Tales of Tenderness and Power (1989) and A Woman Alone: Autobiographical Writings (1990). Each collection begins with a substantial biographical introduction and ends with Head's observations about the role of storytellers in South Africa.
Works in Literary Context
African Feminism Head has been acclaimed by such internationally renowned authors as Angela Carter and Alice Walker and has served as an inspiration to female writers of Africa, and, more particularly, to the suppressed women of her native South Africa. Noting in Black Scholar that Head has “probably received more acclaim than any other black African woman novelist writing in English,” Nancy Topping Bazin adds that Head's works “reveal a great deal about the lives of African women and about the development of feminist perspectives.” According to Bazin, Head's analysis of Africa's “patriarchal system and attitudes” enabled her to make connections between the discrimination she experienced personally from racism and sexism and the root of oppression generally in the insecurity that compels one person to feel superior to another.
Old Ways Versus New Ways The theme of conflict between old and new, a recurring one in African fiction since Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart (1958), is given a fresh direction by Head, notably in When Rain Clouds Gather. The novel diverges from other works that deal with this theme in at least two important ways: It inverts the customary story line, which focuses on the passage of the protagonist from a rural village to the bright lights of the city, and it avoids a simplistic pattern of racial conflict by allowing for the possibility of interracial cooperation and friendship.
The African Individual in Fiction Many works by African writers in the twentieth century dealt specifically with political issues facing developing nations. Head departed from this tradition. In Head's concern with women and madness in A Question of Power (1973), critic Charles Larson claims, she “almost single-handedly brought about the inward turning of the African novel.” The novel was ranked eighth of fifteen “most influential books of the decade” by the journal Black Scholar in its March–April 1981 issue.
LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES
Head's famous contemporaries include:
Lewis Nkosi (1936–): South African writer and essayist whose work explores politics, relationships, and sexuality; he has lived outside of South Africa since 1961.
Lilian Ngoyi (1911–1980): South African antiapartheid activist and orator; the first woman elected to the executive committee of the African National Congress, the antiapartheid political party, and cofounder of the Federation of South African Women.
Winnie Madikizela-Mandela (1936–): Controversial South African activist and politician, as well as ex-wife of former South African president Nelson Mandela. She has headed the African National Congress's (ANC) Women's League and currently sits on the ANC's National Executive Committee.
Sipho Sepamla (1932–2007): One of the leading South African “Soweto poets” that rose out of the Black Consciousness movement in the 1960s and 1970s; awarded the French Ordre des Arts et des Lettres in 1985.
Mao Zedong (1893–1976): Head of the Communist Party and the People's Republic of China from its founding in 1949 until his death. He oversaw the Chinese Cultural Revolution in the 1960s.
Sheila Rowbotham (1943–): British feminist and writer who argues that socialist feminism is necessary because women are oppressed by economic as well as by cultural forces.
Larson credits the importance of A Question of Power not just to the introspection of its author, but to her exploration of subjects previously “foreign to
African fiction as a sub-division of the novel in the Third World: madness, sexuality, guilt.” Noting that the protagonist's “Coloured classification, her orphan status at the mission, and her short-lived marriage” represent the origin of most of her guilt, Larson attributed these factors directly to “the South African policy of apartheid which treats people as something other than human beings.”
Robert L. Berner considered the novel “a remarkable attempt to escape from the limitations of mere ‘protest' literature in which Black South African writers so often find themselves.” Berner recognized that Head could have “written an attack on the indignities of apart-heid which have driven her into exile in Botswana,” but instead chose to write a novel about the “response to injustice—first in madness and finally in a heroic struggle out of that madness into wholeness and wisdom.”
Bessie Head's achievements result from her uncompromising attitude to her work and to life in general. When many black South African writers of the period went into exile in Britain, Europe, and the United States, Head chose Botswana, which was then almost completely undeveloped. And while her contemporaries were producing searing indictments of apartheid South Africa, Head turned to local sources for inspiration and recorded in stories of parable-like intensity the daily lives of people in a remote African village.
Works in Critical Context
Critics have analyzed Head's novels in terms of their thematic concerns and their thematic progression. Suggesting that the works “deal in different ways with exile and oppression,” Jean Marquard noted that “the protagonists are outsiders, new arrivals who try to forge a life for themselves in a poor, underpopulated third world country, where traditional and modern attitudes to soil and society are in conflict.” Unlike other African writers who are also concerned with such familiar themes, observed Marquard, Head “does not idealize the African past and “resists facile polarities, emphasizing personal rather than political motives for tensions between victim and oppressor.” “It is precisely this journeying into the various characters' most secret interior recesses of mind and “of soul,” Arthur Ravenscroft observed, “that gives When Rain Clouds Gather, Maru, and A Question of Power a quite remarkable cohesion and makes them a sort of trilogy.”
Maru Critical reaction to Maru has been diverse, ranging from Lewis Nkosi's view that it is “as nearly perfect a piece of writing as one is ever likely to find in contemporary African literature” to Cecil Abrahams's dismissal of it as “a rather weak vapoury study on theme of racial prejudice.” Maru is Head's attempt to universalize racial hatred, pointing out that victims seek other victims lower in power and prestige than themselves.
A Question of Power The symbolic richness in A Question of Power invites a wide range of critical interpretation. The extensive sexual content and dominant concern about insanity have prompted readings, including that of Adetokunbo Pearse, drawing heavily on psychology and arguing that the sexual negativism expressed in the book is the result of the negative self-image projected on black Africans by the South African government.
Readers who seek in Head's work metaphorical statements about the future of Africa find a picture of enduring hope touched by a cynical mistrust of politics. Feminists, including Femi Ojo-Ade, have been attracted by the female protagonist of A Question of Power and the nature of the battle she wages.
Religious interpretations (such as those of Linda Susan Beard and Joanna Chase) are also common, fed by the Christian symbolism of the main character, Elizabeth, as a Christlike figure who redeems herself and the world through her suffering. These readings are not incompatible with Head's overriding humanistic message that God and goodness are to be found in people. Similarly, Arthur Ravenscroft discerned no “confusion of identity” between the character and her creator: “Head makes one realize often how close is the similarity between the most fevered creations of a deranged mind and the insanities of deranged societies.”
COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE
Head's first works focus on themes of refugeeism and racism, but in her later works she shifted the focus from an individual's struggle for dignity to helping preserve the cultural and historical heritage needed to achieve dignity. Here are some works that examine similar themes.
Emperor Shaka the Great (1979), a poem by Mazisi Kunene. An epic poem originally written in Zulu, this work tells the story of the rise of the Zulu people under the great leader Shaka.
Daughters of the Twilight (1986), a novel by Farida Karodia. A fourteen-year-old girl of Asian and “Coloured” (mixed black and white) parents tells of her life under apartheid in this novel.
Have You Seen Zandile? (1990), a play by Gcina Mhlope. In this award-winning play, a girl raised in Durban, South Africa, by her grandmother is kidnapped by her mother to live in the rural Transkei region and become a “traditional and proper” woman.
Welcome to Our Hillbrow (1997), a novel by Phaswane Mpe. This novel addresses the mixture of tradition, the black middle class, inner-city violence, and AIDS in post– apartheid Johannesburg, South Africa.
Responses to Literature
- Should immigrants to the United States keep their cultural traditions, or should they try to fit in with American culture? What if they are political refugees? Are the personal costs greater for those who try to melt into the big American “pot,” or those who try to maintain their traditions?
- Using the Internet and your library's resources, research the social fabric of a country that you are unfamiliar with in terms of the feel of its general society. As well as looking at official Web sites and sources, read several blogs by people, both male and female, from that country. Write a paper examining the country as presented by traditional sources versus the blogs. What hidden details are revealed by ordinary people's lives?
- Prejudice is not just about race (black/white); people of different ethnic groups (Serbs/Bosnians), religions (Muslim/Christian), or even divisions of the same religion (Roman Catholic/Protestant) can be prejudiced against each other. Research two or three authors who write about different forms of prejudice. Write a paper examining their conclusions about the causes of prejudice and how these prejudices manifest themselves in people's every day lives and families. Where do you see discrete or overt prejudices in your social circles? How do your peers respond to these prejudices?
Abrahams, Cecil, ed. The Tragic Life: Bessie Head and Literature in Southern Africa. Trenton, N.J.: Africa World Press, 1990.
Eilersen, Gilliam Stead. Bessie Head: Thunder Behind Her Ears: Her Life and Writing. Portsmouth, N.H.: Heinemann, 1996.
Larson, Charles R. The Novel in the Third World. Washington, D.C.: Inscape Publishers, 1976.
Ravenscroft, Arthur. “The Novels of Bessie Head,” in Aspects of South African Literature. London: Heinemann and New York: Africana Publishers, 1976.
Beard, Linda Susan. “Bessie Head's A Question of Power: The Journey Through Disintegration to Wholeness.” Colby Library Quarterly (December 1979): vol. 15: 267–74.
Chase, Joanna. “Bessie Head's A Question of Power: Romance or Rhetoric?” ACLALS Bulletin (November 1982): vol. 6: 67–75.
Marquard, Jean. “Bessie Head: Exile and Community in Southern Africa.” London Magazine (December 1978–January 1979): vol. 18: 48–61.
Ojo-Ade, Femi. “Bessie Head's Alienated Heroine: Victim or Villain?” Ba Shiru (1977): vol. 8, no. 2: 13–22.
Pearse, Adetokunbo. “Apartheid and Madness: Bessie Head's A Question of Power.” Kunapipi (1984): vol. 5, no. 2: 81–93.
Topping Bazin, Nancy. “Feminist Perspectives in African Fiction: Bessie Head and Buchi Emecheta.” Black Scholar (March/April 1986): vol. 17: 34–40.
The Bessie Head Heritage Trust. Retrieved February 17, 2008, from http://www.bessiehead.org.
Nationality: Citizen of Botswana. Born: Bessie Emery in Pietermaritzburg, South Africa, 6 July 1937. Education: Umbilo Road High School. Family: Married Harold Head in 1961; one son. Career: Moved to Bechuanaland (now Botswana), 1964; teacher and farm worker at Swaneng Hill project, Serowe; teacher in primary schools in South Africa and Botswana for four years; journalist, Drum Publications, Johannesburg for two years. Died: 17 April 1986.
The Cardinals, With Meditations and Short Stories. 1993.
The Collector of Treasures and Other Botswana Village Tales. 1977.
Tales of Tenderness and Power. 1989.
When Rain Clouds Gather. 1969.
A Question of Power. 1973.
A Bewitched Crossroad: An African Saga. 1984.
The Lovers. 1994.
Serowe, Village of the Rain Wind. 1981.
Head: A Woman Alone: Autobiographical Writings, edited by Craig MacKenzie. 1990.*
Head: A Bibliography by Craig MacKenzie and Catherine Woeber, 1992.
"The Novels of Head" by Arthur Ravenscroft, in Aspects of South African Literature edited by Christopher Heywood, 1976; "Short Fiction in the Making: The Case of Head" in English in Africa 16 (1), 1989, "Head's The Collector of Treasures: Modern Storytelling in a Traditional Botswanan Village," in World Literature Written in English 29 (2), 1989, Head: An Introduction, 1989, and "Alienation, Breakdown and Renewal in the Novels of Head," in International Literature in English: The Major Writers, edited by Robert L. Ross, 1991, all by Craig MacKenzie, and Between the Lines: Interviews with Head, Sheila Roberts, Ellen Kuzwayo, Miriam Tlali edited by MacKenzie and Cherry Clayton, 1989; Bessie Head: Subversive Identities in Exile by Huma Ibrahim, 1996; Forceful Creation in Harsh Terrain: Place and Identity in Three Novels by Bessie Head by Maria Olaussen, 1997.* * *
The single collection of short stories published in Bessie Head's lifetime, The Collector of Treasures and Other Botswana Village Tales, has its origins in the oral history of her adopted country. The material is derived from interviews conducted by the author with the villagers of Serowe. The individual testimonies Bessie Head collected in this way serve a double purpose as the basis of her social history, Serowe, Village of the Rain Wind, as well as of her postcolonial folktales.
The apparent simplicity of the stories belies their sophisticated construction; Head's treatment of temporal sequence, her wry or enigmatic denouements, and her unique use of the exposition to introduce not the protagonists but the social context give her work a richly textured quality. Set against the backdrop of Botswana's troubled history of white expansionism, missionary intervention, migrant labor, and political independence, the tales also contain an account of timeless customs and beliefs that go against this grain of progress. They retain a verbal quality, partly because Head uses narrative devices that draw attention to the fact that the story is being told (for example, a fireside story) and partly because her intention is to preserve her people's memory of custom and of wedding and funeral rituals, as well as to preserve the traditions of ploughing and harvesting, proverbial wisdom, and pre-Christian religion.
The moral of Head's tales in never unequivocal. The clash between Setswana tradition and colonial progress imbues the stories with complexity. Although she tends to support custom over innovation, her feminism exists in direct contradiction to the subjugated position of women in this patriarchal, conservative community.
Appropriately, the volume opens with an archetypal tale of origin and fall. "The Deep River: A Story of Ancient Tribal Migration" relates the genesis of the Talaote tribe in central Africa and its exodus (because of a man's love of a woman) from his harmonious paradise. In a postscript Head acknowledges that her story is an imaginative reconstruction of history based on the failing and unreliable memories of the elders of the Botaloate tribe. But it is not just the tale of how the people came to be settled in Bamangwato. The story is a portrait of a people easily divided because their very nature is a contradictory one. In addition to the jealousy of his brothers, Sebembele's action of taking one of his father's widows as his wife inspires a heated debate among the people. They are divided between those who deplore the fact that their chief could jeopardize his future over a woman and those who respond sympathetically to this demonstration of tenderness. Sebembele is forced to leave the tribe and travel southwards to Bamangwato. The story introduces themes that recur throughout the collection, namely the relationship of individual and community, the position of women in society, and the encroachment of civilization upon custom.
In their critique of Christianity, the following three stories also explore the themes of allegiance and betrayal. "Heaven Is Not Closed" tells the story of a devout Christian woman who is excommunicated when she marries a man who will not be married according to the rites of the church because he represents "an ancient stream of holiness that people had lives with before any white man had set foot in the land." As the title suggests, the story becomes an occasion for a profound questioning of the motives of those who propound the Gospel in Botswana and deprecate Setswana religious belief, presuming to hold the keys of heaven. Hypocrisy is also associated with Christianity in "The Village Saint," in which an apparently devout woman torments her daughter-in-law. A more complex treatment of Christianity is to be found in "Jacob: The Story of a Faith-Healing Priest." The story has many Old Testament parallels: the lives of the two prophets of Makaleng contains echoes of the stories of Joseph, Job, and Samuel. In relating the phases of Jacob's fortune (as a child cheated of his inheritance, a rich man robbed of his possessions, and a poor man rewarded with a virtuous wife), the narrator questions the beneficence of Jacob's God. An equivocal stance is maintained throughout the story: while Jacob is admired for the sincerity of his belief, doubt is cast upon his calm acceptance of the divine suffering meted out to him. Jacob is finally vindicated when his rival, the wealthy prophet Lebojang, is tried and sentenced to death for ritual murder. The two prophets represent the best and worst of Christianity in Head's assessment: a meek submission before the often arbitrary will of God and a self-serving hypocrisy masking deadly evil.
Ritual murder is not completely indicted, however. In "Looking for a Rain God," a father and grandfather are driven by drought and desperation to resort to this practice. The ritual murder does not cause the rain to fall; instead, ironically, the death of the two little girls "hung like a dark cloud of sorrow over the village." The two men are tried and sentenced to death, but this act of white-ordained justice does not resolve the issue. "The subtle story of strain and starvation," which is not admitted as evidence in court, is admitted by the narrator, who looks into the hearts of all the people living off the land and concludes, "They could have killed something to make the rain fall."
In The Collector of Treasures the Western system of justice is seen to be a crude response to the intricate dynamics of traditional life in Botswana. While "Kgotla" recounts the respectful deliberations of the village elders as they weigh up the merits of a case, in "Life" and "The Collector of Treasures" the protagonists are imprisoned by a judiciary that is part of the problem rather than its solution. Life's husband murders her because she is so de-tribalized that she is incapable of giving up her city ways and settling down to the slow, monotonous pace of the village. The proverb that accounts for Lesego's rash action ("rivers never cross here") is given a modern slant when the beer-brewing women sing the Jim Reeves song "That's What Happens When Two Worlds Collide." Proverb and song carry two meanings: Lesego and Life are incompatible as personalities, but they are also representatives of two conflicting cultures.
In the title story a wife kills her husband by castrating him. The story is Head's most overtly feminist statement. In it she demonstrates how the roots of male brutality are firmly embedded in ideology. The narrator shows how ancient tradition, the colonial period, and independence all serve male interests. The story represents a corrosive attack on patriarchy as well as a triumphant celebration of the healing powers of community and neighborliness and the resilience of women. The heroine, Dikeledi Mokopi, is a collector of treasures in that she "always found gold amidst the ash, deep loves that had joined her heart to the hearts of others." Like Dikeledi, Thato (in the final story "Hunting") has an ability "to sift and sort out all the calamities of everyday life with the unerring heart of a good story-teller." The same could be said of Head.
After her death in 1986 Head's previously unpublished writing was collected in a volume entitled Tales of Tenderness and Power. The collection shows her development from the early, anecdotal pieces of an apprentice writer unsure of what her subject matter ought to be to the mature author who shaped her fine observations of Botswana village life into The Collector of Treasures. The awkward hesitation evident in "Let Me Tell a Story Now…" (1962) has disappeared in the much-anthologized story "The Prisoner Who Wore Glasses" (1973), based on an authentic case in which a white gaoler was humanized by the political prisoners in his charge. As in all her best work, Head here creatively transforms a real incident into a tale by the injection of tenderness. The posthumously published collection is well named.
(1937 - 1986)
South African novelist, short story writer, and historian.BESSIE HEAD: INTRODUCTION
BESSIE HEAD: PRINCIPAL WORKS
BESSIE HEAD: PRIMARY SOURCES
BESSIE HEAD: GENERAL COMMENTARY
BESSIE HEAD: TITLE COMMENTARY
BESSIE HEAD: FURTHER READING