Bessie Head Essay - Critical Essays

Bessie Head Short Fiction Analysis

Although Bessie Head’s reputation was based initially on her long fiction, her short fiction has confirmed it. Although some of the short stories date back to her days as a journalist in South Africa, most derive from her period in Botswana, when she interviewed people to compile her two chronicle histories. This activity generated so much material from the personal testimonies of her subjects and their own stories that she had plenty left over to fashion into short stories. In fact, much of the material is not fiction at all but oral history written down. Head dissolves genre boundaries between documentary, traditional tale, folklore, memories, and fiction in a unique style.

Journalism had taught her to write economically. Her style and subject matter are deceptively simple. Her themes are universal, although the setting is emphatically local, rural, and everyday. They deal with the harshness of nature, especially ever threatening drought, the tension between newer ways and tribal traditions (a universal African theme), the position of women, and the abuse of power. Ordinary people are dealt with sympathetically; but in celebrating their ordinariness, she avoids the simplicities of good (peasant, rural, traditional, black) against bad (white, modern, urban).

Although Head apparently avoids political statement or stance, her short stories can be fully analyzed in terms of a liberal and humane politics, unlike many of her black South African contemporaries. Similarly, while avoiding religious belief statements, her beliefs in the power of love to overcome are tautly idealistic in the way religious fiction at its best demonstrates.

As a writer of short stories, it is her own humility and self-effacement that come through, even while she is working out her own life traumas in her fictions of powerless women. Such tensions between objective and subjective stance produce a delicate counterpointing that eschews the big rhetoric in which other contemporaries engage. It would not be too much to suggest parallels with the short fiction of her white South African contemporary, Nadine Gordimer.

The Collector of Treasures and Other Botswana Village Tales

This volume consists of thirteen short stories of village life, specifically of the village life Head observed during thirteen years of exile in Serowe. They partly chronicle the social history of the village, although that is much more systematically done in Serowe: Village of the Rain Wind (1981); more particularly, they explore the conflicts around the changing status and identity of women in rural African society. They are thus susceptible to a thoroughgoing feminist analysis, even though Bessie Head denied she was a feminist. The resulting sophisticated analyses often seem at odds with the studied simplicity of Head’s technique, which is closely modeled on traditional oral storytelling.

The title story is perhaps the best known of this carefully arranged collection. Dikeledi is a model wife married to a ne’er-do-well. Even while unhappily married, she manages to collect “treasures” of love,...

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