Head, Bessie (Contemporary Literary Criticism)
Bessie Head 1937–
South African novelist, short story writer, and nonfiction writer.
Head's fiction explores the domination of racism in the lives of southern African peoples. As a person of mixed race, she has suffered from discrimination both in her birthplace, South Africa, and in her adopted land, Botswana. Her novels rise above the bitterness common to much protest literature in that Head strives to understand not only the effects of prejudice but also the causes. She demonstrates, too, a mastery of economic, social, and political realities that adds interest and authenticity to her work.
Each of Head's novels reveals a progression in her examination of the evils of racism. In When Rain Clouds Gather, Head portrays a black South African male victimized by apartheid in his country of birth and then treated unequally as a refugee in Botswana. With her second novel, Maru, Head depicts the racism within black society and shows that love between man and woman is a way of breaking through prejudice systems. A Question of Power is her most introspective and complex work. The struggle within the protagonist's psyche for freedom from inferiority, hatred, and madness may be seen as symbolic of the struggle against intolerance within Africa.
(See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 29-32, rev. ed.)
[An] outcast is the central figure in Bessie Head's first novel [When Rain Clouds Gather, a] naked sociological commentary….
There is too much undiluted sociological and agricultural textbook language, but the book is justified by loving and humorous descriptions of African land and people, by powerful, generous feeling and passionate analysis of the situation of the black African. She is 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; and she is coolly humorous about British colonial administrators, reserving rancorous irony for the newly-emergent twopenny-halfpenny revolutionaries. Bessie Head is herself an African refugee from South Africa: she has opted for understanding, generosity and gradual progress, and her book is a splendid argument for this stand.
Mary Borg, "Victims," in New Statesman (© 1969 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), Vol. 77, No. 1992, May 16, 1969, p. 696.∗
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The Times Literary Supplement
Maru is set in similar territory [as When Rain Clouds Gather], and this time Mrs. Head concentrates on the relationships of a handful of educated Africans. Two young chiefs fall in love with a schoolteacher who, though brought up and educated by a missionary's wife (a character so well drawn that it is a pity she disappears so soon from the story), belongs to the despised Bushman tribe. The story depends on the belief—much insisted on but never quite realized in terms of character—that the two men, though friends, approach life, love and their own destinies in quite opposite ways. For both of them love for the girl involves the end of their friendship and a rethinking of their attitudes to the Bushmen, whom they have always used as slaves…. Margaret, the object of all this, is a remarkably passive, shadowy character, represented as intelligent and talented, yet hardly possessed of the hypnotic qualities attributed to her.
There are delightful touches in Mrs. Head's account of the village and its institutions, a comical showdown with the headmaster, glimpses of the benevolent tyranny exercised by the two heroes; but the friendship of the two men and their different responses to love are too often obscured by a wilful invocation of the arcane.
"Other New Novels: 'Maru'," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1971; reproduced from The...
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If one unconsciously thinks of schizophrenia as a unique product of Western culture, it is startling to discover in A Question of Power, by the South African novelist Bessie Head, a profound enlargement of the geographical as well as the symbolic regions of madness. (p. 30)
The "question of power" is the many-leveled issue of the novel, expanded to include both internal and external dimensions. Elizabeth's dissociated personality first reveals the idea of "soul power"—in which specters of her own psyche dramatize her lack of personal identity, as well as her spiritual and emotional paralysis. That powerlessness in turn symbolizes the non-white South African's political and social situation….
The most important kind of power implied in the novel is, finally, the power of the human spirit to overcome its own movement toward annihilation…. [Elizabeth's] internal battle ceases when she at last exorcises the negative "powers" within, and finds in their place that "There is only one God and his name is Man."
Extending the landscape of madness, then, Bessie Head has imaginatively shown its central relationship to powerlessness….
A Question of Power 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. Bessie Head skillfully involves the reader in the immediacy...
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Robert L. Berner
Bessie Head's third novel [A Question of Power] is a remarkable attempt to escape from the limitations of mere "protest" literature in which Black South African writers so often find themselves. It would have been natural for her, and easier, to have written an attack on the indignities of apartheid which have driven her into exile in Botswana. Certainly South African racism is the ultimate source of the difficulties besetting Elizabeth, her "coloured" protagonist. But Head chooses to make her novel out of Elizabeth's response to injustice—first in madness and finally in a heroic struggle out of that madness into wholeness and wisdom. The novel's subject is power in all its physical and moral ramifications, and Elizabeth's final wisdom is understood in terms of her achievement of the power of love and human understanding. (p. 176)
Because of the essential wisdom of the novel it is unfortunate that the nightmare passages, though imaginative and remarkable in their way, are not more successful. Regrettably they too often seem to be out of the writer's control. Still, the novel is significant as a talented writer's attempt to avoid the didactic pitfalls which so often endanger spokesmen for oppressed peoples. (pp. 176-77)
Robert L. Berner, "South Africa: 'A Question of Power'," in Books Abroad (copyright 1975 by the University of Oklahoma Press), Vol. 49, No. 1, Winter, 1975, pp....
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[Bessie Head's novels] are strange, ambiguous, deeply personal books which initially do not seem to be 'political' in any ordinary sense of the word. On the contrary, any reader with either Marxist or Pan-Africanist political affinities is likely to be irritated by the seeming emphasis on the quest for personal contentment, the abdication of political kingship—metaphorically in When Rain Clouds Gather, literally in Maru, and one might say wholesale in A Question of Power. The novelist's preoccupations would seem to suggest 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—indeed in A Question of Power we are taken nightmarishly into the central character's process of mental breakdown, through lurid cascades of hallucination and a pathological blurring of the frontiers between insanity and any kind of normalcy. 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…. It seems to me that with Bessie Head … each novel both strikes out anew, and also re-shoulders the same burden. It is as if one were observing a process that involves simultaneously progression, introgression, and circumgression, but also (and here I...
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Charles R. Larson
Bessie Head's A Question of Power is important not solely because it is an introspective novel by an African woman but because the topics of her concern are also, for the most part, foreign to African fiction as a sub-division of the novel in the Third World: madness, sexuality, guilt. In its concern with these ideas, A Question of Power bears closer affinity to the works by two Caucasian writers from southern Africa—Doris Lessing and Nadine Gordimer—than to those of Ms. Head's African contemporaries.
Although A Question of Power is told in the third person, the point of view is always Elizabeth's. The reader understands the events in the story the same way that Elizabeth does, which is to say that when she is confused (which is often) he is confused. The extended passages of introspection are depicted primarily through the use of the internal monologue; the chronology of the narrative is often associative. (p. 165)
Most of the guilt that Elizabeth develops originates from … early events in her life: her Coloured classification, her orphan status at the mission, and her short-lived marriage. All of these factors are direct results of the South African policy of apartheid which treats people as something other than human beings. (p. 166)
At its very base, then, A Question of Power … is concerned with the power play between the West (the white South Africans) and the...
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Cecil A. Abrahams
Even though in a narrow sense the context of Bessie Head's fiction is Botswana, her novels, preoccupied with themes of political and spiritual exile, racial hatred and the source of corrupting power and authority, reflect in an important and deep way the bitter world of inhumanity and racism which exists throughout South Africa. The physical landscape of Botswana is colored with her own history of exile, race confusion and her search for what she labels in her first novel, When Rain Clouds Gather, an "illusion of freedom."… Head is concerned particularly with the racial question as it pertains to her mixed-blood status. In her novels, When Rain Clouds Gather, Maru, and A Question of Power, Bessie head seeks to examine the causes of the evil of race prejudice and, concomitantly, to explore potential sources of generosity and goodness.
In trying to unearth the root of racial prejudice, Bessie Head differs from other South African writers in her approach to and understanding of the problem. Being exiled and long suffering products of a white supremacist society, black South African writers characteristically confront their cruel tormentors in a direct manner. They see the root of evil as being firmly and solely embedded in the obdurate heart of the white person and dismiss the corruption of blacks as being the natural consequence of an evil which has been manufactured by whites. When Rain Clouds Gather, seems...
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In a footnote to the first of her 'Botswana village tales' in The Collector of Treasures, Bessie Head says that she has 'romanticised and fictionalised' data provided by old men of the tribe whose memories are unreliable. The farther she goes into history and tradition, the less convincing the results, but the stories come wonderfully alive when she deals with Botswana just before and after independence. The clash between old tribal ways and the temptations of modern society plays havoc with family life, and leads to prostitution, desertion and murder. Bessie Head blames most of this on the animal behaviour of men towards women; however, she tempers this feminist stand-point by ascribing the men's insensitivity not to an inherent brutishness but to the effects of a colonialism which has left the male 'a broken wreck with no inner resources' with which to adapt to his new-found liberty.
John Mellors, "Exuberant Lies" (© British Broadcasting Corp. 1978; reprinted by permission of John Mellors), in The Listener, Vol. 99, No. 2556, April 20, 1978, p. 510.∗
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[Bessie Head's three novels] deal in different ways with exile and oppression. The 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. These are familiar themes in African writing but Bessie Head may be distinguished from other African writers in at least two respects. In the first place she does not idealize the African past and in the second she resists facile polarities, emphasizing personal rather than political motives for tensions between victim and oppressor. She moves beyond the stereotype of white oppressing black to show, particularly in Maru, systems of privilege and discrimination working solely within black society.
Makhaya, the hero of When Rain Clouds Gather is an exile from South Africa who has fled across the border to Botswana, having served a prison sentence for alleged political activities with banned organizations. He seeks, we are told in the opening paragraph, 'whatever illusion of freedom lay ahead'. Thus it is clear from the outset that independent Africa will not necessarily offer the victim of apartheid an easier life than the one he has left behind…. Makhaya, himself an exponent of modern, Western ideas, rejects tribalism as a barbarous system in which women are discriminated against and in which the village witchdoctors perpetuate their power...
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In Serowe: Village of the Rain Wind, [Bessie Head] has written a chronicle that makes her adopted home … accessible to the imagination of outsiders…. Her task was almost intractably complex, given that she could assume no shared background knowledge among the majority of her readers. It was no doubt the novelist in her that extracted a structure for the book from the characters of Serowe's three most beneficial leaders. (p. 23)
Within this tripartite framework, the words of nearly 100 inhabitants provide the flesh of the book. One of Bessie Head's intentions has been to collect a verbal record of the old craft methods such as ploughing, potting, basket-making, tanning, thatching and building in mud. Serowe is primarily a village of mud and thatch, and by English standards it is huge, with a shifting population of up to 35,000. Its citizens give their testimonies, both personal and practical, in an unselfconscious way, and Bessie Head—in true African style—orders the information so that, above all, it tells a story. I believe it is a story which readers will find themselves using as a text from which to meditate on many aspects of society. As a refugee, she found in Serowe the peace that can come from 'just living'. (p. 24)
Paddy Kitchen, "Peace in Serowe" (© British Broadcasting Corp, 1981; reprinted by permission of Paddy Kitchen), in The Listener, Vol. 106, No. 2718, July...
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Charles R. Larson
Reading any book by Bessie Head is always a pleasure, though this talented South African writer's newest work, Serowe: Village of the Rain Wind,… falls in a special category. What Head has so effectively done is to take all her gifts as a novelist and use these talents in shaping a quasi-sociological account of the village in Botswana where she has lived for most of the past ten years. Part history, part anthropology and folklore, Serowe conjured up for me memories of Studs Terkel's Hard Times. As the author states in her introduction, "Serowe is an historic village but not spectacularly so, its history is precariously oral." Thus Head has interviewed dozens of people who live in Serowe today and has orchestrated their stories into the wider perspective of village life. The results are often astonishingly beautiful. What this book so strongly demonstrates is the possibility for harmony within a multi-racial community. (p. 66)
Charles R. Larson, "Third World Writing in English." in World Literature Today (copyright 1982 by the University of Oklahoma Press), Vol. 56, No. 1, Winter, 1982, pp. 64-6.∗
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