Bessie Head 1937–-1986
(Born Bessie Amelia Emery) South African-born Botswanan novelist, short story writer, and nonfiction writer.
One of Africa's most renowned women writers, Head explored the effects of racial and social oppression and the theme of exile throughout her short fiction. In particular, Head's stories focus on the profound impact of racism on the people of South Africa. Head was of mixed race, and she experienced discrimination both in her birthplace, South Africa, and in her adopted land, Botswana. Her work casts a distinctly feminine perspective on the ills of societal injustice and the psychological costs of alienation.
Head was born the daughter of an upper-class white woman and a black stableman. When her mother was found to be pregnant, she was committed to a mental hospital and deemed insane. Head was born in the asylum but was sent to live with foster parents; later, she was placed in the care of white missionaries. Her mother committed suicide when Head was still a girl. As a young adult, Head was trained as a teacher and taught elementary school for several years in South Africa. In 1961 Head married a journalist and shortly thereafter they divorced. At the age of twenty-seven she left for Botswana with her young son because, in her words, she could no longer tolerate apartheid in South Africa. Unfortunately, conditions in Botswana were not much better. For the next fifteen years she lived as a refugee at the Bamangwato Development Farm, combating poverty. Head published her first novel, When Rain Clouds Gather, in 1969. At the time of her death in 1986 from hepatitis, she was working on her autobiography.
Major Works of Short Fiction
Head's collection of short stories, The Collector of Treasures, and Other Botswana Village Tales (1977), investigates several aspects of African life, especially the social condition of its women. The tales are rooted in oral storytelling traditions and in village folklore, and much of the material is derived from interviews conducted by Head with the villagers of Serowe. By connecting past to present, the stories reveal the inevitable friction between old ways and new. The posthumously collected stories of Tales of Tenderness and Power (1989) have been praised for their insight into African history, culture, and the role of women. The collection demonstrates Head's development from early, anecdotal pieces to the work of a mature author. The Cardinals, with Meditations and Short Stories (1993) contains a novella and seven short pieces set in South Africa. The central novella concerns a woman called Mouse who was sold by her mother as a child. She grows up to be a newspaper reporter and becomes involved with a man who, unbeknownst to either of them, is her father.
Head's short fiction is highly regarded critically and has aided in establishing her as a distinguished African author. Commentators have praised Head's exploration of such concerns in her short fiction as societal displacement, the search for identity, racial discrimination, and the treatment of women in African society. Critics have found parallels between the dominant themes of her work and Head's own life. Another defining subject of Head's short fiction is the devastating impact Western religion and it's monetary-based economy and culture has had on traditional tribal and village life in Africa. Reviewers contend that Head's short fiction is heavily influenced by myth, folklore, and oral traditions. Some critics consider her stories didactic and immature, but most perceive Head's short fiction to be insightful and sensitive portraitures of African life.
The Collector of Treasures, and Other Botswana Village Tales 1977
Tales of Tenderness and Power 1989
The Cardinals, with Meditations and Short Stories 1993
When Rain Clouds Gather (novel) 1969
Naru (novel) 1971
A Question of Power (novel) 1973
Serowe: Village of the Rain Wind (nonfiction) 1981
A Bewitched Crossroad: An African Saga (nonfiction) 1984
A Woman Alone: Autobiographical Writings (nonfiction) 1990
SOURCE: Thorpe, Michael. “Treasures of the Heart: The Short Stories of Bessie Head.” World Literature Today 57, no. 3 (summer 1983): 414–16.
[In the following essay, Thorpe surveys the defining characteristics of Head's The Collector of Treasures, describing the stories as “rooted, folkloristic tales woven from the fabric of village life and intended to entertain and enlighten, not to engage the modern close critic.”]
My title and principal subject are drawn from Bessie Head's short-story collection The Collector of Treasures (1977); her novels have been admirably appraised elsewhere.1 The stories lend themselves especially well to an understanding of Head's aims as a writer. Their subtitle, and Other Botswana Village Tales, indicates her kinship with the village storyteller of the oral tradition. Hers are rooted, folkloristic tales woven from the fabric of village life and intended to entertain and enlighten, not to engage the modern close critic. They are subtly didactic: it seems apt to apply to them Wordsworth's prefatory comment on the moral purpose of his Lyrical Ballads that “the feeling therein developed gives importance to the action and situation, and not the action and situation to the feeling.” Like earlier established and better-known African writers such as Ngugi and Achebe, Bessie Head (b. 1937) wishes to present, in a human and humane light, African life before as well as after the white man's coming. She seems, however, more deeply troubled than they by the contradictions within customary life, the difficulty of reconciling what she roundly calls “the insane beliefs of a primitive society”2 with the mutual care and concern she has also found in a village community.
The stories invariably contain authorial comment, sometimes quite lengthy analysis of “the people” or “the society” they explore. In fact, the narrator seems often to be telling the story as an exploration, as a way to develop or even question her own understanding. There is no settled or dogmatic view of her society; the author's hard-won values, rather than the people's, ultimately hold sway. She is thus a teacher, not solely “to help my society regain belief in itself,”3 but as a reformer, insistently reminding her audience and herself of the intractability of evil.
Head's complex standpoint seems to stem in part from her unusual relationship to Botswana society. She is herself a “Coloured” South African who came to Botswana after a brush with the Afrikaner authorities in 1964. For many years she lived simply with her son in the village of Serowe, a woman and an alien exile. She was not readily accepted in a male-dominated society where—a reiterated theme—“women are just dogs” (81). The anguish of her early years there, including a breakdown and a painful readjustment to life, is movingly rendered in her admittedly autobiographical novel A Question of Power (1974). Nevertheless, unlike many South African exiles who have become divorced not only from their own country and people but from Africa itself, she has determinedly rooted herself in Botswana and become a creative interpreter of its life. In but not of it, sympathetically attached but inevitably distanced, she is perhaps unique among black African writers in her relationship to the society of which she writes.
Hers is a dual relationship. On the one hand Head performs the task of rehabilitating the precolonial past in order to show—again in Achebe's words—“that African people did not hear of culture for the first time from Europeans.”4 On the other she anxiously questions that society's shortcomings, seeing them as not merely the consequence of colonial victimization, but part of the universal enigma of human folly.
Even in her stories set in the past one finds a characteristic ambivalence. The piece that opens The Collector of Treasures, “The Deep River: A Story of Ancient Tribal Migration,” and her most recently published story, “A Power Struggle,”5 are presented not as “history” but as fictionalized versions of what little she has learned from “our traditional historians,”6 versions infused with her own preoccupation with power and its relationship to the individual, whether ruler or ruled. Both stories describe a dispute over succession to tribal kingship: in each case the rightful heir chooses exile rather than compromise or conflict. One protagonist, “in a world where women were of no account,” stands by his dead father's “third junior wife” and her son, whom he himself has fathered; rather than split the tribe, he simply leaves. The other, when challenged openly for the succession by his brother, “refused at crucial points to assert his power. … If power was the unfocused demoniac stare of his brother then he would have none of that world” (“A Power Struggle”). He too leaves, but little by little many of the people follow him, abandoning the murderous brother. In both stories an ugly Hobbesian universe is fleetingly illuminated by the noble dissent of an exceptional individual whose action forces people “to show their individual faces”; in each, one finds Head's delicate ambivalence: “Theirs was not a tender, compassionate, and romantic world. And yet in a way it was” (“Deep River”). Each story has a quasi-mythical pattern: brother and brother, good and evil are opposed; the people may choose. Their choice, or rather their capacity to choose, is vitally important. “A Power Struggle” closes with these words:
This thread of philosophical beauty was deeply woven into the history of the land and the story was repeated many times over so that it became the only history people ever knew. But when the white strangers came this history ended as a new order was imposed on life. The people's kings faded from memory to become myths of the past and no choice was left between what was good and what was evil.
In Serowe Head describes the tradition of migration as one “established over the centuries to avert bloodshed in a crisis and underlying the basic nonviolent nature of African society as it was then. This gives the lie to white historians who, for their own ends, damned African people as savages.”7
The remaining twelve stories in The Collector of Treasures concern the present; they read, once one becomes aware of Head's concerns,...
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SOURCE: Barnett, Ursula A. “Short Stories.” In A Vision of Order: A Study of Black South African Literature in English (1914–1980), pp. 198–203. London: Sinclair Browne Ltd., 1983.
[In the following excerpt, Barnett explores the roles of religion and morality in The Collector of Treasures.]
Bessie Head, in a volume of short stories entitled The Collector of Treasures,1 is concerned with ideas similar to those in her novels. This time she makes use of incidents that have been related to her, and of Botswana history, legend and myth, as the basis for her fiction. She explores the meaning and values of traditional life and as usual goes right to...
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SOURCE: Chetin, Sara. “Myth, Exile, and the Female Condition: Bessie Head's The Collector of Treasures.” Journal of Commonwealth Literature 24, no. 1 (1989): 114–37.
[In the following essay, Chetin considers Head's concept of exile, feminist perspective, and use of myth in The Collector of Treasures.]
Although a little attention has been paid to Bessie Head's novels and the autobiographical elements that have shaped them, almost nothing has been written about how her concept of exile has influenced the way she perceives the art of oral storytelling. Interested in exploring the neglected realm of female experience, Head has recognized the importance myth...
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SOURCE: Jaggi, Maya. “In the Shadow of Apartheid.” Times Literary Supplement (1 December 1990): 1326.
[In the following excerpt, Jaggi provides a favorable assessment of Tales of Tenderness and Power.]
The monthly magazine Drum (which began life in Cape Town in 1951 as The African Drum) was one of the first major outlets for black South African writing. Selected from 1950s editions of the magazine, the stories in The Drum Decade range from short fiction by Ezekiel Mphahlele, Alex La Guma, Richard Rive, Bloke Modisane and James Matthews to reportage and testimony (borrowing from story-telling conventions) by Can Themba, Nat Nakasa, Henry Nxumalo...
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SOURCE: Thomas, H. Nigel. “Narrative Strategies in Bessie Head's Stories.” In The Tragic Life: Bessie Head and Literature in Southern Africa, edited by Cecil Abrahams, pp. 93–104. Trenton, NJ: Africa World Press Inc., 1990.
[In the following essay, Thomas discusses Head's narrative technique in her short fiction.]
Today one almost feels the need to apologize for analyzing the works of writers like Bessie Head, Chinua Achebe, Buchi Emecheta, Ngugi Wa Thiongo, and most other African writers. For if one is to follow recent trends in criticism, one should not be looking at how fiction conveys truths lost in the diffuseness of reality, rather one should be...
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SOURCE: Larson, Charles. “Bessie Head, Storyteller in Exile.” Washington Post Book World 21, no. 7 (17 February 1991): 4.
[In the following review, Larson provides a mixed assessment of Tales of Tenderness and Power.]
Bessie Head's achievement at the time of her death in 1986 was honorific: black Africa's preeminent female writer of fiction, a title that can only be taken ironically. Classified as Coloured in the country of her birth (South Africa), she fled to Botswana in 1964. The safe haven she had expected to find there became the terrain for her subsequent mental breakdown. Stateless and suicidal as an exile in an unfamiliar environment, she nevertheless came...
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SOURCE: Sample, Maxine. “Landscape and Spatial Metaphor in Bessie Head's The Collector of Treasures.” Studies in Short Fiction 28, no. 3 (summer 1991): 311–19.
[In the following essay, Sample discusses Head's fictional representation of space in The Collector of Treasures.]
In exploring how people experience the world, social scientists studying the environment generally acknowledge that people tend to respond psychologically to certain features in the environment, often establishing deep psychological and emotional ties to places where they live. The identification of individuals with their environment is a process that occurs on both a conscious and...
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SOURCE: Harrow, Kenneth W. “Bessie Head's The Collector of Treasures: Change on the Margins.” Callaloo 16, no. 1 (winter 1993): 169–79.
[In the following essay, Harrow views boundaries—maintaining and overcoming them—as the major thematic concern in Head's short fiction.]
The subject of Bessie Head's stories is change itself, and specifically the threshold where change takes place. Change has become the issue of women's writing since independence—change and not simply rights or equality. Though there has been continuous concern with abuse of women, a concern voiced in the miserabilist school of Sembène's Voltaïque or Emecheta's The Joys...
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SOURCE: Newson, Adele S. Review of The Cardinals, with Meditations and Short Stories, by Bessie Head. World Literature Today 68, no. 4 (autumn 1994): 869–70.
[In the following positive review of The Cardinals, with Meditations and Short Stories, Newson asserts that “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.”]
Bessie Head's novella The Cardinals, assumed to be her first long piece of writing, represents an important literary instance of a woman writer's experience which is both controlled by and represented...
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SOURCE: Eilersen, Gillian Stead. “A Sense of Community, 1973–1974.” In Bessie Head, Thunder Behind Her Ears: Her Life and Writing, pp. 154–70. Cape Town & Johannesburg: David Philip Publishers Ltd, 1995.
[In the following essay, Eilersen provides a biographical account of Head's life at the time of The Collector of Treasures.]
Bessie could have relaxed and celebrated her success, with her controversial novel finally accepted for publishing. The euphoric upsurge seemed sadly lacking, however. The novel's stormy passage had cost her some friends, and this began to worry her as the year drew to its close: ‘The personal and the impersonal causes a terrible...
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SOURCE: Gagiano, Annie. “Finding Foundations for Change in Bessie Head's The Cardinals.” Journal of Commonwealth Literature 31, no. 2 (fall 1996): 47–60.
[In the following essay, Gagiano offers a stylistic and thematic analysis of The Cardinals.]
Who is the story-teller? Of whom is the story told? What is there in the darkness to imagine into being? What is there to dream and to relate? What happens when I or anyone exerts the force of language upon the unknown?1
Three factors—that The Cardinals (1993)2 is the only one of Bessie Head's novels set in South Africa (the scene...
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SOURCE: Ingersoll, Earl G. “Sexuality in the Stories of Bessie Head.” CLA Journal 39, no. 4 (June 1996): 458–67.
[In the following essay, Ingersoll explores Head's treatment of sexuality in her short fiction, particularly her perceptions of female sexuality.]
Bessie Head's tragically early death in 1986, at the age of 49, may seem to have silenced a powerful voice for sanity and sensitivity in the discourse on human sexuality and relations between women and men. On the other hand, her voice has not really been silenced, for, as Susan Beard has remarked, recent years have witnessed a “remarkable Bessie Head renaissance,” signaled perhaps by Alice Walker's...
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SOURCE: Lewis, Desiree. “The Cardinals and Bessie Head's Allegories of Self.” World Literature Today 70, no. 1 (winter 1996): 73–77.
[In the following essay, Lewis analyzes Head's concept of identity in The Cardinals in light of the author's mixed heritage and the racial laws of 1960s South Africa.]
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...
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SOURCE: Feurle, Gisela. “‘Welcome Robinson Crusoe, Welcome!’: The Story Re-Told by a Female Voice from Africa in Bessie Head's Botswana Village Tales.” In Across the Lines: Intertextuality and Transcultural Communication in the New Literatures in English, edited by Wolfgang Kloos, pp. 141–49. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1998.
[In the following essay, Feurle discusses parallels between Head's “The Wind and a Boy” and Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe.]
I shall be dealing with my topic from two angles: first, by interpreting Bessie Head's story “The Wind and a Boy”1 and the intertextuality involved; secondly, by...
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Eilersen, Gillian Stead. Bessie Head, Thunder Behind Her Ears: Her Life and Writing. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 1995, 312 p.
Biographical and critical study.
Ingersoll, Earl G. “Reconstructing Masculinity in the Postcolonial World of Bessie Head.” Ariel 29, no. 3 (July 1998): 95–116.
Maintains that Head reconstructs paradigms of African masculinity in her short fiction.
Ola, Virginia Uzoma. The Life and Works of Bessie Head. Lewiston, NY: The Edwin Mellen Press, 1994, 91 p.
Provides a thematic and stylistic analysis of Head's work.
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