Head, Bessie (Short Story Criticism)
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
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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...
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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 the heart of everything that she examines. What is it for instance, she wants to know, that prevents a city-reared girl, significantly named ‘Life’2 in the story that takes its name from the character, from finding her niche in the village community? Or rather, why is it that the rest of the people do not find the everyday round of village life deadly dull—‘one big, gaping yawn’—in its unbroken monotony? The answer lies in contact between people:
… one day slipped easily into another, drawing water, stamping corn, cooking food. But within this there were enormous tugs and pulls between people. Custom demanded that people care about each other, and all day long there was this...
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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 plays in shaping human consciousness and has used the mythic apparatus in her anthology of short stories, The Collector of Treasures, to interpret women's exiled status and to create a prospective vision of a society where women would no longer suffer “from all the calamities that befall an inferior form of human life.” (Heinemann edition, London, 1977, p. 92).
Bessie Head's background has obviously influenced the way she perceives the narrative tradition of oral storytelling and the myths that have informed it. Born of mixed parentage in South Africa, raised primarily by white missionaries and self-exiled to Botswana, Head had no particular sense of belonging to a particular tribe or ethnic group. As a result,...
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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 and Casey Motsisi. Set in the townships of the 1950s, they evoke in particular the vanished ethos of Sophiatown, Johannesburg's vibrant, cosmopolitan free-hold community which the regime bulldozed in 1962 to make way for the white suburb of Triomf.
In the often tough, cynical prose that became a hallmark of Drum's style, its writers both mirrored and mythologized shebeen life, the violent criminal underworld of the tsotsi or gangster, and the pervasively Americanized culture of B-movies at the “bioscope,” jazz and street patois or tsotsi-taal. Some of these stories seem unable to penetrate beyond the putative glamour of the street-wise tsotsi, relying on improbable melodramatic intrigue and...
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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 hypothesizing about metafiction and postmodernism, that is to say, preoccupying one's self with finding critical theories to account for the literature created by those whom we are told are at the “cutting edge” of literary creation because they manage to unsay everything they have said, manage to deconstruct the fictive universe which more often than not they have not yet constructed. Thus, those who have been crowned deans of contemporary literary criticism would have us believe that our time should be spent deriving meaning from a process that cannot mean; for—and in this they are mostly correct—“postmodernist literature” is about the meaning of non-meaning. This approach is certainly well-suited to a civilization that can no longer...
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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 to be regarded by the people of her adopted country as their most famous writer. Yet if the inner peace Bessie Head had sought all her life was largely illusory, she wrote stories (at least in the final years of her life) that were not only humane but genuinely hopeful about the human condition.
However, that humanity is nowhere reflected in the autobiographical overview she gives of her life at the beginning of A Woman Alone. Instead, this brief transcript 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. Statements at the beginning of the three-page document read as follows:...
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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 subconscious level and manifests itself in various aspects of daily life. This personal, individual viewpoint is what geographer Yi-Fu Tuan refers to as the “experiential perspective,” generally how the individual feels about space and place and how either reflects those feelings; the concern here is how one conceptualizes that experience, “the various modes through which a person knows and constructs a reality” (Tuan 8).
This discussion of the fictional representation of space in selected short stories in Bessie Head's The Collector of Treasures explores the relationship between the experience of space and the female imagination by examining Bessie Head's response to the physical, social, and political...
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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 of Motherhood, or presented in more chauvinistic terms in Jagua Nana, it is in the stories of Bessie Head, Mariama Ba, Buchi Emecheta, and Ama Ata Aidoo that the very boundaries between men and women, between past and present roles, those that are set in place in the constitution of women's identities, are called into question. With Bessie Head, in fact, boundaries, the forces that maintain and perpetuate them, and those forces that dissolve them, could be said to be the focus of and key to her work.1
Especially in the short stories of Bessie Head we find qualities that support this approach. One frequently finds there characters who are sketched, and whose one or two dominant traits assume such...
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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 in the language of the dominant discourse. When viewed as companion pieces, The Cardinals and the meditations and short stories that follow it reveal Head's astounding ability to overcome the limitations of language and masculine experiences of language. The Cardinals is Head's most important work in that it prefigures later themes, characters, and stylistic choices.
The novella, written just prior to her exile in 1960–62, narrates the day-to-day encounters of the character Miriam (Charlotte Smith, later Mouse). Mouse is abandoned by her mother to a Coloured slum, educates herself, and ultimately lands a job as a reporter on a newspaper because she is “a writer of no mean ability.” She meets and falls...
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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 pain in my heart. I lost so many good friends during the time a thunderstorm raged in my life. They actually got nervous breakdowns from my letters,’1 she wrote to Giles Gordon in early December 1972. Three weeks later she put it even more plainly:
I can't carry on with any friendships just now and I am grateful to the people who no longer write to me. Human beings need a lot of love you know but those who journey into hell need love in abnormal proportions. Due to this, one gets to a stage where one rejects for a while any kind of sympathy or affection to get one's balance back. There is a sort of underlying hysteria in me that could just burst out and weep like hell on the nearest shoulder....
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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 being the Cape Town area during the late 1950s),3 as well as the recognizable autobiographical elements4 of this work (her earliest known novel), added to the accident of its very recent “discovery” and belated publication—endow this work with considerable interest for those engaged in South African cultural studies. It would be a mere curiosity if it were not what it is: the unmistakable demonstration of a major literary talent in the making. Yet it is at the same time a baffingly difficult novel to grasp imaginatively with something of the elusiveness or hiddenness of the chief protagonist's nature colouring the work as a whole. Some of the reasons for this quality are: the scattered, far-flung, erratic writing...
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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 singling her out among her “favorite uncelebrated foreign writers … whose work deserves more attention in this country.”1 In the remarks to follow, I will focus on selected stories from her collection The Collector of Treasures and Other Botswana Village Tales (1977),2 in an attempt to demonstrate that Head is both an advocate for women and an advocate for women and men. The stories to be examined are “The Deep River,” “Heaven Is Not Closed,” “Life,” “Witchcraft,” “The Special One,” and “The Collector of Treasures.”
The full title of the first story in the collection, “The Deep River: A Story of Ancient Tribal Migration,” points up its origins in a “village...
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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 racial purity. Novels like William Plomer's Turbott Wolfe (1926) and Alan Paton's Too Late the Phalarope (1953) deal with aborted relationships between white and black South Africans, their protest against race laws revolving around the deviant acts of individuals and deriving from a South African liberal tradition. Two years after the repeal of the infamous Act, the theme is revisited in Lewis Nkosi's Mating Birds (1987) and explores the enduring pathology of racism.
Among the many responses to interracial sex and the Immorality Act, Bessie Head contributes a singular voice by disavowing realism and protest, fusing autobiography with fiction, and exploiting circuitous narrative strategies. Revealing...
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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 discussing some aspects of the reception of this text and Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe.
My focus on reception is based on my teaching experience and (self-) observation. I read texts of African literature—among others short stories of Bessie Head—in a course with students at the Oberstufenkolleg in Bielefeld, making intercultural understanding an explicit topic. During my stay in Zimbabwe in 1995, I read some of these texts again with Zimbabwean students in order to find out more about the reception and understanding of African literature.
My approach to reading and interpreting African literature in the Bielefeld course implied—besides textual interpretation—reflection on our...
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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.
Seidman, Gay W. “Living on the Edge.” The Women's Review of Books 8, no. 4 (January 1991): 1, 3–4.
Offers an overview of Head's life and work.
Taiwo, Oladele. “Bessie Head.” In Female Novelists of Modern Africa, pp. 185–214. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1984.
Examines Head's early literary work and discusses thematic aspects of her short stories.
Additional coverage of Head's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: African Writers; Black Literature Criticism, Vol. 2; Black Writers, Vols. 2, 3; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 29–32R, 119; Contemporary...
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