Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1147
Bessie Head is one of the best-known African woman writers who wrote in English. She was born Bessie Amelia Emery in a mental hospital in Pietermaritzburg, South Africa, on July 6, 1937. Her mother came from a white family of Scottish descent that owned racehorses. She was attracted to one of the black grooms, who became the father of her daughter. The mother was judged insane because of this liaison and was committed to the mental asylum where Bessie was born. The child was given to a white Afrikaner family for adoption but was returned because she was not fully white. She was later accepted by a black family, with whom she lived until she was thirteen years old. She was then moved to a mission orphanage in Durban, later attending the Ubilo Road High School. She earned a primary-school teaching certificate at eighteen, left the orphanage, and began to teach in Durban. After two years of teaching, she left to become a journalist at Drum Publications in Johannesburg.
Head became active in politics in the 1960’s and joined the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC). She married Harold Head in 1961, and they had one son. They divorced in 1964, and Bessie Head, after arrest and imprisonment and threats of sexual molestation from Afrikaner authorities, fled with her son to Botswana, a neighboring country not under the yoke of apartheid. She lived in the village of Serowe as an alien refugee. At this point, she gave up political activism and functioned as a schoolteacher and an unpaid agricultural worker. (She was refused Botswanan citizenship when she applied in 1977, but it was later granted.) The traumas of exile and relocation resulted in a nervous breakdown. Recovering, Head later wrote A Question of Power, a novel in which the protagonist has experiences similar to Head’s own. All of her principal writing was done in Serowe. She made the village her home, becoming an observer and interpreter of its folk tradition and of contemporary village life, projecting the village as a microcosm of rural Africa.
Head’s first novel, When Rain Clouds Gather, was written while the experiences of apartheid and exile were still foremost in her mind. It is a sensitive account of the alienation of the South African refugee and a discussion of the options that are available to such a person. The novel is not only about apartheid: It also emphasizes the responsibility of individuals to order the chaos within their own minds as a precondition to accepting the peace that an agricultural community can provide. By the time she was writing Maru, Head was more deeply involved in the Serowe society and was disturbed by the abuse of tribal power within traditional African society. The situation of the Masarwas, outcasts and slaves in the African society, is used to comment on all forms of discrimination. A Question of Power, a strongly autobiographical novel, develops the themes of exile and oppression to cosmic proportions. The ultimate conflict between good and evil, within a single individual, on a societal level, among nations, and on a universal level, is the subject of this novel. A Question of Power has been hailed as an important work in African literature because it marks the inward turning of the African novel, away from strictly social themes. It is narrated through the consciousness of a mentally unbalanced woman who must confront and reconcile herself with the different forms of oppression that are destroying her. Head has admitted that most of this novel is autobiographical and draws heavily on the nervous breakdown she herself experienced when relocating in Botswana. Because it deals with specifically sexual oppression and with the hardships of a woman who must take care of her son by herself, this novel also caught the attention of feminist critics and situated Head as a woman’s writer.
The Collector of Treasures, and Other Botswana Village Tales further develops this feminist perspective. A collection of stories, originating in the oral tradition of Botswana village life, this book focuses on the hardships that women suffer from the cruel, selfish men in their lives, and it asserts the potential of women’s communities for overcoming male aggression. Serowe: Village of the Rainwind marks a departure from feminist themes. This nonfiction work takes the form of a series of interviews by the author herself. She interviews villagers and records their experiences, tracing the development of the village from a traditional community to colonization and the advent of Western government and technology.
All of Head’s works are concerned with injustices among human beings and with the abuse of authority in human communities. Most prominent are the themes of exile, alienation, and sexual oppression. Inspired by her own experiences and those of countless other refugees, When Rain Clouds Gather and A Question of Power investigate the condition of the political refugee and chart plans for solving the problems of exploitation and poverty. Both novels censure foreign oppression as well as the oppression of tribal authority, and both propose a plan for cooperative agriculture that makes the best use of available resources while reminding the individual of his position as part of a community. The injustice of all types of human discrimination is expressed in Maru, which tells of the status of the Masarwa outcast. Even though very much concerned about apartheid, Head’s works do not militantly campaign against racism; instead, apartheid is seen as an illustration of the capacity of the human mind for evil. As a feminist writer, Head had two concerns. On the one hand, there is concern for unequal male/female relationships and the double standard in African society that allows men unlimited sexual adventures while women suffer the pains of exploitation and bear the responsibility of supporting children. On the other hand, her works assert the creative potential of women bonding together to help and support one another. Head’s high regard for the positive aspects of the traditional habits and the folklore of African villages is illustrated in both the stories of The Collector of Treasures, and Other Botswana Village Tales and the historical and sociological accounts of Serowe: Village of the Rainwind. Her works endorse communal values such as cooperation, nurturing, and emotional support among individuals as the ultimate weapons in the fight against injustice.
Reviews of Head’s work by both the African and the Western literary communities have been positive. She is celebrated by women as a feminist writer, but because her concerns go further she has not met with opposition from male reviewers. Like most African writers, she was greatly concerned with the horrors of Western exploitation, especially those of apartheid. Yet her works are not limited to protest: They celebrate the positive values of African life and suggest that creative relationships are possible even under the most exacting conditions. Bessie Head died in Botswana in 1986 at the age of forty-nine.
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