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...
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