Bessie Head Biography


(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

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...

(The entire section is 1147 words.)


(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

The career of Bessie Amelia Head (née Emery) falls naturally into three parts: first, her childhood and youth in South Africa; second, her exile in the neighboring country of Botswana; and third, her life there as a citizen of that country, tragically cut short at the age of forty-eight by hepatitis. Head’s mother was a rich white woman, who was committed to a mental hospital at the time of her birth. The insanity was real but also covered the fact that Head’s father was a black stableman. Head was thus “colored”—the South African term for being of mixed race. She was fostered with a white couple, then passed on to a colored couple, whom she thought of as her natural parents. Her foster father died when she was six, and their situation deteriorated to the extent that, at thirteen, she was sent away to a mission school. There, the principal told her the truth of her birth at the traumatic end of her first term.

She was a good scholar and finally graduated in 1955 with a Natal Teachers’ Senior Certificate. She taught briefly in Durban, then entered journalism, writing for the Post. In 1960, she left for Cape Town and then Johannesburg, writing for The New African and Drum, radical literary and political journals. This brought her to the notice of the apartheid authorities. In 1961 she was briefly married to a fellow journalist, Harold Head, by whom she had one child, a son, Harold.

In 1964 she left for Botswana on an exit visa to become an exile. She taught for two years and then devoted herself again to writing, living very simply, recovering from a mental breakdown, and adjusting gradually to the rural life of Serowe, the largest village in South Africa. Gradually her novels won her recognition, and after one refusal she gained citizenship in 1979.

She turned her attention to the history of her new country, which had never been fully colonialized, and produced several remarkably conceived books. She began to travel to writers’ conferences and had just embarked on her autobiography when she died.


(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Bessie Head was born Bessie Amelia Emery on July 6, 1937, in Pietermaritzburg, South Africa, in the mental hospital where her unmarried white mother, known as Toby, was being treated for schizophrenia. Toby’s family had rejected her when they learned that she was pregnant with a mixed-race child. Bessie was placed in foster care, as her father was never identified. At the age of thirteen, she was transferred to an Anglican orphanage in Durban, where she completed high school in 1952 and then studied to become a primary school teacher. After teaching for two years, she moved to Cape Town and then Johannesburg in South Africa, and worked as a journalist for the Drum newspapers. In March, 1960, she was briefly arrested, and she attempted suicide in April of that year. In July she met Harold Head, another journalist, and they married that September. She began publishing poetry and short essays in left-wing magazines, using her married name, Bessie Head. Her first novella, The Cardinals, was written during this time but was not published until 1993, after her death.

By 1963, Head had a baby son, Howard, but her marriage was over. Her life as a politically aware, biracial woman in white-controlled South Africa was untenable, so she left South Africa for Bechuanaland Protectorate (now Botswana), although she knew she would not be allowed to return to South Africa because of her left-wing political associations. Now an exile, unable to find...

(The entire section is 498 words.)