Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1279
Although Bessie Head’s reputation was based initially on her long fiction, her short fiction has confirmed it. Although some of the short stories date back to her days as a journalist in South Africa, most derive from her period in Botswana, when she interviewed people to compile her two chronicle histories. This activity generated so much material from the personal testimonies of her subjects and their own stories that she had plenty left over to fashion into short stories. In fact, much of the material is not fiction at all but oral history written down. Head dissolves genre boundaries between documentary, traditional tale, folklore, memories, and fiction in a unique style.
Journalism had taught her to write economically. Her style and subject matter are deceptively simple. Her themes are universal, although the setting is emphatically local, rural, and everyday. They deal with the harshness of nature, especially ever threatening drought, the tension between newer ways and tribal traditions (a universal African theme), the position of women, and the abuse of power. Ordinary people are dealt with sympathetically; but in celebrating their ordinariness, she avoids the simplicities of good (peasant, rural, traditional, black) against bad (white, modern, urban).
Although Head apparently avoids political statement or stance, her short stories can be fully analyzed in terms of a liberal and humane politics, unlike many of her black South African contemporaries. Similarly, while avoiding religious belief statements, her beliefs in the power of love to overcome are tautly idealistic in the way religious fiction at its best demonstrates.
As a writer of short stories, it is her own humility and self-effacement that come through, even while she is working out her own life traumas in her fictions of powerless women. Such tensions between objective and subjective stance produce a delicate counterpointing that eschews the big rhetoric in which other contemporaries engage. It would not be too much to suggest parallels with the short fiction of her white South African contemporary, Nadine Gordimer.
The Collector of Treasures and Other Botswana Village Tales
This volume consists of thirteen short stories of village life, specifically of the village life Head observed during thirteen years of exile in Serowe. They partly chronicle the social history of the village, although that is much more systematically done in Serowe: Village of the Rain Wind (1981); more particularly, they explore the conflicts around the changing status and identity of women in rural African society. They are thus susceptible to a thoroughgoing feminist analysis, even though Bessie Head denied she was a feminist. The resulting sophisticated analyses often seem at odds with the studied simplicity of Head’s technique, which is closely modeled on traditional oral storytelling.
The title story is perhaps the best known of this carefully arranged collection. Dikeledi is a model wife married to a ne’er-do-well. Even while unhappily married, she manages to collect “treasures” of love, friendship, community, and good deeds from the women of the neighborhood. The real shock of the story is her desperate act of killing her husband by castrating him. The judicial system shows little mercy for her, and she is given life in prison. While in prison she meets other women who have also killed their husbands, and a new community of suffering is set up.
The story is crisscrossed with all sorts of issues with wider ramifications than the purely domestic. Head presents the ideal marriage of Paul Thebolo and his wife as a paradigm for the future. Paul becomes the ideal husband—clearly Head is trying to point the way ahead for men also. Dikeledi’s husband has lost his own identity in his oppression by both tribal custom and colonial exploitation. His abuse of Dikeledi is the one act of power he can make.
Another story, “Life,” contrasts interestingly with this one. The heroine, Life, is a “good-time girl” returning from the bright lights of South African city life to set herself up as a prostitute. She is quite open about the economic power and independence this brings her. The husband she takes, a simple shepherd, kills her. This time, the courts are merciful—it is a crime of passion. This slanting of the justice system is a token of the whole male-dominated society, whether tribal or colonial.
Other stories in the collection deal with religion, especially the clash of tribal religion and Christianity, as in “Heaven Is Not Closed” and “Witchcraft.” Head’s anti-Christian bias is muted here as she does not wish to appear supportive of tribal religion either. Both are part of a wider conflict between tradition and modernity, yet other stories deal with love and marriage and the conflict between traditional arranged marriage and romantic marriage.
This story appears in her second collection, Tales of Tenderness and Power. It has parallels with “The Deep River: A Story of Ancient Tribal Migration” of the first collection. Both are mythic, placed in a legendary past; both portray the conflict between romantic love and arranged marriage. In “The Lovers,” the young man, Keaja, is already an independent thinker, willing to step out of the collective mentality of the tribe. The girl, Tselane, is mesmerized by such freethinking and by Keaja’s proposal of marriage, whether her parents approve of it or not. They do not, and neither do his; eventually the lovers are forced to flee. The legend has it that the earth was so offended by their behavior that the hill where they had their meetings opened up and swallowed them. Head delicately describes passion and desire in Tselane, despite the fact that there is no language, let alone any model, for such emotions.
“The Prisoner Who Wore Glasses”
The story represents a move away from the village tales. It is set in a prison camp, presumably in South Africa, and involves a group of political prisoners apparently powerless against the oppression of the white prison guard yet managing to control him and break his dominance. The hero, Brille, is so called because he wears glasses. He is an older man, whose spirit has not been broken mainly because the prisoners of “Span One” work as a team. This theme of solidarity and community is an important one for Head. It is not the same as the tribal collective, however, which she questions. It is much more a willed community of support and respect working in a highly democratic way, not easily subverted. This is what the warder, Hannetjie, discovers. He is brought into line by the determination of the prisoners and his own need to survive in an oppressive regime. At the end, roles are reversed in a “live and let live” cooperation.
“The Coming of the Christ-Child”
This, again, is an exceptional story for Head. It is again set in South Africa but this time makes very explicit political and religious comments. The hero, known only as “the young man” comes from a long line of black African pastors, but the social injustices of apartheid and the inability of his father to withstand them make him feel that God is dead.
His academic education resembles the political education of many young black Africans of the 1960’s and 1970’s—the young man could be a young Nelson Mandela in his struggles, as he absorbs socialism and a hatred of racial oppression. He sees the limits of the peaceful protest of the African National Congress. His protests lead to imprisonment, exile, and eventually death.
However, in this apparently bleak ending, Head sounds a note of optimism: The “winds of change” blowing over the rest of Africa will eventually reach South Africa, and the Christ-Child, the Messiah, will eventually come to deliver his people.
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