Bessie Head Head, Bessie (Contemporary Literary Criticism) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Bessie Head 1937–

South African novelist, short story writer, and nonfiction writer.

Head's fiction explores the domination of racism in the lives of southern African peoples. As a person of mixed race, she has suffered from discrimination both in her birthplace, South Africa, and in her adopted land, Botswana. Her novels rise above the bitterness common to much protest literature in that Head strives to understand not only the effects of prejudice but also the causes. She demonstrates, too, a mastery of economic, social, and political realities that adds interest and authenticity to her work.

Each of Head's novels reveals a progression in her examination of the evils of racism. In When Rain Clouds Gather, Head portrays a black South African male victimized by apartheid in his country of birth and then treated unequally as a refugee in Botswana. With her second novel, Maru, Head depicts the racism within black society and shows that love between man and woman is a way of breaking through prejudice systems. A Question of Power is her most introspective and complex work. The struggle within the protagonist's psyche for freedom from inferiority, hatred, and madness may be seen as symbolic of the struggle against intolerance within Africa.

(See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 29-32, rev. ed.)

Mary Borg

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[An] outcast is the central figure in Bessie Head's first novel [When Rain Clouds Gather, a] naked sociological commentary….

There is too much undiluted sociological and agricultural textbook language, but the book is justified by loving and humorous descriptions of African land and people, by powerful, generous feeling and passionate analysis of the situation of the black African. She is especially moving on the position of women, emerging painfully from the chrysalis of tribalist attitudes into a new evaluation of their relationship to men and their position in society; and she is coolly humorous about British colonial administrators, reserving rancorous irony for the newly-emergent twopenny-halfpenny revolutionaries. Bessie Head is herself an African refugee from South Africa: she has opted for understanding, generosity and gradual progress, and her book is a splendid argument for this stand.

Mary Borg, "Victims," in New Statesman (© 1969 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), Vol. 77, No. 1992, May 16, 1969, p. 696.∗

The Times Literary Supplement

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Maru is set in similar territory [as When Rain Clouds Gather], and this time Mrs. Head concentrates on the relationships of a handful of educated Africans. Two young chiefs fall in love with a schoolteacher who, though brought up and educated by a missionary's wife (a character so well drawn that it is a pity she disappears so soon from the story), belongs to the despised Bushman tribe. The story depends on the belief—much insisted on but never quite realized in terms of character—that the two men, though friends, approach life, love and their own destinies in quite opposite ways. For both of them love for the girl involves the end of their friendship and a rethinking of their attitudes to the Bushmen, whom they have always used as slaves…. Margaret, the object of all this, is a remarkably passive, shadowy character, represented as intelligent and talented, yet hardly possessed of the hypnotic qualities attributed to her.

There are delightful touches in Mrs. Head's account of the village and its institutions, a comical showdown with the headmaster, glimpses of the benevolent tyranny exercised by the two heroes; but the friendship of the two men and their different responses to love are too often obscured by a wilful invocation of the arcane.

"Other New Novels: 'Maru'," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1971; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 3597, February 5, 1971, p. 145.∗

Roberta Rubenstein

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

If one unconsciously thinks of schizophrenia as a unique product of Western culture, it is startling to discover in A Question of Power, by the South African novelist Bessie Head, a profound enlargement of the geographical as well as the symbolic regions of madness. (p. 30)

The "question of power" is the many-leveled issue of the novel, expanded to include both internal and external dimensions. Elizabeth's dissociated personality first reveals the idea of "soul power"—in which specters of her own psyche dramatize her lack of personal identity, as well as her spiritual and emotional paralysis. That powerlessness in turn symbolizes the non-white South African's political and social situation….

The most important kind of power implied in the novel is, finally, the power of the human spirit to overcome its own movement toward annihilation…. [Elizabeth's] internal battle ceases when she at last exorcises the negative "powers" within, and finds in their place that "There is only one God and his name is Man."

Extending the landscape of madness, then, Bessie Head has imaginatively shown its central relationship to powerlessness….

A Question of Power succeeds as an intense, even mythic, dramatization of the mind's struggle for autonomy and as a symbolic protest against the political realities of South Africa. Bessie Head skillfully involves the reader in the immediacy and terror of Elizabeth's confrontations with her demons. Yet the rhythmic alternation with her progress in the village provides an almost pastoral balance to the Dostoevskian intensity of the mad episodes. The result is a work of striking virtuosity—an artistically shaped descent into the linked hells of madness and oppression, and a resolution that provides the hope of both internal and external reconciliation. (p. 31)

Roberta Rubenstein, "Recent Notable Fiction: 'A Question of Power'," in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1974 The New Republic, Inc.), Vol. 170, No. 17, April 27, 1974, pp. 30-1.

Robert L. Berner

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Bessie Head's third novel [A Question of Power] is a remarkable attempt to escape from the limitations of mere "protest" literature in which Black South African writers so often find themselves. It would have been natural for her, and easier, to have written an attack on the indignities of apartheid which have driven her into exile in Botswana. Certainly South African racism is the ultimate source of the difficulties besetting Elizabeth, her "coloured" protagonist. But Head chooses to make her novel out of Elizabeth's response to injustice—first in madness and finally in a heroic struggle out of that madness into wholeness and wisdom. The novel's subject is power in all its physical and moral ramifications, and Elizabeth's final wisdom is understood in terms of her achievement of the power of love and human understanding. (p. 176)

Because of the essential wisdom of the novel it is unfortunate that the nightmare passages, though imaginative and remarkable in their way, are not more successful. Regrettably they too often seem to be out of the writer's control. Still, the novel is significant as a talented writer's attempt to avoid the didactic pitfalls which so often endanger spokesmen for oppressed peoples. (pp. 176-77)

Robert L. Berner, "South Africa: 'A Question of Power'," in Books Abroad (copyright 1975 by the University of Oklahoma Press), Vol. 49, No. 1, Winter, 1975, pp. 176-77.

Arthur Ravenscroft

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Bessie Head's novels] are strange, ambiguous, deeply personal books which initially do not seem to be 'political' in any ordinary sense of the word. On the contrary, any reader with either Marxist or Pan-Africanist political affinities is likely to be irritated by the seeming emphasis on the quest for personal contentment, the abdication of political kingship—metaphorically in When Rain Clouds Gather, literally in Maru, and one might say wholesale in A Question of Power. The novelist's preoccupations would seem to suggest a steady progression from the first novel to the third into ever murkier depths of alienation from the currents of South African, and African, matters of politics and power—indeed in A Question of Power we are taken nightmarishly into the central character's process of mental breakdown, through lurid cascades of hallucination and a pathological blurring of the frontiers between insanity and any kind of normalcy. It is precisely this journeying into the various characters' most secret interior recesses of mind and (we must not fight shy of the word) of soul, that gives the three novels a quite remarkable cohesion and makes them a sort of trilogy…. It seems to me that with Bessie Head … each novel both strikes out anew, and also re-shoulders the same burden. It is as if one were observing a process that involves simultaneously progression, introgression, and circumgression, but also (and here I believe lies her particular creative power) organic growth in both her art and her central concerns. For all our being lured as readers into the labyrinth of Elizabeth's tortured mind in A Question of Power, and then, as it were, left there to face with her the phantasmagoric riot of nightmare and horror, one nevertheless senses throughout that the imagination which unleashes this fevered torrent resides in a creative mind that is exceedingly tough. It is not just that the fictional character emerges worn down yet regenerated and incredibly alive still after her long ordeal, but that her experience at the narrative level is also a figuring of the creative imagination in our time—that that process is both part of the multi-layered theme and the method of its communication. And that process as an embodiment of the novelist's art is a tough, demanding labour. (p. 175)

There are two major clues to the overall homogeneity of Bessie Head's novels. It is impossible to avoid noticing how frequently the words 'control' and 'prison' (and phrases and images of equivalent value) occur in all three novels, in many different ways certainly, and probably not as an altogether conscious patterning. 'Control' occurs in contexts tending towards the idea of control over appetites felt as detonators that set off the explosions in individual lives, no less than in the affairs of mankind, which leave those broken trails of blasted humanity that are a peculiar mark of our times. 'Prison' occurs in more varied uses, but most often related to a voluntary shutting of oneself away from what goes on around one. Sometimes it may be straight escapism or alienation, but more often it suggests a willed control over a naturally outgoing personality, an imprisonment not for stagnation but for recollection and renewal—a severely practical self-imposed isolation which is part of natural growth. Like the silk-worm's cocoon, it is made for shelter, while strengths are gathered for outbreak and a fresh continuance. (p. 176)

To the characters [in When Rain Clouds Gather], Golema Mmidi may be a kind of pastoral retreat after their earlier rough encounters with life, but the haven is a place of tough, demanding labour, of recurrent crises, of improvisation and ingenuity, of the constant threat of disruption from a power-hungry, resentful local chief. Their co-operative efforts constitute an image of creativity in which sweat and imagination, harsh reality and an ultimate dream to be fulfilled are mixed in just about equal proportions. Out of this creative, co-operative enterprise of constructive energy Bessie Head generates a powerful sense of potential fulfilment for characters who have jealously guarded, enclosed, shut up tightly their private individualities. Against a political background of self-indulgent, serf-owning traditional chiefs and self-seeking, new politicians more interested in power than people, the village of Golema Mmidi is offered as a difficult alternative: not so much a rural utopia for the Africa of the future to aim at, as a means of personal and economic independence and interdependence, where the qualities that count are benign austerity, reverence for the lives of ordinary people (whether university-educated experts or illiterate villagers), and, above all, the ability to break out of the prison of selfhood without destroying individual privacy and integrity.

Makhaya's quest for personal freedom was a flight not only from South Africa's police-van sirens and the burden of oppression, but also from the personal demands upon him of his immediate relations. The last thing he is looking for when he enters Botswana is a new network of intimate relationships or a new struggle against a different oppression. And of course he finds both. That is why the 'peaceful haven' idea in the book is really very deceptive. Golema Mmidi is no Garden of Eden, even if its potentialities are indeed richer than the South African life Makhaya left behind could offer him. (p. 177)

Makhaya does find innocence, trust, and respect, though not as unqualified absolutes. He has to give of himself both in physical labour and in the opening of the cell door to his private sanctum. His marriage to Paulina Sebeso near the end of the novel is, of course, also a finding of himself, with the ghosts of...

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Charles R. Larson

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Bessie Head's A Question of Power is important not solely because it is an introspective novel by an African woman but because the topics of her concern are also, for the most part, foreign to African fiction as a sub-division of the novel in the Third World: madness, sexuality, guilt. In its concern with these ideas, A Question of Power bears closer affinity to the works by two Caucasian writers from southern Africa—Doris Lessing and Nadine Gordimer—than to those of Ms. Head's African contemporaries.

Although A Question of Power is told in the third person, the point of view is always Elizabeth's. The reader understands the events in the story the same way that Elizabeth...

(The entire section is 960 words.)

Cecil A. Abrahams

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Even though in a narrow sense the context of Bessie Head's fiction is Botswana, her novels, preoccupied with themes of political and spiritual exile, racial hatred and the source of corrupting power and authority, reflect in an important and deep way the bitter world of inhumanity and racism which exists throughout South Africa. The physical landscape of Botswana is colored with her own history of exile, race confusion and her search for what she labels in her first novel, When Rain Clouds Gather, an "illusion of freedom."… Head is concerned particularly with the racial question as it pertains to her mixed-blood status. In her novels, When Rain Clouds Gather, Maru, and A Question of Power,...

(The entire section is 1309 words.)

John Mellors

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

In a footnote to the first of her 'Botswana village tales' in The Collector of Treasures, Bessie Head says that she has 'romanticised and fictionalised' data provided by old men of the tribe whose memories are unreliable. The farther she goes into history and tradition, the less convincing the results, but the stories come wonderfully alive when she deals with Botswana just before and after independence. The clash between old tribal ways and the temptations of modern society plays havoc with family life, and leads to prostitution, desertion and murder. Bessie Head blames most of this on the animal behaviour of men towards women; however, she tempers this feminist stand-point by ascribing the men's insensitivity...

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Jean Marquard

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Bessie Head's three novels] deal in different ways with exile and oppression. The protagonists are outsiders, new arrivals who try to forge a life for themselves in a poor, under-populated third world country, where traditional and modern attitudes to soil and society are in conflict. These are familiar themes in African writing but Bessie Head may be distinguished from other African writers in at least two respects. In the first place she does not idealize the African past and in the second she resists facile polarities, emphasizing personal rather than political motives for tensions between victim and oppressor. She moves beyond the stereotype of white oppressing black to show, particularly in Maru, systems...

(The entire section is 1383 words.)

Paddy Kitchen

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

In Serowe: Village of the Rain Wind, [Bessie Head] has written a chronicle that makes her adopted home … accessible to the imagination of outsiders…. Her task was almost intractably complex, given that she could assume no shared background knowledge among the majority of her readers. It was no doubt the novelist in her that extracted a structure for the book from the characters of Serowe's three most beneficial leaders. (p. 23)

Within this tripartite framework, the words of nearly 100 inhabitants provide the flesh of the book. One of Bessie Head's intentions has been to collect a verbal record of the old craft methods such as ploughing, potting, basket-making, tanning, thatching and...

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Charles R. Larson

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Reading any book by Bessie Head is always a pleasure, though this talented South African writer's newest work, Serowe: Village of the Rain Wind,… falls in a special category. What Head has so effectively done is to take all her gifts as a novelist and use these talents in shaping a quasi-sociological account of the village in Botswana where she has lived for most of the past ten years. Part history, part anthropology and folklore, Serowe conjured up for me memories of Studs Terkel's Hard Times. As the author states in her introduction, "Serowe is an historic village but not spectacularly so, its history is precariously oral." Thus Head has interviewed dozens of people who live in Serowe today...

(The entire section is 177 words.)