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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...

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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

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[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

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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

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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

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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

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[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 his former 'gray graveyard' life no longer visible, now, in the merciful darkness of Paulina's hut…. (p. 178)

The precise relationship between individual freedom and political independence, and between a guarded core of privacy and an unbudding towards others, may seem rather elusive, perhaps even mystical, in my reading of the novel, and I see it as one of the weaknesses of When Rain Clouds Gather. It is a straightforward narrative with no unexpected tricks of technique and very down-to-earth in the minutiae of an agricultural hard grind of a way of life…. There are moments of melodrama and excessive romanticism, but the real life of the novel is of creativity, resilience, reconstruction, fulfilment. Of the six major characters, four are themselves Batswana but all are in one sense or another handicapped exiles, learning how to mend their lives in the exacting but ultimately viable sands of Golema Mmidi. It is the vision behind their effortful embracing of exile that gives Bessie Head's first novel an unusual maturity. (pp. 178-79)

[Maru] immediately proclaims itself as technically a very different sort of book. The first six pages present the outcome of the events narrated in the rest of the novel, and, though they are essential for our adequate grasp of how those events unfold, they don't make sense at first, not until one has read to the end. The opening is thus both a species of sealed orders for the reader and an epilogue. And are we sure, at the end, that the two chief male characters, Maru and Moleka, who are close, intimate friends until they become bitter antagonists, are indeed two separate fictional characters, or that they are symbolic extensions of contending character-traits within the same man? (p. 179)

Maru's methods, 'cold, calculating and ruthless', are the normal methods of those who seek and wield power, and yet Maru's role in the novel is the very antithesis of power-wielding. He renounces the kingdom of political power in favour of the kingdom of love. But before he does so, he manipulates, engineers, 'fixes' the delicate relationships among himself, his sister Dikeledi, his friend Moleka, and Margaret the Masarwa woman, with whom both he and Moleka are in love. With the help of his three spies, Maru is able to manoeuvre Moleka against his real will to marry Dikeledi, who loves him; Maru is then able to marry Margaret, whom Moleka really loves. And Maru can exert such a persuasive influence upon Margaret that she begins to learn to love him, though it is Moleka with whom she has been secretly in love since her arrival in the village. (p. 180)

Maru's almost god-like perspicacity justifies his seemingly devious methods of preventing Moleka from obtaining Margaret's love. Maru knows that because his kingdom is of love, he has the strength to marry Margaret and live by all the consequences. (pp. 181-82)

Maru is no god. He remains a man with doubts. We know from the beginning that he and Margaret have not got away to another Garden of Eden. Rich and fulfilled and symbolically healthful as their life together is, it nevertheless has shadows and questions over it. Though Maru has obeyed the voices of the gods in his heart and trusts them, the closed door in Moleka's heart still hides an uncertainty….

This doubt and with it his willingness to give up Margaret, despite his deep love for her, if he should one day be proved wrong about Moleka, comes in those pages of introductory epilogue that I mentioned earlier, and throughout the novel influences our view of Maru and his actions.

On the one hand Maru's marriage is a deeply personal thing. He knows he 'could not marry a tribe or race.'… On the other hand the marriage also carries a considerable political symbolism. (p. 182)

Much more than When Rain Clouds Gather, Maru is a novel about interior experience, about thinking, feeling, sensing, about control over rebellious lusts of the spirit; and, ironically, ambiguously, in Bessie Head's comprehending vision, it is also a more 'political' novel than When Rain Clouds Gather. I am not sure that the two things are satisfyingly fused, even whether it is the sort of novel in which they should be so fused, but I am much impressed and moved by the power with which they are conveyed. That power resides in the vitality of the enterprise, which projects the personal and the political implications in such vivid, authentic parallels that one feels they are being closely held together, like the lengths of steel on a railway track, which fuse only in optical illusion and are indeed useless if they don't maintain their divided parallelism….

Bessie Head's most recent novel, A Question of Power, is clearly more ambitious than its two predecessors, and less immediately accessible, and altogether a more risky undertaking. The movement here is even deeper (and more disturbingly so) into the vast caverns of interior personal experience. (p. 183)

Bessie Head's common-sensical rootedness in the earthy level of everyday reality is still there to anchor for the reader the terrifying world of Elizabeth's hallucinations, but it is the events of that world that dominate the book. Even more than in the two earlier novels, one finds an intimate relationship between an individual character's private odyssey of the soul and public convulsions that range across the world and from one civilization to another. To see Bessie Head's handling of Elizabeth's mental instability as a clever literary device to make possible an epic confrontation between Good and Evil within the confines of a realist novel, is to underestimate the achievement. One wonders again and again whether the phantom world that comes to life whenever Elizabeth is alone in her hut could have been invented by a novelist who had not herself gone through similar experiences, so frighteningly and authentically does it all pass before one's eyes. But there is no confusion of identity between the novelist and the character, and Bessie Head makes one realize often how close is the similarity between the most fevered creations of a deranged mind and the insanities of deranged societies. (pp. 183-84)

The characteristic Bessie Head irony comes out in the fact that even as Elizabeth, the South African coloured refugee among the Batswana, finds herself screaming in her nightmares that she hates black Africans, she is none the less in what appears to her the almost dream-like world of her workaday activities in the co-operative vegetable garden, forging, steadily and genuinely, links of personal regard and affection with the Batswana villagers and with the foreign helpers. The last words of the novel are 'a gesture of belonging' … as Elizabeth settles herself for her first untortured night's sleep in three years, annealed both spiritually and socially, as in imagination she places one soft hand over her land.

I do not believe that Bessie Head's novels are offering anything as facile as universal brotherhood and love for a political blueprint for either South Africa or all of Africa. In Maru common sense is described as the next best thing to changing the world on the basis of love of mankind. What the three novels do say very clearly is that whoever exercises political power, however laudable his aims, will trample upon the faces and limbs of ordinary people, and will lust in that trampling. That horrible obscenity mankind must recognize in its collective interior soul. The corollary is not liberal abstention from action, but rather modest action in very practical terms, and with individual hearts flushed and cleansed for collective purpose. The divinity that she acknowledges is a new, less arrogant kind of humanism, a remorseless God who demands that iron integrity in personal conduct should inform political action too. Of course the novels don't sermonize like this, but grow out of a moral basis of this kind of order. (p. 185)

In the development of the South African novel, this disturbing toughness of Bessie Head's creative imagination returns to us that gesture of belonging with which A Question of Power ends. All three novels are fraught with the loneliness and despair of exile, but the resilience of the exiled characters is even more remarkable. Bessie Head refuses to look for the deceiving gleam that draws one to expect the dawn of liberation in the South, but accepts what the meagre, even parched, present offers. (p. 186)

Arthur Ravenscroft, "The Novels of Bessie Head," in Aspects of South African Literature, edited by Christopher Heywood (copyright © 1976 by Christopher Heywood; reprinted by permission of Africana Publishing Company, a division of Holmes & Meier Publishers, Inc.; IUB Building, 30 Irving Place, New York, NY 10003), Africana, 1976, pp. 174-86.

Charles R. Larson

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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 does, which is to say that when she is confused (which is often) he is confused. The extended passages of introspection are depicted primarily through the use of the internal monologue; the chronology of the narrative is often associative. (p. 165)

Most of the guilt that Elizabeth develops originates from … early events in her life: her Coloured classification, her orphan status at the mission, and her short-lived marriage. All of these factors are direct results of the South African policy of apartheid which treats people as something other than human beings. (p. 166)

At its very base, then, A Question of Power … is concerned with the power play between the West (the white South Africans) and the Third World. There are the ubiquitous problems of racism that we have already seen in many novels—the relationship between subjugators and the subjugated…. The basis of the story, then, is racial; it is the development of the narrative that is so unusual, though there are novels of South African life in which neuroses abound….

The layers of guilt that develop out of the early situations of Elizabeth's life are often embellished with her sexual fantasies….

The failure of her marriage also contributes to her guilt, for Elizabeth feels that if she were more attractive, her husband would not have turned to other women (and men) to fulfill his sexual desires. As her guilt intensifies, she wonders if she is not responsible for turning the men around her into homosexuals. (p. 167)

All of these aspects of sexual guilt are related to Elizabeth's racial origins and the issues of exile and alienation. (p. 168)

As these feelings of exile and alienation become intensified, Elizabeth comes to realize that almost every aspect of the life around her reminds her of her guilt…. She has developed a love/hate relationship with the Africans around her. On the one hand she wants to be one of them; on the other, she hates them, believing they are inferior. To that extent the apartheid indoctrination she has undergone has been successful. (pp. 168-69)

Elizabeth's "recovery" in the insane asylum is intended to be more than ironic; it is hardly the result of the medicine or the treatment she receives. Rather, the asylum brings out the strongest of her aversions, and she is forced to acknowledge them for the first time…. It is the European psychiatrist—the only one in the country—who makes her fully cognizant of her racial feelings….

Besides her race prejudice, the European doctor helps Elizabeth discover an equally destructive prejudice she has harbored during her years in Botswana: intellectual superiority, pride. She has, in fact, willingly isolated herself from the people around her, because she has always considered herself above them. (p. 170)

Eventually Elizabeth seeks solace in the land, returning to the garden, and the village co-operative of which she had earlier been a part. From Kenosi, an African woman, she learns to respect the soil and the people of Botswana. Her error has been her inability to comprehend the African sense of humanity—she fled those people who would harbor her…. The journey of the singular consciousness has once again ended in the collective consciousness, the brotherhood of man.

The question of power in the title of Bessie Head's novel is as many-layered as the multiple fears and guilts from which Elizabeth has been fleeing for much of her adult life. Initially, Ms. Head speaks of this as one's personal power and the way it operates in relationships with others…. To this Ms. Head adds a whole list of extraterrestrial powers: "energies, stars, planets, universes and all kinds of swirling magic and mystery …" …—forces over which the individual has little control. (p. 171)

As these ideas embellish the narrative of Elizabeth's own struggles for personal power to pull her life together, they take on a quasi-religious framework of spiritual power—the struggle between God and man…. Finally, then, spiritual power becomes personal power—the power of the individual to resist evil, to pull his life together….

[Political power is] a given throughout the entire work: the South African apartheid policies start Elizabeth on her road to madness. If she had remained in South Africa, her life would always have been politically controlled by the Europeans. As a Coloured, she will be a kind of outsider no matter where she goes in Africa—though Botswana, an enclave dependent on South Africa in so many ways, is a particularly ironic choice to flee to. (p. 172)

In the final analysis, Bessie Head wants us to consider all of these variations of power as the evils that thwart each individual's desire to be part of the human race, part of the brotherhood of man. The facts of one's race, color, religion, education—these should not be considered prerequisites for membership in the human race. This is the supreme reality of A Question of Power…. (pp. 172-73)

Charles R. Larson, "The Singular Consciousness," in his The Novel in the Third World (copyright © 1976 by Charles R. Larson; reprinted by permission of the author), Inscape Publishers, 1976, pp. 153-74.∗

Cecil A. Abrahams

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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, Bessie head seeks to examine the causes of the evil of race prejudice and, concomitantly, to explore potential sources of generosity and goodness.

In trying to unearth the root of racial prejudice, Bessie Head differs from other South African writers in her approach to and understanding of the problem. Being exiled and long suffering products of a white supremacist society, black South African writers characteristically confront their cruel tormentors in a direct manner. They see the root of evil as being firmly and solely embedded in the obdurate heart of the white person and dismiss the corruption of blacks as being the natural consequence of an evil which has been manufactured by whites. When Rain Clouds Gather, seems at first to repeat this pattern of blame and confrontation…. But ultimately the transplanted Makhaya, and therefore the reader, cannot escape the realities of either the often cruel desert environment where the rain clouds gather hopefully but fail to burst into fruitful rain, or the social milieu where many white men and women of a generous nature assist the eager peasants to develop the land.

In her second novel, Maru, which is the study of racial prejudice against the ancient Masarwa or Bushmen people, Head rejoins the tradition of other South African writers as she looks at the cruel results of blatant racial discrimination and suggests that open challenge is the only solution to the problem. She does not lead the question outside the familiar orbit of victim and victimizer; the result is that Maru is a rather weak, vapoury study on the theme of racial prejudice. The plot, which deals with the prejudice that Margaret, the Masarwa girl, experiences in the narrowminded Botswana society, culminates in a fairy tale marriage and seems somewhat contrived.

One reason why Maru may be usefully studied, however, is that it is a necessary step in Head's continuing study of evil. The strength and perception of Head's study of evil in her third novel, A Question of Power, might not have materialized without the lessons that are learned about evil in Maru. Head recognizes in both these novels that racism is not limited to the whites of the South African soil. As a coloured South African who had received her fair share of racial criticism from blacks, she is sensitive to the fact that, because of their particular racial colour and physical features, the Masarwa, though a black race, are regarded as the "low man" on the totem pole and suffer all the injustices of that position. (pp. 22-3)

In A Question of Power … the main character, Elizabeth, is a coloured South African woman; this, of course, is the race of Head herself. Since coloured people are the product of mixed procreative relationships between whites and blacks, in a racist South African society where sexual relationships between whites and blacks are outlawed, the progeny of such sexual encounters carry with them a life-long stigma of illegitimacy. (p. 24)

Like all other coloured South Africans, Elizabeth is regarded as a queer specimen of humanity who does not belong to either the white or black race. (p. 25)

Although When Rain Clouds Gather and A Question of Power clearly distinguish between their protagonists' understanding of racism, the two novels, together with Maru, show that Head's novels are progressive in their philosophical conclusion about the nature and source of racism. Ultimately, Head examines three sources of evil and, conversely, of potential goodness. The most obvious source is the sphere of political power and authority; it is clear that if the political institutions which decree and regulate the lives of the society are reformed or abolished a better or new society can be established. Makhaya in When Rain Clouds Gather and Elizabeth in A Question of Power, having been victims of the political authority of South Africa, escape to Botswana; both imagine that in a newly independent and seemingly simple society like Botswana's, they will be able to find peace and harmony. Makhaya discovers, however, that his refugee status is not acceptable to the authorities and, furthermore, that even in a black-dominated political structure, his position is somewhat precarious. Hence, he has to endure the hateful insults of Chief Matenge…. Elizabeth experiences similar insults at the hands of Dan or Medusa in A Question of Power. In both instances it is the power of the elite, be it white or black, which creates prejudice against them. Head concludes in Maru that evil is not the domain solely of the white racist, that in fact evil permeates all races. (pp. 26-7)

Bessie Head's fiction leads back, again and again, to the corrupt, greedy and power hungry elite of politicians, tribal chiefs and teachers. She singles out the African politician in When Rain Clouds Gather, focusing on Makhaya who had in South Africa regarded the African politician as the saviour of the oppressed….

Head also examines whether the transformation of economic institutions to ensure a better standard of living for the African people leads to freedom from prejudice and narrowness. This is the solution that is suggested by Gilbert Balfour, Eugene and Gunner in When Rain Clouds Gather. These men are foreigners who are searching for a more humane world. (p. 27)

[But] Makhaya and Elizabeth both know that Africa needs more than an economic revolution to confront the problems of race prejudice. So even though Bessie Head treats the motives of Gilbert, Eugene and Tom with respect, she recognizes that their solution is an inadequate answer for Botswana's main questions.

In A Question of Power Head finds an answer to her search for man's evil and his good. And it is here that she realizes that political and economic institutions can be truly transformed for the betterment of man after man has analyzed and resolved the questions of good and evil embedded in his soul. Hence, Botswana, the place of escape, becomes the area where there is a "total demystifying of all illusions."… In thinking that she has escaped the "filth" of South Africa, Elizabeth, like Makhaya, is challenged to understand the causes for the South African deadness and to create a living hope…. The world of the future must be freed of the Medusa-like power-seekers and elitists in authority. And to accomplish this task Elizabeth, like Makhaya, must dedicate herself to eradicating evil in all its forms. (p. 28)

Bessie Head's solution to the South African problem is, then, spiritual, from within the soul of man. It is pointless, says Sello, to hate the racist whites for what oppression they have inflicted and continue to inflict on the black people of South Africa. As racists, they are not free, they simply imprison their souls in their own cobweb of hatred. Their racism must be overcome through love and not violence, nor through the deceptive power-seeking black elite of Africa…. While proposing a spiritual solution to the South African question, she has chosen an angle which, although frustrating to the more militant oppressed, is new in its context. (p. 29)

Cecil A. Abrahams, "The Tyranny of Place: The Context of Bessie Head's Fiction," in World Literature Written in English (© copyright 1978 WLWE-World Literature Written in English), Vol. 17, No. 1, April, 1978, pp. 22-9.

John Mellors

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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 not to an inherent brutishness but to the effects of a colonialism which has left the male 'a broken wreck with no inner resources' with which to adapt to his new-found liberty.

John Mellors, "Exuberant Lies" (© British Broadcasting Corp. 1978; reprinted by permission of John Mellors), in The Listener, Vol. 99, No. 2556, April 20, 1978, p. 510.∗

Jean Marquard

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1383

[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 of privilege and discrimination working solely within black society.

Makhaya, the hero of When Rain Clouds Gather is an exile from South Africa who has fled across the border to Botswana, having served a prison sentence for alleged political activities with banned organizations. He seeks, we are told in the opening paragraph, 'whatever illusion of freedom lay ahead'. Thus it is clear from the outset that independent Africa will not necessarily offer the victim of apartheid an easier life than the one he has left behind…. Makhaya, himself an exponent of modern, Western ideas, rejects tribalism as a barbarous system in which women are discriminated against and in which the village witchdoctors perpetuate their power over the community by encouraging superstition and ignorance. (pp. 54-5)

Makhaya settles in Golema Mmidi, a village distinguished from others in Botswana by its system of permanent settlement…. (p. 55)

In the creation of Golema Mmidi Bessie Head combines fictive metaphor—the village as Eden—with realistic social detail. The Utopian qualities of the village are balanced by hard realities. Thus the dream of creating a garden in the desert is constantly eroded by poverty, the lack of rain, (staple currency in Botswana is the pula, a Tswana word meaning rain) and by prejudice and corruption in local government.

In Golema Mmidi Makhaya meets Gilbert, an idealistic Englishman…. (p. 56)

Makhaya and Gilbert are spokesmen for reason, hard work and the abolition of tribal habits in favour of science and progress. Under the influence of Gilbert, Makhaya abandons 'hate-making political ideologies' as ultimately retrogressive and turns instead to agriculture 'for his salvation'. (pp. 56-7)

Factual social detail is closely integrated into the movement of the plot and is seldom merely digressive or episodic. At the same time a good deal of writing is devoted to accurate analysis of climate, crops, cattle diseases and the problems of land enclosure. This concern for practical bread-and-butter issues is a striking feature of all [Bessie Head's] work and even in the short stories the reader is supplied with accurate social, domestic and economic detail. (p. 57)

In Maru Bessie Head continues to explore the conflict between change and tradition in rural Southern Africa. The heroine of this novel is Margaret Cadmore…. Margaret's actual superiority over those who regard her as socially inferior [because she is a Masarwa or Bushman by birth] is given repeated emphasis. She has had a better education than anyone else in the village, she is more beautiful and more refined, she is a talented artist with visionary powers, she is affectionate and patient, animals love her, people are drawn to her in spite of their prejudices. Not surprisingly therefore, the two most powerful men in the village, Maru and Moleka, both fall in love with her. Moleka suppresses his love in conformity with social decorum, but Maru, who is paramount chief elect, abdicates his position in order to marry Margaret. Thus in Maru the conflict between freedom and the closed system is explored in the context of love and marriage rather than agriculture. (p. 58)

The idea that social change is brought about by the action of powerful individuals rather than gradual temporal evolution (the winds of change are not seen as 'natural' or arbitrary forces) motivates much of the action of When Rain Clouds Gather. In her second novel Bessie Head explores this idea in more subtle ways. Maru, to all appearances, decides to renounce the world for love. But his choice is equally the enactment of the individualist principles by which he lives…. Maru obeys his gods even when they tell him to deceive his rival. (pp. 58-9)

The sources of power are more fully explored in Bessie Head's third novel, as the title suggests. The semi-autobiographical tone of Maru becomes more explicit in A Question of Power where parallels between the protagonist and the writer include their mutual South African 'coloured' origins, their attempts to form new beginnings in Botswana and, more significantly, their temporary break-down as a result of the mental stresses of exile and loneliness. Although these correspondences are frankly outlined Bessie Head does not allow the subjective involvement which gives a particularly vivid sense of authenticity to Elizabeth's interior life to diminish the broader theme this life exemplifies. Elizabeth's private sufferings are assimilated to the historical sufferings of mankind through a network of wide-ranging images, the seemingly random nature of which points to their inclusiveness.

This universalizing expression, with its attendant extravagance, is balanced by a steady concentration in the novel on Elizabeth's inner life which ranges from 'the elegant pathway of private thought' to the agony of madness. Thematic development in Bessie Head's three novels reveals a consistent movement inwards from a social to a metaphysical treatment of human insecurities and in the last novel the problem of adaptation to a new world, or new schemes of values, is located in the mind of a single character. It is still Africa's problem however and the ideal garden is once again cultivated on a cooperative basis. Once more the dream of prosperity is in close touch with the necessity for hard work. As in When Rain Clouds Gather, the pioneer of the new schemes for Africa is a white immigrant, this time a South African. The heroine's task is to integrate the external world of innocent productivity, burgeoning growth and friendship in a mini-international community (Golema Mmidi reappears in this novel as Motabeng) with her chaotic inner experience. For Elizabeth, as for Makhaya, sanity means making friends. Those sections of the novel that deal with Elizabeth's madness dramatize her struggle to exorcise feelings of inferiority and resentment which breed estrangement. Each of her two nervous breakdowns is preceded by racial aggression, first against the indigenous population and then against one of the European volunteers. In the creation of two shadowy male figures called Dan and Sello who plague Elizabeth's dreams, forms of oppression, or power are depoliticized, identified as the desire for either spiritual or sexual domination over others…. The lesson to be learnt thus, in all three novels, is that love and humility lead the exiled consciousness from estrangement, 'pride and arrogance and egoism of the soul' to 'an identification with mankind' or, as the author expresses it in the novel's last sentence, 'the warm embrace of the brotherhood of man'. These phrases … are condemned when used as slogans by political opportunists. In A Question of Power, however, where the writing is spare, concentrated and tough, they are invested with the meaning of Elizabeth's painful quest for peace of mind. Throughout the novel the process of 'becoming' African is double edged, involving not only the assumption of social identity but also purification of the spirit. Bessie Head's treatment of Africa is both realistic and symbolic. In one sense the large, empty, barren desert that is repeatedly invoked is a mind landscape too, the storm clouds gather in the individual psyche, Africa becomes a way of being. In the concluding sentence of A Question of Power, Elizabeth is described as placing 'one soft hand over her land'. And finally, we are told, 'It was a gesture of belonging.'

It is also a private gesture, with a deeply personal meaning and it exemplifies Bessie Head's achievement in fusing the ideal of community and brotherhood with a belief in the value of the one over the many. A Question of Power is the first metaphysical novel on the subject of nation and a national identity to come out of Southern Africa. (pp. 59-61)

Jean Marquard, "Bessie Head: Exile and Community in Southern Africa," in London Magazine (© London Magazine 1979), Vol. 18, Nos. 9 & 10, December-January, 1978–79, pp. 48-61.

Paddy Kitchen

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 229

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 building in mud. Serowe is primarily a village of mud and thatch, and by English standards it is huge, with a shifting population of up to 35,000. Its citizens give their testimonies, both personal and practical, in an unselfconscious way, and Bessie Head—in true African style—orders the information so that, above all, it tells a story. I believe it is a story which readers will find themselves using as a text from which to meditate on many aspects of society. As a refugee, she found in Serowe the peace that can come from 'just living'. (p. 24)

Paddy Kitchen, "Peace in Serowe" (© British Broadcasting Corp, 1981; reprinted by permission of Paddy Kitchen), in The Listener, Vol. 106, No. 2718, July 2, 1981, pp. 23-4.

Charles R. Larson

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 177

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 and has orchestrated their stories into the wider perspective of village life. The results are often astonishingly beautiful. What this book so strongly demonstrates is the possibility for harmony within a multi-racial community. (p. 66)

Charles R. Larson, "Third World Writing in English." in World Literature Today (copyright 1982 by the University of Oklahoma Press), Vol. 56, No. 1, Winter, 1982, pp. 64-6.∗

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Bessie Head World Literature Analysis


Head, Bessie (Short Story Criticism)